Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Reading the Bible

This post from yesterday--actually the text of my Sunday morning sermon--warrants a little further explanation.

In the sermon, I talked about three truths that Lutheran Christians have always seen as foundational: Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Word Alone. The last truth is what I want to address here.

As soon as you say, as Lutherans always have, that the Bible is the authoritative truth source for all Christian proclamation, practice, and belief, it raises a big question.

"Are you saying that we need to take the Bible literally?" people wonder.

The Bible is composed of sixty-six different books, written over many centuries, and representing different literary genres. Of this library of books Pastor David Glesne points out:
...while we [Christians] take the Bible in its literal sense, not everything in the Bible is to be read literalistically. Because not all language is literal! We recognize different literary forms--poetry, parables, didactic portions, historical narrative. We do not read the Bible without regard to the ordinary rules of literature. There are different types of literature and different idioms of speech. When you tell your wife that you "bumped into Nancy at the mall today," you don't meant (or usually you don't mean!) you actually had physical contact with Nancy. You mean you met her at the mall. Similarly, we talk about the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. We are not talking literally here.
There is a similar varied use of language in the Bible.

Psalm 19:4, for example, says that, "In the heavens [God] has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy." That passage isn't saying that God literally places the sun in a tent by night, releasing it in the morning to run across the sky. The Bible, here, is interested in truth more than facts. The truth to which this passage points, through poetic imagery, is that all of creation is from God.

The New Testament records parables--stories--and metaphors that Jesus used. They too are to be read in their literal sense, but not literalistically.

Jesus never claims, for example, that there really was a prodigal son, except that all of us can be prodigals who wander far from the love of God for us and far from loving of God and loving neighbor in response to God's love; except that God waits for all of us to turn away from sin and back to God.

In another place, Jesus says:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell...(Mark 9:43-47)
We shouldn't abandon common sense when looking for what Martin Luther called "the plain sense" of a passage of Scripture. Jesus is not telling us either that our hands, feet, or eyes can literally cause us to "stumble," that is, to fall into sin. And He's clearly not telling us to lacerate ourselves. He is saying that we should rid ourselves of whatever habits, obsessions, or temptations may lure us into behavior displeasing to God.

Scripture isn't to be read casually or flippantly. But there are many places in the Bible with humor--Jesus calling the overanxious James and John "sons of thunder;" Peter, stripped down, heading to shore after a futile night of fishing, throwing his clothes back on, to jump into the water; or Elijah being carried into heaven alive after praying that God would allow him to die, are all examples of Biblical humor. At times, the Bible will make laugh out loud, even though I respect it as the most unique, wonderful, and holy book, inspired by God.

To take the Biblical writings in their literal sense without being literalistic is, as is often true in everyday conversation when we say things like, "I couldn't take another step," or, "I bet I ate 25 doughnuts that day," or, "I haven't seen you for a month of Sundays, to see the plain meaning of Scripture beneath the imagery.

Of course, there are passages of Scripture that are direct, as is true of other things we say and things we read. "You shall have no other gods." "The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost." “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

There are books of the Bible that present historical accounts, which can be read more as you would a history textbook or the daily paper, though admittedly with a faith agenda.

Other books present prophecy, poetry, hymns, or apocalyptic imagery, each of which will be read differently, just as we read different genres of other literature differently.

The Bible is simple; it can be understood at some level by the youngest of readers.

But the Bible is not simplistic. The complexity of life is seen on all of its pages. You will never grow up so much that the Bible won't be calling you to grow still more.

One of the things that took me from atheism to faith in Christ is the Bible's unflinching realism about human beings. The people of Biblical faith are, without exception, flawed in different ways.
Yet God used, spoke through, loved, and helped these and countless other Biblical figures.

It's for finite, imperfect, sinful people like these--people who look a lot like me--that God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, became a human being, died on a cross, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to help us believe and sustain us in a new, never-ending life with God.

If the Bible told the story of perfect automatons of faith, people who never doubted, never sinned, never worried, and always stayed on the straight and narrow, I would find it utterly unbelievable.

But when I look back on those nights in the mid-1970s, when, as an atheist intrigued but skeptical about the Bible and Christianity, I dared to be involved in a class offered at my home church in Columbus--one built around a book called, Life with God by Herman C. Theiss--and delved into the Bible for the first time, writing passages out in long-hand mentioned in the Theiss book, I became convinced that through these flawed sinners, God was speaking to me. God was saying, "I made you. I died and rose for you. I want to give you new life."

In the end, what often gets said about the Bible is true. It is God's love letter to the whole human race. If you haven't done so yet, isn't it time you started opening your mail every day?

No comments: