A call to read less of the Bible
Many Christian people don’t worship God, they worship the Bible. I assume the same is true of other sacred books such as the Koran, the Torah, and the Bagavhad Gita, although it wouldn’t HAVE to be this way. A particular set of circumstances have risen up in the US to bring about this result. But that’s another post, and one that would be really boring to most of my readers.
The point is that Christians are not to worship the Bible.
One of my spiritual mentors, Eugene Peterson (pastor, professor of spiritual theology emeritus, and translator of the extremely popular and compelling The Message version of the Bible) had this discussion with an interviewer from Mars Hill Church.
Mars Hill: One pastor has said that he hopes The Message will “smash through our comfortable thinking about the Bible.” Why do you suppose we have become so comfortable with the scriptures? EP: I think it’s partly our sin. One of the Devil’s finest pieces of work is getting people to spend three nights a week in Bible studies. Mars Hill: I’m sure that’s going to surprise a lot of readers! EP: Well, why do people spend so much time studying the Bible? How much do you need to know? We invest all this time in understanding the text which has a separate life of its own and we think we’re being more pious and spiritual when we’re doing it. But it’s all to be lived. It was given to us so we could live it. But most Christians know far more of the Bible than they’re living. They should be studying it less, not more. You just need enough to pay attention to God. Source: A Conversation with Eugene Peterson
Most people think that to be a pastor is to be an “expert” in the Bible, or at least to try to be. And I do believe that people at Wildwind probably would consider me to be an expert in the Bible (at least on some level). And I do believe I know more and have studied far more of the Bible and about the Bible than nearly everyone if not everyone who attends my (admittedly fairly small) church. But I do not consider myself an expert on the Bible, nor do I think my job is to be an expert on the Bible. The Bible is just one more way people will distract themselves from learning to listen to God if they are not guided properly. It will become the basis from which to argue (and usually in fearful and/or hysterical and/or unintelligent ways) about evolution, atheism, abortion, homosexuality, church polity, war, and every possible doctrine.
Though the Bible testifies to the greatness and goodness of God, and to God’s deep desire to know us and be known by us, many Christians are completely lost if they cannot find a chapter and verse in the Bible that refers to every particular issue they are dealing with. They do not know how to discern God, how to read scripture carefully and properly, and they lack a responsible framework for understanding this extremely confusing book. (This is not meant to be critical or damning of anyone — this must be learned, and it’s hard to learn it when it isn’t really being taught.)
As a pastor I believe I have one job, which is to teach people how to listen to God/Jesus/The Spirit/Sophia/Wisdom (the Proverbs approach) who is constantly speaking to them. If I can teach them to do this in their family, in their car, in their work and social lives, in their places of darkness and confusion, then I can teach them to hear God also in the words of the Bible. But if I cannot teach them to hear God in those contexts where they live and which they basically understand, then the ancient and removed world of the Bible will simply confirm their worst fears and suspicions about God and the world, and reinforce all that is most deeply alienated (from God) and wrong inside of them to begin with.
When teaching people to hear God is seen as the main calling of a spiritual teacher, sacred books fall naturally into place. They cease being proof texts that can be used to bludgeon those who believe differently. They are reinfused with the mystery they should already be filled with if they actually are what we claim to believe about them. They point us not to the correct answer for everything and every situation, and they lead us not to the conviction that we are righter or holier than anybody else, but instead they give us a framework for living in the world. They show us what it means to go beyond believing that God is holy and move into the understanding that everything is holy.
Scriptures, used properly, will always make it impossible for us to:
a. Justify our own anger, greed, arrogance, and other sins b. Overlook injustice when it is happening in front of us c. Cling to our disdain for, fears about, and prejudices against other people d. See the world as anything other than grace-filled and beautiful e. Continue on in lack of love and lack of forgiveness f. Hate ourselves. Or love ourselves in vain and self-serving ways.
Anytime scripture makes the above possible instead of impossible, it is irresponsible and therefore scripture abuse. This includes the frequent occasions when atheists and other non-believers try to use the words of scripture to prove their own arguments. It is wrong for believers to use scripture this way, and just as wrong for non-believers to do it.
Count me as another pastor who, along with Peterson, encourages less Bible study so that we can take the very little that we know and live into it. Do we really need to read the Bible to know that our impatience, lack of love, greed, envy, pettiness, etc. are inconsistent with a God-shaped life? We do not. But by continuing to study the Bible day after day, we can keep conjecturing and theorizing about it and not have to take it seriously enough to let it change us.