Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why quoting Bible verses doesn't work for me

Sometimes I get into misunderstandings with other Christians that are hard to resolve because we have such differing views on the Bible. From their perspective, I suspect they can’t fathom how someone like me, someone who calls herself a Christian, can say the things I do when they so blatantly contradict what the Bible says. I’m not always sure what to do about this because it seems like we’re speaking a different language when it comes to the Bible. When they quote Bible verses to convince me of the error in my thinking, I’m sure it seldom occurs to them that this is meaningless to me. I just don’t read the Bible like that.

What separates us is the way we allow the Bible to inform our lives. For many Christians, quoting the Bible is an effective way to make a point. This is the way it is, they’ll tell me, because it says so right here in the Bible. You know the bumper sticker approach to Scripture: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Sometimes I wish it were that simple. Instead, for me, it’s more like: “One version of the Bible that is commonly accepted today says it. While trying to find my way in this world, it is among the voices that inform me. I’m open to its truth for me as my journey continues to unfold.” I know, it’s not as catchy as “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” And it sure won’t fit onto a bumper sticker.

I could tell you some of the reasons why I’m not a Biblical literalist, but then, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a Biblical literalist. Even those who might be labeled as such are selective about which parts of the Bible they will take literally. What most of us probably would call a Biblical literalist is someone who looks to the Bible for definitive answers. But you don’t have to turn very many pages in your Bible to see that it was never intended to be read that way. If it were, we would have one version of the creation story. We’d be able to point to it and say, “There, that’s how it happened.” But in the first chapters of Genesis we have two contradictory stories of how it all transpired. And if the Bible were written to give us definitive answers, we would have one story about Jesus. Instead, we have four. When Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can’t agree about the way the story unfolded, how can we say that the Bible was ever intended to give us definitive answers? Which answers would those be? (Actually, I’m thankful we don’t have definite answers in the Bible. Definite answers are highly over-rated. Who can grow when there are definite answers?)

I’m also not comfortable using the Bible as a rule book because I don’t think that’s its purpose. Jesus certainly didn’t use the Scriptures as a rule book. He often turned the law upside down and reversed what once had been accepted as truth. In the same way, in the early church, laws that once seemed to be ironclad were suddenly changed or discarded altogether. It seems that one of the things we learn from the witness of the Scriptures is that part of what it means to be God’s people is to be open to changes in the way we understand God working in the world. Maybe God changes, or maybe it’s just our understanding of God that changes, but clearly God is a God of transformation. When the laws of Scripture are changed within Scripture, how can we think that those laws would suddenly become etched in stone once someone decided the Bible had been completed? Isn’t the Spirit still alive and active in the world today? (I really wish they would stop putting back covers on Bibles!)

For me, the Bible is not a set of instructions that tells me how to live. It’s not prescriptive, but descriptive. It is a collection of writings from people through the centuries who have been in relationship with God. They have written about their experiences as people of faith and the meaning they have gleaned from those experiences. Because I am also a person of faith, I treasure their witness. They enrich me, encourage me and often challenge me. But I feel free to disagree with them. I think that’s how we were meant to read the scriptures.

When I sit down with the adult Sunday school class at Holy Trinity we get into deep discussions about what it means to live out our faith in the world today. We share with one another about how it’s working for us, what meaning we're finding along the way, how we struggle. We don’t always agree, but the Spirit speaks to us in those open discussions. I’m thankful to be a part of a community of faith where that happens.

In the same way, the authors of the scriptures are also a faith community for me and they speak to me. I may not always agree with what they have to say, but I trust that the Spirit is at work as they inform me along the way. Their witness has stood the test of time. They have spoken to millions of Christians throughout the centuries, and that gives them a level of credibility that makes them hard to dismiss. They are a treasure to me. I can’t imagine how I would negotiate the life of faith without them. I suspect I would be lost.

Does that make me a heretic? I don’t think so. It just means that when I read the Bible I’m not expecting answers. I’m expecting a conversation.

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