3 Shifts in our Understanding of What the Bible is

This is the first in series of blogs I am doing about the Bible in the Christian Faith.

What does the Bible mean for Christians? I am convinced anymore that it does not mean very much.

Barna Trends 2017 reports that “more than half of U.S. adults believe it is either the actual, literal word of God or the inspired word of God without error. Nearly half read the Bible at least once a month and three out of five say they wish they spent more time reading it.” (pg. 140) While these are better numbers than one might expect, there is a growing skepticism towards the Bible.

Further, this high view of scripture does not mean that people are actually reads it. Again, Barna Trends 2017 reports: “Slightly more than one-third reads the Bible once a week or more frequently (36%) and about the same proportion reads the Bible less than once a year or never (35%). The remaining three in 10 fall somewhere between once a month and once a year.” (pg. 140)

On a positive note, 62% of U.S. adults expressed a desire to read the Bible more, and a quarter said that they increased their Bible reading in the last year. But still, gow can the Bible be important for people when many say it is not important and very few actually read it?

I think part of the problem stems from a misunderstanding about what the Bible is. People talk about it as an answer book. There is an acronym that says the B.I.B.L.E. stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. The problem is that the Bible’s format and content don’t fit this kind of understanding of what it is. It is not written as a self-help book.

Let’s say I am having trouble in my marriage. I can’t just pick up the Bible and turn to “M” for marriage and find out how to fix my marriage. Or let’s say your church is not as big or as strong as it used to be (a story that is too common). You can’t just pull out your Bible and search the index for “Church Growth” and find God’s plan for your church.

In response, we have tried to make the Bible that kind of book. We have learned certain verses that we quote and think about for various issues. We create books and websites of verses related to different topics. My teacher Len Sweet calls it “versitus.” We are stuck on verses, which is odd since the Bible did not get those verses until much later. The chapter-and-verse format is a foreign template for the Bible that was added to make it easier to find things. Originally, the Bible was just letters and stories.

I am arguing that people are not reading the Bible because it is not the book they think it is, and therefore the Bible is not having an impact on the lives of most Christians. If I am correct, then the important question is what the Bible actually is and how we should read it. Let me describe 3 shifts we have to make in how we think about the Bible.

  1. The Bible is not an answer book. It is a question book.

The Bible doesn’t answer our questions, but it often amends our questions. The Bible teaches us to ask different questions. The question is not what job should you should take, but what is God’s purpose for your life? The question is not what we should do as a church, but what does it mean to be the bride of Christ, and how can we get on board with what the Holy Spirit is up to? We want to ask God how we should deal with our finances, but the Bible begs us to consider where our security and hope comes from. The Bible wants to change your perspective so that you look at things differently and ask different questions.

  1. The Bible is not a bunch of verses. It is a bunch of stories.

This is so important. The Bible has good Proverbs and advice for us to keep, but most of it is written in story. Our job is to see ourselves in those stories. We are the people being led out of slavery. We are Moses on the mountain. We are David with a sling. We are the disciples in a boat on a stormy night. The stories shape our imaginations. And if we know them well enough, then we can begin to interpret our lives and our stories through those biblical stories. As you struggle with getting over a certain sin, you identify with Israel and their struggle to find freedom in the wilderness.

The problem is that you can only think this way if you get past the chapter-and-verse divisions and start thinking about the stories. And you have to know the stories well enough that they come to mind easily.

  1. We don’t find answers the in Bible. The Bible puts answers in us.

The Bible is not a book you go to when you have a problem. It is a book you live in so that it comes out of you when you have a problem. Look at both Jesus and Paul I the Bible. They are both saturated in the scriptures of the Old Testament. The imagery and ideas come through in much of what they say and do. Yet they never quote texts, and when they do they often paraphrase. As Len Sweet points out, it is like Paul and Jesus quote the Bible in their own words. Why? Because it is their words. It is so much a part of who they are and how they think that it come out as a natural part of their speech. We can’t just pick up the Bible and find answers to our questions. But the Bible does is put its answers in us.

This is how I think the Bible has an impact on the lives of Christians. But do you understand the kind of Bible reading and study required for it to work this way. For God to use the Bible to shape your life, you have to be in the Word. A lot. Daily. Deeply. A 20-minute sermon is not enough. You have to pick up the Book for yourself.

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