Christians talk about it all the time, though I never quite know what they mean when they do. That is to say, other than the easily tossed-off catch phrase, “God’s Word,” I’m not sure what the Bible is to many who claim it as the sacred text that guides their life. I’m positive we’re not all on the same page, so to speak.
Often, I think Christians want to make the Bible something that it isn’t, or don’t want to admit what it actually could be, and it makes for some really disastrous conversations and some extremely dangerous assumptions, especially in interactions with other Christians.
Here are five things about the Bible that I wish more believers would consider:
1) The Bible isn’t a magic book, it’s a human library.
It isn’t The Good Book.
As my good friend Pastor Talbot Davis and my beloved Good Shepherd Church family has always said; the Bible isn’t a book at all, it’s a library.
Its 66 individual books run the diverse gamut of writing styles (poetry, history, biography, church teachings, letters), and those books have dozens of authors; from shepherds, to prophets, to doctors, to fishermen, to kings. These diverse writers each had very different target audiences, disparate life circumstances and specific agendas for their work; so we don’t approach each book the same way, for the same reason you wouldn’t read a poem about leaves the same way you read a Botany textbook. Some are for inspiration and some for information; we receive and see them differently.
And this library didn’t fall from the sky leather-bound, shrink wrapped and personally autographed by God. It was collected and collated over hundreds and hundreds of years, often in verbal form for decades before being written down; after which time it was assembled and voted on, translated and translated, and translated again; hopping from language to language in the process.
What most Christians don’t give much thought to is the fact that the Bible was a living, breathing collection of sayings (and later writings) composed over time—lots of time. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of years. It was absolutely “inspired by God,” but composed by a group of very human people who existed in a particular place and time in history, sharing their experience of God and the convictions of their faith.
If we can see the Scriptures this way; as many diverse works in one collection, we can free ourselves from always taking the entire text literally—from trying to equate history with allegory with poetry, and reading them in the same way. We can also can see the Bible as a record not just of God, but of God’s people, and we can find ourselves within it.
2) The Bible doesn’t clearly say as much as we’d like it to.
Often, (especially when arguing with someone else), Christians like to begin with the phrase, “The Bible clearly says …” followed by their Scripture sound bite of choice.
Those people usually haven’t actually read the entire Bible.
The Bible is a massive library (somewhere around three-quarters of a million words), and if we’re honest, contains a great deal of tension and a whole lot of gray on all types of subjects. For example, we can read the clear Old Testament commandment from God not to murder, and later see Jesus telling his disciples that violence isn’t the path his people are to take, but we also see God telling the Israelites to destroy every living thing in enemy villages (women and children included), and we read of Moses murdering an Egyptian soldier without recourse from God and later being chosen by God to lead His people.
That’s why some Christians believe all violence is sinful, while others think shooting someone in self-defense is OK. Some find war justifiable in some cases, while some believe all war is inherently immoral. Some think the death penalty is something God is cool with, while others find it detestable. Some Bible readers see Jesus as an absolute pacifist, while other cite him telling his disciples to grab a sword as evidence that he sanctions physical violence on occasion.
Same Bible. One subject. Countless perspectives.
So what does the Bible clearly say about violence? Does it make an absolute statement, or is there some ambiguity? Seems clearly muddy.
Many times, when Christians say the phrase “The Bible clearly says …” what they really mean is, “The way I interpret this one tiny, isolated verse (which seems to reference this particular topic) allows me to feel justified in having this particular perspective on said topic.”