How We (Mis)Read the Bible

Like many who grew up in the church, Sunday school small group Bible studies shaped my life. Then I added home Bible studies. Then I got involved in the early days of the cell church movement in the 1990s. Sermons, Bible studies, Bible teaching sessions, conferences—how could I ever count the hours of information that I’ve poured into my brain about the Bible?

My situation is not that uncommon. Many in the church know a lot about the Bible. I’ve even heard it say that we know more Bible than we can obey. As an alternative, many propose a focus on Bible application. So the point of a sermon or a Bible discussion time in a small group is to get people to the question of How can I apply this to my life? Or What am I called to obey as a result of this study? Or How is God calling me to respond to this passage?

I don’t think that the problem in the church is having too much Bible information. Nor is it about having the right information. And I don’t think the solution is Bible application. We don’t need more talk about specific passages apply to our lives. As far back as I can remember, Bible application was a central part of the Sunday school lessons of my youth. 

The real issue relates to the imagination we have about the role the Bible plays in our lives. Think about it in terms of reading different kinds of travel literature. 

• Travel Encyclopedia: The Bible is a repository of facts about God. We boil these facts down into theological principles, assuming that if we get the principles right that we know God. It’s like reading a travel book about London without ever visiting actually getting on a plane and walking its streets. 

This imagination relates to the information-based reading of the Bible. The following relate more to application-based reading. 

• Roadmap: Many of us read the Bible to find direction for our lives that will show is the steps to get from here to there. 

• Vacation Brochure: When we read a brochure, we are reading marketing copy that only promotes the positive attributes of a location. Often we read the Bible in the same way. We read and talk about the parts we like or makes is feel good.

• Emergency Manual: The Bible is a back-up guide when we get in trouble.

• A Critic’s Report: We use the Bible to assess ourselves and others. We often use it to prove how right we are and how wrong others are.  

The next one sees the Bible a bit differently and, might I say, a way that most of us will find challenging. 

• Travel Narrative: This tells a story of how others have participated (or failed to participate) in God’s life and invites us into the imagination of that story. Barry Harvey put it this way: “The Bible provides nothing like a map that charts the precise path for us to follow into the future. What it does give us is the travel itinerary of God’s people, that is, the story of their pilgrimage as strangers and foreigners through this world toward the kingdom of God. … An itinerary, by contrast, consists of a series of performative descriptions designed to organize our movements through space: to get to the shrine you go past the old fort and then turn right at the fork in the path.” (Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live)

We don’t know too much of the Bible; we don’t know enough. That’s the problem. We need to talk less about how we can apply the Bible to our lives and talk more about enter the other world of the Bible, the alternative universe, the radical contrast of God’s story. Then we can allow that story to shape who we are, how we act, and what we apply to our lives. This is not knowledge for the sake of knowing the fact, but neither is it knowledge for the sake of application. It’s knowledge for the shaping how we see the world. And the only way to see the world, God and ourselves differently is to enter into and embody the story of this travel narrative.

Of course we will know the facts, and we will be able to apply the Bible to our lives, but this way of thinking is radically different. In all of the other ways of the reading the Bible, I as a reader have the control. I can mine the Bible so that I can get out of it what I need. When I read it as a travel narrative, I have to submit myself to the Spirit to draw me into God’s story. 

As a travel narrative, we read it, we study it, but we also make room for it to enter into our souls. This occurs as we walk out the story ourselves and along the way struggle, fail, get back up and sometimes experience victory on the way.