The Bible condemns…

kidsBiblesI was thinking about a phrase we hear sometimes: “The Bible condemns…” Can you give me some insights into this phrase?

Can you think of a place where the Bible talks about Scripture condemning something?

What do we mean when we say that? Is it “the Bible says this is wrong”? Or is it “the Bible says you will be condemned if you do it”?

How do you understand it when someone says “the Bible condemns _____”?

Bible-shaped culture or culture-shaped Bible?

Bible in the shadowI realize in talking with others that there are lots of different views as to how the Bible interacted with the culture of the people who wrote it. No surprise, I know, but I understand better now how that deeply affects how we read the Bible.

Some people, for example, take an extremely low view of Scripture. The Bible, for them, is merely a sacred text like other sacred texts written by ancient peoples. Prophecies were written after the fact and adjusted to fit what actually happened. Laws were written to give “divine sanction” to existing situations. The slaughter of other nations is justified by describing it as holy war, while attacks on one’s own people are an affront against God. Women are oppressed and slavery is upheld because the Bible was written to uphold the status quo.

Others see the Bible as coming down from heaven untainted by human culture. If the Bible says God has storehouses for snow, then there are some sort of heavenly structures filled with frozen precipitation, waiting to be sent. If God said not to trim the corners of the beard, then there’s a heavenly reason for that. Laws were not shaped around man; man was shaped around the laws.

Then there’s a myriad of views in between, seeing God as speaking to human culture within the framework of a specific historical context. Heavenly truths expressed through earthly means. God’s word for a particular situation needing to be translated into God’s word for our situation.

That’s why some look at demon possession and say “epilepsy.” Others look at teachings about greeting with a holy kiss and say, “Yes, but that was then.” Others will only take the Lord’s Supper in an upper room.

If you had to state your views on how the Bible shaped and was shaped by the culture of its time, what would you say?

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The innovation that is the printed Bible

BibleThere was an article that made the rounds the last few weeks, talking about the importance of preachers carrying a traditionally-bound Bible into the pulpit instead of using an electronic version. Several of the arguments centered around the need for people to study out of a “normal” Bible.

I tend to disagree. I think we face some problems in the church because we’ve come to see the Bible in this format as normal. We kind of picture Paul whipping out his Leather study Bible and saying to the people in Troas, “Let’s turn to Romans chapter 8.”

The Mormons believe that Joseph Smith received the complete book of Mormon (and other works) and had divine guidance in translating the material. It’s a book written as a book and designed to be read as a book.

The Bible isn’t like that. It wasn’t written as one book; it was written as dozens of books. It wasn’t written to be read per se; it was written to be heard. The presupposition wasn’t that each church member would have his own copy to study from; it was assumed that the church would gather, hear Scripture read aloud, and discuss the meaning of the text.

What happens when we assume that the Bible has always been around in the form that it’s been in?

  • We assume that we can interpret Matthew based on Acts and Ephesians (to choose some books at random). We’re much safer in using Old Testament books to help us understand Matthew. We can’t assume that Matthew expected his readers to have access to other New Testament writings nor did he necessarily think they had received all the teachings contained in those books.
  • We let chapter and verse numbering get in the way, as well as headings that have been included in most printed Bibles. These study aids can be a great help, but they can get in the way at times, interrupting the natural flow of a biblical writer’s arguments.
  • We make individual Bible study the norm rather than group Bible study. I’m definitely in favor of personal Bible study; I do a radio program in Spanish called “Read The Bible,” seeking to help people read and study the Word of God. But I think we’ve forgotten that the Bible was designed to be a community book, shared and interpreted by the body of Christ.
  • We forget to hear the Word. Reading leads us to nitpick over jots and tittles; we need to be sure that we hear the Bible in a broader way.

What do you think?

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Piety isn’t always pithy

People like quotes. Short little sayings that quickly convey an idea. We like to be able to refer to something Tolstoy said without actually having to read Tolstoy’s works!

In the business world, the idea of the “elevator speech” is popular, where you can explain some project in 30 seconds or less.

We like our religion the same way. We like short take-away expressions, like “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “I can do all things through Christ.” It’s easier to deal with the Bible at that level than to actually have to work through concepts like genre, context, linguistics, etc.

In my opinion, it’s why many people like the book of James. “It’s so practical,” they say. What they mean is that they can read a verse and seek to apply it, without working through the things I mentioned above. (That leads to lots of mistakes, of course, but it is definitely quick and easy)

Piety isn’t always pithy. Biblical concepts can’t always be explained in 30-seconds or less. Not every principle can be explained during an elevator ride. Not every problem can be solved by throwing a proof text at it.

Some things are as quick and easy as they seem. When Jesus tells us what the two greatest commandments are, that’s fairly straightforward… even though it would take us a lifetime to work out all the implications. But many other concepts only get distorted when reduced to a verse or two out of context.

We have to be willing to take the time to work at understanding the Bible. Yes, it does make it harder to explain to outsiders and beginners. That doesn’t change the facts of the matter. Quoting “I think, therefore I am” doesn’t explain Descartes. It doesn’t even describe the existential crisis and healing process around that phrase. The same happens with the Bible.

If it weren’t that way, God would have given us a religious quote book and left it at that.




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Stopping to see the beauty of the text

Photo by Ove Tøpfer; from Stock Xchange

Had thought to write a bit more about context today, but technical issues slowed me up this morning.

Instead, let me share a quote from the introduction to The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips. I love to read the Phillips New Testament, and the introduction is fascinating. Here’s the quote I wanted to share:

Paul, for instance, writing in haste and urgency to some of his wayward and difficult Christians, was not tremendously concerned about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of his message. I doubt very much whether he was even concerned about being completely consistent with what he had already written. Consequently, it seems to me quite beside the point to study his writings microscopically, as it were, and deduce hidden meanings of which almost certainly he was unaware. His letters are alive, and they are moving—in both senses of that word—and their meaning can no more be appreciated by cold minute examination than can the beauty of a bird’s flight be appreciated by dissection after its death.

I love the imagery of that last sentence. I confess that I can sometimes be the astronomer who can’t see the beauty of the stars or the topologist who only sees mountains as something to be mapped. Sometimes we need to sit back and appreciate the beauty of the Bible.

Thoughts, comments, complaints, suggestions?