Last week, we discovered that anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously must confront a number of important questions. We learned that there is a great deal of cultural distance between us and the text, and we learned that the Bible does not address (at least explicitly) some of the most important issues of our time. A reasonable person might wonder why he or she should spend time on such an archaic collection of documents when there are more modern, more relevant, and less threatening works that demand attention.
And yet, the Bible has great promise as a spiritual, intellectual, and moral resource. “Of course you would say that,” you might be thinking. “After all, this blog is posted on the website of an evangelical seminary by an instructor in the field of biblical studies. You would get fired if you did not say that.” Fair enough. But I dare you to ask yourself a couple of questions. Why would people like yours truly devote so much of their time, energy, and emotion to the study of this ancient collection of texts? Perhaps even more to the point, why do Christians in so many places and from so many denominations think so highly of the Bible that they regularly orient their corporate worship around the exposition of its contents?
Obviously, Christians believe that the Bible tells the story of God’s involvement in history. We believe that God has a message for humanity, and we believe that the Bible is the foundational access point to that message. We can believe these things—even in the midst of the challenges of modern life—because we see in the very character of the Bible things that we, and our world, desperately need.
Have you ever thought about the assumptions that undergird modern life? How do we know that there are organisms too small for us to see with the naked eye? Why do men usually shake hands when they meet a friend (of the same sex), whereas women usually hug? Why do some people consider it poor sportsmanship when a football player breaks out a highly choreographed dance routine after scoring a touchdown, whereas others consider it an appropriate expression of jubilant creativity?
Culture is the “operating system” for social interactions, and each “operating system” comes with a set of presuppositions (the “code”) that make human behavior meaningful. A lot of times, we don’t even realize that we are thinking, feeling, and acting on the basis of cultural presuppositions until we come into contact with someone who does not share those same presuppositions.
That is what Scripture does for us. When we dive into its pages, we dive into an alien world. We come face-to-face with people and institutions that do not share our assumptions about how things are and about how they ought to be. These interactions not only teach us about the people and places of the Bible; they also teach us about ourselves. We see more clearly who we are, what we assume to be true, and what we assume to be appropriate.
But why is this process of self-discovery important? Why must we be confronted with the uncomforatable fact that not everyone thinks, feels, or lives like we do? For one thing, not every cultural assumption is accurate. We need to know what our presuppositions are because some of them are wrong. For another, myths of cultural superiority often lead to transgressions of human dignity. One way to break down these myths is to use the culture of another place and time as a mirror in which to see the warts and scars that mark our own way of thinking, feeling, and living.
Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons we learn from Scripture is that it isn’t all about us. It isn’t all about our culture, our questions, or our lives. Indeed, many of these things are not “ours” to begin with; they were given to us by God himself or bequeathed to us by generations past.
Coming to terms with the contingency of our existence allows us to see how much we have in common with the people of the Bible. The issues we face in the twenty-first century are real, but many of them are not much different than the issues faced by Abraham’s descendants in the tenth century before Christ or by the Corinthian church at the height of Roman power. And all of the issues of modern life have their roots in the foundational concerns of the biblical story. Wrestling with that story sheds new light on our own struggles and helps us to connect with those who have walked the path of faith before us.
There are many kinds of literature represented in the Bible, and each document has its own setting (or settings) and its own concerns. Each document has a tone and rhythms that are different from other documents in the Christian canon. Somehow, the reader is supposed to make sense of all this and to figure out how the document he or she is reading is relevant to her or his own situation. Moreover, just when a reader gets her or his head around one document, some know-it-all like me says that it’s time to move on to the next document—and the process starts all over again.
It is no wonder that beginning Bible readers often become discouraged. Experienced disciples of Jesus, however, know that the literary and contextual diversity of the Bible is one of its most endearing qualities. True enough, the Bible does not explicitly address some of the issues that are important to twenty-first century people, but there are a lot of really important issues that it does address. Indeed, the genius of Christian Scripture is that it often addresses important issues from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of ways.
Think about how the Bible addresses suffering. The Scriptures work together to provide believers with a wide range of resources to help them cope with this inevitable reality of life. The Apostle Paul (among others) provides both a theological framework for understanding suffering and straight-forward advice for how to deal with it. The Book of Job provides a model for enduring suffering and for exploring the difficult theological questions that it raises. The Psalms provide a blueprint for how believers can address God in prayer when they are suffering. And the Book of Revelation inspires hope in sufferers by articulating a vision of the future in which suffering is no longer a part of the human experience.
What We Really Need
Some people come to the Bible with an attitude of superiority, assuming that its writers are unsophisticated savages and that its teachings have no relevance for the enlightened readers of today. It is no surprise, then, that these readers receive from Christian Scripture exactly what they expect—nothing of any value. But when people humble themselves, when they come to the Bible willing to submit to its authority and eager to hear what it has to say, something remarkable happens. They find within its pages a description of how the world is that makes sense to them, and they find a vision for how the world can be that appeals to them. One might even say that they hear the voice of God, and it seems to me that hearing God’s voice is something from which we could all benefit.