I read the blogs, visit the websites, and scan the social media timelines and posts. I look at all the places where people search the Bible, quote the Bible, write about and argue over the Bible. I sit and observe and waves of sadness, despair, and even anger wash over me. We have a modicum of scripturality. We apply a veneer of Biblish to our pronouncements and prognostications, but the misuse of the sacred words is rampant.
The abuse of the Bible is so pervasive, so widely practiced, and then so well accepted that it can be hard to imagine how we might embrace a healthier Bible paradigm. Because the problem is not just our behavior — the problem is the Bible itself, or at least the Bible as we know it and as we have remade it. We are stuck in a set of atomistic, superficial, out-of-context, self-focused, and anachronistic Bible practices because we have lost the real Bible.
Due to the way Bibles have been published and read in the modern era, we read individual sentences, or even parts of sentences, and mistake them for mini-truths dropped from heaven just for us. We ignore the kind of literature we’re quoting from, pretending that poetic metaphors are the same as didactic letters, or that apocalyptic visions can be used like moral instructions. We forget that the Bible itself often moves on, that the terms and conditions of earlier times don’t always apply to later times. We’ve lost track of authentic ways to get from then and there to here and now, to have the Bible speak credibly to our lives today.
We are able to do this so easily because some time ago, as Hans Frei reported, the great narrative of the Bible was eclipsed — it was covered up by our doctrines and interpretations and arguments about the same. When I say we’ve lost the real Bible, what I mean is that we’ve lost a holistic Bible, a literary Bible, and a storiented Bible, all of it embedded in the tangible lives of ancient peoples, nations and struggles. We’ve replaced this gift with a caricature of the Bible, reducing it to a mechanical theology and an owner’s manual for life.
The Bible aspires to remake our reality in the direction of flourishing life. But we are using it mostly to hurt each other.
Perhaps it started when we just couldn’t leave the Bible alone. From the beginning, we’ve been messing with this text, making little marks, then drawing in the margins, then more aggressively breaking up the natural flow of the words and inserting artificial breaks and numbers. Finally, we buried those words in an avalanche of cross-references, headers, footnotes, and call-outs.
No doubt the intentions were good. We wanted these words to be usable. We wanted to be able to find things quickly. We had our own things to say about the Bible’s very important topics.
But here’s the thing: the long-term accumulation of all these additives has turned the Bible into something it is not. The Bible is not a reference book. It is not a numbered collection of 30,000 individual truthlets to be searched out, verse-jacked, and piled up into giant hammers of righteousness for whacking each other. It is also not a basket of little spiritual feathers to be fluffed up into giant pillows to make us feel better.
When we changed the form of the Bible, we changed what we thought the Bible was and what we thought we were supposed to do with the Bible. We no longer saw songs and poems and stories and letters addressed to ancient audiences. We saw double columns of numbered tidbits — everything the same everywhere in the Bible. Over time, this flattened-out Bible became something new in our hands: a handbook. This gathering of unique writings turned into a list, a look-it-up-answer-book for every problem we could think of and every theological or moral argument we need to make.
As long as we stay married to an artificial form of the Bible, our patterns of superficial skimming and proof-texting are likely to continue.
Is it possible to bring some health and honesty back to our Bible engagement? What would it take to make this happen?
I propose that we find our way back to a more natural and well-read Bible by revisiting the story of its birth. The Bible came into the world in the ongoing conversations of God’s people. They told stories and remembered them. They pondered pieces of wisdom and then collected them. They got together and sang songs of joy and worship but also of longing and lament. They shared letters and they recorded the visions of their prophets. The vast collection of unique writings that we know as the Bible was born in the real world of hard life and great journeys, of stomach-churning conflicts and surprising victories.
And in the end, this large, unruly collection came together into something clearly recognizable as a big story. It meanders, yes, but in the end it is a narrative that goes someplace.
The path from disengagement to re-engagement of this much more complex and therefore much more interesting Bible is to close the book on the reference tool. We’re long overdue for an extreme Bible makeover. Remove the additives and get the literature back. As we rediscover the rich writings of the Bible as holistic, well-crafted works, a new set of engagement practices will emerge. Feasting on whole books. Agreeing to read the Bible on its own terms and persisting until a new world emerges in the text right before our eyes.
When we realize we’re being invited into this narrative, beckoned to take up a role in its ongoing story, then the Bible will be doing the work it was created to do. We can read and live the Bible well once again.