Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Religion and Culture: what does "Bible-believing" really mean?

Bible-believing to the core!
oday I’m trying to engage a “big-picture” direction in my writing. Essentially, I want to frame out a new book proposal (hopefully a 2014 publication), so the idea is to avoid thinking about several looming 500-word news and magazine deadlines and think “200-pages” for the next few hours.
Even books, however – maybe especially books – need to start with some spotlight of specific focus, and maybe this post will launch me on my way.
“BIBLE-BELIEVING” doesn’t belong to the fundamentalists! There’s a turn of phrase that I’ve heard (a lot) recently that – I believe – illustrates where I’m headed. This phrase crops up in conversation, in facebook posts, in blog entries… even in news articles. And it annoys me almost every time I hear it! It goes like this: “I attend a Bible-believing church.”
Often implied in a statement like that – especially when it’s, “NOW I attend a Bible-believing church” – is the assumption/judgement that other churches are not Bible-believing. Really?
More accurately, when someone claims that, “We’re a Bible-believing church,” what they really mean is this: “We’re the church/denomination that interprets the Bible correctly. If your theology/doctrine/understanding/conclusions are not the same as ours, then you obviously don’t really believe in the Bible.”
CONTROVERSY: Similarly, I’ve run into a lot of proof-texting recently. This is where a passage of scripture is used to prove a point, to advance an agenda, or to condemn someone else. The passage is employed in much the same way as a sledge-hammer, and wielded without regard to context. With proof-texting it’s possible to find a verse from the Bible to back up pretty much any position.
Then, when there’s some discussion, someone will say, ”If you don’t take the Bible literally in every quotation, then you don’t really believe the Bible!”
WHERE DO I STAND? First off, I’ll recommend chapter five of my new book, “10 Life-Charged Words.” The title of the chapter is “Scripture.” After you read the chapter you’ll know beyond question that I believe and live into the authority of scripture, and that scripture is a constant charge of life because, as John explains so beautifully, God’s Word comes together perfectly in Jesus:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
I don’t believe the Bible reads best as some handy-reference text – like the 3rd Grade Math book – with no-further-questions-allowed answers listed in an appendix. In my experience the Bible tends to pose more questions, and it also offers answers far outside the scope of our narrow questions.
I also believe that we are too easily satisfied with “end of discussion” answers, and that too many religious people manipulate the scriptures to more tidily fit their own narrow frame of understanding and imagination.
And, now that we’re talking about it, here are just a few of my personal observations about the Bible:
  • It was written over a span of several thousand years.
  • It was authored by literally scores of different people.
  • It was memorized, repeated by word-of-mouth, translated, lost, rediscovered.
  • Translators have added punctuation, spaced paragraphs, debated the meaning of words fallen out of use.
  • It was inspired by God, yes, but it is constantly poured through the filters of culture, politics, personality, language, practice, intellectual capability, education, life circumstance etc…
  • Today (as each of the past 2,000 years) the Bible is being read by people who understand through the added filters of contemporary culture, language, political pressure, denominational preference, life experience and more…
  • Literally thousands of commentaries and biblical encyclopedias suggest hundreds of variations and layers of meaning.
Consequently, if we require answers that add up to a tightly codified religious law (think “Taliban”), then at least 90% of everyone else always has to be wrong! Really?
NARRATIVE: The Bible – in my ever-growing understanding – is the narrative history of how a people worked out their hesitant and inconsistent relationship to the fact of The Living God. The New Testament portion is the story of Jesus (God in the flesh), and how Christ offers a New And Living Way, and how the first Followers of the Way of Jesus began to understand that message and share it with one-another and the world.
The Bible is full with stories of success and failure, of beauty and horror, of moving toward the God of Love, and of missing the truth entirely. The Bible stories are quite honest about the constant tension between the God who loves the Children of Israel and their constant and repeated tragic mistakes.
  • Does God, for example, really want Abraham to offer a human sacrifice (just like the surrounding cultures)? Or does God demonstrate clearly that The One True God sees that kind of worship as entirely unacceptable?
  • Is the contrast between stoning misbehaving children to death (Old Testament) and Christ’s, “Let me take everyone’s punishment on myself…” an inconsistency, or is Christ the definitive moment in a centuries long story of discovering exactly how God chooses to relate to his children?
Questions. Always with the questions!
God speaks with power and authority through the Holy Bible. We – on the other hand – often speak via the narrow-spirited choke-hold of our personal preferences and our sad need to validate ourselves by condemning anything we don’t readily understand.
BOTTOM LINE: The Bible raises a lot of questions, and they’re not going away. But neither is Jesus going away, and Jesus is the answer to every question we can ever have….
… But let’s resist the temptation to try to tie the Lord’s hands by demanding (and then manufacturing) open and shut answers that are 100% acceptable to us.
Instead, let’s introduce the world to the Jesus who loves and accepts and redeems, and let’s saturate ourselves with God’s Word, and let’s get over the kind of arrogance (or uncertainty) that tempts us to say, “NOW I attend a Bible-believing church.”

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