Friday, July 06, 2007

The Mystery of the Word

So this "Bible" thing is really confusing.

The Bible and I have had an interesting relationship. My first Bible was "The Beginner's Bible," a score or so of illustrated Bible stories. Most of my religious experience as a kids stems from the images in this book. By the time I was six or so I had a real Bible, but I don't recall reading it, ever. This trend continued after my "salvation experience" and subsequent "re-commitment."

With a real commitment to Jesus came a real commitment to the Word. I diligently followed the required readings in my "First 30 Quiet Times" booklet, and when that was finished, began following a daily reading plan in addition to various Bible studies. My conception of the Bible at this point was pretty basic: it was God's Word. Read it. Do it. Simple.

This phase lasted for a couple years, until my interest in Christianity took a more academic and intellectual bent. I discovered that the Bible was not churned out in a single sitting by a single author but was rather the combined result of several thousand years and multiple authors from varying backgrounds. I learned about Q and theories of Synoptic interdependence. I began to understand the biblical authors' pastoral and polemic concerns. And my conception of the Bible began to change. How could a book like Luke, whose author (who might not actually be Luke!) used multiple sources, edited and redacted material, and who has clearly identifiable pastoral concerns, be inspired or "God-breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16) in the way that I understood it? So I began to mistrust my Bible.

Sometime during last semester I realized that my attitude toward the Bible was having serious effects on my spiritual growth. I knew that my growth as a young Christian was directly tied to my immersion in the Word, but my intellectual understanding of the Bible did not permit the same simplistic understanding I'd once had. I feared using the Bible as a "magic book," not wanting to engage in such practices as flipping it open to random pages seeking spiritual direction. I began trying to work out a "philosophy of the Bible" that could reconcile my spiritual thirst for the Word of God with my intellectual need for truth-telling about the nature of this odd collection of ancient documents that we call the Holy Bible.

Though this endeavor proved intellectually stimulating for a day or two, it failed to reconcile me to my Bible. And although I had read and approvingly highlighted this passage last winter when I first read the book, it's tangible meaning escaped me until just recently:

Reading scripture, like praying and sharing in the sacraments, is one of the means by which the life of heaven and the life of earth interlock. ... How this happens is unpredictable and often mysterious.

(N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.)

I had missed an important point about the Word. It might be okay to theorize about the Bible from a safe distance as a scholar, but as a living Christian, thinking and theorizing is useless without direct engagement with God's Word.

At the heart of the Word is a divine mystery. The Bible clearly a collection of ancient documents at home in particular and far-removed socio-politico-cultural settings. It is also unavoidably the product of human authors, human authors not just with particular vocabularies and styles, but particular biases and agendas.

But the Bible is also unequivocally the Word of God. The Christian canon is, from Genesis to Revelation, "God-breathed." This term does not allow for a conception of the Bible that sees it as a mostly human project to which, when completed, God gave a passing glance and a causal stamp of approval. No, "God-breathed" implies a work in which God is intimately involved, a work into which God pours the very essence of his divine life.

So how are these two ideas to be reconciled? I don't know. The Word is, in Wright's terms, a place where earth and heaven interlock. In every such place there is an element of mystery, the undefinable quality of a place where our reality and God's collide.

It is a mystery not meant to be eyed from a distance but to explored, to be engaged, to be wrestled with. It is a mystery that has to be lived. The Bible is part of God's living mystery. It is (among other things) a record of God's interaction with human beings: living, breathing human beings like you and me. It is a story of what happens when God invades the lives of ordinary people like me and turns them upside-down. It is also an essential part of God's way of invading my own life, right here and now. Thus it is a mystery that, as generations of Christians have attested, must be personally sought out.

So when I quote to myself Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me," I am neither reciting a direct quotation from the mouth of God nor simply repeating the words of a 1st century charismatic preacher. I am doing something includes those categories but ultimately transcends them. I am participating in the mysterious--and sometimes indeed incomprehensible--kingdom-life of God. My experience of the Bible is not predicated on my understanding of it, but rather my willingness to engage it--not as an esoteric anthology of historical interest or a transcription of divine revelation of other-worldly concern--but as a mystery, a thin place between here and heaven.

As a mystery, the Bible is ill-suited to modern sound-bite-ism. But, as a mystery, it can be as powerful in mustard seed-sized doses as it is in its full discourses. So with the proceeding thoughts in mind, I conclude with two selections from Scripture, one relevant to the topic and one that has been on my heart as of late:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belong to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. ...In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

(Romans 8:31-34,37)

Vicit Agnus Noster


Zoe said...

(This is Zoe from the Circle; Andrew told me to read this)

Really good thoughts. Your journey is similar to mine in many ways; I think it's a common pattern for churchlings to go through.

Right now I'm very slowly but surely reading through the Bible (using the Jewish order of the Old Testament, because it's cooler), just trying to figure out who this God person is and what He's trying to tell me, I guess. I've learned all the Sunday school answers, all the Christian school concepts, and all the Theology class doctrines. Now I just want to know God, simply and truly.

If you want you can check out my blog here - it's just my thoughts about my readings as I go. I haven't updated it in a few weeks though.

Zoe said...

Yay, thanks for the (fast!) comment. Right now it's kind of a matter of trying to find the best time to read, now that I have to get up early in the mornings. Maybe on my lunch break . . . anyway, I'm amazed at how much is in the Bible that I never saw before when I read it, and I'm more familiar with the Bible than the average kid. The most interesting thing I've found so far is that I really don't like most of the people God picks, but I really like what He does with them. It shows God to be pretty amazing, I think.

Awake My Glory said...

As always, Ben, I love hearing your thoughts.

I know we've had a lot of discussions about the Bible, but nothing I've said is quite as real or powerful as the simple statement that we live out the Bible; it's not just that we study it or affirm it or believe its truth.

If anything, we appropriate it. (Though I have to work out the implications of that statement.)

I only pray that I can live it properly. But I suppose that's where the intersection of earth and heaven happens.

Grace and peace,
Andrew <><