Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Use is the Bible?

You may have heard the embarrassing results of a recent Pew Research Center survey about the religious knowledge of people in the U.S. 3412 Americans were given a quiz, which consisted of 32 questions covering the Bible, the beliefs of various religions and denominations and the law concerning church and state separation. The data revealed that atheists and agnostics knew more about religion than most believers. Mind you, they didn't do a great job. Nonbelievers got an average of 20.9 questions right or a score of 65%. That’s a failing grade for most tests. But believers did even worse: Jews came out best with 20.5 questions right, followed by Mormons with 20.3, white Evangelicals got 17.6, white Catholics 16.0, and liberal Protestants 15.8. The group that performed the worst were those who did not identify themselves as atheists or agnostics but as “nothing in particular,” presumably people who are “spiritual” but not affiliated with any denomination or religion. They only knew the correct answer to 15.2 of the questions.

These are averages which means some individuals did better.  In general, the higher one’s level of education, the better one did on the survey. Also, people who went to church once a week or more, who read the Bible and/or other religious books, and who visited educational websites had higher scores. While white Catholics in general got only half of the questions right, white Catholics who went to Mass weekly got 70% right, besting the atheists and agnostics. Mormons and white Evangelicals did the best on questions of the Bible and Christianity, again scoring better than the nonbelievers. In facts, it was atheists' knowledge of other religions that gave them the edge.

Still, the averages are appalling. People should know what they purportedly believe. So it is fortuitous that Sunday's lectionary reading (2nd Timothy 3:14-4:8) emphasizes the importance of the Scriptures and sound doctrine. I know it's not popular to stress the Bible these days. Some Christians seem to regard it as a dilemma to be dealt with rather than a solution to many of the problems we face. People confuse certain folks' misuse of the Bible with the Bible itself. Few of them can separate interpretations of the texts from what the texts actually say (or don't say.) And often critics of the Bible are just as literal in their approach to it as the folks they oppose.

The sad thing is we don't live in the Dark Ages anymore, when only the clergy could read and when Bibles were not available to the general populace . If you type the word “bible” into the search engine of  Amazon.com you get 284,798 results! You can get the King James Version, the New King James, the New Living Bible, the English Standard Version, the New Revised Standard, the New International Version, and the Hip Hop Bible. There are Bibles aimed towards men, women, teens, kids, soldiers, first responders, Catholics, manga fans and other groups. There are study Bibles that feature apologetics, archeology or life applications. You can get the Bible on Kindle, CD, DVD, MP3, online and as downloadable software. There's even a waterproof Bible for those who wish to read God's Word while kayaking, scuba diving or taking a bubble bath.

My point is that there's no reason not to read the Bible. So why don’t more people do so and become better educated about their faith?

At the top I think we have to put laziness. People think reading the Bible is hard. But with all the modern translations and paraphrases like “The Message,” it’s not like you have to read 16th century English anymore. Maybe they think the Bible is full of abstruse theology that they won't understand. Actually, the  Bible has very few abstract passages. Most of it is story. Parts of it are poetry. There are lots of letters. You'll find tales of romance, heroism, tragedy, intrigue, miracles, family sagas, politics, war, and redemption. Yeah, there are some genealogies; skip them. There are instructions for building the tabernacle or making priestly vestments or diagnosing leprosy. Skip them. Most Bibles have headings for chapters and sections so you can tell what's coming up. In addition, a good study Bible will help you glean what's important as well as provide maps so you will know where the story is taking place and charts telling you when it happened and which king, tribe or empire is which. They give introductions, outlines and summaries of the books and have dictionaries in the back. Most have a concordance so you can find familiar verses. And you can always pick up one of those "Bible for Dummies" books.

Another reason why people don't read the Bible is they think they don't have the time. But as I said, you can get audio Bibles on CD or as an MP3 file that you can listen to in the car, while doing chores or at anytime. There are even Bible podcasts that will take you through a passage or chapter a day or the whole Bible in a year.

But I’ll bet a lot of people think the Bible is unnecessary or outdated. We know Jesus loves us and forgives us and we should follow the Golden Rule. What more do we need?

Well, what will you say when someone tells you that the Bible wants us to arm ourselves for Armageddon? Or that women can't make a sound during worship? Or that God helps those help themselves? Or that if bad things happen to you it’s because you did something bad? Or that the God makes the people who really obey him rich? Or that we are required to stone gay people and even disobedient kids? Or that sex is evil? Or that the earth is flat? None of those things are true but if you don't know your Bible you won't be able to correct these misconceptions.

In his second letter to his protege, Timothy, Paul writes “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” That’s a good summary of the Christian approach to the Bible.

Notice that the qualities of Scripture that Paul lists are not aesthetic or philosophical but practical. The Bible is not full of riddles we are to meditate on or abstract concepts we are to speculate about but principles we are to put into practice. Paul lists 4 practical uses for the Word of God.

First up is teaching. When N.T. Wright was a chaplain at Cambridge, a lot of underclassmen would tell him they wouldn't be attending chapel because they didn't believe in God. “I see,” Wright would reply. “What kind of God is it you don't believe in?” Surprised, they would usually stammer something about a cosmic killjoy who loves sending people to Hell. And Wright would say, “That’s interesting. I don't believe in that kind of God either. I believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” It’s not enough to believe in God. You need to know what kind of God you believe in. And the Bible teaches us that he is creative, loving, just, forgiving, surprising, faithful, and protective of the underdog. The Bible is basically a compendium of encounters people have had with God and what they reveal about him. We, too, have our encounters with God and the Bible, with its forty-odd writers, gives us a framework for interpreting our experiences that nevertheless does justice to the different facets of God.
Next, Paul tells us Scripture is useful for reproof. Another translation might be “for refuting errors,” although I like the way Eugene Peterson renders it: “exposing our rebellion.” Because Paul isn’t encouraging us to proof-text subjects. Just last week we read from the previous chapter, where Paul says, “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” When Christians argue over non-essentials, it is about as instructive as Sherlockians arguing over how many wives Dr. Watson had or Trekkers quarreling over how to reconcile the old timeline with the new movies  or Whovians debating whether the comics in Doctor Who Magazine are as canonical as the TV episodes. And as trivial as that stuff sounds to you, imagine how it sounds to people outside the church when we argue vociferously over obscure points of Scripture (And, trust me, if it's truly obscure, it's unimportant. The Bible highlights things that are important.) That’s why I think Paul is really talking about refuting the errors of our lives, our rebellions against God’s ways. Jesus got mad at how the Pharisees would use sophistry to avoid our scripturally-mandated duties to the sick, the elderly, the persecuted and outcasts. Even today churches are more likely to devote lots of time talking about one or two hot button issues not or barely mentioned in the Bible than on things like helping the poor, which is literally the subject of thousands of verses. We need to get some Biblical balance.

Paul says that Scripture is useful for correction. Again he is thinking as much of correcting our lifestyles as our mental errors. Once our rebellion against God’s standards is exposed, we need to get back on track, to correct our course. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not just a collection of prohibitions. And, as C.S. Lewis’ wife, Joy Davidman, pointed out, the negative commandments leave us with a lot more freedom than positive ones do. Saying “thou shalt not” do something only closes off one specific form of behavior, as any child knows. Tell a kid to “stop poking your sister” and he will see how close his fingers can get to her and how much he can annoy her while still keeping the letter of the law. Whereas a positive command radically narrows your course of action. The Golden Rule appears in almost every religion and in all of them it is stated negatively: do not do to others that which you wouldn't want done to yourself. But while that rules out acting aggressively against someone, it does not negate neglect. Jesus stated the rule positively: treat others the way you would like to be treated.  That means no more sitting on the sidelines while your neighbor suffers. You have to get up and help him or her.

Finally Paul says Scripture is useful for “training in righteousness.” Again I like Peterson’s version: “training us to live God’s way.” We rarely use the word “righteous” these days without the prefix: “self-.”  But “righteousness” really means being right with God. So Paul is talking about the Bible training us to live in harmony with God. This doesn't mean just avoiding stepping on God’s toes, so to speak, any more than singing in harmony means just not clashing with the other singers. It means actually hitting the right notes and keeping the same beat so that what is sung resonates and is fuller and more beautiful. The fruit of the Spirit, says Paul in Galatians, is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." These are elements of character that promote harmony with God and with others. And the Bible encourages and gives examples of such behavior.  

But the chief reason we need to, in the words of the collect, “hear…, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures is because they are “inspired by God” or more literally, “God-breathed.” The Bible is  not like a "thought of the day" calendar, where we can pick and choose the ones the ones we want to live by and discard those that don't please us. Everything is in there for a purpose. Not everything in Scripture is prescriptive, that is, something we should emulate; some of it is descriptive, simply telling us how things are or were. That’s why it's important in interpreting the Bible to understand the culture, the historical circumstances, the context and how what is said in one part of Scripture is refined and modified by other parts. Last Sunday's passage from Jeremiah (31:27-34) is correcting the impression that one might get from other passages, namely, God punishes children for the sins of their fathers. No, says the Lord, people are only responsible for their own sins.

And the rest of the passage shows us that the Law of God was not meant to be an external set of rules; it is meant to be a kind of internal programming or software. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” We are to commit the Scriptures to heart so they will become part of us, a second nature. God is guiding us to the point where we won't have to stop and check the rules all the time, when we just know the right thing to do the way a singing group will just know how to blend together even when singing a new song. A good song should flow. And good works should flow from a life spent studying the works of  the Master, so that eventually all our lives will sing forth his praise in perfect and thrilling harmony.

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