Imagine my Surprise. I read the Bible “Wrong.”

I never knew  that there was a right or wrong way of reading the Bible.  

I have always thought, naively I will now acknowledge, that all that mattered was how one responded to what they read in the Bible.  Nope, I’ve been all wrong.  I don’t know where I learned this idea either.  I’ve absorbed a way of looking at the Scriptures that I never questioned.

“It’s how I was raised.”  

What do I mean? Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals (and I was taught to believe this but no longer) have a view of the Bible that it’s perfect, as in ” inerrant and infallible” by which they mean, it’s a divine product and its authority comes in “that God literally wrote it” by whispering his intents to people who then wrote it down (like God’s holy scribes).  And unless it clearly was metaphor, most every word was literally the truth, word for word from God.  These people also believe that the Bible is basically all God wants us to know in communicating his will to us, which precludes the work of the Holy Spirit and prayer, among other things.  They believe the Bible has everything we need and is totally relevant to the Christian life today.  That it is simple and plain, obvious; meaning if you just read it you’ll “just get it.”  There’s a morsel of goodness in that idea that anyone can read the Bible.  Unfortunately, even though anyone can read it isn’t simple!  What about the fact that it was written in languages we do not read or speak (most of us) and in a culture and time that we know nothing about. And the last, most heinous thing that simplistic reading of the Bible brings is the idea that one can pick and pull verses out of the context, not believing context is that important.  They read the Bible seeking blessings and affirmations for life.

Guilty. Guilty.  Guilty.

I do believe, and it is important to affirm, as Temper Longman says in How to Read Genesisthat the Bible is:

“… grounded in the ultimate divine authorship of the whole.  Thus in spite of a variety of styles, genres, themes and motifs, it is important to ask how the parts fit into the whole.”

And that is what I have known.  I guess one can make the Bible say pretty much whatever you want it to if you work at it.  People do it all the time!  I’m forty-five years old, been reading the Bible for myself since high school, and in many ways this is how I have always understood things.

That is what makes thinking about it in a new way so frightening.

I have to admit that I’m learning.

That fact should not be embarrassing, but it is.  People don’t like to admit very often that they don’t know something.  We all like  to come off as experts, if not experts than knowledgeable, if not knowledgeable then at least well-informed.  (

(Sigh)).  It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong, uninformed, even lacking knowledge.  It is hard to admit but I believe if I’m willing to do that then perhaps others will become open to considering the same.

Do I dare even talk about this topic of reading the Bible?  I am by no means an expert but I’ve read some things recently. I am armed and dangerous but I’ll list my sources so that you can do your own homework.  (And you always should.)

Here’s what I’ve learned.

The Bible is a piece of literature.

It is a book made up of books.  It is a big story of God and the world.  It is made up of stories and poems that tell us about God.  It is also a series of smaller stories.   It is, like any other book you read, written within a genre and knowing the type of genre you are reading helps you know how you are supposed to read it; whether it is poetry, myths, parables, history, legends or a combination.  And like other literature you study you should know a little of the customs and culture of the time it was written.

“The truth of the matter is that the proper interpretation of any piece of literature, and in particular a text as ancient and important as the Bible, deserves our careful reflection.” — T. Longman.

Hermeneutics is just a technical name for interpretation or “how you read.”

There is a way to read the Bible for what it is not just for what we’d like it to say.  And as we learn to interpret the Bible — as literature, within a genre, written in a time and place, a culture, with a certain purpose, we are less likely to be “Biblical Literalists.”  Just because you find verses that supports your view doesn’t mean you’ve probed fully the biblical view.

How we read the Bible has become very divisive among Christians and has been a contributing factor in the “culture wars.”  Biblical literalists fear the “culture slide or culture creep” and tightly hold a grip on the Church and on their ideas; that a few texts yanked out of any context or culture, are prescriptive of how to “do church” for all time. This keeps churches from changing, in ways that may seem obvious to those of us (women and men) being raised with a different way of looking at Scriptures – raised to think, study and apply scripture for ourselves.

I do believe that the Bible guides us and has everything to say to us in the twenty-first century, it can and should guide us, it changes our ideas about our moral and intellectual life, it forms how we think and behave, how we treat others, and transforms us and shapes who we are becoming …

But …

It’s all about how you read and interpret the Bible. 

I think there may be many people in the Church today who were raised to be biblical literalists. I was.  I no longer believe this is correct in fact I know now that it is wrong.  But I don’t exactly know what I do think, yet.  That’s why I’m “developing my biblical hermeneutic.”

I’m learning that there are some that believe there are lots of parts of the bible that you cannot take literally, either as historical fact or direct will of God.

I agree with Tom Wright when he says that the authority of God is embodied in Jesus himself, not in the literal words of the Bible.  (Loosely quoted.)

Of course how you read and interpret is subject to the wisdom and biases of humans.

Everyone comes at the Bible with a “world view.” We are all guilty of cherry picking verses to be factual and literal truth or determining that something is cultural.   Everyone does it.

Take 1 Timothy for instance.

“Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with hair braided, or with gold, pearl, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.  Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

If you read it literally, women are not permitted to teach or have authority over men but also they are not to braid their hair or wear pearls or gold or expensive clothes.   Also women are responsible for the origin of sin in the world.  The “good news” is that we can be saved by bearing children.  If you interpret it literally these are God’s instructions/restrictions for behavior and roles of women.  Some churches choose to prohibit women’s leadership in churches because they use this verse to “prove” that God doesn’t approve.  But they happily ignore the rest of the verses as cultural.

That’s cherry-picking. 

But if you look as the Bible as being written by a person in a particular time and culture, if you know the historical cultural setting they were writing in then you see that this is how one man in the early Christian church saw things.

When you read it with context, looking at the contrast between this and other texts in the New Testament, if we recognize or listen to more than one voice speaking about the role of women we can seek to discern which voice to honor.  In the New Testament there are examples of women apostles and teachers, women financing the ministry, women sitting at Jesus’ feet learning from him with the other disciples, a woman being the first to speak to Jesus after his Resurrection.  These stories all empower of women in the early church.  You can see this if you don’t restrict your reading to Timothy’s set of verses, which are very restrictive.

Listen to more than one voice. 

Look for themes and overarching ideas.  I believe one must recognize more than just one voice in trying to figure out anything in the Bible.  And it takes discernment and wisdom and doing your homework in trying to figure out which voices to honor.  I look at how Jesus treated women when it comes to this topic.  I do not look at the verses about early church as prescriptive of how we should run our churches today.  But that’s just me.   But as you can see, a lot is at stake in how we read and understand the Bible.

Everyone wants to read the bible for today – for guidance and wisdom for today’s problems, for today’s trials, for this moment.  The problem inherent in that is that without doing the hard work of asking the questions of the context and placement in history, we endanger our ability to hear God.   I am greatly encouraged with the knowledge that there are essential ideas from God that are clear and reinforced many places in scripture.  Those broad strokes from God are the things that guide us — point us to God and deepen our relationship with the trinity.

Those are my thoughts offered humbly because like I said, I am no expert and I am likely much too opinionated.

On the topic of unlearning and learning How to Read the Bible Again:

  1. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight.  He’s a professor at North Park Seminary.  He also has a blog Jesus Creed which is for me critical reading.
  2. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by NT Wright.

And to add to my list of commentary suggestions (from why I’m Afraid to Read the Bible):

  1. New Testament Commentary for Everyone, by Tom Wright.  They could be in the “For dummies”series.  But not really, for everyone is a nicer way to put it.  These are really good.  They go through books of the bible and explain the background and what it’s saying.  I really like them.  Straightforward, not dumbing it down too much, just enough to make easy.  Not everyone has time to do a lot of study.  These are really informative and interesting.  And short.

Melody

Humility is hard. Humiliation is harder.

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I was asked to write some brief thoughts about the application of Philippians 2.1-11 to my life.

My thoughts are neither brief nor, sadly, do I see them applied very well thus far in my life. Thankfully, the journey of faith is a road slowly traveled and full of grace.

Melody

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being the very nature of God, did not consider equality of God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Obviously one cannot compare their life, whether you are a spiritual person or not, in any way to what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up — his stature in heaven with God the Father — and Jesus did that for you and me.  And yet, that’s the irony right?  And the beauty.  We are so very human and yet in the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians we are taught to behave so unnaturally, even supernaturally.  And we can’t.  We can’t do anything like that.  A human life can’t possibly compare.  What then?

Reread this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.1-11 in Today’s NIV (above).

Honestly, the Apostle Paul rubs me the wrong way, at times.  Especially the way he seems to command the church to do and not do so many things. That I have issues with control is no secret.  So, I struggle with Paul’s emphatic tone and his sometimes enigmatic letters full of instructions that are not always clear in their application today. (Just my opinion here.)

But I have come to respect Paul’s story; his passion, his purity of purpose, his agape love for each church that he started, his strong prayer life, and especially as it applies here, his willingness to make personal sacrifices every day for the cause of Christ.  What he was instructing the Philippians to do, he most definitely lived out himself.

Writing from a prison cell, it is striking that he says “fulfill my joy” or “make my joy complete” (depending on the translation) by having “the same mind and the same love, by being of one spirit and intent on one purpose.”  He’s not saying here’s a way to become a “cookie cutter Christian” thankfully. What he is saying emphatically is do this to be united! And he continues, be humble because it is impossible to be “one church” if you are living for yourself, for your own desires, agendas and needs; If you are constantly seeking those things that only create a better life for yourself, you are not united. And then, as if that were not clear enough he goes on to say don’t do anything out of selfishness and think of others as better than yourself.  And if you do this, the result will be unity.

I’m thinking at this point: “Okay, no biggie.  Have some humility.  Live for others.  Give up your “rights.”   Be unselfish.  Wow, I need to work on this!”  I just haven’t had it put so emphatically before.  It is as if the message of Christ depends on it. Unity. And I should want to live that way!  I guess it’s time to spend some time reflecting on whether that is true in my life.  I’m four verses in and I’m totally convicted that I rarely live as if  others are more important me.

Incredibly to me, at this point Paul becomes gentle so I guess he has a softer side.  I’ve judged him from the lists of dos and don’t in Corinthians.

In a poem he goes on to describe in beautiful words the utter humiliation of Christ for us — Christ’s descent from the throne of God to death as a human on a cross.  That is the humility Paul challenges the church of Philippi to and that is our example — Christ chose humiliation.  As Christ became human, he gave up being seen as God and emptied himself taking on the limitations of human flesh.  He never ceased to be fully God, but for a time he actually gave up GLORY for us.  If your mind isn’t blown at this point, well, you’re not fully taking it in.  It’s mind-boggling.  It is worth pondering a while over the Advent season.  It’s incredible.

Christ became human for me and wants me to become humble and unified with other believers in order to be more like him? NT Wright, in Paul for Everyone, says that an inner life of unity seems unattainable.  No kidding.  But, as we mature these things (paraphrased) should be true about us:

“1 We are to be bringing our thinking into line with one another.

2 Know the Gospel is the the final aim, not simply unity.   If “it” doesn’t align with the Gospel, we could be unified around Krispy Kreme donuts, but that’s not what Paul’s promoting.

3 We are to perform the extraordinary feat of looking at one another with the assumption that everyone else and their needs are more important than our own.”

Humility is hard. Humiliation is harder.

When Paul was writing about this idea to the church in Philippi, it must be said, that they didn’t hold a high view of humility.  No one aspired to be humble or to humiliation in the Greek world.  If I am totally honest, do I really hold that high a view of humility?  Being humble is hard!  When was the last time I gave up my rights?  My power.  That is a form of humility and I honestly do not even know.  That’s not really esteemed in our culture too much.   Paul says we are to regard others as higher than ourselves. And in case we’re still unclear, we are to voluntarily give up our rights (like Jesus.)

As a part of the bigger picture of Philippians, Paul says “True people of God are united by thinking of others as more important than themselves.”

These are difficult times.  The recession has effected so many people, that if you happen to have kept your job you feel incredibly grateful!  If you have lost a job or may have been forced by circumstance to live with family or a friend, you know you are one misstep away from potential disaster.  Perhaps even from joining the most powerless in our society — the poor, the elderly, many children, victims of domestic violence, youth fleeing abusive homes, many immigrants working two or three jobs to get by.  None of these groups of people have power or influence in society.  They are definitely “the least of these.”  Their lives are a struggle and at times unbearable.  At the bottom of this list, rock bottom I think, are those that are have lost their home and live now on the streets.

We make assumptions about the homeless and never question them.   For the most part we avert our eyes and walk quickly past.  There are homeless downtown that are the “stereo-typical homeless person —  male, impoverished, smelly panhandlers that smell like alcohol and are acting slightly off.”  But, actually, the average age for the homeless in Dane County is nine years old. My youngest is nine and he’s just a kid lucky enough to live in a house.  Why him?

hu. mil. i. a. tion. 

n.

1 degradation;2 the state of being disgraced; shame; 3 a humiliating condition or circumstance.

I cannot think of anything more degrading or humiliating than being homeless.  Often, if we think of the homeless at all, we convince ourselves that they somehow deserve it.  It’s not a clear thought and if we keep it ambiguous and undefined we don’t have to face it.  But we probably think that somehow homeless people chose.  I challenge that idea completely.

When you are homeless no one knows who you are or where you are.  You have lost everything:  your old life, important relationships, job safety, the security of a locked door, and more importantly being known by someone, giving and receiving love, feeling content, the goodwill of being in community or a family — They chose to give up all that to be a wanderer known by no one? With no history —  “lost” to your family and society — invisible — and somehow you chose that? This idea is absurd and is based on our chosen ignorance. Even selfishness.

Yes, the truth about homelessness is that it makes us uncomfortable.

A few facts:

The top three reasons people are homeless are:

1 mental illness,

2 domestic violence,

3 inability to pay rent.

In Dane County in 2008:

3,894 people were served in emergency shelters.

3,636 were turned away.

More than three thousand children, teens, elderly, veterans, mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts, PEOPLE were turned away from shelter for lack of space and resources in Madison alone.

A Simple Story.

As a member of BH Downtown, I was recently asked for$ .75  by a panhandler just outside of the Majestic.  I was disconcerted because this wouldn’t happen on the west-side of Madison and I was unsure what to do.  But I was with my kids.  So I dug in my pocket and gave it to him, mainly thinking we have so much and my kids know it.  And I wanted to show them that generosity is important.  (Subsequently I learned giving money to panhandlers in Madison is illegal.)  Looking back I think it is laughable that they might learn anything from our giving up less than a dollar to a homeless person.   There was no sacrifice and there was no lesson learned.

Actually, I have learned because as a member of a downtown Life Group I learned that there are “real” ways to help. (more later)

When it comes to the homeless in Madison, in the past I have consoled my aching conscience with a few dollars and moved on.  And I spent some hours thinking, reading, fretting about the complexity of the homeless situation, growing ever more hopeless about resolving the grander issues of funding and public apathy.

But, being downtown every week, if I choose to see the homeless, they are there.

There is a group here in Madison that does see the  homeless.

Free Food gathers once a week, at three o’clock in the afternoon on Sundays, at the top of State Street, bringing whatever food and goods they have and giving them away.  Variations of this group have been doing this for years.  They give what they have — any kind of food, sometimes new socks.  And now that it is cold they are seeking hats, gloves, blankets and anything to help someone stay warm on the street. (If purchasing some of these things interests you, shoot me an email and I can connect to pick them up.)

As I’ve thought about the Apostle Paul’s challenge to give up yourself for Christ, I see the actions of this group as an example of what Paul is talking about.  I cannot think of anything more humiliating than living on the street, not knowing your next meal will come from; perhaps only having water and a meal once a day.  Being constantly cold.  It sounds horrible.

Homeless people likely did not lose everything by choice, perhaps simply bad luck or a series of unfortunate circumstances.  The less power you have the more difficult it is to regain it.  Powerlessness begets powerlessness in America, that’s a fact.

Paul says regard others [the homeless, or anyone] as higher than yourself. Voluntarily give up your rights. One way to do this is to serve the humiliated.  See them.  Go to where they are. Listen to their story.  Be a friend.  Or just be a meal.  In these cold nights of Wisconsin winter you might even save someone’s life by providing a coat or blanket or warm meal.

If you want to help on any given Sunday you will find these good people giving away food and other resources.  Week in and week out, over the years, people have given up their time, money and things for the lowest and most humiliated in our city.

So even as I write these words in the comfort of my heated home and my belly growling just a bit from “forgetting” to eat dinner, I am convicted.   In my humanity I cannot do anything and I don’t really even want to sometimes. It’s unnatural to put yourself in a situation like that.  And, it is moving into winter and Sunday afternoons are cozy family times at home.  My mind is full of dozens of reasons why I don’t really want or need to help out.

But we are instructed to behave supernaturally.   Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up equality with God for you and me.  That’s the rub.  So I need to perhaps get cold and uncomfortable.  Go be something more than I really am, because Christ did so much more for me.  Not because I owe Him but because I am so grateful and humbled.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition

or vain conceit.  Rather,

in humility value others above

yourselves, not looking

to your own interests

but to the interests of others.

I am challenged by these words of Paul to be more like Christ.  Jesus was known for giving up his rights for the sake of the world. What am I known for?

And you?

———————————————————————————

Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Tom Wright, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

The NIB Commentary, Volume XI, Abingdon Press, 2000