How open do you feel the Bible is? Do you believe that everything God needs to say to human beings is contained in the pages of the Bible and no other divine revelation or communication is needed? Do you feel that nothing can or should be added to or taken away from the Bible? Is the Bible essentially closed and fixed and complete as it is? And is it the only thing you need to inform and equip your spirituality and life?
Or do you see the Bible as more open? Do you believe that God has continued to speak through the centuries after the Bible was written, compiled, and put into the canon? Do you place the Bible in conversations with other sources of wisdom and truth?
How you view and read the Bible will define the impact it has on your life. For some, the Bible is a closed book and so it protects, restricts, and directs us in how we should think, act, and believe. For me, however, the Bible is an open book that acts like a diving board to launch us into the depths of life, wonder, and joy.
This week the podcast explores what it could mean to read the Bible as an open book and as a diving board from which to dive into the mystery and beauty of life, God and the Cosmos. So what are you waiting for? Why not take a deep dive into freedom and joy as we bring our brief reflection on the Bible to a close?
I have a sense that most of us have been taught to approach the Bible as a closed book. I’m reminded of biblical images like the prophet Daniel who at the end of his book is told to take all the prophecies he’s written down and bind them up the scroll and seal them. Or I think of John, who wrote the Revelation, saying that anyone who adds anything or takes anything away from his book is cursed. And, of course, many people have taken that to mean the whole Bible, but John was really just referring to the Revelation, to the book that he had written.
But we’ve been taught this idea that everything God wants to say, everything we need to know is in the Bible. The Bible, as we’ve seen, was inspired and written through a few thousand years. But then we’re told that when the biblical Canon was finalised, inspiration stopped. Because the Bible was complete and no more could be or needed to be added—in spite of the fact that the world and the rest of human learning didn’t stop. Everything kept evolving. But not the Bible.
We’re taught that now to question, or re-interpret Scripture, to consult with other texts, or even to apply Scripture in ways that aren’t ‘traditional’—these things are evil, and a certain way to end up in hell.
But the Bible itself never says that it’s closed. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus says these words:
Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!
Now that sounds a bit like Jesus is arguing for a closed view of the Scriptures—and of course for him the Scriptures were the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament hadn’t been written, so he was focusing on what we would call the Old Testament. But what’s interesting is what Jesus says after this. Having said that Scripture is not going to disappear until it’s fulfilled, and that he hasn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfil it, he then goes on in the next verses to repeat over and over, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you”. And he always quotes some law or some custom of his time and of his culture—“you’ve heard it said this, but I say to you this”. And he completely reinterprets Scripture, he’s not closing it down at all, he’s opening it up, while honouring the tradition and value of Scripture, Jesus also opens it up to new interpretations and new applications.
And so the Bible doesn’t say that it’s closed. On the contrary, there is a lot in the Bible that encourages us to approach it as an open book. You see, a closed Bible can’t help us. We’re navigating things in our lives and in our world today that the Bible knew nothing about. Our knowledge of the universe, of ourselves, of pretty much everything has grown way beyond biblical understanding. And the way we approach things like science, and history, and philosophy, and mathematics is very different from the Bible’s approach. Now it’s not that we don’t need the Bible, I believe we do. I still find the Bible a compelling and deeply helpful book. But we need to read it as an open book, not a closed one. The Bible is the start of a conversation, not the end of one. The Bible is the question that leads us into further examination and learning and discovery. It’s not the answer to silence or questions.
So how then do we read the bible as an open book and not a closed one? Well here are some suggestions that I hope you will find helpful. First of all, I believe we need to take the Bible seriously, and to take it seriously means to learn about its story. And we’ve done some of that in the last few weeks as we’ve looked at the journey of how the Bible came to be, and we’ve looked at it as a library of books, and we’ve looked at the hourglass metaphor that helps us to keep Christ at the centre. But learning about its story also means connecting with the scholarship that opens Scripture up and empowers us to apply it to things that it knew nothing about. The scholarship that we need is the scholarship that puts the Bible in conversation with the sciences, and with other ways of knowing and learning. And so we need to connect with websites that help us to do that—my favourite is called Enter The Bible It’s also helpful to connect with some basic resources that help to make the Bible easier to read—a concordance is one where you can look up a word or a theme and then you will get all the verses that speak of that thing. A Bible dictionary can be very helpful that can help you to understand biblical words and concepts. A biblical commentary where scholars give you a view on the background and their opinion on what Scripture says can be very helpful. And of course my favourite thing is to read the Bible in multiple translations, because each translation will give us something different. And then if you want to get into the Greek and Hebrew, Strong’s lexicon is great for the Greek, there are other lexicons for Hebrew, that can tell us the meaning of the original words. But if you don’t really speak the languages, be very careful with lexicons because it’s easy to lift a Greek and Hebrew definition out without really understanding what the language means when it says these things, or how that word works in the context of the language. So use those lexicons if you want to, but hold what comes out of them, and your understanding of what’s coming out of them, very lightly.
One of the easiest ways of course to do this if you love technology like I do, is to get a good Bible app. Many scholars and clergy people use an app called Logos Bible software, which can be very helpful but quite expensive. My favourite is called Olive Tree, which is much more affordable and has a very good free version, but also you can add resources at quite reasonable pricing to make it fit whatever your need is. And many of us also know YouVersion, which can give you different translations of Scripture and also some other resources to help you read. But whichever app you prefer, it can be very helpful to have an app that can open Scripture up for you as you read it.
And then as you’re using these resources, I find it helpful to make use of some basic questions that enable us to engage with the text in a deeper and more open way. And the first one is simply this: What does the passage actually say? Sometimes when we’re reading the Bible we’re reading into it assumptions of what people have told us or what we have been taught it says, and we miss what is actually there on the page. For example if you read the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel, most of us will come into it expecting to find a stable—Jesus was born in a stable, this is what we say and sing all the time. But if you look in Luke’s Gospel, and in fact in the whole of Scripture, you won’t find a stable mentioned anywhere related to the birth of Jesus. Yes, Jesus was born in a manger, a feeding troff, and we assume therefore that there must have been a stable around it, but the Bible doesn’t say that there’s a stable, and feeding toffs could’ve been in a bunch of other places other than stables. So we need to be careful to take what we assume and read it into the passage. And so just asking ourselves what does it actually say can be very helpful.
A few other questions that can help us: What is the context of the passage? Fitting the passage into the verses that come before, the verses that come after, the book that it’s in, how it fits into the whole arc of the Bible—just give it some context, so you’re not just lifting it out and making it say something that it may not be saying, but rather you have a sense of how it fits into the flow of what the writer is trying to say and that can help you get to a clearer sense of what the passage is meant to mean.
Then we can ask what is the background of the passage: Who wrote it? To whom did they write it? What historical time and what circumstance surround it when it was written and compiled and edited? What was the purpose of the writing? What did it mean for the writer and the first readers? All of these are questions that help us to see what’s on the page as well as looking at the differences, if there are any, between different translations. If there are any significant differences, that also can help us to understand Scripture in a deeper way. Why did this translation word it this way, and the other one worded it that way? Obviously if what they say contradicts each other, sometimes as we’ve seen different translations can give us completely different meanings, well then we need to be aware that scholars aren’t a hundred percent sure what the original language meant in this part of what we’re reading. And so those differences of translation can help us. But this is all about what’s on the page.
Then we can ask questions about us, about who we are and what we bring in ourselves to the page. So I often love to ask, where do I wish there was more information? Sometimes things will happen, or there will be a teaching, and I’ll look at this and I’ll go, “gee, I really wish there was more detail here that could help me to get into the mind of the writer, or the mind of readers, or the circumstances around what I’m reading a bit more clearly and a bit more deeply.”
I like to ask, what in this passage challenges me or disturbs me? The Bible can be really patriarchal and misogynistic sometimes, and I have to be honest when I’m reading it that that disturbs me. And sometimes the Bible will speak about things in a way that challenges me—the Bible is always on the side of the poor, the Bible is always on the side of justice and opposed to injustice, and I have to be honest, that sometimes challenges me.
I love to ask what is funny, strange, or surprising? Looking for the humour, the weirdness in Scripture, because that can open it up in a new way. I mean for example, think about when Jesus says “don’t try and get a speck out of somebody else’s eye while you have a log in your own.” I mean, Jesus must have been smiling when he said that. Just think of that image, you’ve got this massive piece of wood sticking out of your eye and you’re busy trying to find a tiny speck in somebody else’s eye and pull it out, probably bashing them on the head as you do it. That’s humour and just engaging with the humour of the passage can open it up in a new way.
I like to ask what challenges my view of things? Where does the Bible see the world, or God, or humanity, in ways that I haven’t thought of before, or in ways that challenge the way I see these things? As I’m reading I’ll ask what key thoughts emerge for me? I want to look at these things that stand out, these ideas, these insights, that I keep wanting to go back to so that I can allow them to become part of me before I just move on.
I’m also asking what’s happening in me as I’m reading, what am I feeling emotionally, what am I thinking, what’s happening in my body as I read, because that can speak to me about how the Bible is connecting with me. I also need to ask what can I do with this passage to apply it to my life? And that helps me to then live out what I’m learning as I work with Scripture.
And then another way to open the Bible up is to read it alongside other things, other sacred texts, other books, books that teach science or history or philosophy, novels, poetry, to read the Bible alongside news sources. All of these things can help us to engage with the Scriptures in a different way and can open them up for us.
The key is not to read the Bible as a source of facts or law or as a guidebook or, as some people have said, an owners manual for life. But rather to read it as a myth, and we’ve spoken about what we mean by myth—as a story that is dealing with the deepest of truths—read the Bible as a source of wisdom and inspiration and insight, that speaks about truth in deeper and more empowering way than simply facts. And then as we read it like that, amazingly, it does become a kind of guide, a guide to the values, and principles and ways of being that most lead to human flourishing and then we can apply those insights as best we can to our lives. But avoid trying to make it something that is closed, that is about rules and laws, and ‘this is the only way to be’. That’s not what the Bible is about.
The Bible is more like a diving board, this is one of my favourite metaphors for Scripture. A diving board launches you into a new experience, into a moment of flight and then into the wonder of water and playing around and enjoying the experience of it. Well the Bible is like that, it’s a platform that launches us to dive more deeply into the sacredness of life, and love, and humanness and the universe.
A closed view of the Bible robs it of its inspiration and wisdom. When we see the Bible as closed it becomes a source of lines, and walls, and doors, and bars. It imprisons us within its closed ecosystem, an ecosystem which seeks to control what we do, and say and think. Rather than set us free, a closed view of the Bible stops us from exercising our freedom. It restricts us and closes us off from questions, new discoveries, interesting experiences, diverse people and ways of being. It closes us off, basically, from everything that makes life vibrant and alive. And this isn’t what the Bible was meant for and it’s not what Jesus calls us to.
That’s why, I believe, we need an open reading of the Bible. When we read the Bible as a diving board, it is not an end in itself. It doesn’t control us or imprison us. It launches us into the wonderful flight of freedom, joy, learning, new experiences and new relationships. It launches us into life in all its depth and vibrancy and amazement. And this is what, I believe, the Bible is for.It’s not static. It evolved. And it continues to evolve because we—the people who read it and study it and learn more and more about it as scholarship develops—are always evolving. And so what we read evolves with us, which means that Scripture evolves with us. The Bible is given to us as a gift to nourish our evolution, to inspire our growth, and to lead us into our most vibrant, authentic and sacred lives. And so I really want to encourage you to read the Bible as a diving board and let it launch you into freedom and into the fullness and sacredness of life.
Next week we begin a short new series focusing on the Church. We’ll be deconstructing the idea of Church a little, and investigating some alternative ways that we can experience what the Church was meant to be. I hope you’ll join me for that conversation.
But for now, that’s all I have. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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