The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

All this is to say, if your present community sees your spiritual journey as a problem because you are wandering off their beach blanket, it may be time to find another community. One should never do that impulsively. But if after a time you are sensing that you do not belong, that you are a problem to be corrected rather than a valued member of the community, maybe God is calling you elsewhere and to find for yourself that “they” aren’t so bad after all. That decision is very personal (sometimes involving whole families) and can take some courage to make, but it is worth the risk. One thing is certain: if you stay where you are without any change at all, the pressure to either conform or keep quiet will work in you like a slow-acting poison. And if you go too far down that road, it can be a tough haul coming back from bitterness and resentment—especially for children.

And for Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read—which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word. The story of God’s people has moved on, and so must we.

As Luke’s story unfolds, Jesus continues to undermine expectations involving political power and Jewish identity. In his first public appearance, in a synagogue service, he claims to be the messiah, which creates quite a buzz of support—until he tells them that he will bless Gentiles and be rejected by his own kinsmen. The crowd responds by trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. Israel’s messiah isn’t supposed to say things like this.

Cramming the stories of Israel into a modern mold of history writing not only makes the Bible look like utter nonsense; it also obscures what the Bible models for us about our own spiritual journey. On that journey, what matters most is not simply where we’ve been—the triumphs or the tragedies—but where we are with God now in the moment. All great spiritual leaders will tell us that living in the moment is key to vibrant communion with God. The now is where God’s presence is found, where neither past memories nor the future with its idle speculations dominates.

For any one group today to think it has the best grasp on the creator of the universe is a form of insanity. Run away—far and quickly—when you see this.

For Christians, then, the question is not “Who gets the Bible right?” The question is and has always been, “Who gets Jesus right?” The Gospel writers and Paul couldn’t have made that any clearer.

If this Jesus is God’s answer, what is the question? Paul eventually came to the conclusion that God was answering a question that gets at the core of not simply the Jewish drama, but the human drama, a question that no one was yet asking in quite the same way.

If we let the Bible be the Bible, on its own terms—on God’s terms—we will see this in-fleshing God at work, not despite the challenges, the unevenness, and ancient strangeness of the Bible, but precisely because of these things. Perhaps not the way we would have written our sacred book, if we had been consulted, but the one that the good and wise God has allowed his people to have.

In the spiritual life, the opposite of fear is not courage, but trust. Branch out. Not only do our beliefs define us, but so does the community of like-minded people who share those beliefs. Christian traditions, denominations, and congregations provide a group identity. We are social animals, so we should not judge our spiritual groups, or those of others, as necessarily a problem. Only when our communities become the defining element of our spiritual lives, packs that protect those boundaries at all costs, do problems begin. That leads to isolation, “us versus them” thinking, and the illusion that “we” are basically right about the Bible and God and “they” aren’t—the kind of wall-building that Jesus and Paul criticized. So much can be learned from

I think part of what it means for God to “reveal” himself is to keep us guessing, to come to terms with the idea that knowing God is also a form of not knowing God, of knowing that we cannot fully know, but only catch God in part—which is more than enough to keep us busy.

Jesus was God’s climax to Israel’s story, but he was not bound to that story. He pushed at its boundaries, transformed it, and at times left parts of it behind.

Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual—follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to “defend the Bible” against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved. That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag—fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.

Readers who come to the Bible expecting something more like an accurate textbook, a more-or-less objective recalling of the past—because, surely, God wouldn’t have it any other way—are in for an uncomfortable read. But if they take seriously the words in front of them, they will quickly find that the Bible doesn’t deliver on that expectation. Not remotely.

Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away.

Still, shifting my thinking on the Bible did not mean I was losing my faith in God. In fact, I had the growing sense that God was inviting me down this path, encouraging it even.

Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of an inner disquiet, a warning signal that deep down we do not really trust God at all.

That’s Jesus for you. Making people across time upset with him.

The Bible is not a Christian owner’s manual but a story—a diverse story of God and how his people have connected with him over the centuries, in changing circumstances and situations.

The Bible isn’t a cookbook—deviate from the recipe and the soufflé falls flat. It’s not an owner’s manual—with detailed and complicated step-by-step instructions for using your brand-new all-in-one photocopier/FAX machine/scanner/microwave/DVR/home security system. It’s not a legal contract—make sure you read the fine print and follow every word or get ready to be cast into the dungeon. It’s not a manual of assembly—leave out a few bolts and the entire jungle gym collapses on your three-year-old.

The Bible, just as it is, still works. Don’t try to explain it. Just accept it. That won’t make you a mindless zombie. It just means you are accepting your own human limitations and acknowledging by faith that something bigger than ourselves is happening, someone bigger is behind it, and we have the privilege to be a part of it.

The Bible looks the way it does because “God lets his children tell the story,” so to speak. Children see the world from their limited gaze. A second grader might give a class presentation on what mom does all day. She will talk about her mom from her point of view, rooted in love and devotion. She’ll filter—unconsciously and in an age-appropriate manner—her mother’s day through how she perceives her family and her role in the family. She’ll get some things more or less correct, but she will also misunderstand other things, and get still other things plain wrong.

There is no higher “law” to be obeyed than the law of love. That, at the end of the day, is what it means to follow Jesus.

was learning to trust God enough (what a concept) to know that, like family (the Bible calls him “Father” after all), he will come through no matter what, that his love and commitment to me is deeper than how my brain happens to be processing information at any given moment, to trust that God will be with me, not despite the journey but precisely because I was trusting God enough to take it.

We understand today that the physical universe is bigger and older and operates very differently than how the biblical writers, and all other ancient people, thought. Many Christians stumble over this, thinking they are showing respect for the Bible and obeying God by making the biblical story mesh with modern science, or rejecting modern science entirely in favor of God’s Word. But there is no need to feel embarrassed or unfaithful by acknowledging that ancient writers wrote from an ancient mind-set. When ancient Israelites wrote as they did about the physical world, they were expressing their faith in God in ways that fit their understanding. It shouldn’t get our knickers in a twist to admit that, from a scientific point of view, they were wrong. That doesn’t make their faith or the God behind it all any less genuine.

Whatever we do, let’s not imagine that the Israelites were ancient versions of ourselves, maybe less well groomed, who were “nice,” read their Bibles daily, the kind you could invite to church and want to marry your daughter, who would vote Republican or drive a hybrid. We respect these biblical stories most when we try to understand what the writers did and why, not when we place false expectations on them, like seeing them as a timeless script or a permanent fixture for how to think about God.

What makes the Bible God’s Word isn’t its uncanny historical accuracy, as some insist, but the sacred experiences these stories point to, beyond the words themselves. Watching these ancient pilgrims work through their faith, even wrestling with how they did that, models for us our own journeys of seeking to know God better and commune with him more deeply.

When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey.

When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. That journey was recorded over a thousand-year span of time, by different writers, with different personalities, at different times, under different circumstances, and for different reasons. In

When you read the Bible on its own terms, you discover that it doesn’t behave itself like a holy rulebook should.

Wisdom isn’t about finding a quick answer key to life—like turning to the index, finding your problem, and turning to the right page so it all works out. Wisdom is about learning how to work through the unpredictable, uncontrollable messiness of life so you can figure things out on your own in real time. Both