3 Wrong Ways to Read the Bible
By Jason Boyett
December 21, 2010
One of the most curious artifacts of my Bible-belted, Southern Baptist childhood was an activity called Bible Drill, in which kids in grades four through six compete on how well they know the Word of God. We’d be quizzed on our ability to quote verses, memorize references and identify passages. One of the coolest parts of the competition was a timed event where we had 10 seconds to locate a specific book of the Bible. We’d line up, facing a crowd of nervous parents, and the moderator would call out the get-your-Bibles-ready command: “Attention. Present swords. Begin!” And in a flurry, we’d scramble to locate, say, the book of Amos.
I rocked Bible Drill. And weirdly, I still find that archaic phrase “present swords” fluttering through my mind, like song lyrics without a melody.
There’s plenty of precedent for using Scripture as offensive weaponry, including the famous Armor of God passage in Ephesians 6. But we’ve taken that metaphor much further, turning the Bible into a box of ammunition. Individual verses have become our bullets in the culture war. Fighting homosexuality? Load up on Romans 1:27. Battling Hollywood filth? Chamber a round of Philippians 4:8.
The problem is that the Bible is so much more than a rulebook. Granted, parts of the Bible—Leviticus and much of Deuteronomy, for example—were sets of rules. But Jesus redefined that way of thinking and living. Later, Paul made it clear that an over-reliance on the “law” side of Scripture was like living under a curse (Galatians 3:10) or looking at life through a veil (2 Corinthians 3:14).
If the Bible can be reduced to a collection of ethical principles, how do we deal with the fact that Christians throughout the centuries have come to contradictory conclusions on what they are?
The Bible as toolbox
You can’t walk through a bookstore these days—religious or otherwise—without seeing the Good Book made into a tool to enhance your life. Biblical steps to weight loss. Biblical steps to overcoming addictions. Biblical steps to business success. We crack open the Bible for parenting advice, marital tips and scary prophetic insight into oil prices and the Middle East.
That’s missing the point, too. Not that the Bible doesn’t have a lot of great information about living a fulfilled life. It’s useful, Timothy says, for teaching, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). But our tendency is to jump into a passage, yank out a principle about joy or perseverance, apply it to some out-of-context situation, then pat ourselves on the back for our dedication to the Word.
But that’s like watching a great movie so you can find an inspirational quote to tape to your fridge. Sure, it’s one way of interacting with Scripture, but there’s so much more to it than that.
The Bible as science bookNot long ago, I came across a statement by a creation-science lecturer who pretty much said this: If you don’t believe the world is 6,000 years old, then you don’t believe the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Therefore, you don’t believe the Bible, and your faith is in jeopardy.
Yikes. Focusing on the factual accuracy of the Bible is a wrong approach, because the core of my faith has nothing to do with whether or not the days of creation are 24-hour days. My salvation doesn’t depend on my interpretation of Genesis. It depends on whether or not I believe the Gospels, whether I believe Jesus is who He says He is. According to Paul, our faith hinges on the resurrection, not on Noah and the flood.
To get bogged down in the math and physics and biology and chronology of Scripture is to major in trivia. It misses the point.
The Bible as easy answer book
“God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it.” According to this mindset, the Bible fell from heaven one day, bound in black leather and helpfully divided into chapter and verse. With a satin bookmark.
The truth is that the Bible and its history aren’t nearly that simple. The Old and New Testaments come from a bunch of crumbling scraps in a mix of genres, written across the centuries by dozens of different scribes.
Don’t worry: I believe the Bible is God-inspired and perfect in what it communicates. But the “God wrote it, I believe it” brand of inspiration fails to account for an important kink in the process: People are idiots. While the Bible’s message may be perfect, those of us reading it are unequivocably not. It’s easy to rip verses out of their cultural and literary context so we can slap them on a bumper sticker.
The easy-answer approach makes it that much easier to misuse or abuse the Bible. A number of recent evils, from modern sexism to slavery and genocide, can be and have been backed up by carefully selected passages of Scripture. A better approach is to read the Bible with careful analysis of context, an acknowledgment of its complexity and a healthy dose of humility.
What, then, is the Bible?
The Bible contains powerful moral authority, but it’s not just a weapon. The Bible points to a fulfilled life, but it’s not just an advice manual. The Bible tells us where we came from, but it’s not a history or biology textbook. The Bible addresses many of life’s biggest questions, but it’s by no means an easy read. To reduce the Bible to these ways of understanding is to spotlight little truths at the expense of the big Truth.
The big Truth of the Bible is Jesus. Yes, there are layers upon layers of depth and truth and revelation to be found studying Scripture, but the main story of the Bible is Jesus. The purpose of its thousands of words is to point us to God’s final Word: Jesus Christ.
This article originally appeared in RELEVANT magazine.