How Do We Misread the Bible: Let Me Count the Ways
A big obstacle for many people in reading the Bible is that they don’t know what it is about. If it’s about getting our sins forgiven and gaining assurance of life with God forever in heaven, or about how we are supposed to live our lives, or inspiration for inner peace and making our way through the world easier, or an instruction manual on how to order our inner lives, family lives, church lives, social lives, political lives, etc., or for the acquisition of health and wealth, or a primer on action for social justice, or, well . . . you fill in the blank, there’s one huge and in my judgment insurmountable difficulty to all of them –there’s so much of the Bible that has nothing to do with these concerns!
You can find something about all these things in the Bible, but we cannot say that any of them or all of them together are what the Bible is about. Therefore we are faced in most of these cases with a massive amount of material to read and consider that is extraneous to what we believe the Bible is about.
And most of us don’t. We pick and choose the verses and sections and books in the Bible that do speak to what we think its real point is and ignore the rest. We may feel a little guilty about that and try to read the Bible from cover to cover or take a Bible study course, but mostly we pass over the rest in silence.
Only a “what the Bible is about” that accounts for and makes sense of all of it and needs all of it to make sense, especially the 5/6 of it called the Old Testament, will get us on the right track.
I believe there is such a “what the Bible is about” that satisfies this need. I think the Bible is from Genesis to Revelation a theodicy. That is, the Bible all along the way tries to answer the question of what’s gone wrong with God’s good plan for creation and what God is doing about it. The good plan is laid in the first two chapters of the Bible (Gen.1 and 2) and pictured fulfilled in the last two chapters (Revelation 21-22). The long, varied, sprawling stretch of material from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20 are focused in the their different viewpoints and genres on helping shape a justification of the ways of God even though things have gone wrong and showing his faithfulness to fulfill his purposes is spite of this.
What the Bible is about, then, how God can be trusted to get from Genesis 2 to Revelation 21 with the evidence in between casting doubt on both his intention and power to achieve this.
Imagine a darkened room in which a murder has been committed. The police break through door only to find a shadowy figure hunched over the corpse with a still smoking revolver in his hand. From Genesis 3 onward God is that shadowy figure and the rest of scripture up to Revelation 21 contain the story of the justifications, complaints, laments of and to God about the way things appear to be and the divine responses to them culminating in Jesus Christ who is such justification for God’s ways.
All this needs to be worked out, of course, in great detail. But I think that within the bookends of Genesis 1 and 2 – God’s plan revealed – and Revelation 21-22 – pictures of God’s plan achieved, reading the rest of the story as a multi-faceted theodicy makes good sense. The whole of the Bible is needed, in this scenario, for the whole Bible to make sense. The parts can be seen in relation to the whole and reframed to play their proper role in the overall story. It makes no sense to exclude any section in our reading, study, and reflection for to do so assures unbalance and misunderstanding.
In a further post I’ll reflect on what this understanding of what the Bible is about does for our motivation to read the Bible.