Christian Theology in a Thumbnail: What is the Bible – Pt.2 (13)
We saw in the last post that the Bible is one long sprawling story. This has many implications for how we read the Bible. It means, in the first place, that we do not read the Bible as if it is primarily a window. One looks through a window to see what lies behind it. To read the Bible this way is to take a primarily historical approach to it. There are many invaluable gains from this approach to the Bible. It has, however, spawned a tendency to reconstruct how things really were and who people really were (esp. Jesus) in contrast or contradiction to how the Bible presents those things and characterizes those people. Often this has been done based on assumptions about what could and could not happen in history. But even with less restrictive assumptions at work, the Bible leaves us with many gaps, questions, and presents its history in line with the practice of history writing of its time. This history writing aimed at purposes other than strict chronological narrative and shaped their history in line with those aims. If history (as we understand the term) is the primary or only way we read the Bible, we will be (and have been) frustrated because the Bible often does not answer our historical questions and left to our own devices in theologizing about the meaning and significance of the biblical story.
That the Bible is one long sprawling story does not mean, in the second place, that we primarily read it as a mirror. One looks at a mirror to see one’s own reflection of oneself, standing in front of it. There are many and varied types of this approach, both sophisticated and simple. Some versions of reader response theory in literature, in which the reader creates the meaning of the story, and much devotional reading of the Bible, which seeks to find a direct word of personal meaning for uplift, inspiration, or guidance for the day’s activities and challenges. In each case, the reader’s interest lies in front of the text on themselves, their situations and questions, needs and desires, for which they seek insight,
The Bible as story does call on us to read it primarily as a piece of stained glass art. One looks into stained glass art to discover the story the variously sized and colored pieces of glass to tell. One tries to find the story in the text itself, artfully shaped and told with interests other than historical exactitude or even personal or existential meaning. There is, of course, personal, existential meaning throughout all the scriptures, but we come it indirectly by focusing on something else. Scripture as stained glass art uses the skill of the artist to draw us into its story as the true story of God with humanity. Once engaged with the story at this level, we are able to find our identity and significance with it, and engage our lives and God’s mission in the world on that basis. This pastiche of ancient historiography, myth, poetry, novella, apologetic, shaped and reshaped by use in Israel’s worship is what God has declared his Word to us (see last post). Only in this way, I suggest, can we both pay attention to historical matters and at the same time come to this set of literature as God’s love story written to his people (as was advocated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
We’ve tried to read the Bible in primarily historical and personal, existential ways and, by and large, have missed the point! Perhaps we are ready to begin reading it as it is apparently designed, as a piece of divine stained glass art in whose story we find our identity, our significance, and our security as God’s people in the world.