Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Bible isn't a bible...

A while ago Julia O'Brien had a post where she noted that in our culture we use the word "Bible" to refer to instruction manuals of all kinds.  She suggested that as long as we keep labeling the Bible as such people will think of it as an instruction manual and avoid it as literature.  She's right of course, but there's an even bigger problem for those of us who are Christians.  The bigger problem is that people will think of the Bible as an instruction manual and ignore it as Scripture.  No, the two things are not the same.

The Bible is a collection of a wide variety of literature which was written over a very long period of history (hundreds of years).  The primary unifying qualities of the Bible are that it all has to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that over the course of time these books came to be thought of as revelatory literature by the broad community of faith.  That is to say, the Bible is about God and it was "chosen" (not in the sense of one time conscious decision, but in the sense of a long and organic progression) by the Church.  The consequence of this is that the Bible has many witnesses that often stand in deep tension with one another.  There is tension between the prophets and the Torah, between the prophets and the lament literature, between the Apocalyptic literature and the Gospels, and between the letters of Paul and the catholic letters.  There is tension all over.  The Bible does not have one, single, easily summarized, unitary message.  It is not an instruction book.  Your Bible is not a bible.

I have heard it said that all biblical passages fall into two categories.  They are all either 1) promises, or 2) instructions.  Wrong.  Are there promises in the Bible?  Sure.  Are there instructions in the Bible?  Sure.  But there is a whole lot more as well.  There is poetry that describes pain.  There are narratives that tell tales of conflict and confusion, and of triumph and joy.  There are longing love letters.  There are instances of purest hate.  In the Bible you will find a wide variety of literary genres, a wide variety of themes, a wide variety of people, a wide variety of really almost everything.  That shouldn't be scary, but for some reason this scares evangelicals.  It scares us so much that we aren't allowed to critique the Bible, we aren't allowed to ask it difficult questions.  We accept it all dogmatically because we think it's all dogmatic, but it isn't.  There is room to question and challenge the Bible.  Do you know how I know this?  Because the Bible questions and challenges itself.  Ezekiel questions the Torah.  Lamentations questions Deuteronomy and the great deuteronomistic history.  Jesus questions the Law, even as he says that he does not set aside even one jot of it.

The great power and theological depth of the Scripture is found within these points of tension, and again within the tension between our lives today and the various parts of this ancient collection of books.  The Bible is like a stringed instrument in this respect.  It only works because of great tension.  Stop trying to take the tension out of the Bible.  If you take away the tension, smoothing over and dumbing down and making everyingthing instructions and promises, all you get is a poorly tuned instrument and really bad music.

6 comments:

the Doug said...

Good post today Colin. Excellent reading, and yes I'm still lurking around here some, via google reader. Hadn't seen the new theme.

Scott Bailey said...

Very well put indeed Colin...

ktraphagen said...

Great post, Colin. I'm going to use your analogy of the stringed instrument.

John said...

Wow, I do love the stringed instrument idea. The more versejacking I hear, the more I hear really bad music.

To pimp a format that helps make the Bible musical again: www.thebooksofthebible.info. It takes out chapter and verse numbers among other improvements to help the Bible read, well, like a book. It's hard to get a verse a day from Harry Potter, and I don't think the Bible should be read primarily with verses.

Dave said...

I can appreciate where you are going with this...though I perhaps wouldn't put it as strongly as you do.
but just to play the devil's advocate (okay maybe not the best term in this context!)--what about torah as instruction, and then the conception of the rest of the Hebrew canon as instruction. I would perhaps even go so far as to say that all of Scripture Old and New Testament as torah/instruction. granted this is much different than an instruction manual per se but, in my understanding of it, would be broad enough to encompass all the various types of literature in the canon, in all their diversity.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Wow, I'm not sure how you found this post here Dave...in any case...

The trouble with "instruction" in my mind is its standard semantic range in English. Though there is a certain meaning of "instruction" in English that captures very well the meaning of the Hebrew torah, I don't think that meaning is what most English speakers think of when they first hear the word "instruction." I think that most people do indeed think about "instruction manuals" which, as you say correctly, is not at all the right way to think about the Bible.

But even given that we think about Torah as "instruction" in a sense that resembles "guidance" or suggests something about the framework of reality, that does not mitigate the point that there still exists a lot of witness/counter-witness in the canon. I would never deny that there is a unity to the canon, though I might push more towards functional unity than unity of content, but within that unity there is a lot of diversity and tension. That tension is very, very important to me.