Ever meet a Bible-thumper? I have. In my first encounter, I was late getting to my history class and noticed a friend, also late, being cornered by a real Christian zealot. It looked as if my friend was being hit over the head with a Bible, and as I got closer I saw that he was. “Don’t you know that the Bible says you have to be born again?” Thump. “Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, the Life…” Thump, thump.
I love the Bible, but Bible-thumpers make me mad. I’ve met far too many Bible-toting Christians who know chapter and verse but treat the Bible as if it were a religious hobbyhorse – riding on it but not living by it. While smashing today’s idols, of which there are many, these good Christians are guilty of something far worse: bibliolatry, or revering the Bible more than the author of it. Fundamentalists or not, whether on TV, talk radio, or in the pulpit, they treat the Bible more like a hammer of destruction than the divine gift it really is.
If Bible-thumping is scary so is its opposite: Bible-bashing. Bible-bashers also take the Bible into their own hands. Instead of beating people up with it, they spend their efforts cutting and splicing, dissecting and deconstructing the Bible itself. According to these folks, the Bible needs to be liberated from an encrusted, archaic shell of cultural prejudice, unscientific presuppositions, and patriarchal, homophobic biases. For them, the Bible may provide a modicum of light, but it can no longer be our rule of faith. It must be judged by norms deemed relevant today.
Such a “liberated” approach leads to new and “better” interpretations: Paul was gay, Mary a prostitute, Jesus a wandering cynic or mystic, not unlike other Mediterranean gurus of his day. Notions of right and wrong are relative. Besides, what matters most is love, so sayeth the enlightened liberal. In other words, neither the Bible nor Jesus possesses any real authority. Our logic and our value-schemes trump all else.
What Bible-thumpers and Bible-bashers alike fail to realize is that Scripture is not a supermarket of truths, nor is it a sounding board for our ideas, Christian or otherwise. The Bible tells the story of how God is on the march, remaking and realigning our twisted worlds. It retells God’s history so that the story of our broken lives may be re-scripted, so that something new from above happens here on earth.
This is why Jesus cherished the Old Testament as he did – and fulfilled every word of it (Matt. 5:17). And this is why the Apostle Paul writes that the Scriptures “make us wise unto salvation,” equipping us “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). In and through the pages of the Bible, God’s Spirit seeks to perform a new work.
Sadly, too many of us read the words of the Bible but only nod our heads. We want information, but not transformation. In so doing, we either imprison Christ between the pages of our Bibles, or we yank him out of God’s history altogether, turning him into some image of our own making, exalting and trumpeting our own unique brand of spirituality or Christianity. In either case, Christ is not Lord – he cannot speak, he does not have “words of eternal life,” he cannot act in this world to change it.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, “What is the New Testament? A handbook for those who are to be sacrificed.” In our human flesh we don’t want this. We want to keep our lives intact and have things on our own terms. We prefer “biblical insights” and “spiritual inspiration” to the sword of the Spirit that cuts, convicts, cleanses. To quote Kierkegaard again:
We have become experts at cunningly shoving one layer after another, one interpretation after another, between the Word and our lives – much in the way a boy puts a napkin or more under his pants when he is going to get a spanking! Then we allow this clever preoccupation to reach to such profundity that we never get around to looking at our lives in the mirror. All this is but a defense against God’s Word.
Part of our problem is how we approach the Bible itself, assuming it to be some kind of divine answer book. But as French social philosopher Jacques Ellul points out, the Bible is less about answers and more about questions. “Faith consists in heeding God’s questions and risking ourselves in the answers that we have to give.” In other words, the God of the Bible is a God who asks us the questions. Whether we are Bible-know-it-alls or postmodern deconstructionists, we are all in the dark – not because we don’t have answers, but because God calls us to account and we would rather run and hide!
In the opening pages of Genesis, God not only creates and commands but he asks questions: “Where are you? Who told you…? What have you done? Why are you angry? Where is your slain brother?” God still asks questions. Will we answer? Are we ready to give an account? Unless we come to the Bible with the readiness to be questioned, to have our assumptions, norms, and experiences changed (and yes, “judged”), we will miss its mysterious, liberating power.
If we want to get back to the Bible, then we must go all the way back to God himself. From the very outset of Genesis, where God commands, “Let there be light,” to the closing words in Revelation, “Yes, I am coming soon,” when God speaks something happens or is about to happen. Are we ready? For in the end, what good is the Bible unless God does something?