“The inspired Word of God.” I have been pondering quite a bit lately how to start this one off. The bible is a point of contention in regards to believing in the one true God that is supposedly described within it. What is the point of the bible, anyway? Other than being the source of knowledge upon which Christianity claims to be based, why does it exist? As I finish reading the book The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight, I realize more and more how I’ve let man dictate my own relationship with God (in various forms). I don’t proclaim this to be a book review of any sorts, nor is it a comprehensive outline of what the book teaches, but rather I must point out that it has changed my perspective in my own study of the truthfulness of the bible and how I read it.
It appears the word “bible” comes from as early as the 14th century. The word itself refers to a collection of books, the word used for book being biblion in Greek, which referred to the papyrus that the words were actually written upon. It is funny how the meaning of “bible” has transcended the ages and is now used to mean a source book of all knowledge and truth, even though many question the bible’s truth, ironically. We usually refer to a book being a “bible” if it is used as or considered to be the end all document to answer all questions and that which to live by in any given topic. Unfortunately, our society has distorted what the bible was intended to be: a glimpse into the relationship between God and His creation.
It really frustrates me when I take a step back and look at how our current society handles the bible. Maybe it’s because I can see how easily I fall into it as well. I don’t mean this in a “it’s a holy book and we should respect and honor it” way, rather that we don’t handle it the way we handle most other books that we use for knowledge, information, and lifestyle principles. Our society has become one of laziness and witty one-liners. We even have a social media platform that limits how much you can say at once. It amazes me how we contend to sum up a historical book that contains thousands of pages and covers even more years of history into less than a sentence and think it is a justifiable and accurate portrayal of its principles. I see how people reference, quote, and make inference from the bible (myself included, admittedly) in a way that is completely contrary to the exact point they are trying to make. The main problem is that it isn’t contrary to how we as a people look at and utilize facts in the 21st century. The news twists pieces of stories all the time to get better exposure and make more money. Politicians pull a sentence from an opponent’s 25-minute speech and throw it back out of context, fueled with the emotions of their constituents. Maybe this shouldn’t upset me, but why doesn’t it upset you?
Too often we take shortcuts and (specifically in this case) all we do is shortcut our relationship with others and with God; leaving ourselves isolated, frustrated, and angry at the world because we are disappointed. I’ve heard people say, “The Old Testament is an ancient book that doesn’t apply anymore.” I’d like to see you pick up a book you never read before and tear out the first 2/3 of it and just start reading; let me know how you understand the ending. To relate to the aforementioned one-liners, how many times do you pick up a book, flip to a page, read one or two sentences and assume that is the main theme of the book? Even worse, take those sentences and judge others by them who proclaim to better understand the book since they have devoted their life to it. We’ve all heard the phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” maybe we should evolve that into, “don’t judge a book until you comprehend it entirely.”
I think it is time for an example. I’m going to give you two statements. I assume that the vast majority of readers will at least on a grammatical and vocabulary level understand the statements:
The grass is green. The grass is brown.
Experience and Perspective
I imagine that as you read those two sentences, you had at least one mental image for both, it could very well have been the same image, depending on your past experiences. It’s safe to say you have at least one memory of green grass and brown grass. Are my mental image and your mental image the same? It is impossible for us to have the exact same image. We might have similar mental recollections, if we are recalling images from the same time and place. Maybe you and I were somewhere with lush green grass. Maybe we were walking around during a season of drought and we recall the same brown grass. There are about 7 of us where I am living now who see the same exact brown grass every day; yet our memories of it are and will be forever different. We all not only have experienced green and brown grass, but the picture is completely unique in our own minds. Let’s imagine that I want to “pull” you into my perspective. I want to try to recreate that image in your own mind so you can experience as closely as possible what I experienced. How would I do that? I’d probably start explaining to you the setting. You might ask me certain questions, “Where were you? Who were you with? What was the time of day? What did you hear? What did you smell?” Not only am I trying to give you the picture in my mind, but you also want to know what it is and you are making an effort to understand and see it yourself. You try to experience the same thing so you can 100% understand what I experienced. The bible is the picture in the minds of men throughout the ages who experienced God. Yet, why don’t we ask who the speaker is or to whom they are speaking? Why are they speaking at all? Why don’t we ask the pertinent questions to try to understand the experience of the speaker (in this case, the writer) so that we can understand what they experienced and why?
Why is context so important?
I have heard some repeat frustration about the common claim of the importance of context when reading the bible. If you aren’t color blind, my two statements of grass not only gave you a picture, but recalled the context of the picture. Was the green grass amidst a summer season? Was it a period of plentiful rain? Was it a hydroponic lab that grew grass for decoration? Maybe it was a Jamba Juice in California with rows of lemongrass used to mix in with healthy drinks. Maybe it was brown grass spray painted green. What made the grass green anyway? Why was it brown? What shade of brown was it? Whatever the context was of your mental image, it wasn’t grass floating around in an empty vacuum, because we never experience things without context. All of these “unspoken truths” and elements create the context of the grass. Some might very well accept that the grass is green and they don’t really care to know more. Others might be unhappy the grass is brown and decide to hate grass for the rest of their lives. Maybe they hate the person responsible for the grass, who they assume is the person they saw standing on it. These are all assumptions that feed into the misinterpretation of the two simple statements: The grass is green. The grass is brown.
Biblical contradictions intrigue me. I started my own study on biblical contradictions to see if they truly were contradictions or misinterpreted statements that were cut and pasted together. If we look at these two statements side by side, we see an obvious contradiction. The grass is green. The grass is brown. With this information isolated from all other knowledge and experience, we only have a few conclusions we can make. 1) the author is a contradicting liar 2) the grass is somehow both green and brown. 3) we are missing some information (feel free to comment any other options you can conclude). The lazy social media part of society picks option 1, as they rely on the quick and easy choice and make their judgment from there. The hopeful yet equally lazy part of society picks number 2 and hopes for the best, getting defensive whenever someone tells them they are wrong. The minute few that are in search of the honest and real truth use option 3 as a catalyst to learn more.
With what we have here (from an informational standpoint) we cannot honestly say we have enough information to make a truthful conclusion about the statements. Maybe the author is a contradicting liar. Maybe the grass is both green and brown at the same time. Maybe all the conclusions are true with an explanation we haven’t even considered. However, we won’t know that until we research the context of these two juxtaposed sentences. Maybe in between them there is a viable explanation as to why the green grass turned brown. Maybe the grass was brown first and then turned green and the translator mixed the words to fit his or her agenda. Maybe we aren’t even talking about the same grass! We cannot make an educated and solid conclusion unless we put in the work to know what it is we are reading.
Why ask why?
It is apparent that the author of any work felt it was important to record something. I don’t want to limit this to text, it can be recorded as: art, music, architecture, knowledge …the list is endless. Maybe I ask too many questions, but I’m always curious, “why did the author of what I am viewing deem it necessary to record this?” Why do we say what we say on a daily basis? Why do we feel the need to post things on Facebook? Why do we send a text to our lover? There is a reason and motivation behind it. Without trying to understand that reasoning, it is quite possible the recipient or observer will not be able to fully comprehend the message. Why are you trying to tell me about this grass? Why should I care what you have to say and put forth the effort to understand what you are saying? Why should I even consider your explanation of it? I often wondered this in high school literature class. As we picked apart poems and prose, I wondered if the author intended for their work to be analyzed this way in search for some deeper truth or did they just have these words on their mind and decide to record them for fear of losing them?
Who’s Who of Whoville?
Who recorded what we are reading? If we learned that the two statements of grass were quoted by George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, we would probably see it from a different perspective than if it was said by Charles Manson or Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, it would depend upon who the reader is: a patriot American or radical Taliban fighter. Why is that? It is because by knowing the author, we learn more about what they authored. In painted art, specifically that which is revered as the finest in the world, art connoisseurs don’t just study the art, but also the artist. This gives insight into the heavy strokes of Van Gogh or the pointillism of Georges Seurat. It’s interesting that most of the famous artists we studied in school(that I remember, anyway) weren’t really considered worth knowing until they were dead! In scientific research, students are taught not only to analyze the experiments that provide the results but to also examine the authenticity and reliability of those performing the experiment. Why then do we neglect the authors of the bible?
What the heck are they talking about?
I’ll never forget the stunt pulled by an atheist organization earlier this year that quoted a verse from Colossians about slavery alongside a depiction of an American slave and put it on a billboard. Despite the backlash from the African American community, I wonder if it caused anyone to look it up and see what the author of the original text was actually talking about. I hope that at least self-proclaimed Christians who weren’t familiar with the verse decided to look it up and see what was going on in Paul’s letter to the church as Colossae.
When someone is quoting the bible, I have found it wise to first look it up myself to see if they have twisted it into something else for their own agenda. Colossians 3:22 in its entirety actually reads, “22 Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” All it takes is “zooming out” a little to understand a little more what is actually being said here (regardless if you agree with it or not). The billboard doesn’t even represent the complete sentence! If we “zoom out” a little more, we learn why the author is making this statement. The following verses reinforce Paul’s statement here about slavery and the intended mindset of one submitted to the authority of God. “23 Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lordrather than for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. 25 For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, andthat without partiality.” Whether or not you agree with what is being taught here isn’t the point. The point is the misquoted, misinterpreted, and misused partial sentence pulled out of an entire 4-chapter letter!
Another point I would like to make is what the passage doesn’t say. Does Paul say slavery is good? Does he even advocate slavery? Does he say God likes or promotes slavery? No, he simply addresses slaves in their current situation and gives them hope in their time of desperation and oppression. Additionally, if we look again at verse 25, Paul is actually talking about the wrongdoings of the slave masters! This is the God Paul is writing about: a God of justice for the oppressed and hope for the future despite their current circumstances.
In reference to our “grass statements,” what if they are read by a society that has never seen brown grass? What if the society of the 2300s refers to “brown grass” as a derogatory term for a certain ethnic group? Clearly I was being racist when I said the grass is brown today (note sarcasm). Someone might also infer that I was claiming brown grass to be good (or bad, for that matter). Do you see how easy it is to twist something out of its meaning when you don’t truly seek out the fullness of the truth? If we don’t, we are simply tossing around half-truths that do no real good for anyone.
Study and learn or shut up
Yes, this final subtitle is stern and abrasive, but it needs to be. I hope it offends you. I hope it breaks you from the societal bondage we find ourselves in of laziness, being easily manipulated, and acceptance of half-truths. It applies to all sides of the argument: Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, Jew, Gentile, Heathen, etc. It really shouldn’t even be an argument, because our unique experience is never right or wrong; it’s merely our own. The bible is an in depth collection of history, stories, principles, and life. It spans the entirety of time (according to it’s content). It is a story of the relationship between God and man (whether or not you choose to believe in God at all). Men have spent lifetimes not only learning the message behind it, but also applying it to everyday life. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be judged on a misquoted and misunderstood statement or two you made throughout your life so don’t do it to others either, regardless of the message you are trying to promote. Interestingly, the bible isn’t the whole story; it is a snapshot. In discovering the truths of the bible, many question why books and letters were “left out”. As we commit to studying the bible in conjunction with those left out, we can understand better why certain texts were included while others were not.
I’d like to add one caveat to what I have just written. Just as I detailed what Paul did not say in Colossians, I feel it necessary to point out what I did not say here. I did not talk about belief, faith, Jesus as God, or anything of the sort. That is all about your own relationship with God or lack thereof. I’m simply pointing out the self-made blindness of our own society, which is based on laziness, selfish pride, and ignorance (I’m just as guilty as anyone else) as it applies to our slingshot “cut and paste theology”.
Are you really looking for truth? Do you really care what it says and how it applies to your life and the lives of others? Quit taking the shortcuts, because it doesn’t benefit anybody. Don’t take anybody’s word for it or even mine, do the work yourself if you want to know what it says and means.