On a hot summer day, I picked up Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Great idea, right? Wrong.
Russian novels are meant for the cold days of December, with a fire burning and few hours of sunlight. They don’t read so well in the hot, long summer days.
So, after about twenty pages, I surrendered. I couldn’t skip ahead to the end–it wouldn’t make any sense. And my mind was nowhere near prepared for the challenge of the tome.
But to be fair to Leo, I knew what I was getting myself into. I felt the heft of the book in my bag, I’ve dabbled in Russian literature, so I knew it would be slightly more taxing than Go Dog, Go! But, when the challenge came, I couldn’t wouldn’t do it.
Replace “War and Peace” with “the Bible” and you dive headlong into the dilemma I (and others) have with Scripture.
We know what it is. Within the Bible we find the history of the people called Israel, their journey from slavery in Egypt to the land promised them. And it continues with the inbreaking of the Son of God to our world, and the formation of a new people: the Church.
We learn and teach the stories of people like Noah, Abram, Sarai, David, Jesus, Paul, to our children (at least those stories palatable enough for kids’ Sunday school). We memorize portions that give us strength in painful moments, or hope when we don’t believe (Psalm 23, John 3:16). We join Bible studies and dissect the text.
What’s the goal of all this reading and study? To come to know God of course.
But, if we’re honest, part of that reading and study is a little selfish. You’ve got a major life decision to make or moral dilemma, where do you turn first?
Google, because you search “Bible and _______.” “What does the Bible teach about homosexuality?” “How much does the Bible say to tithe?” Or, you go the old fashioned route: Bible roulette, hoping the pages fall open to a verse that speaks to your present dilemma.
And maybe the passages you find give you the answer you were looking for. If not, you might keep searching until you find the answer you’re hoping is there.
In all this searching, Scripture becomes a vast resource to be mined at our leisure.
We go to the text to find ourselves in it. Which is kind of funny, if you think about it. We go to a book about God, seeking to find ourselves. And not only do we seek to find ourselves, we seek to find something known, something reassuring, something to hold onto.
We camp out in texts we love and books we know by heart, quickly skipping past those challenging or uncomfortable or unwieldy passages (looking at you, genealogies). Should we stumble into one of those difficult texts, we wrestle briefly, before flipping to the next book, the next chapter.
In all this self focus, we miss the point: God. The Bible isn’t a storehouse for answers to all your moral dilemmas or your personal quandaries. Those quick and easy answers are better found in the self-help, pop-psychology section of the bookshelf. If that’s what you’re looking for, skip out on the Bible.
Opening your Bible, means leaving the comfort of home and diving into the “Strange New World” you find there (to borrow a phrase from Karl Barth). The subject and object of that strange new world is God. “The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham’s spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. it is this which is within the Bible. The word of God is within the Bible” (Barth, “The Word of God and the Word of Man,” 43).
At the risk of oversimplifying Barth (and to quote an old professor): “It’s about God, stupid.”*
And in our selflessie obsessed culture, that’s a tough message to sell. But it might be the only one worth selling. Because what you’ll discover when you start reading the Bible looking for God, instead of yourself, is that a whole new adventure awaits. The Bible ceases to be a static dusty book with nothing new to say or ask of you, and instead you begin to realize the frustration of Moses in the wilderness.
You realize how God’s ways aren’t our ways. But you’ll also realize the answer to the difficult texts isn’t to skip over them for the easy ones, but to search them out, and wrestle with them as long as required, perhaps until morning.
And you’ll feel overwhelmed and maybe unsure when Jael drives a tent spike through Sisera’s temple (Judges 4). You’ll cringe at the Game of Thrones undertones in some of the texts.
The end of all this uncertainty won’t be to return to safe haven (though this is good and necessary at times), but to strain even harder to listen for that echo, the word of God within the Bible. The word that is ever new, ever speaking, and leading you and your fellow pilgrims along the (sometimes uncomfortable) way that leads to life.
And when the word of God begins to challenge you, you’ll know how some of the folks outside (and some within) the hallowed walls of our churches feel. Uncertain, directionless, grasping for anything. And in that place, in that moment, you’ll have far more to offer people in a world after Christendom, because you won’t be offering you. Your version of the Bible, your story as central, you as the main character, the way you search after God. You’ll be offering them better news than that. You’ll be offering them the One who seeks them out each day anew.
When you forget, or slip back into old habits, just remind yourself: “It’s about God, stupid.”
*Richard Hays, Welcome Lecture at Duke Divinity School, August 2010