For much of my youth I believed that all that was needed to live well was to read the Bible – until I actually read the Bible! I discovered that the Bible supported slavery, commanded a women to marry her brother-in-law if her husband died, and cursed people who were divorced , or who gave in to the sin of gluttony, or who wore clothing made of different fabrics.
I discovered that the Bible contained gruesome bloodthirsty stories that never made it into the Sunday School classroom. Did you know that there is a passage that says that God’s people are to rejoice in dashing the babies of the Babylonians against a rock (Psalm 137:9)? And as I grew to adulthood in South Africa I discovered that the Bible was a weapon of hate in the hands of racist people: those who wanted to discriminate against black people found verses in the Bible that supported their Apartheid ideas.
In the face of this, some people abandon reading the Bible as beyond human comprehension. Some people console themselves by saying “Don’t try to explain it – Just believe it”. And most of us only read the bits we agree with, and ignore the rest.
But here is the rub: if I reject the Bible, what do I use to replace it? I could use my own common sense….but I know I am often wrong, so that is a very shaky foundation to build my moral codes. I cannot simply use my culture and history to guide me, because my white South African culture despised Black people and my history oppressed people of colour, so I have deep suspicion of the cultural argument. As for the Bible – can I leave out the bits I don’t like and just use those I do?
You see, the blame lies not in the Book, but in those who teach us how to read the Book. We are taught to go to the Bible for guidance, because it is “The Word of God”. This suggests that the Bible is God actually speaking to the reader: or at least that God spoke to the writer who recorded the “words of God”. What is never taught is that there at least 40 different authors to the Bible, with a history that spans over 3000 years. This is a historical record of the ways many different people have understood their faith in God, people who come with their scientific limitations, their cultural bias and their historical filters. This is a history of shifting belief, conflicting ideas on God, and many deep and beautiful spiritual truths.
In the midst of this are the stories of Jesus. Ever since I committed my life to Jesus – I follow the Jesus who is revealed in the Bible. I have studied the life of Jesus, I have learned about the world of Jesus, and I seek to follow the teachings of Jesus. But at the same time I have discovered that not all of the Bible is Christian. Some of the stuff in the Bible describes beautiful, Jesus-like experiences of God, and some of the stuff is the work of repugnant bigots who blame God for their own prejudice. How do I know this – because I read the rest of the Bible through the filter of the teachings of Jesus. For example, Jesus says to be kind to children, for they belong to the kingdom of God (Matt 19:14). This tells me that the person who wrote that bit in Psalm 137:9 about God’s people rejoicing in dashing babies against rocks …..got it wrong. Jesus teaches a better way.
Of course Jesus did not teach on everything I encounter in the 21st Century. But Jesus does leave a key to unlock the mystery of human behaviour: John 13:35 insists that we will be known as followers of Jesus by our love. “Is it love like Jesus taught?” thus becomes the filter to be used when struggling with the difficult questions of life. I will read Joyce Meyer, Richard Rohr, St Francis of Assisi and St Paul of Tarsus – and will filter them all through the way Jesus taught about love. This also sets me free to read atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, and pay attention to their critique of religion. My recurring question is how Jesus would respond. Most of the time I suspect Jesus has more sympathy for those who struggle with the mystery of life than with those who smugly pronounce answers on every issue.
I do not pretend to know all the answers. But I follow the One who has the answers – Jesus. I am not a “Bible believing Christian”, but instead I am a Jesus-believing Christian. I filter everything through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus. Of course this still leaves room for my interpretation of the way I read Jesus to be flawed. For this reason I do not read in isolation – I choose to read in the company of other Christ-followers. This is either through reading books or watching videos, or through being part of a group that reflects on our Christian faith. This allows me to be corrected, to discover new insights, and ultimately to grow in my faith.
Where I resonate with Jesus, please give thanks to God for this Grace. Where I fall short of Jesus, encourage me back into The Way of Jesus.