Telling God’s Story ch. 2: What the Bible Isn’t

So sorry this post is so much later than intended — it’s been a massive week, with a couple of late nights writing papers. The problem with going to school to become a better writer is that it doesn’t leave me with a lot of time for, well, writing.

Anyway. On to Chapter Two, “What the Bible Actually Is (And Isn’t).”

Enns’s argument in this chapter is a familiar one to me, as it’s one he covers in the first handful of chapters of Inspiration and Incarnation — albeit in much friendlier, less academic language, which is a relief. His point is this:

Christianity teaches that Jesus is, mysteriously, both God and human. He is not half one, half the other. He does not appear to be one while “really” being the other. He is both: all God and all human all the time.

Now think of the Bible by drawing a parallel: In the same way that Jesus is both completely divine and human, the Bible also has divine and human dimensions. (19, emphasis mine)

Don’t expect Jesus to be something he isn’t: a king dressed in fine robes, with servants and armies. He was lowly. He came to serve. Likewise, don’t expect something from the Bible it can’t deliver. Don’t expect it to be high and lofty, detached from the ancient world in which it was written. (21)

I like this analogy (and he stresses that it is only an analogy, and so it’s incomplete in some ways) a lot. For me it helps to bridge the gap between the idea I got growing up that the Bible was somehow dictated by God word-for-word and therefore contains only timeless, transcendent wisdom direct from the Divine, and the fact that the Bible is clearly a product of the very human times and cultures it came from. 

Enns writes about what we should, therefore, do with the Bible:

The first thing to keep in mind when we read the Bible is the hardest: Don’t go straight to the question “What does this mean to me?” . . . [We must learn] to ask questions that the text is raising. Our first struggle in reading the Bible is to move from the “What about me?” perspective to the “What does this tell us about God in that context?” question. . . . Before we can ask the hard questions — for example, “Is Genesis 1 in harmony with scientific thought? Or does Genesis 1 trump scientific thought?” — we must ask a more foundational question: What do we have the right to expect from God’s word as a book written in an ancient world? (18-19, emphasis Enns’s)

There’s a lot in this chapter about what not to expect from the Bible. And it’s important stuff. He knows that in some ways what we as Christians, and as Christian parents, want a Bible that will tell us what to do. Give me a road map, tell me what rules I need to teach my children to live by, give me a concordance that tells me everything I need to know about my finances and my marriage and my garden if I can just flip to the right chapter and verse.

Sarah Bessey writes about this expectation as well, in her new book Jesus Feminist:

People want black and white answers, but Scripture is a rainbow arch across a stormy sky. Our sacred book is not an indexed answer book or life manual; it is also a grand story, mystery, invitation, truth and wisdom, and a passionate love letter. . . . I’ve often heard the bumper-sticker phrase, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But that’s not really true, is it? Whether we admit it or not, as people of faith, we sift our theology through [the pillars of] Scripture, Church history and tradition, our reason, and our own experience. . . . [And] we are relying on our own imperfect and subjective interpretation of those pillars, too. (56-57)

Okay. So. I’ve made — or am making — peace with what the Bible isn’t. (This isn’t an easy first step, since, as Enns writes, “There are many things about [the Bible] that we would not expect from a book called ‘God’s Word’ [21]. I’ve been wrestling with this aspect of the Bible for quite some time, and if this is a new perspective for you, I’d urge you to spend some time processing — and even grieving! — this shift.) What what do I do with what it is?

Bessey writes:

Since, admit it or not, we interpret Scripture through our own lens of context and history and culture, we must learn more about culture and context for the Bible. We need to read it in the way that the writers meant it and the way their immediate recipients would have read it. (59)

In order to do this, we have to educate ourselves about what the historical context is, and Enns recommends getting “a good, thorough study Bible” to help with this, as well as the books Old Testament Today by Walton and Hill; Encountering the Old Testament by Arnold and Beyer; The New Testament in Antiquity by Burge, Cohick, and Green; and Encountering the New Testament by Elwell and Yarbrough (18).

But more than that, we must use “the single most important biblical  concept for living a Christian life, not only today but during any era: wisdom.” He explains: 

. . . [M]any of the decisions we are called upon to make every day we make, not because of a verse here or there, but because of the wisdom we have accumulated over the years. That wisdom is acquired through the study of Scripture, prayer, life in a Christian community (not just “going to church”), and plain old life experiences (otherwise known as learning from your mistakes). (24-25)

This part is tough for me. Because even though I know that the Bible, in itself, isn’t a rule book or a road map, what I really want is a road map rule book that will tell me how to read and apply the Bible. “Wisdom” is subjective and vulnerable to my own self-doubt (and believe me, as a person — a woman, no less — who did time in the “teach your children that they are deeply broken” branch of the church, I’ve had years of being conditioned to think that my own wisdom is untrustworthy). So I read this chapter thinking, Yes, okay, I agree, now tell me what to do.

Maybe he’ll get to that. After all, Telling God’s Story is supposed to be telling us how to teach the Bible to our kids, and we’re only on chapter 2, so I’m hopeful that the rest of the book will answer some of these questions that it’s raised for me. I feel like I’m understanding how the Bible doesn’t work; now I need him to tell me how it does. 

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One thought on “Telling God’s Story ch. 2: What the Bible Isn’t

  1. You’re speaking my language. I too spent a LONG time being taught to distrust my own wisdom and expecting to find all the answers solo scriptura. Even then, though, I was blessed with a pastor dad who encouraged discussion and critical thinking, so I’m a weird hybrid of many things.

    It’s funny, I resonate with much of what Enns writes, and some of the “problems” he points out with using Scripture as a text book are problems I’ve had and never came out with a good solution, so I kindof put a bookmark in those problems and moved on. I’m looking forward to reading what suggestions he has for the “right way” to approach teaching the Bible. I’m loving the book so far, even as it makes me take a hard look at my relationship to the Bible, past and present.

    Great post. Thanks for summarizing it so well, and taking us though your reactions to it thus far.

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