In continuing my journey to understand Christianity on a deeper level than I have before, a lot has happened lately. I went to church for the first time in aeons last Sunday. There’s been progress, inspiration, questions, wrestling, and recently, fitful sleep. Last night, in looking for more resources and a better theological understanding, I explored Mars Hill’s website for some sustenance. Mars Hill is the church of pastor Rob Bell — a pastor who’s teaching I’ve found to be incredibly refreshing and inspiring — and one of my safe places to go for Christian teaching. On the Articles page I found a link to “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?“, by Church of England bishop N.T. Wright.
Before I started reading, I only had a tangential interest in the topic of biblical authority, but there is a connection I hoped to explore with a topic I’ve been discussing lately with a friend regarding the church’s place in the lives of practitioners. So this article, wow, it was long and heavy and thought-provoking. I stubbornly pushed through and read the whole thing despite my fatigue and inability to make sense of it all. Still, lots of it grabbed me, like the idea that true authority lies in God’s hands and should not be mistakenly attributed to one’s (or one’s group’s) interpretation of scripture— as is often the warped approach of many Christians today. The idea is presented that the bible is not a rule book, but is instead narrative. In this narrative is truth and the living story of God and how God created and has been involved in our lives. Also in the article is the idea that God’s story is still being told and, quite importantly, that the bible is not the whole of God’s teaching and guidance for our lives today.
I am not going to plumb through that exhaustive article and cite the particular pieces where those ideas are presented, instead I’d rather rejoice for now in those ideas and how they reinforce what I think is a very healthy application of Christian faith. I’ve always been nauseated by church groups that grasp so very tightly to their particular interpretations, especially when taken to the simplistic expression of black and white do’s and do-not’s that are supposedly coming directly from God. I appreciate attempts to take the bible seriously and get to its most profound truths, but I doubt that much Old Testament law is unequivocal when isolated from the rest of the Christian story and used to hone in on and condemn small slices of human behavior. I’m befuddled by how selective this approach often is, how, for instance, many groups are ready to enforce to the letter certain teachings in the OT about sexuality, but then will readily partake in the eating of pork or other forbidden foods. Maybe that’s not the best example, but our eating has a huge impact on the world and I like to dine on swine on occasion!
Sexuality is certainly important and I don’t mean to diminish its impact on our lives. I know I’m comparing apples to oranges here…actually I’m comparing screwing to barbecue. Maybe there are good reasons why so-called unclean foods from the OT can be enjoyed in good conscience by Christians today. One more note about the importance of food— look at how the excesses of the cattle, pork, and poultry industry have impacted the environment and even the safety of our food supply with various E. coli outbreaks. Or, to mention an oft-overlooked sin that is more closely related to the sexual/relationship realm, what about divorce and its prevalence in our society even among devout Christians?
Seems to me the bible has to be examined and appreciated through a much larger perspective than merely as a sort of magical book of enforcement when it comes to difficult issues. When examining the whole of Christian teaching, both scriptural and experiential through our very lives in God, then what do we learn about relationships and selfless love? I think when we take such a large perspective and appreciation of God we find things aren’t so black and white as we’d often like them to be. We’re left with little choice but to approach faith and those in our lives with compassion, with patience, and without the false authority of what we think is best for others.
The tremendous Christian story of God and our actual, worldly lives is still being told, we’re active participants in the unfolding of truth here. Are we going to embrace one another as we are now or take a harsher approach and condemn those who don’t live up to some standard that is not really God’s but is instead something rooted in our own fear and selfishness?
I’m not a proponent of anarchy, we certainly need rules and ethical guidelines in this world, but who’s job it is to make the call on what’s right and what’s wrong is rather difficult to determine. I suppose we all have to work together on it somehow, through real dialogue amidst an appreciation of differing points of view. When I look at the current state of politics, even the bickering between religious groups over contentious issues, I see little healthy dialogue and instead am sickened by narrow-mindedness and contempt. I am confident that such a wicked approach to those we disagree with is not God’s way.
This is my struggle and why I’ve had trouble sleeping at night. No easy solutions to any of it. At one point last night I awoke to a dream in which some slightly absurd poetry was rattling around in my head:
Who is God? How is Jesus and the Spirit alive in us today?
It’s a mystery!
What does this bible, this ancient book of God mean for us now?
It’s a mystery!
How are we, people of this world, to know right versus wrong?
It’s a mystery!
Are the answers written once and for all?
It’s a mystery!
Scooby-Dooby-Doo, Where are you?!?
Not to be flippant, but the Scooby part was really in the dream sequence.
The bible and God’s story for our lives is the greatest mystery novel ever written and it’s not complete. We’re still working out the conclusion. Hopefully it ends well, let’s work together so it does!