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Category: Bible

Backwards Bible

04

So I’m sitting next to Matt. Kind of halfway listening to the sermon, halfway thinking about whether I should have said anything during open worship. Flipping pages in the Bible, pretending to follow along. Gregg says something about Job’s questions and God’s showing up at the end of the book. And it hits me. What if it’s all wrong? What if we’ve been reading it upside down and backwards? What if everything we think the Bible says isn’t what it actually says?

An example: Most of my life, I’ve heard the reasoning about why Jesus had to die on the cross, why it works, how I’m supposed to respond, what that will do for my life.

In one ear.

Out the other.

Something about the language never felt right. Like Jesus, who is fully God, had to die in order to satisfy his own wrath. He did it because he loved us so much that he wanted to be with us. But he couldn’t be with us because God can’t tolerate sin, so he came to be with us in order to die so the debt would be paid so he could finally be with us.

Confused?

I’ll try again.

See, God, who is omnipotent (that means all powerful) gave us the power to give Satan power over us, and in order to regain that power – the power he needed to save us from Satan who had the power that was meant for us – God had to trick Satan into trying to take even more power. When Satan fell for the trick, he forfeited what little power he had, and God got back all the power so he could give us enough of that power to make the right choice this time. Amen.

That’s more like Saturday morning cartoons than real life, and as you can see, it doesn’t work very well.

For a long time now, we’ve been reading the Bible through C.S. Lewis’s view of Wesley’s view of Luther’s view of Augustine’s view of Paul’s view of Jesus. Or, if we’re open-minded, postmodern and emergent, we’ve been reading the Bible with Jesus as the end result that makes the mess of the Old Testament make sense. Here’s the hang-up. Both views fail to offer an answer to the central question of human experience: suffering.

Don’t get me wrong. We have lots of answers. God is testing us to make us stronger. We suffer the consequences of poor choices. God is in control.

But how well do any of these answers actually work? If my best friend is dying of cancer, do I tell him that it’s part of God’s plan? that it’s punishment for secret sin? that there’s no need to worry because God is in control?

Friends don’t do that.

So I’m sitting next to Matt. And I realize that the story of Job is the oldest book in the Bible. I wonder if maybe this story might be THE story, if what comes after is commentary – a working through and a working out of the themes introduced in the first story, the story of Job. And what exactly is the story of Job? It’s a story of suffering.

Unexpected. Undeserved. Unexplained.

I ask myself some questions.

What is Satan’s role? He’s implicated as the cause of suffering, but he plays a bit part. Satan doesn’t even show up after the end of the second chapter. In a book with 42 chapters, Satan accomplishes little more than a setting of the scene. If the book of Job were one of Shakespeare’s plays, Satan would be the clown. He helps to transition us from one scene to the next, but he has no real role in the greater story. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then Satan isn’t really that important.

Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? The book of Job actually takes up quite a bit of space discussing the problem. Each of the friends introduces an idea as to the source of suffering and how we should respond. Job argues. The friends argue back. If the book of Job were a short story, the issue of suffering would offer the central conflict. The arguments for and against constitute the rising action. But it seems that suffering is not the moral, only the motivator. Without suffering, Job – a stand-in for humanity – might have no reason to consider his reason for being. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then suffering is and always will be the central problem.

What, then, is humanity’s purpose? Why do we exist? What is it that we are designed to do? Job’s call for vindication implies that we have a need to know God, to see God, to speak to God. When God shows up to speak with Job, he doesn’t answer Job’s questions. But in the end, Job is satisfied. The book implies that it is God’s presence, God’s willingness to show up, that is important. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then humanity’s central need is not an end to suffering (although that is our goal) but an experience of the presence of God.

And then.

Bang!

Pow!

Kablooey!

The answer.

“Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”

We read the Bible as a series of answers to our questions. Who am I? A child of God. Why am I here? To be in relationship with man and with God. How ought I to live? As Christ.

It’s kind of a cute concept. And it sure does make me feel better. Mostly.

But the Bible isn’t a series of answers. It’s not a map or a constitution, a list, a handbook, or an instruction manual. And Jesus didn’t announce the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven as a solution to our problems (both spiritual and physical). The Bible is a set of questions. And God exists to challenge.

Job asks why, and God responds, “I ask the questions here.”

Who told you that you were naked?
Why are you angry?
Where is your brother?
Is anything too hard for the Lord?
How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?
But what about you? Who do you say I am?
Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?
Friends, haven’t you any fish?

May we fully experience and grow in the power of God’s presence. May we rise to God’s challenge. May we be ready for and sensitive to God’s questions. That’s the point of the Bible, after all. When we read for questions instead of looking for answers, then we come to realize an important truth about scripture:

The story isn’t over yet.

The Bible is a set of questions. And God exists to challenge.

On Biblicism

Two weeks ago, I came close to losing my job.

I was confronted by a colleague who wanted to know if I believe the Bible is true. I’d earlier made the claim that the Creation story in Genesis is myth. Of course, I explained that the word “myth” in literature refers to any explanation of origin. It’s a question of genre not of truth.

The conversation ended well, and I was encouraged by my colleague’s attempt to understand rather than judge. But the incident reminded me of a concern I have with Christian culture and biblical interpretation.

Many Christians – particularly evangelicals – claim the Bible is completely and literally true, a claim that fails to account for human subjectivity or theological nuance. Take the book of Leviticus, for example. Christians are quick to point out that the book is completely true, especially when quoting 18:22, a verse that is widely interpreted as a prohibition of homosexuality: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.” But these same Christians too often cast off the rest as “cleanliness rules” that no longer apply, especially the bits about mildew and baldness.

There is some reason for this reading. A controversy in the early Church considered how to apply the book of Leviticus to Gentile believers. A special council of elders and apostles was held at Jerusalem (Acts 15), and James recommended that the new followers of the Way be encouraged to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. In one fell swoop, the council erased all of Leviticus except 7:26-27; 17:10-12; 18:6-25; 19:4, 26 & 29; 20:10-21; and 26:1.

Later, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul acts without the benefit of the council and further erases all that’s left of Leviticus except for 18:6-25; 19:4 & 29; 20:10-21; and 26:1.

In the first case, the council members didn’t claim certainty or special knowledge. It just “seemed good.” In the second case, Paul appealed to logic in making his argument.

But Christians today widely accept both “reinterpretations” of Leviticus because it’s stated in one case that the Holy Spirit inspired or confirmed the decision, and it’s implied in the other.

Unfortunately, new “reinterpretations” aren’t allowed in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, and I fear this inability to reconsider is a sign of our weakness, not of our strength.

The Jerusalem council didn’t question its ability to hear God and respond in obedience.

Neither should we.

Unfortunately, new “reinterpretations” aren’t allowed in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, and I fear this inability to reconsider is a sign of our weakness, not of our strength.

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