Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Bible

THERE is a strong argument that the most exciting days in church history are yet to come. Never before has literacy been so widespread or the Bible more available.

The fact is, the Bible can do a better job of explaining Christianity than any of us. If somebody wants to understand who Jesus was, what he did on Earth, and why his death and resurrection are important today, they can sit down and read the Gospel of John in 90 minutes.

Although churches of all denominations now officially agree that ordinary men and women can and should read the Bible, we are scared to actually put it in people’s hands and let the Holy Spirit go to work. We are wary of doing this, because it is unlikely that someone who 10 minutes' ago finished reading one of four short books packed with the miracles, teachings and stories of Jesus will emerge with a precise framework of systematic theology in his or her head.

But what are the alternatives? For much of the 20th century we tried arguing people into Christianity, convinced that quick-fire apologetics could bring sinners to their knees. The problem is, people aren’t particularly logical creatures. Most engaged couples have spent more time looking into their loved one’s eyes than at their bank balance and medical history.

If you wanted to convince tuna merchants to modify their nets so dolphins couldn’t be trapped, what would be the best way to persuade them? Would you give a PowerPoint presentation about the girth of a dolphin, or would you take the fishermen out to sea and let them jump overboard to have a swim with these fantastic fish?

Similarly, there is a place for expounding the ontological argument and talking about the Dead Sea Scrolls, but this is no substitute for giving people who are hungry for faith the opportunity to have an encounter with God Himself. That is precisely what the Bible offers.

One of the criticisms of the Church today is that the way it communicates is irrelevant. On a Sunday morning in Ireland you are rarely more than a few centimetres away from a man in a pulpit preaching a sermon. This is great, but the pews in front of our preachers often contain fewer people than this time last year (never mind this time last century!).

Churches are now just starting to explore using music and drama to convey complex ideas, but the writers of the Bible were doing this several thousand years ago. The pages of the Bible contain a fabulous blend of poetry, family saga, personal correspondence and law.

Preachers and teachers who can unlock the wonders within and reveal what the Bible has to tell us about God and about this world will be providing the leadership we are yearning for today.

Northern Ireland is a province populated with Christians who would defend to the death the centrality of the Bible and fight past the point of exhaustion to protect the concept of its inerrancy. So why do we dishonour this Word by snatching the odd verse to justify an anemic platitude that could have been lifted out of a self-help paperback but so rarely let the Bible’s prophetic voice roar?

Religion has been used here for generations to justify some of the most shameful social injustice in Christendom. But Christ’s manifesto of love offers the only hope for a move beyond tolerance into healing and rebirth.

It can seem preposterous to believe the book at the heart of our faith promises so much. But it actually promises a lot more. Just as Jonah was furious when God spared Nineveh, so our society has an easier time coping with ideas of retributive karma than restoring grace. As Martin Luther noted, "If God were willing to sell his grace, we would accept it more quickly and gladly than when he offers it for nothing." That salvation is possible irrespective of works seems outrageous and frankly unjust. Close inspection reveals there is little in the Bible which is not outrageous.

Principles such as self-denial and sacrifice may not be popular in an age where gratification is promised with a few clicks of an electronic mouse, but they probably weren’t that alluring in the sweltering streets of Corinth or Rome, either. Jesus admitted that anyone thinking of following him should count the cost. There is no room in the Gospel for spin.

When people are making money out of religion, what’s promised is often little different to the sensations advertisers say we will have when traveling in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive. However, the Bible portrays a world in which straightforward journeys are interrupted by talking donkeys and dazzling lights. The book of Acts makes it clear that living a holy life involved a lot more than sitting in a hot bath with candles; Paul seems to have spent much of his time in the sea clinging to driftwood. In an age of cosy, imagine-it-yourself spirituality, the Bible actually promises the struggles and challenges with which we know the Christian life is cluttered.

Its narratives are packed with the violence and sexual sin which can and do wreck societies and churches. Noah and David, two of the most righteous men in the Bible (according to Sunday School) did some pretty strange and awful things.

The Bible doesn’t pretend that heroes don’t sin, that priesthoods aren’t corrupt, and that holy people can be fickle and daft. No matter how infuriated we may be with the conflicts, hypocrisies and scandals of our churches, there’s almost always an example in the Bible of when things have gone even more spectacularly out of control. If the writer of Acts had been hired to do PR for a company, he would have been fired pretty quickly. His account of the first days of the church is filled with examples of squabbles and compromises and downright disasters. There are no cover-ups in the Bible (unless you count the strategic use of fig leaves).

Reading this book of books will not restore one’s faith in human nature, but there is one character whose faithfulness is threaded through every story and epistle. This person, of course, is Yahweh.

Is there a more lonely image in literature than God walking in the Garden of Eden calling out the name of Adam? Is there anything which captures the condition of humanity better than the picture of the first man and woman hiding, naked and suddenly ashamed?

In the subsequent tales of the Hebrew captivity and kingdom, we repeatedly see the blinding power of God and witness his hatred of sin and his might as a deliverer. When even the weakest and faintest figures in a society act with righteousness he reaches down into their lives and fills their existence with wonder and delight.

But we also see something equally amazing. God can be forgotten. Prophets wander through cities calling on the inhabitants to repent, pleading with them to remember the miracles of long ago. These holy characters are mocked, abused and killed. People in the BC era were just as capable of skepticism and hedonism as anyone alive today.

When God chose to perform his most amazing work he slipped right into this world in the form of a baby in Palestine. In the Gospel stories the inconceivable majesty of God merges with the utter vulnerability of humankind. The events which follow are the defining moments in our history.

Jesus often appeared to be a reluctant miracle-worker. He could have stopped the sun and moon in their tracks and demanded that people recognise his divine grandeur, but he chose - for reasons we may never fully understand while on this side of the eternal - to live alongside us and share every suffering known to man or woman. Jesus performed miracles when he was moved by the faith of a centurion, the sight of people who were like sheep without a shepherd, and sisters grieving for a brother.

In the final verses documenting Jesus’ life we do not get to see the Roman emperor or the Temple High Priest kneeling before him, but we do get a glimpse of Eden restored. We see Mary weeping in a garden. She is confused and as lost as anyone who has had a person they loved snatched from their life. There is a tomb in this garden but it is no longer a place of death. For there is Jesus, calling her name. Though this is the man who was God, he does not cast her out of his presence. Instead, he has passed through death so we can turn to him when he calls.

Can anyone see these images and not be changed?

It is with a small gasp of wonder and alarm that we realise the Bible - the story of God dealing with His creation - is in some sense unfinished. We are part of that story. As we have been reading of Yahweh’s work, He has been working in us. If we read His words with an honest heart there will come a point when we look up from the page and discover we are no longer in the world where we once lived. The Word of God, like his love, surrounds us. We are captured by His truth to be freed by his grace.


At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been moved, touched and thrilled by the spiritual energy and passion that imbues this article on the unfinished story of the Bible and the glory of God.

Thank you David,


At 4:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting website with a lot of resources and detailed explanations.


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