Yes, that’s the book for me
I stand alone on the word of God
Did you ever sing this song as a kid? I did. And I loved it, along with all the other songs that taught me Christian values in a kid-friendly way. They are catchy and simple, and these kinds of songs have the ability to stick with us into adulthood and help serve us in faith formation.
But simple songs also carry simply ideas, and while they may be appropriate for children, sometimes they really need to be tested and re-examined as we enter later stages of faith and life. As we grow and life becomes more complicated, so do questions of God and faith. We discover that the world is not just about family, friends, school, and playing. We also discover that the Church is much more complex than Sunday School, kids club, and memory verses.
I can’t even count all the times that I have personally taken the line “I stand alone on the word of God” out of its innocent place in this song and used it in proving my point in theological debates. Of course I didn’t say it that way though. I usually would have said “I just read the Bible!”
Does this line sound familiar? It should, because as many times as I have used it, I have heard others say it too. When we are confronted with challenges to our beliefs or if someone dares to suggest that our thoughts on a theological issue are wrong, many of us are quick to claim that we just follow what the Bible says. We have read it. We understand it. We do what it says.
This attitude of superior biblical understanding implies that the person who thinks differently than us does not, in fact, just read the Bible. If they simply read it properly, as we have done, they would not be confused. They have been influenced by culture or maybe even satan to believe what they believe. We tell them to just read the Word, believing that if they did, they would think like us.
Have you ever wondered why we have so many different denominations? How is it that Catholics, Mennonites and Pentecostals can all pick up the same book and read it in such a different way? I’m sure many of them claim to just read the Bible, and yet the division among us is huge.
It may be time for us to grow up out of our kid-like understanding (as good as it was for a time) and realize that no one just reads the Bible.
Does this offend you? I’m sorry if it does. Yet at the same time, our idea of a pure reading of Scripture is offensive to the rest of the Church. I’m not saying that you are wrong in your interpretation, but we must name interpretation as interpretation.
The Bible is a complex book. It’s not flat and it’s not dead. For us to be able to read and interpret Scripture most effectively, we need to understand what the Bible actually is. It's God’s story with specific people from a specific time with specific world-views. It is history, narrative, parable, biography, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, and more, compiled in 66 books with an estimated 40 different authors. But I’m sure we all knew that. (Pastor Michael Pahl provides a great read about what the Bible is all about)
What I think we have a harder time understanding is that none of us come to the Bible without prior influences. We all read the Bible through a unique lens, or as Gareth Brandt would put it, we all approach spirituality with different clothes on. There is no such thing as a naked (pure) reading of Scripture. We all have been shaped by our parents, schools, friends, churches, culture, mentors, location, status, gender, sexuality, wounds, and our many life experiences.
“…there is really no such thing as a naked spirituality. It is impossible to strip off all the clothes of religion, family, culture, and history to reveal an idealistic pure connection with divinity underneath….We are what we wear: we cannot separate ourselves from our experiences and our surroundings.” (Gareth Brandt, Spirituality with Clothes On, p.1)
Scot McKnight, in his book entitled The Blue Parakeet, emphasizes the hard truth that we all pick and choose from the Bible. “Every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture” (p.13). (I would really recommend this book if you are interested in engaging more about how we read the Bible.)
This kind of message has the potential to discourage us in our faith and the Bible. It may lead us to think that if we all read the Bible from a certain lens, then no one can ever know what God is really saying. I think that's true only if we believe there is one true lens. However, I think this can actually be a message of good news for the Church.
As we admit and embrace our own lenses, it allows us to be critical of our personal reading of Scripture. It allows us to take a step back and examine what part of our understanding has been influenced by the clothes we wear rather than the Bible. When we come to that point, it allows us to enter into dialogue with others who all come at the Bible with their own clothes on. Instead of a battle of pure understandings, we get a beautiful mosaic of biblical interpretations.
The Bible comes alive through honest and humble dialogue in Christian communities. When we let go of our need to defend our own biblical interpretation, it allows us to listen and learn from one another. We may realize that someone else’s view is a little clearer that our own, and perhaps there is also room for us to help clean someone else's lens too.
What if churches, instead of requiring adherence to the interpretations of our own traditions, became safe places for people to question and grow? What a blessing it would be if we stopped saying “I just read the Bible” and instead said “this is how I read the Bible, I would love it if you shared how you do as well.”
It is vitally important for us to read the Bible. Please continue doing so. But as we do, we must continue to learn what the Bible really is and we must also understand what we bring to the Bible out of our own life experience. As we take our reading into the context of community, we allow ourselves to be edified while offering our interpretation for the edification of our brothers and sisters. This is a gift, and as we trust in the leading of the Holy Spirit, we will learn and grow in ways we never thought possible.