Over the past several months we’ve been doing a lot of deconstruction work with the Bible on my blog, discussing how an unquestioning reading of Scripture leads to a lot of hurt. It’s an important conversation to have, one motivated by compassion. Because we care about people, and because we love the Bible we need to confront a way of reading that justifies harm as wrong. Still, even so, it’s hard. It takes a toll because, even though we believe we are doing something good, it cuts away at our old beliefs in the process, and that means it cuts us. After doing that kind of hard deconstructive work it can feel like there’s nothing left to stand on.
Brian McLaren recently compared this process of deconstruction to peeling an onion,
“Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God… For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-
civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, … eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing, but maybe some tears.
The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. … The question, I think, is this: what happens after one peels away the onion and faces the possibility that there is nothing left”
With the Bible in particular the question we are left with in the end boils down to this: After we strip away the hurtful unquestioning way of reading the Bible, what does it then mean to read Scripture as scripture? Once we lose the “God said it that settles it” approach, in what sense can we say the Bible is inspired if that doesn’t mean “everything it says should be followed without question”? Are we left with seeing it as just a “human book” or is there a way to find God in there, just as we find God amongst the mess of our own broken lives and world?
Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets hang on two commandments: Love God, and love others as you love yourself. That’s not just a summary, it’s the very aim of Scripture itself:
The Bible is intended to lead us to love God, others, and ourselves.
That’s the ultimate aim and purpose of the Bible as Jesus saw it. If we are reading in a way that leads us away from love, then we are quite simply reading wrong. That was the mistake of the Pharisees, and continues to be the mistake of many Christians today. If we see that our interpretation is causing hurt, we need to pay attention to that and make a course correction.
Seen positively however, the purpose of Scripture is to lead us to love, and since God is love that means first and foremost the purpose of Scripture is to lead us into an encounter with God. Scripture is therefore not meant to be our master, rather it is meant to serve the roll of our servant leading us to love God, others, and ourselves.
That begins with our experience of God’s love and grace. Scripture is a vehicle meant to bring us into an experience of God’s love that shapes us, forms and transforms us, making us whole and deeply alive, setting us free. Being loved like that then spills over into every area of our lives as we show others (including the people we don’t like or respect) the same love and mercy we have known.
Here Scripture takes on the role of a servant which brings us to encounter God’s living Spirit. It acts as a window to the divine, as a vehicle that leads us to Christ. Not Jesus in a book, but the living risen Jesus known through the Spirit. In that sense the Bible becomes a sacrament, that is, it becomes a means for us to encounter the divine.
Scripture is therefore not “inspired” in the sense that it is a static book of eternal laws that are beyond question, rather it is inspired when it is read by us so as to lead us to love. It is inspired when it becomes a sacrament leading us into an encounter with the divine, an encounter with the risen Jesus, leading us into a life-transforming relationship with God.
The word “inspired” literally means in-spirit-ed. That is, to be indwelt by the Spirit. Without the spark of life from God we have no life in us. In the same way, apart from the Spirit the Bible is simply a dead letter. The Bible is therefore inspired … in(Holy)Spirit-ed … when we learn how to read it in a way that leads us to meet the one who is love, who is truth, and who is the way.
That is what a devotional reading of Scripture needs to look like, what it means the read Scripture as scripture. This is a truly evangelical reading of Scripture because it puts the focus on the gospel, the good news of God’s kingdom impacting our lives — both on a personal and societal level. It’s a way to read the Bible that keeps God at the center, rather than making a book central, or more truthfully making our interpretation of a book central.
So while it can be a painful and scary process to let go of the unquestioning Pharisaical way of reading the Bible that many of us grew up on as our mother’s milk, what we gain (in addition to a faith rooted in humility rather than certainty) is a way to read Scripture as a sacrament which can lead us into a life-changing encounter with the living God who is love.