Interpreting The Bible: A Start
If our task is discover the story which makes sense of all the Bible’s complexity, we need an idea of where to start. The Bible is complex, and understanding the big picture is hard. And as a result, many candidate stories are floating around. Many of them are stories I held to unquestioningly as I was reading the Bible.
“The Bible exists to deliver morals, and to make us become moral”
“The Bible exists to teach us the correct things to believe”
“The Bible exists to deliver a pattern for the organization of a church”
The Stories I’ve Heard
The problem with all these stories is that they don’t explain much. Why do we have such a complex set of books? Why not just a simple list of commands? Of course, the Bible describes such a list: the ten commandments. But it’s obvious the Bible has a bigger purpose in mind, because it doesn’t stop with the ten commandments, or even the details of where they came from, or even with explaining each of them and generating 613 sub-commandments. It just keeps going, and the rest of it stubbornly resists being condensed into commands.
The same is true with beliefs. The Bible is a staggeringly confusing document if you’re trying to use it to understand what is truly necessary for a Christian to believe. It contains immense details about seemingly irrelevant issues, and scarce details about the things we usually want to know.
And this is definitely the case with “church organization”. Not only does the New Testament never mention such a thing, the effort required to extract instructions or even examples from the New Testament is astounding. If Jesus intended to establish a church along specific operating lines, couldn’t he or one of his apostles have clearly laid out those guidelines, as God did for Moses? Why make it such a convoluted task to discover them?
We could go on - but if these stories don’t really work, then where do we start?
The Glimmering Of A Different Story
In understanding the underlying story of the Bible, the story it goes to such lengths to expound to us, I start with the recognition that the Bible IS story.
Unlike almost every other religious document, the Bible consists almost entirely of different stories. This is amazing! And it’s amazing how often this is overlooked.
If we were studying the Koran, we’d need to have a story in mind to explain to us what we were reading, and what its purpose was. But the Bible makes us go a step further, and discover a story which will make sense of all the stories which compose it.
This sounds confusing, but it tells me that the Bible is more concerned with Story itself than with commands, facts, or beliefs.
Why? What it the significance of story?
The Reason The Bible Is A Story
The Bible is Story because Story is the only thing that changes people’s lives. I mentioned earlier that Newton and Einstein were people with different stories of how the world works. The significance of the stories they told was enormous. Newton’s story re-shaped the world, leading to massive re-structurings of society, the industrial revolution, the rise of deism and then secularism, and America as we know it. Einstein’s story shook the foundations of the way people viewed the universe, and created most of the modern age as we see it.
But those were rather simple stories, as stories go. Imagine a story similarly earth-shattering, and yet immensely deeper and more complex, a story whose depths could yield insight and human transformation for eons to come.
Complex stories are more powerful than facts, because they contain the power to lead the hearers on a journey. That is precisely what film-makers, songwriters, and authors hope to accomplish. The best films and books and songs lead us through a path of understanding, deepening our insight at each step, until they resolve in a way that lets us go back into our lives with renewed understanding and perception.
That is what the Bible is: a complex story, written in human history, that draws us deeper and deeper in with each step. And in the final moments, it resolves in a way that points us to a new understanding of the world, a dynamic hope for the future, and the ever-present possibility of transformation.