You’ve probably seen it before: the Instagram photo of a Bible study, complete with a cup of coffee (maybe the mug has a Psalm or Proverb printed on it in swirly script) and open journal (the cover of which is probably embossed with something like “For I know the plans I have for you”).
I can’t judge too harshly, because I’ve done that before. I even own a leather journal with that verse from Jeremiah 29 on the cover. For years, I sat down for my “quiet time” and prayed for God to reveal himself to me, to reach me through his Word, and show me how to apply the what I was reading to my daily life.
I don’t read the Bible that way anymore. I haven’t stopped seeking God, but I’ve learned over time, thanks to a renewed interest in studying Christianity’s Jewish roots, that this way of reading Scripture is more individualistic and Western more than it is traditional.
That verse from Jeremiah, for instance – “For I know the plans I have for you” – is a common one to bestow on college graduates, and serves as a comfort for anyone looking to the Bible for some concrete direction in life. But when read in context, that’s not what the verse is meant for at all. It’s a specific response to Jeremiah as he marches his troops into battle in ancient Babylon.
I’m not sure how the ancient writers would feel knowing that God’s words in that specific instance are being applied today to freshmen who can’t decide on a major.
I pick on Jeremiah because that verse is so common, but it’s far from the only one that gets plucked from its original context and slapped on a mug, a magnet, or rustic wooden sign you might find at Hobby Lobby.
In short, modern Christians tend to treat the Bible as an answer book for all of life’s problems. Jews have traditionally read the Bible for its stories. And not always neat, clean stories – some are bloody and disturbing, as we see in the book of Judges, with episode after episode of genocide, rape, and senseless destruction. Others have no obvious conclusion of justice, like with the rape of King David’s daughter Tamar.
Christians, it seems, are afraid of these messy endings. Many can’t handle a story without some obvious sense of God prevailing in the end, or the main character having a clear “come to Jesus” moment.
But to paraphrase author Barbara Brown Taylor, we have a Bible that is smeared with human fingerprints. The evidence that it’s a thoroughly human work is everywhere. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be divine – and it is. But rather than being an answer book with clear instructions, it’s an untidy saga that’s rife with poor decisions and stunted character development. The Bible exposes the dark underbelly of what it means to be human.
The sanitation of Scripture causes more harm than asking questions ever will.
It baffles me that many conservative parents go out of their way to sanitize the secular world, as if being exposed to a different “lifestyle” or idea will corrupt everything their children have learned…and yet the Bible is full of debauchery that most “secular” people wouldn’t think to engage in. The Bible is an R-rated book, hands down.
And in Jewish tradition, there is nothing wrong with that. There is no threat to faith by admitting where the human understanding of God was short-sighted. There is no threat to “truth” by acknowledging that even an inerrant message, if it exists, is going to bear smudge marks as it is filtered through human hands.
Reaching a consensus isn’t the point, and neither is perfection; engagement with the story is.