If you have been reading the last few posts (my “Uncertain Inferences” series) you note that I have been illustrating how we can look at a passage of Scripture and deduce, or infer, that something is true when, in fact, it is either not true, or at least the certainty of our inference is indeed “uncertain.” You may disagree with me on one or more of these issues: that is fine – by no means am I claiming infallibility. However, you better have more solid scriptural evidence than I have presented to bolster my case if you want to convince me. I am passionately opposed to perpetuating error just because it happens to be popular.
What all of this boils down to is our approach to Scripture. One of my most favorite professors stressed to his students that we stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. When we stand under Scripture, we submit to its message, listen to its modes of communication, and seek to obey what it directs. In the 21st century, that means we have to unlearn as much about reading Scripture as we have to learn how to read Scripture.
As just a few examples, consider these: we (and I speak as an American, although much of what I say can be shared by other Western cultures) think linearly. Point B follows point A, and point C follows point B. Time flows in a straight line. Result Y is directly related to cause X. When we read Scripture, we automatically impose that way of thinking on the text. We think that is the way Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter must have thought and acted, because that is the way everyone around us thinks and acts.
Philosophically we are basically Platonists. The world is made up of the ideal and the material. The material is somehow corrupt, whereas the ideal is perfect – how many times have you heard the phrase “true love?” Our Platonic worldview is especially seen in our view of “heaven.” We have a view of disembodied “spirits” or “souls” flying around on little clouds in some nebulous realm “up there.” We base virtually every decision we make on some form of scientific “truth,” and yet we pray on Sunday mornings for “divine guidance.” These are all grand-children, or step-grand-children, of Plato’s understanding, and we are so immersed in that thought that to think otherwise is to be branded as a heretic.
Yet, when we enter into the very different, and we might even say strange, world of the Bible we see that so much of what we consider to be the only way to view things is NOT the way the biblical writers viewed them. Their world did not always follow a direct cause and effect pattern. Time for them was not always linear – sometimes it was, and sometimes it was cyclical and sometimes it was significantly disjointed. Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter lived in a world where paradox was more common than consistency. And while Jesus and Paul and Peter lived in a world influenced by Plato and Aristotle, their thinking was more in line with Abraham and Moses than with the Athenian philosophers.
Perhaps nowhere in the Bible is this difference in thinking more profound than in the type of literature we call “apocalyptic.” This is the very strange world where beasts live that have seven heads and ten horns, where the sun goes dark and the moon turns red. We, as good 21st century Westerners, read those passages and immediately we think in “literal” terms. We start trying to figure out how ten horns can be divided onto seven heads – we start trying to calculate when solar or lunar eclipses must have occurred to give the biblical writers their “literal” reference. In so doing we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point! By forcing our worldview (literal, linear, and scientific to a fault) onto a mostly Hebraic, and sometimes Persian, and sometimes Egyptian, and sometimes Babylonian, and sometimes Greek, and sometimes Roman worldview, we destroy not only the method, but we destroy the message as well. What we are doing when we do that is we are standing OVER the text, not standing under it.
The problem is that this is the way we have been taught to read the Bible ever since we were very small children. We read a passage, made a modern day application, and moved on. We were never taught about Egyptian or Mesopotamian creation myths, or about Hebrew poetry, or about Zoroastrian dualism because our teachers knew little or nothing about those topics – and they did the best they could understanding that they had not been taught about those subjects. When I was a small child I searched the maps in the back of my Bible for hours, knowing that somewhere in those maps I could find Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my beloved Pecos river. We did not even have a globe in our classroom so that the teacher could show us just how far Bethlehem was from Santa Fe.
Please understand – I am not criticizing my teachers. They did the best they could with what they knew, and I might add that they did a remarkable job with those flannel boards and little sand boxes where the battle of Jericho was fought again and again with striking realism. But I do want to shine a light on a serious problem – what was adequate, and perhaps appropriate, for elementary age children is pathetically inappropriate for grown adults. We must grow beyond flannel boards and sand boxes. As we mature in our understanding we have to learn that the world of Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter and every other biblical writer was vastly different from our own, and if and when we impose our way of looking at reality onto their way of describing their reality, we distort and even misinterpret Scripture.
Genesis is not a scientific textbook. Job is not a guide to astronomy. Revelation is not a road map of the future. Jesus spoke in parables because of, not in spite of, their open ended conclusions. It just seems to me to be the height of arrogance for us to say that we know everything about everything in the Bible when we are separated almost two millennia from the youngest of the biblical writings. We, who claim to be people of the book, must be the most careful and humble when it comes to speaking from that book.
Standing under the Bible means we have to get on our knees, not stand on a soap box. It means that we have to ascend by bending lower.
[Note: this post was edited to better reflect our Platonic worldview.]