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Sidewalk Theology: Questions I Get Asked a Lot #3

Originally posted on Friday, January 22, 2021. Click here to view original.


Q: What's the Bible good for?


The influence of the ancient Hebrew scriptures and New Testament on visual arts, literature, social structure, world views, criminal justice, benevolent institutions, history, education, music, family structures, social order, race relations, economics and nearly everything else in the Western world and a lot in the non-Western world makes this a bigger question than is usually jammed into five short words.


Face it, the Bible is a big deal. This sometimes unwelcome scriptural juggernaut with it's enormous shape-shifting pressure has been shoving it's weighty pages around for a long time. It's had colossal influence on how we humans have been doing life. You can like the Bible or skip it, be a friend or critic, but this crazy-quilt library of sixty-six books, by forty authors written over sixty generations has been about as influential as controlled fire or the inclined plane. You don't have to like it, but the Bible has had a significant impact on a significant number of communities and billions of people. Smart kids now tell us its cultural influence is diminishing, but it looks like the Bible's massive fingerprints will be detectable for awhile yet, even without crime scene dusting and Sherlock's magnifying glass.


Our short, superb question necessarily begs further questions: in this thousands years long human experience, how helpful has the Bible been? How harmful? How much of what's praiseworthy can be laid at the feet of behavior motivated by a correct understanding of the Bible? How much blamable Bible influence in history comes from silly or accidentally flawed explanations, impressions or interpretations? National and personal tragedies, even horrors and genocide have been perpetrated because of cravenly deliberate distortions by friends of the Bible. Balling it all up with our seemingly simple, original Earth sized question presents us with a puzzler the size of thirteen expanding universes. It's too big for my feeble brain for sure.


But . . . I can tell you how a lot of people misuse the Bible. I can also tell you where I am right now on best practices for how it's supposed to be used.


As a Bible consumer, I'm to use it primarily to judge myself. Scholars talk about a 'canon of scripture'. A canon is a standard or measuring rod. The Bible is to be my touchstone or reference point, informing me about my behavior toward God and other humans. The way I read it, the Bible tells me pretty directly that God's two great purposes for my life are:

1) that I be in right relationship with God and


2) that I be in right relationship with other people.


Borrowing from the Jewish holy book we call the Old Testament, Jesus distills it all into two great relationship commands: First, with all you've got, love God whom you can't see, then with the same fervor, love the humans you can't help but see. Those two high purposes can't be divorced.


Bible Pop Quiz - what is the one, honest-to-goodness, legitimate use of this 1700 page tangle of miracle stories, palace intrigues, prophesies, biography, love poetry, history, laws and unreasonably long lists of people who should have changed their name at Ellis Island and spared us all? I'm to use it to examine me and how well I'm doing with the Bible's catch-all commands to love God and love people. That's how I should use it, but when I aim the Bible at other people, I weaponize it. To weaponize it is to deform and distort it.


Oddly enough, both those who believe and defend and those who don't can be guilty of weaponizing the Bible. Sneering believers have been guilty of rifling through its onionskin pages, skipping the calls for self examination while gleefully seizing on phrases that pin a scarlet A or equivalent on the less believing crowd whose deeds cause the gasping believer much sputtering and pearl clutching. That's repulsive but the real problem is they've turned an ancient and beautiful repository of documents from another time and place into a present day cudgel.

The person approaching the Bible with neutrality or even hostility also weaponizes it when they demand the believing enemy live by the unbeliever's/non-user's understanding of it. They've also put themselves in the screwy position of beating someone with a club they don't believe in.


Some legalist eagle may say, "What do you mean the Bible isn't a weapon? It calls itself a sword!" True, but notice in Ephesians 6 the sword is to be wielded against ugly supernatural world powers of darkness described as evil principalities, powers and rulers. In Hebrews 4:12 it's to be used in performing delicate and restorative soul surgery. It's not to be used to trash gay people, annoying religious types, political opponents, flag burners, flag wavers, lawyers, televangelists or even telemarketers. I'm afraid the 70x7 forgiveness thing is still in effect even for chirpy people who clutter up our phones with stuff we don't want.


If you read the Bible, my advice is, go slow and read it to yourself. For yourself. Once you do, as a favor to me, please don't write a book about how it's shot with holes and damaged your life or given you the vapors. Resist too the opposite temptation to publish those dandy Bible revelations known only to you that got you the car, cash, spouse, two-and-a-half kids, and house in Malibu you always wanted along with the full name and shoe size of the Anti-Christ.


I'll end up with the vapors.


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