I still remember a sentence about the Bible from my Confirmation classes in Halesowen when I was about eleven years old. ‘Don’t think of it as one book’, said the vicar preparing me, ‘but as a library’. He certainly had a point, and it is a collection of writings which has fascinated me ever since. And like any library, different parts of it have spoken to me more at different stages of my life – it’s never been one plain experience.
Just think of the thousands of years over which it developed. Words from the Psalms which we read at a funeral have been read on such occasions by people of faith for nearly three thousand years. How grounding is that! The book of the Law, the first five books of the Old testament have been fundamental for our Jewish cousins and forebears, and still are. Those swash-buckling stories in the books of Kings and Chronicles tell of the sometime tortuous ways in which the people of the Old Testament came to their settled place: human nature hasn’t changed much, least of all in our political comings and goings. As the Wisdom books tells us there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.
The challenges of the Prophets speak to us today every bit as much as they did when they first called people of power, both religious and political, to account. What better summary of the faith can there be than that of the prophet Micah: ‘and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ This is still our calling, even with the terrible events in the Holy Land and elsewhere in our troubled world. This is the Bible Jesus knew, the psalms that he sung, the texts he heard read in the synagogue in the chaos of the age in which he lived.
We haven’t even come on to the New Testament. What a fabulous collection of different glimpses into the life of Our Lord and of the Early Church. Read the letters of St Paul again: he writes to churches he has set up, usually because something has gone a bit awry after he’s left. Try reading them guessing what the problem was that he is addressing, and they come alive again – real letters to real people in real situations. What you get as well is a picture of how Paul’s own faith develops as time and experience change and deepen his understanding of the Christ event. These pages live because they are written by living people!
Then we have the four gospels. Why four, and why different in character and, sometimes ,even detail? I remember someone once explaining it like this, telling of a visit round Churchill’s home, Chartwell, in Kent. Everywhere, he said, there were pictures of the man – sometime the war-leader, sometime the military man, sometime the husband, sometime the prime minister. Different glimpses, but the same person. A little bit, you might think, like Jesus of the four gospels. Glimpse is a good word, because of a lot of these written accounts would have emerged from an oral tradition: ‘do you remember when Jesus told us the story about….?’
These texts are all living texts, because they come out of the experience of those first Christians as they made sense of the their encounter with the living Jesus, the risen Jesus. So we mustn’t just think of the Bible as an instruction manual, a list of do’s and don’ts, rather an opportunity in our generation to encounter the God who reveals himself in Jesus. In this sense the Bible is the living Word of God, and our engagement with it is therefore more like a conversation or a lifelong chat.
At the Enlightenment maybe humankind began to feel we could explain everything, understand everything. This brought many gifts and advantages, but it also brought the scourge of fundamentalism, which reduced the conversation with the living word of Scripture to a one-way street, in which we were told what to believe. I think we come unstuck with Scripture when we try to read it literally: we’re not taking it seriously enough. Our engagement with Holy Scripture is far more creative, far more dynamic and, yes, far more challenging than that.
So, why not give your Bible reading a fresh look? What about putting yourself into the place of those who wrote it, those who heard the stories out loud, those who walked with Jesus? Journey with your God-given imagination into the God-given words of Scripture, and see what insights God grants you afresh this time.
Praise be to God for his holy and living Word.