Last night, I went to see Rob Bell’s the gods aren’t angry tour. If it comes to your city, go. It’s worth the $20 many times over. I may write a post or two about the things that stuck out to me, but at the moment I want to address one particular thing. It comes up in Rob Bell’s books, and it comes up in his talks.
The fact of the matter is, when we read the Bible, or anything from an entirely different worldview than our own, we don’t get the full extent of what is being said. In the Protestant Reformation, a radical idea arose that everyone should be able to read the Bible for themselves, in their own language, because at that time, the existing church hierarchy prevented the common people from reading it and understanding it. And this was an admirable thing. It was essential, with the point where the church was at the time.
But. As we have taken this radical idea and run with it, and as Western culture has spent the last ~500 years becoming more individualistic and more consumeristic, we have entirely neglected reading the Bible as it was intended to be read, and have taught others to do the same. We have entirely isolated it from its cultural context outside of the academic world, and we’ve relegated the study of its cultural context to optional gatherings and events. We only read it to support what we’ve already been told, and we only want to be told what we already think.
We have entirely forgotten to read and interpret the Bible the way the communities that wrote it did: together. In community. We as American evangelicals have gotten so wrapped up in trying to prove that Moses wrote the Torah all by himself, even the part about his own death, and that all of it is literally true and that if we don’t believe that our country is formed around it our country will no longer be formed around it and we might actually have to tell people who God is and why he matters…
In our individualism, we have made the Bible individualistic. We repeat this for the rest of the Bible. We put it into a vacuum where the names and demands of the Sumerian deities don’t matter. Then we wonder why Leviticus makes God look like a bloodthirsty tyrant. We wonder why our religion is viewed as backward and irrelevant. And then we lash out, saying, “Look at us. We love you. God loves you. Read the Bible and live by it, but don’t live by the parts that we don’t talk about. They don’t matter.”
None of this is new to be said. We know that we do this. People have occasionally tried to put in different ways of teaching, and there are churches and groups where these tendencies are not the case. I find that many people feel that they don’t need to know, or can’t know without going to seminary or whatever, the context of the Bible. That it is an optional thing, and that they’re not ready, or smart enough, or educated enough, or whatever it is. This, of course, only serves to further entrench the divide between “clergy” and “laypeople” that is a terrible part of most churches.
As I’ve watched this happen in my church experiences, I’ve often wondered if I’m right in thinking that everyone should know the context of the Bible. I’ve wondered if my lenses are colored because I have a degree in this stuff. If commentaries and theological dictionaries are items that shouldn’t be read by people with medical degrees. Things like the gods aren’t angry confirm my thoughts. We need to learn these things. We need to teach these things.
Jonathan Stegall is a web designer and emergent / emerging follower of Jesus currently living in Atlanta, seeking to abide in the creative tension between theology, spirituality, design, and justice.
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