I grew up with parents that often looked to scripture for guidance and solace, for some light upon their paths, I guess you could say. Even so, it was made clear to me that the Bible doesn’t easily answer every single question that comes up in life. Dad found “I don’t know” a perfectly acceptable response to some questions of interpretation. And interpretation was an accepted idea. For instance, when my older sister joined a charismatic church when I was about 14, she and Dad exchanged a lot of letters about differing biblical approaches to topics such as baptism, speaking in tongues, and apocalypse. I never got taught that the Bible ever says only one thing about any given matter.
As I got older it also became clear to me that many interpretations of the Bible have perpetrated hate and justified violence against tens of millions of people over the centuries. Crusades. Witch hunts. Settler genocides. Anti-semitic campaigns. Violence against women. Wars. Slavery. Homophobic persecutions. Name an evil, and the Bible has been used to justify it. In my mid-twenties I just felt done with the Bible because of the ways it gets bent to suit earthly powers and human hate.
At the time I owned a hard-bound annotated Oxford edition of the Bible. One night when my roommate was out of town, I spent several hours tearing that book apart page by page and then shredding the pages by hand. It was as if I needed to purge myself of something, and I remember feeling relieved when I was done. I went to sleep, cleaned up the mess in the morning, and went on with my life, thinking I was done with the Bible forever.
A lot has happened since then. And I genuinely feel that finding a way to embody my frustration with how scripture gets skewed and abused made it possible for me to re-engage with it later.
Today, I still know that scripture gets turned toward hateful purposes every single moment, somewhere. But I have learned to study and recognize the importance of context in approaching scripture. I have learned—at least for myself—that faith does not ask me to simply spout words of scripture, but to explore them in light of many other factors that shape my life as a disciple. I have learned that scripture tells the story of the Divine seeking relationship to humans, and of humans seeking to know the Divine. Many factors contribute to developing approaches to faithful discipleship. Scripture is not a simple instruction book.
This conclusion, of course, discomforts many Christians. I have sometimes been told that I am misguided, heretical, or evil. And I imagine that approaches to biblical authority and interpretation that spring from this congregation’s Anabaptist and Pietist roots can also stir deep discomfort among those who look to scripture for unambiguous answers. The 1979 statement “Biblical Inspiration and Authority” describes Anabaptist and Pietist approaches to the Bible that include:
- Gathering as a community around scriptural study.
- Remembering and honoring the presence of Spirit (or the “inner word”) as well as the authority of scripture (or the “outer word”) in biblical study and interpretation.
- Naming the Brethren origins in a Radical Pietist movement characterized by a “spiritualist view which looks to immediate direct inspiration more than to written words.”
- Making it clear that much greater emphasis is placed on the teachings of Jesus than any other part of scripture.
This statement closes by suggesting that we “open ourselves to the new light which may yet break forth from God’s word.” The word of God in scripture is a light that emerges in new ways, in every generation, as we walk our paths.
When the Psalmist spoke of lamps, they would have known of oil lamps made of clay and carried by hand or set in a safe place. Lamps that needed tending. Lamps that cast a soft, sometimes flickering light and gentle shadows.
Carried along a path in the dark, an oil lamp lights only a small bit along the way. It must be carried with care, to save it from breaking or going out. Such a lamp does not illuminate a path all at once, it shows only what is close at hand. It gives the light needed for the next step. As a person carries an oil lamp with them, the path reveals itself along the way. Different details and changes in the terrain appear on the walk. And everyone’s light will reveal something different. Journeying with an oil lamp requires attention, and care, and energy. It is a lamp, not a map or an autonomous vehicle to just passively ride.
But in a fear-driven culture drowning in anxiety and uncertainty, we long for definitive road maps and clear cut answers and a route the feels clear and well-lit. A parishioner I once had was practically my mirror opposite politically and theologically, but also attended a weekly Bible study I held. She hung in there over several months of learning about historical context and problems of translation and ways in which scriptural interpretation has changed over time, and a whole slew of other things that really irked her. Finally, one day she got totally exasperated, slammed her mug of coffee onto the table and said, “But if everything you talk about is true, then the Bible is useless! So what now?”
And I’m here to tell you that several folks I went to seminary with asked the same question.
So here’s the thing. (Or, at least, one thing in a potentially endless conversation). The Bible is a rich and complex text. It is packed with stories about people and peoples wrestling with what faith in God means to them. All kinds of false starts, confusions, fears, mistakes, rejections, ego-driven missteps occur right alongside profound gratitude, brave proclamations, astonishing insights, deep prayer, sacred revelations and an insistent human craving for placing the Divine at the center of our hearts (despite all our shortcomings in doing that).
And the Bible is saturated with the truth that the Divine yearns to dwell in the center of our lives and hearts and communities. All of scripture ultimately insists upon the eternal ways of justice, hope, compassion, shalom and the reign of God among us. God is, and wants to be, the source of true thriving and love in the world. And that truth does not change over time.
These two factors truly encourage, enrich, and empower a faithful exploration of the Bible. It is a living text, a lamp always raising questions and always revealing more. May we let it do so in our own lives on whatever paths we walk.
~Rev. Ruth Moerdyk
Scripture: Psalm 119: 97-105