The Resurrection of Scripture

Becoming the Great Us, Columns, Featured — By on March 28, 2011 at 8:22 am

People don’t study the Bible anymore. At least that’s the prevailing opinion of a lot of people I know. By “people” I mean my colleagues in Christian publishing and my friends in Christian education. By “people” they mean not the Old and New Testament scholars, the proof-texting protagonists of various culture wars, the professional clergy who get paid to know their urim from their thummim, but rather the people in the pew and the people outside the church–people who make moral and ethical decisions every day and who are increasingly ignorant of the teachings of Scripture and the story of God (and our place in it).

Obviously there are exceptions; you may even count yourself among them. People certainly still buy Bibles; it was, in fact, the first book my cousin downloaded onto her Nook. And enough churches can point to Bibles being studied on their property to suggest that reports of the Bible’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, given the centrality of Scripture for much of Western history, its utter cultural marginalization today, the widespread biblical illiteracy both outside and within the church, makes the living and active Word of God seem a little, well, lifeless.

So then, if Scripture is effectively dead, we should probably prepare ourselves for its resurrection, since that seems to be the way things go with the things of God–at least according to the scriptures.

  • At the moment of the apparent destruction of the world, God collected representatives of all species onto an ark and revitalized the planet.
  • When even the high priests of God had given up on the way of the Lord, a little boy started hearing God talk about what was coming next.
  • When the Philistines made off with Israel’s ark of the covenant, God had a cow bring it back.
  • When vast empires descended upon Jerusalem, intent on leveling it, God scattered their troops to the winds.
  • Three days after the Son of God was buried in a tomb, he appeared to his friends and shared a meal with two of his disciples.

In the wake of these various deaths, however, how people made sense of Scripture sometimes stopped making sense. The things that they had come to count on—the power of God over their opponents, the security of the temple of the Lord and the ark of the covenant, the impenetrability of their capital city, even the regular cycles of everyday life before the great flood—fell short of their expectations. If Scripture is dead, and we’re on deck for its resurrection, we would do well to consider what we’ve been placing our trust in, and whether our trust ought to be placed elsewhere.

Maybe we’ve been trusting our own intuitions too much, which themselves place too much trust in the clichés and cultural prejudices that we simmer in unawares. Plenty of people, for example, were perfectly comfortable assuming that the Bible sanctioned slavery, until the blood spilt outweighed the money slavery generated for them. Other people apply the inherited logic of a culture of narcissism to their interpretation of Scripture, leading to a near pandemic of neglect of the love of neighbor and a reduction of the Bible to a sanctified love of self. Our clichés and cultural prejudices are inherited, but we’re complicit in them to the extent that we give them air and then breathe it in.

Such a Bible, sustained as it is by our self-aggrandizing interpretations of it, can hardly survive. And yet even now we can see evidence of its resuscitation. Any number of recent writings—from scholarly treatments like Carol Kaminski’s Old Testament Casket Timeline to pastoral presentations like Sean Gladding’s The Story of God, the Story of Us—attempt to redirect our attention from proof texts and passage headings to the narrative arc of Scripture—a story that begins in a garden and ends in a kingdom, a story that begins with our creation and ends with our final restoration. Such a story takes us out of the center of our own reading and restores God to his rightful place.

As we start thinking about the Bible as a story, the resurrection of Scripture will mean setting aside the cultural trappings we’ve cluttered it with–reminders that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our life, or that God helps those who help themselves, or whatever other manufactured memory verses are shaping our understanding. A resurrected Bible will instead remind us who we are: people made by a God of love in God’s loving image, called to participate in an epic in which that loving God is the hero and in which love will surely triumph. That’s a story worth studying, I think.

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  • John Dunham says:

    Amen and amen. You mention “manufactured” “cultural trappings,” and I appreciate your insight into what those are. I hadn’t thought explicitly in your terms, because the drum I beat has to do with the manufactured trappings of Bible format. In my opinion, another part of the decline in biblical literacy has to do with a double-column format littered with numbers, section heading commentary, center column references, notes given more prominence than the Scripture itself, etc. With good intention, we’ve turned our Bibles into reference books, but unfortunately that has precluded good engagement with the story.

    For those curious about an antidote to this death-to-the-Bible-by-format, my company (Biblica) published an edition of the Scriptures called The Books of The Bible. From personal experience, it’s truly amazing how taking the clutter out helps reading, comprehension, and engagement.

    For the resurrection!

    • matthew says:

      John, I have a copy of The Books of the Bible (though i thought the IBS was the publisher?) and I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment! It has almost singlehandedly rejuvenated my joy in reading Scripture.

    • John Dunham says:

      I love to hear about that kind of rejuvenated joy! Thanks for your comment. IBS is now Biblica as a result of a name change a couple of years ago.

  • I’ll toss my in two cents. Gladding’s “The Story of God, the Story of Us” is a brilliant book. I’ve used in my pastoral ministry already to help people understand the plot of the Bible.

  • Sean Gladding says:

    Thanks for this Dave. It reminded me of Phyllis Tickle’s thoughts about the shift from ecclesial authority arising from the Reformation cry of sola scriptura (which as you point out has just about burned out) to “….a movement toward a system of ecclesial authority that waits upon the Spirit and rests in the interlacing lives of Bible-listening, Bible-honoring believers…” (The Great Emergence, 153). As we re-discover that our stories are caught up on the Story of God, together, may we re-engage with scripture in life-giving and life-affirming ways, for the first or the hundred and first time.

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