How To Read The Bible

If you read the Bible and find comfort there, then I suspect you are not reading the Bible properly. Almost certainly, you have not fully understood what you are reading. The various texts that comprise the Bible were penned for a lot of different reasons: to preserve the history of a people, and to tell the stories of individuals within that broader context; to warn and correct the wayward; to cry for vindication in the face of overwhelming oppression. But I am sure that I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that not one of those writers sat down and put quill to papyrus with the intention of exhorting future generations to be all that they could be. The Bible is a lot of things: it is shocking, it is challenging, it is starkly brutal, it is divisive. What it is not, is comforting.


And that is the problem, really, in choosing to believe that God is the author of these texts. If every word in it is straight from the mouth of God, a theological lesson that is beyond reproach, then the God revealed there is absolutely terrifying. I can find no comfort in a God who asks us to emulate the prayers of a people who ask God to dash the brains of the children of their enemies against a rock (Psalm 137:9); I can find no comfort in a God who so regrets Hens own handiwork (Genesis 6: 5-7) that Hen must destroy it by drowning pretty much all of it (even the animals), but who lacked the foresight to see that this would be the inevitable result of giving humanity free will (in other words, if disobedience is going to compel God to deep regret and violent retribution, why create a species who will inevitably sin?); I can find no comfort in a God that praises the zeal of Phinehas, who kills an Israelite man because he took a foreign wife (Numbers 25: 6-9), and whose wrath is averted by this scapegoat killing; I can see nothing even remotely comforting in a God who can sanction a man’s being scourged to the point of death and then nailed to a tree (can you even begin to conceptualise how absolutely depraved it is to nail somebody to a tree and leave him to die?) on a trumped-up charge, especially what that man is Hens son. And I know that some of you will say, but the comfort is in that Jesus took the punishment that was meant for us. But that is no comfort. The point is, you are arguing for a God who has the capacity to do that at all; even if God did spare us that brutality by redirecting it, that God found such an act of unspeakable violence and injustice necessary testifies strongly against the character of such a God, who is content to accept scapegoating as a legitimate means to restore peace. That is not a comforting God. If you find comfort in the Bible, you have not understood what you are reading.


Now please do not misunderstand me. I will never subscribe to a mode of thinking that argues that because something is flawed it is valueless. Just because the Bible contains material that is incompatible with the theology evident in the teachings and ethics of Jesus, it does not mean that it can be discarded. Completely the opposite is true. The Scriptures are indispensable in terms of understanding the nature of God. Not because they are the perfect word of God, but because they do what all powerful texts do (whether musical ones, drawings, films, plays or poems): they hold up a mirror by which we can see ourselves and they illuminate that which was hidden or obscured. That is where I see God’s hand in the Bible: not in the issuing of theological imperatives and directives, not in constructing a sort of ‘manual for life’, but in holding up a mirror to humanity and providing Jesus as the ‘light of the world’, through which to look at it.


When I was much younger, I had what was rather euphemistically termed a “major depressive episode”, which resulted in my spending a few weeks in a rehabilitation clinic. It was a clinic with a very good reputation, and which premised its treatment programme on the belief that all addictions – whether eating disorders, drug or alcohol addictions, or depression – were manifestations of similar psychological dysfunction. So, as a young man with a decidedly Puritanical outlook on issues like drugs and alcohol, although I had never before even seen a drug and only once ever been drunk (and that in the build-up to this ‘episode’), I became intimately acquainted with the struggles of men and women I would never have interacted with in the normal course of my life. And I found Jesus among them.


They were not Christian, most of them. But there was more Kingdom activity in that space than in most of the church activities I have ever been a part of. They had done despicable things, some of them. They had had despicable things done to them too. They were broken, they had lost everything in life they valued – jobs, families, reputations, dignity. And I was afforded the privilege of being allowed to listen to their stories, to sit quietly with them while they wept – among them, some of the toughest men I have ever met – to bear witness to their humanity. As they, in turn, bore witness to mine. And there was no condemnation, only forgiveness and repentance and a sincere desire to be better. There was a tacit recognition that unless one could comprehend and accept the extent to which one had fallen, there was no way up. Group therapy became a sort of mirror in which I finally saw myself, and in the climate of love fostered there– in that space of no condemnation – I found the courage and the wisdom I needed to change myself, to dismantle and rebuild. I understood in ways far deeper than the intellect why Jesus chose to eat with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, why he rose to the defence of the outcasts and the lepers. Jesus saw that bringing about the Kingdom of God is not a matter of obeying rules and setting yourself apart for God; it is not a matter of perfectly following rituals and observing holiness codes so that you can dodge God’s retribution; it is not a matter of right belief and purity; in his own words, Jesus is to be found among “the least of these”. In that rehab centre I saw something fundamentally important about Jesus, which the gospels had inferred the whole time: he is not the one doing the scapegoating. He sides with the victims. Every time.


That’s why Jesus is the light of the world. He depicts God as a God who rejects scapegoating, who stands side by side with the victims. God was not siding with the persecutors at Calvary; God was the victim. God was not venting bloodlust at Easter; God was exposing and renouncing it. If it the modus operandi of Jesus to side with the scapegoats, I can tell you where he is in the stories I alluded to earlier: he is with the innocent infants being brutalised in the name of divine retribution on Babylon; he is with the Midianite woman impaled by Phinehas’s spear so that ‘God’s judgment’, in the form of a plague which has cost tens of thousands of Israelite lives, can be averted (Numbers 25:6-9); and I am utterly convinced that God never contributes to the injustice that is the scapegoating of Jesus.


The Bible is – from start to finish – a book about blood. It is not so much about God as it is about us. And so the graphic descriptions of violence are not there because God endorses them, they are there because we do. We have recreated God in our own bloody image, and so long as we cling to the mistaken notion that the Bible is God’s divinely authored Dummy’s Guide to Life, rather than our clumsy and misguided attempts to understand God, we will fail to see that we are using the Scriptures to justify making our most abominable failings – our scapegoating tendencies – into Godly virtues. As long as we refuse to recognise that the Scriptures are a mirror held up to our faces, not to the face of God, we will fail to recognise that Jesus’ voice is not among the throngs baying for blood; it is raised in protestation against it. We can never understand the depths of our depravity so long as we interpret Jesus through the light of the Scriptures rather than interpreting the Scriptures through the illumination of the Light of the World.


I am not asking you to discard the Bible. I would insist that every Christian read it. But it is not a self-help book; it is not a devotional series; it is not an invitation from Jesus asking if he can be your boyfriend; it is not a fire-insurance contract; it is not even a revelation (at least not primarily) of God. It is a mirror. And whether you see the face depicted as God’s or your own (hint: it’s your own. Any illusion that it is God’s is actually a projection of self), there is no comfort there. The blood cries out from every page. But there is light, and in that light there is truth. And the truth will set you free.


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