The Bible is the worlds most important book. It has endured, been validated, argued over, denied, rejected, embraced and changed peoples lives unlike any other text, sacred or profane that ever was. Atheists deplore what it says, humanists find a snapshot of mankind’s past efforts at approaching wisdom, the faithful love it even as they seek to deconstruct it looking for mysteries, codes, secrets, hidden truths, or validations of doctrine.
No other book has done so much, to so many; yet it remains misunderstood and mocked. Perhaps the reason is how we approach it as a book, a cultural artifact, a sacred text, a historical text and a romance.
How do we approach the Bible? How should we? Can the Bible tell the truth and not be itself always factual? Can myth and reality be one and the same? Do inerrancy and reliability mean the same thing and does it even matter?
I wont pretend to have the answers here, Theologians and philosophers fare greater than I have made efforts and always they have fallen short. The best of them, quickly abandon the effort, or make it clear how difficult the effort has been and how subjective their conclusions might be and yet one thing stands. If the Bible matters it must speak to what is real and meaningful and so we must approach it openly, honestly and with the respect due such an important work, be it the work of man or God.
There are two ways of approaching the Bible the secular and the faithful and within each category there are different avenues that should compliment and overlap. Many apparent contradictions appear only because we fail to understand how different narratives do this, and once we identify a contradiction, even only an apparent one, the tragic process of deconstruction begins until all that is left is a collection of unread words we known through the interpretations of those with whom we decide are reliable, and we decide this based on the level to which their conclusions agree with our preconceived ideas about how the Bible should interact with our culture.
What is the Bible? Such a simple question, yet no two people would give you the same answer. Partly this is because though it is the most widespread book in history, it is also the most misunderstood, argued over and for many of its biggest fans, the least read.
To properly understand all the Bible has to tell us we must first consider what sort of book it is. To call it a collection of stories is too simple and fails to do justice. Nor should we forget that in looking at the typology of various texts we mustn’t loose sight of the overall scope and narrative journey of the book as a whole.
The Bible is a book comprised of a set of stories that were central to the people of Israel as an affiliated group of tribal nomads, as a nascent national collective, as a unified then fractured kingdom, later a people in exile, then a people who could finally understand the scope of their own story and how they fit within the stories of the Bible. Later still the Bible became the foundation of a new set of stories that in part fulfilled what was unfulfilled in the earlier text, now called the Old testament and in part created a new covenant that was fulfilled on the cross to form the foundation of a group that would come to be called Christians. Muslims use a term for the three peoples who very existence stems from this most peculiar collection of stories; the People of the Book. And that is a term I wholeheartedly approve of.
The people of the book are a diverse people, not always born into a national identity but fashioned into new identities quite apart from the particulars of their birth. or to use a biblical term, grafted onto the vine. This matters because the people of the book are not merely an audience or transmitters of stories, but an integral part of the book itself. We, the human race both believers and non-belivers are as much as part of the narrative as is the Book of Proverbs or Genesis or Matthew’s Gospel or the Letters to the Church at Corinth.
So now lets begin to explore the Bibles Typology.
- The Bible as it relates to people
- The Bible as a book
- The Bible as a cultural artifact
- The Bible as a sacred text
- The Bible as a historical text
- The Bible as mythology
- The Bible as romance.
After we begin to understand the various typologies within the bible we can turn our attention to how might we as the faithful approach it.
How do the faithful approach the Bible?
The truth of scripture: Does the Bible tell the truth.
The narrative of scripture: How does the Bible tell its truths.
The meaning of scripture: What did the truth of the Bible mean to the original audience, to later audiences.
The importance of scripture: In what ways does the Bible matter?
The value of scripture: What is the integral value of the Bible as opposed to other ancient or modern texts.
The cost of scripture: Truth comes with a cost, what cost does the Bible ask us to pay?
The priority of scripture: Where does the Bible (as a book) ask us to put it in relation to other things or concepts?
What is the Bibles authority: From who, to whom and for what purpose does the Bible deliver its message?
But of course, the Bible does speak only to the faithful. This is no mystery religion, or basic set of instructions for membership. It is the story of mankind, of how we fell away from grace and how we now live in a broken world in need of mediation, repair and ultimately transformation. In this the Bible speaks to everyone who lives in the world and by the worlds ethos.
How do secularists approach the Bible?
Is the Bible fair: Does the Bible treat different groups differently and if so why?
Is the Bible relevant: If the Bible was once relevant is it still so?
Is the Bible changeable: In what ways is the Bible as we have it today different from the oldest known translations, texts or traditions?
What was the originals authors actually saying: The Bible may have once spoken some philosophical truth, and to know it requires finding hidden meaning or seeking what has become authentic Christianity.
Is the Bible needed: The Bible might be a great book, but we live in a world of science and objective morality where such a book is simply no longer required. Its value lies only in its presence as a cultural artifact but no one actually needs it any longer.
How the Bible is similar to other myths: The Bible is interesting but only in as much as it reflects one groups primitive attempts to make sense of the universe. It is no more than a collection of myths and fairy tales.