“We need transformed people today, and not just people with answers.” -Richard Rohr
When is the last time you were surprised by something you read in the Bible? When is the last time you read something in the scriptures that astonished you and made you re-think your ideas about God or life or humanity?
Most of us fall into certain assumptions about the Bible somewhere along the way. We think of it as a collection of rules or behavior modification or just advice on how to be good. Or we think of it as an anachronistic collection of stories that may occasionally have some relevance but that doesn’t really have that much to do with our daily lives beyond being saved. Most of us accept that it is somehow a tool for our spiritual growth and development, but we often don’t have a clear idea of how to use it that way.
I remember attending a graduation dinner at a certain faith-based university years ago. Meri and I were seated next to a bright-eyed young woman, one of the graduating students, who was accompanied by her parents. She was graduating with a high GPA in her major, Christian Education, and she had earned a certificate that authorized her to teach Bible and faith classes in her denomination. Her parents were justifiably proud of her accomplishments and her dad said, “Tell the pastor what you told me earlier—about what Bible means, what it stands for.” “Oh,” she said with a big smile, “it’s an acronym: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, B-I-B-L-E!” “Isn’t that great!?” enthused her dad. I smiled and said something politely encouraging, but inwardly I was dismayed.
I’ve heard that acronym numerous times since that evening, and I’ve felt the same sense of dismay every time I’ve heard it. Invariably it has come up in circumstances where I didn’t feel free to say, “No, that’s a horrible acronym! That’s a worse-than-useless way to describe the Bible!”
Let me explain. First and foremost, the focus of the Bible is not about Leaving Earth—unless you want to say Leaving It Better Than When We Arrived. It’s true that there is a fair amount of material that concerns our salvation. But salvation, at least as the scriptures understand it, is about being made well, whole, complete. And yes, rescued, but that’s the most limited understanding of the word. Plus, it’s clear in the Bible that God intends salvation for all of creation, not just you and me. And yes, there are some instructions to encourage and help us as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” but those instructions are given so that we can all live more peaceful and healthy lives here on this earth, in the community of humanity, now. The Bible is not about going to heaven. It’s about how God has been working to bring heaven to earth.
But there’s another big error in that acronym and it’s right there in the first word. Basic. We tend to hear “basic” as “simple.” Some of the “instructions” seem simple at first glance, but that’s the problem. When God does give an instruction, you’re supposed to do more than glance at it. You’re supposed to figure out how you’re going to live it. And living even the “simple” instructions can be more complicated than we tend to think…because we don’t think.
Take the Ten Commandments, the most “basic” instructions we’re given in the Bible. “You shall have no other gods,” says God. And that sounds simple enough until we start to really analyze our relationship with money or other things that are important to us. “Show me what you trust, what your heart clings to, and I will show you your god,” said Luther. “You shall not commit adultery,” said God. “If you look at someone with lust, you’re violating that one,” said Jesus. “You shall not murder,” said God. “If you’re carrying a grudge or hating someone, you’ve violating that one,” said Jesus. And on it goes. The “instructions” we are given may be basic in the sense that they set a baseline for us, but they’re anything but basic in terms of trying to live them.
And that’s another problem with the acronym. It reduces this amazing library of books and letters to a pocket guide—and one that’s pretty useless, at that. There are whole sections of the Bible that are about how people have struggled to understand and live by the “basic” instructions God gave them. There are sections full of songs and poems of praise or lament. There are parables, short stories and fables. There are histories. There is theology—writers sharing what they had learned or come to understand about God. There are hopes and prayers and visions. There are heroes. There are villains.
“This marvelous anthology of books and letters called the Bible is all for the sake of astonishment!” writes Richard Rohr in his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. “It’s for divine transformation (theosis), not intellectual or ‘small-self’ coziness,”
I invite you to start reading the Bible in a new way. I invite you to forget what you think it says and let it speak to you as if you’re hearing or reading it for the first time. I invite you to open yourself to the possibility of being astonished as you allow yourself to be led by the Spirit on a journey of discovery. The Bible…whatever you think it is, it’s not that. It’s more. Much, much more.