I think my first memories of hearing stories from the bible come from my early childhood. My mother would read to me before bed each evening while taking out this old & very large pictured children’s bible to narrate the stories of Moses, Samson, David & Goliath, & of course, Jesus & his band of disciples. Thinking back on this, I’m sure it has shaped the way I see the scriptures today in many ways.
It was a week ago that a small group of us asked this very question, how do I read the bible? Whether you accept the bible as being authoritative or not, it’s hard to escape not knowing many of the stories told within it. Between thematic presentations in film & music to YouTube & TED Talk motivational speakers, the stories of the bible entwine themselves into our culture & daily lives. So what significances do these stories have to us & how are we to read them in an authenticated form?
Over the years, I’ve come to see four main practices as a way to approach the bible…
Dwell Within The Story
I am horrible at remembering & knowing chapters & verses. If friends ask me where certain stories are or what book it is from, the best I got is a guess. Perhaps it is because much of my time in reading scripture is like my earliest memorize of my mom reading bedtime stories as a child; I’m simply soaking in the story, people, & events. The chapters & verses really don’t matter.
As I think about it, it seems so much time is spent memorizing the titles, subheadings, & verse numbers that the actual meaning of some stories seems shallowed by the possession of educated self pride. What happened to the words Jeremiah spoke for God saying, “I will put my truth within them & write it upon their hearts. No longer will they teach their neighbour as they will all know me.”
Reading the bible is more a practice of relationship than education. It doesn’t matter where you begin, what book or whether it is Old Testament or New. Nor is there a set time or amount required for reading. To dwell in the story just means to engage with the text & remain in thought over it. I find it helpful to ask certain questions or notice certain elements:
Who are the characters & people in this story?
Where is this story taking place - country, city, location (home, temple, mountain, garden, etc.)?
What time of day is it? When in history might this be taking place?
Are there certain themes or events taking place (Passover, Festival, Sabbath…)?
Are there certain words that repeat themselves or seem key to the story or can have multiple meanings?
Sometimes, I take a small section of scripture, 10-15 verses long, & I’ll just read it over & over every day for weeks. There’s no right or wrong way to abide & dwell in the stories of the bible.
As these stories become more & more familiar to you, let your imagination wonder as you reach out to other resources of relational growth. Google those names & places; ask others about how they know about these events & stories; read, listen, & watch videos of other authors & speakers who talk about how they relate & learn about the biblical story.
To dwell in the story of the bible is to recognize that its meaning & impact is far more expansive than just what is found between its two covers. Such is the works of an eternal mastery.
Contexts & Culture Matter & Are Diverse
Perhaps one of the mistakes many people make is to think the bible is one complete book. The truth is that the bible is a compilation of many pieces of writing. Similarly, many have thought that there is only one cultural expression being held by those in the biblical story. However, as you dig deeper into the narrative you find a multitude of cultural practices & beliefs within the stories.
There was a time I was conversing with a muslim friends about the stories of Jesus. He asked me, “If the bible is authoritative & reliable, how come there are four gospels that are all written distinctly different from one another?” Responding back I explained, “All four of these gospels are written by individual people who have their own unique relationship’s with Jesus. While one might remember certain events one way; the others might have experienced it differently.”
Perhaps another way to look at the multitude of cultures & contexts within the bible is to consider the analogy of a prism. God’s word & relational desire for his creation exists as “white light” beyond the spectrum of the prism & as that light passes through the prism walls, it is fragmented into a multitude of colours & is diversified by the prophetic relationships he has with the many biblical authors.
The amazing beauty & magic of fragmented colours is if you transpose one over the other as light shines through them, it becomes a completely new colour! If we dwell in & understand the context & culture of a biblical story while seeing its truth in the realities of today, it brings a new Word to the context & cultures here in the present.
I’ll never forget the day I proposed to my wife. We had made plans to go for dinner at the Rimrock Hotel in Banff & I slyly snuck out in the afternoon & picked up the engagement ring before we left. The day was overcast & rain showers were on & off again as we began the drive to Banff. I was nervous & praying as we drove down the water soaked highway. Looking up at the sky as the clouds began to part, a beam of light poked through the darkness & there in front of us formed a beautiful bright rainbow. It was vibrant with colour & I was overwhelmed with the the sense that this was a sign from my mother & God. I was meant to marry this woman!
The rainbow comes from a story in Genesis were God gave Noah & his descendants a sign for hope & the promise of His blessing for the future. While this was a profound truth for Noah & his people, it also became symbolic to me as I grew up in a home where my mother was deeply passionate about the sign of the rainbow. She would make crafts with rainbows stitched into the fabric, put stickers of them on her guitar, & place pictures of them around our home. The rainbow was a profound symbol within my cultural upbringing & the manifestation of it during the moments of proposing to my wife was a miraculous Word of God affirming those same truths of hope & blessing for my future.
God Is The Subject & Main Character Of The Story
This morning I found myself overwhelmed at the significance of grace in the story of God & his relationship with creation. While reading scripture I find myself pondering, what makes the stories of the bible stand out as any different from any other sacred text? What has become revealing to me is the overwhelming truth that the biblical story is not about humanity & the freedom or bondages to personal rights we claim to. It is a grand story about God & the divine work of redemption he is orchestrating through his relationship with creation & humanity.
Often, I think we can become lost in the focuses of our own mission & agenda; thinking we are to save the world, environment, church, government, or nation. You really could insert any ideological pursuit; including yourself. But, when we recognize that no real amount of singular effort, from yourself or any other, can truly make an eternal change to our world. The real change maker, the one person who can speak into this world & forever change it, is God.
When we realize that the biblical story is not about us & that it is about God & his relational purposes with creation & humanity, we can begin to ask the real questions of who he is & explore our authentic connections we have with him.
I recently read a tweet that was quoting Gerald May. It said, "To be a contemplative is NOT to be a special kind of person...it is simply trying to face life in a truly undefended and open-eyed way." While the dangers of heresy can keep us in the fear of others judging us hypocritically, asking the deeper questions of our soul that bring healthy transformation, wholistic human renewal, & authentic revelations to God’s true identity in our life must override our social acceptances & centralize our purposes in being. God is not just the subject of the biblical story; he is the subject of OUR story.
It Is A Work Of Art
A few years ago, I wrote a post as an ‘Experimental Narrative To Ephesians 4’. It depicted the text as a work of art, a masterpiece that became something more than just the canvas it was painted on. I finished the post saying:
The bible is a collection of truly amazing stories; a masterpiece in itself. But the grand story of God’s relationship with his creation & love for humanity is still being told today. The work of redemption & restoration is still not yet finished. As Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy, “All scripture is God breathed…”, it is exhaled, organic, & cast out over all creation to bring newness to life & creative experiences that find infinite avenues to expression.
So why not join the palette?! Why not begin reading the bible in a new light; one that dwells in the story, sees through the beauty of contexts & culture, & embraces the real living artist behind it all. Become part of the masterpiece as God paints his story through the brushstrokes & paint colours of your life!