This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians. Evangelicals, much maligned among liberals, nonetheless possess an impressive array of gifts and skills that can benefit the larger Christian community, including those who do not share their beliefs and biases. Liberal Christians are so quick to self-identify as “not evangelical” or “not that kind of Christian” that we have developed a nasty habit of tossing babies out with the bathwater. I’m suggesting that we all go outside and recover these babies from the muddy ground outside (although we may have to give them another bath before we bring them back into our house).
Wow… I’m really stretching that metaphor.
In my first post, entitled God Has No Grandchildren, we talked about how evangelicals have done an amazing job of taking personal ownership of their spiritual lives. For them, Christianity is not a set of dogmas, morals, and rituals to which one defaults by accident of birth. For them, it is a whole-hearted commitment of one’s self to an ongoing relationship with the divine.
In today’s post, I want to talk about the Bible.
As far as religious communities go, none have had a more passionate love affair with the Bible than have evangelicals. They tend to take it with them wherever they go: church, work, school, and vacation. They sometimes refer to it as their sword (a source of strength) and other times as their love letter from God. Most of the time, they simply call it the Word of God. They have confidence that the voice of the Holy Spirit is able to reach, comfort, and guide them through these words on a page. Like newlyweds in the bedroom, evangelical encounters with the Bible are intense and frequent (if a bit messy and awkward). They tend to devour it, even though they don’t understand much of what they’re reading.
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to relate to the Bible like an older couple in a long-term relationship. In place of the young lovers’ passion, they have developed a deep respect for its mystery and complexity. They let those old, familiar words wash over them and anchor them to all time and eternity. There are still some things they don’t like about the Bible, but they’ve learned how to accept those things and still appreciate the Bible for what it is.
Liberal Christians, while they tacitly accept the appellation “Word of God” as applied to the Bible, tend to cringe at notions of inerrancy and infallibility. For us, the Bible is not a magical book that was somehow “beamed down” from heaven without flaw or error. Why then do we still refer to them as the Word of God? I love the answer given in the Catechism found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979):
We call them (the Holy Scriptures) the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
I love this answer’s dual emphasis on inspiration and continual speaking. Liberal Christians believe that the divine Word is speaks to us “in, with, and under” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Luther’s sacramental theology) the human words on the page. For those of us in the Reformed (and always reforming) tradition of Protestant Christianity, we identify Christ as the true and Living Word of God. The scriptures, as we have them, constitute a witness to that Living Word. In other words, the early disciples experienced something extraordinary in the person of Christ and spend the rest of their lives wrestling with what it meant. The Christian churches have continued to wrestle with that mystery for almost two millennia. These days, we are less certain than ever about our particular answers, but more convinced than ever about the overall importance of what we’ve found.
In our less glorious moments, liberal Christians have tended to abandon this treasure of the faith to those who would abuse it and co-opt it for their own selfish ends. Our respect for the complexity and mystery of the Bible has sometimes led us to throw our hands up in despair that anyone could ever know what this crazy book is talking about. We despise trite and easy answers taken from text on a page, which leads us to sometimes give up hope of finding any guidance at all. In our very worst moments, we tend to cut and paste the parts we like and throw out or ignore the parts we don’t. My favorite example of this kind of project is the famous Bible produced by my American forbear, Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t like the idea of supernatural miracles, so he just cut those parts out. These days, many liberal Christians have a tendency to cut out the parts about judgment and sex, as if the Bible had nothing valuable to say about these topics. To be fair, many evangelicals do the same thing. They underline their favorite verses about individual salvation and “the pelvic issues” while they ignore the passages that emphasize the importance of social justice or suggest the possibility of universal salvation.
The tendency toward idolatry is a human universal, not unique to evangelicals or liberals. We all have an instinctual urge to recast Jesus as an advocate for our own personal ideology. We all tend to hear our own voices, rather than God’s speaking to us in the text of the Bible. Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve made God in your own image when she hates all the same people you do.”
I was speaking with a colleague once at a pastor’s retreat on Christian spirituality. I was talking about the central role that the Bible plays in shaping our spirituality. He asked, “Does it have to be through the Bible?” I responded that it doesn’t have to be through the Bible, but it gets to be. As Christians, we have the privilege of conducting our collective faith-journey in dialogue with this cacophonous chorus of voices from the past. I see the Bible as a library, rather than a book. It’s a messy collection of stories, poems, and letters that chronicle our ancestors’ relationship with God. They stretched to describe the indescribable. They failed to capture the essence of the divine in their writings, but they did leave a number of helpful signposts. I love the scriptures for their messiness. It gives me hope for myself. God never gave up on Abraham, Israel, or Peter, so I have every reason to trust that God will not give up on me.
The exercise that has most helped me recover the Bible as a tool for my spiritual growth is a practice developed by monks over a thousand years ago. It’s called Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “Divine Reading.” Here’s how it works:
- Sit down with a short passage of scripture (e.g. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15). Read it slowly. Out loud, if you can. Maybe even stopping at every verse or sentence.
- Pay attention to any words or phrases that “jump out at you” or seem to touch your life in some significant way.
- Take a moment to process what that word or phrase means to you right now, in this moment. You’re not looking for once-and-for-all absolutely authoritative interpretations. You’re listening for what God is saying to you today through this passage. God might be saying something completely different to someone else through those same words. God might say something completely different to you tomorrow through those same words. The Spirit blows where it wills…
- Craft a prayer of response to what you think you’ve heard. This can be a prayer of thanksgiving, a request for help, or a dedication of oneself to service.
- Sit still for a period of extended silence while you contemplate God’s presence within and around you. It might help to focus your attention on the normally unconscious act of your breathing or perhaps pick a special word to guide and focus your meditation.
- Close by reading the passage slowly once more. Be thankful for what you have encountered in this process.
I think that liberal Christians have an opportunity to re-engage with the Bible in a passionate way. We can begin our “second honeymoon” with this old partner and rekindle in ourselves the romance we admire in our evangelical brothers and sisters.