One Book, Many Voices


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TEXT: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

Soon after I began as the new Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, we adopted a new byline:  “One Book, Many Voices.”  That is a clue to how we believe the Bible is to be read and understood.  Many of the louder voices of biblical interpretation in our culture would lead you to believe that there is only one voice in Scripture and only one possible reading and interpretation.  I believed that myself for many years and it was summed up in a bumper sticker I put on the door of my college dorm room:  “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.”  I read the Bible literally and inflexibly.

            But I have this position today and am out here preaching in churches because I have found that an exclusively literal reading of Scripture prevented me from experiencing anything but the bare surface of a deep and exciting faith.  Once I dared to crack the ice of a literal interpretation of the Bible, I discovered a world so rich and deep and satisfying that I can never go back.  I want that for others, too.  So here I am.

            If you’ve never read the Bible before, you need to know up front that it can make you crazy.  If you need something neat and orderly and consistent with an easy-to-follow chronology, you’ll be on medication about a third of the way through.  If you need something sweet and soothing to read before bed, get a copy of Guideposts.  If you want something to support your political or social agenda, I beg of you to support your position with scientific research, reason, kindness, and basic common sense.  Using the Bible in this way has perhaps done more harm to our society than everything else put together.

            Oh, there are certainly passages in there that you can use.  Whether you are liberal or conservative, you can find a passage that will appear to support your position.  Since most of our country is biblically illiterate, when you pull that passage out of context and say, “Well, the Bible says…” most people will believe you.  They don’t have any clue that other passages of the Bible say completely different things or that you have taken a passage completely out of context.  The technical word for that approach is “proof-texting” and it happens all the time.

            If you read through every word of the Bible, there is enough there to make both liberals and conservatives heave the book through a window.  Jesus is both soft on crime and woefully politically incorrect.  In the pages of Scripture, God apparently tells Israel to march into other sovereign nations and massacre the whole population.  Then in other sections it goes on for book after book about justice and mercy and caring for the widow and the orphan.  That’s good, because they just made a whole lot more widows and orphans with those wars!

            What the Bible does give us is, to begin with, an amazing look at how a particular people have related to their God and their faith across thousands of years of history.  If you have to accept every word as literally true (which is difficult enough given that the Bible was originally written in languages no one speaks anymore)—if it has to mean only what it says in English and none of it can be an art form: No poetry, no story, no genre that is by its nature offers something other than literal truth.  If there can’t be room for the context in which it was written or the perspective of the writer and people within its pages, I believe that sort of interpretation will leave you with a horrifying God, an unkind faith, and an underlying anxiety that will have an effect on all you do in life.  At least it was so for me.

            But if we can be more open to what God has given us in the Bible, we can relax and be more generous both with God and with each other.  I believe that God has inspired the Church to pull together a huge variety of writers, styles, genres, and events—many voices—so that each of us can hear what God has to say in a way that we can each relate to.

            For those who find truth in stories like Aesop’s fables, Jesus tells parables and the Old Testament tells us about Job, Jonah, and a beautiful garden where the first man and the first woman got messed up by listening to the sound byte of a snake.

            For those who relate to the strength of battle, we are given the sweeping epic of the conquest of Canaan, reminding us that if we are ever to inhabit God’s promised land for us, we have to be ruthless in wiping sin out of our lives.

            For those who seek the truth of the poet or musician, there is the majestic lyric of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, praise so lyrical in the book of Revelation that Handel used it extensively in The Messiah, and the entire book of Psalms, which served as Israel’s songbook for millennia and still serves us today.  No matter what emotion you are feeling, you can find a Psalm that reflects it, showing us that God’s people become both grateful and angry, hopeful and despondent at various times and circumstances.  The Psalms are not model prayers for us to pray.  They are wonderful examples of the ways that the people of God do pray.  Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes it’s ugly, but God is big enough to receive it all.

            For the activist who strives for justice there is the strident call of the prophets; for those who love the flow of a good story there are Esther and Ruth and, of course, the Gospels.  Even the geeks get their parts when you get to the dizzying details of the construction of the tabernacle and temple, and there’s enough law to keep the legal types busy for a lifetime.

            All of it teaches us.  In some places we learn who God is.  In other places we learn more about ourselves than we care to admit.  We see how we often justify our own desires by saying, “God told me to.”  We see that even God’s greatest servants committed major sins.  We see that even the most insignificant person by the world’s standards can be used by God in mighty ways.  We see people rise to the occasion and we see people fall.  We see God fed up with people and then willing to give them a second chance…and a third chance…and a fourth, fifth, and sixth.

            And if the Christian proclamation is true, which I believe it is, when we really want to know the true nature of who God is and how God behaves, we look at the life of Jesus who, we proclaim, is the revelation of God.  God in the flesh, here on earth living out a human life to show us how it’s done.

            But there’s another amazing component to the Bible, and it is this that moves the Bible from being simply a fascinating record of Jewish and Christian history and belief to being a living document, filled with the breath of God.  I have been reading the Bible since I could read…which was in kindergarten.  I had read it cover to cover many times before graduating from high school.  Sometimes I approached it as a book to be studied, and in that study I learned much and grew in my faith and understanding.

            But there were other times that I turned to the Bible because I needed to connect with the God it talked about.  Like the wardrobe that led into Narnia, I needed a gateway to God’s heart.  Sometimes prayer worked like that, but sometimes my prayers fell flat, and I opened my Bible asking God to speak to me through its pages.

            And it happened.  Completely apart from whether I understood the context of a passage or whether I had any knowledge of the original languages or even who the characters were, I found that God was there in the pages of the Bible, speaking to me what I needed to hear.  When I found myself completely broken after my husband left me for another woman who was, unlike me, able to give him children, I came to Isaiah 54:

            “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!  For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.”  And, later in that same chapter, “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.  For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God.”  I cried most of the night.

            Now that passage in its original context has nothing to do with me or with any individual going through a divorce or infertility.  If I had written such an explanation for a paper in seminary, I would have flunked the class.  But the Bible is more than a book to study.  For reasons known only to God, it is a book that God inhabits and a book through which God speaks to every person willing to open it up and listen.

            I don’t mean that it is to be used magically like an astrological forecast or other instrument of divination.  There’s the famous illustration of a man who closed his eyes, opened the Bible and pointed to a spot on the page to find God’s guidance.  The first verse he touched said, “Judas went out and hanged himself.”  Hoping that his errant fingers had opened the book wrong, he did it again.  The passage read, “Go thou and do likewise.”  You can get into trouble using the Bible as magic.  Believe me, I’ve tried it.  My verse said, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?”  God does have a sense of humor, but if you want magic, go to Hogwarts.

            But I do mean to say that despite all the craziness and messiness of Scripture, God can and does speak through its pages.  If you come to it thinking you have to take the words on the page literally, that can sometimes actually keep you from hearing God’s voice because the plain meaning of the words is often offensive.  It isn’t just fundamentalists who take the Bible literally.  Many liberals do as well, their response is simply to ignore the Bible entirely. 

            But if we can remember that there are many voices speaking in the pages of the Bible—many voices giving their own perspective and spin on the events and telling of their faith in their own unique style and genre—then I find I am more free to listen for God, much as I listen for God in the many voices of the people I meet every day.

            God cannot be contained within the pages of the Bible.  God is bigger than that.  But in my experience the breath of God blows through its pages, shining through its often troubled characters with the guidance, comfort, and sometimes even the slap on the wrist I need to keep going through this life.  Whether I delve far under its stories in exacting study or whether I read for what God might be saying in the moment, I grow and I learn and I find the truth that God is indeed nearer to me than my breathing.

            Read it—take the Bible seriously but not literally, and in time the God you seek will take shape in its pages and never fail to meet you there.  Amen.

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