Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Great stories…

Ever have a conversation that, over time, grows in importance? I had one during a Bible study in college, when a guy who was only visiting took issue with something I said. I don’t recall the exact topic, but soon enough we got meta, no longer discussing a particular Biblical story, but The Whole Holy Bible.

FYI, it wasn’t an angry brawl; more a passionate exchange of ideas. Specifically, I argued the classic Evangelical Protestant belief- that the Bible is perfect and infallible, inerrant in every respect. He, by contrast, had a more open, nuanced view; acknowledged the decidedly human elements in Scripture’s creation; claimed that, to really take the Bible seriously, we must accept, even honor those ‘flaws’. And to drive his point home, he said that thing I’ve yet to forget. “Shane, think of the Bible as a love story about us and God, written over many years, by many people, with all their limitations and successes, contradictions and insights. It’s not perfect, and not alone, but it’s the greatest love story I know.”

I (for once) had nothing to say. I stammered something, but mostly just soaked in that beautiful description. I went home eventually, thinking I’d had an enjoyable night. But I woke up only gradually to how profoundly it had shifted my spiritual center.

You see, what I’d previously articulated is what some call “Bible Idolatry.” This idea’s that, in doggedly confessing that Scripture’s perfect, some Christians put (their interpretation of) the Bible above God.  Not intentionally! I believe most Christians try to be faithful, just as best we know how. But the truth of God is always greater than our understanding of God’s truth. So to act like any book’s as perfect as God (even one as rich as the Bible) sounds akin to creating an idol.

But that’s how I once believed. I didn’t claim to know Scripture perfectly.  No way! Nevertheless, I basically believed that if I or anyone did totally understand the Bible, I/they/we’d have God fully figured out. The Bible was that perfect, I thought. Thus, I’d created an idol. And this Bible study visitor pointed that out. Fortunately, he was a good Christian. He didn’t gloat or mock me, didn’t dismiss my faithfulness, though he saw through my spiritual mistake. Instead, he helped me see another way of being faithful, of relishing the love story that is Scripture.

Among the very few Bible claims I do consider literal, eternal truth is 1 John’s simple statement that “God is love.” I also confess that God, evolutionarily, ‘created’ humanity, with our limitations and possibilities and never stopped loving us. Therefore the Bible, I now believe, is a record of how Love’s been received, rejected, interpreted and praised by various historical communities over vast swaths of time. It’s not the only record of Love’s interaction with the beloved, certainly. God is always greater! But what an incredible story, amen?! Told by some remarkably creative people.

And why I keep returning to it, time and again, is that this Great Love Story is the one that’s most formed the religious communities that have formed me. In other words, to use a Biblical phrase, it’s my “goody heritage.” Undoubtedly, some stories within the Greater Story speak more clearly to me about Love than others. Indeed, some ways previous generations described Love, I no longer accept. Yet because I’ve learned Love through Scripture’s pages, been challenged by it to spread love more fully and farther, I still trust the Bible as my surest entryway into Love’s abode.

And I’m grateful for that years-ago conversation that helped me understand this story more clearly. More fully. More lovingly.

P.S. - This week’s spiritual practice: Story Meditation. Read a favorite Bible story. Read it again! Then pick an object or character and picture what that person/thing looks like. Imagine smells, clothing, dialogue, expressions, as you walk through the story again in your mind. I.e. fill in the text’s missing details. Most importantly, trust that the Spirit guides your imaginative work. Thus, in noticing what extra details you imagine, you can accept that as God helping you better interpret the story’s many meanings.

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