You open up your physical bible or a bible app.
Start reading a passage someone recommended, maybe the verse of the day, or a chunk on your reading plan.
You complete your reading.
Another day checked off the list.
You close your bible.
And, with a hint of perhaps guilt, or maybe a sense of disappointment or let down, you think to yourself, ‘that’s it? Shouldn’t I be getting more out of this? Why aren’t I getting anything from this? How can other people read the same things and feel inspired?’
The thoughts can begin to spiral into the shame-filled ‘what’s wrong with me?’ place where we end up thinking there’s something wrong with us for not getting something out of what we are reading. When we hear different people from different views say things like, ‘God speaks to us through scripture’, and then we read scripture and have a different experience, we can feel like something is wrong with us; why is God not speaking to us? What are we doing wrong? Do I need to read for longer? Do I need a different ‘instagram-worthy’ space in my house? Am I trying to read at the wrong time of the day?…
Honestly, it can be frustrating.
There are a lot of ways to make sense of reading the Bible (commentaries, cultural context, learning from others who know a lot more than you do because they’ve devoted much of their lives to the study of the text).
There are a lot of ways to weaponize the Bible (to make it mean what you want it to mean to fit your agenda, to be good news just for some and not all, and to take things out of the bigger context).
So, what do we do?
Lately, when I read the Bible, I ask myself two questions (courtesy of ‘What is the Bible? By Rob Bell):
1 – Why was this important to write down?
2 – What was happening at the time?
These questions have been transformative when engaging with the Biblical narrative (in my experience… lately).
When we hear phrases that often pass in one ear and out the other, perhaps because we’ve heard them so often, like ‘everything points to Jesus’, asking us questions like ‘Why was this important to write down?’ and ‘What was happening at the time?’ often lead us to see the bigger Biblical narrative picture. When things don’t line up, when questions pop up of ‘is the Bible inerrant, infallible, and all the other legalistic things that come up that people might say are make it or break it’s within the life of a believer’, you can step back and go ‘I might not have all the answers, but if someone wrote down this story, and it was picked to be in this big collection of stories, it must be important; why?’
‘I might not have all the answers, but if someone wrote down this story, and it was picked to be in this big collection of stories, it must be important; why?’
It removes the ‘I have to know everything and have an answer to everything’ and allows us to approach God and the text with the humble attitude that says, ‘God, we can’t possibly understand the great Mystery of who You are; You, who created the universe that’s ever expanding and the blades of grass and the leaves falling from trees and humans and animals, AND yet, I can still approach the story someone thought was important to write down and ask why it was important to this person based on their understanding of who you are and what they thought you were doing in their lives.’ Suddenly, there’s a sense of relate-ability, of connection, of realizing these were people writing down stories of their understanding of encounters with God and we ask ‘why was this important?’ and we can consider why it might be so.
Paired with it is the question of ‘what was happening at the time?’.
This question, especially PAIRED with the first, is SO helpful.
This is where you might be doing research (a recent google search had me researching how common sacrifice was throughout world religions throughout history) into history and what life was like for people.
Often, we read the stories as if they were happening right here, right now, perhaps unfolding at the exact moment in time just a few blocks away in our city, or a neighbouring city or country. We read the stories as if we could turn on the news and hear the same story being captured that day by film crews. We can forget that these stories unfolding happened in a completely different continent, in a completely different culture, by people thousands of years ago.
Sure, we have similar struggles, we are all human, after all. But cultural and historical context are big pieces of reading the pages of the Bible and gleaning wisdom and insight from them.
I recall having a hard time with the Psalms. I remember specifically doing a Bible study called Seek on Psalms 61-90 because I KNEW I didn’t lean into the Psalms often (while also realizing some people LOVE them). I mean, my favourite verse has always been Psalm 8:3. But, aside from that, I couldn’t get into the Psalms. ‘Crush my enemies!’, in often much more colourful language, seemed to permeate and turn even the most poetic, beautiful sounding beginning passages of the Psalms into something that made my own heart feel queasy; If Jesus came and instructed us to love, and if Jesus and God are one, why are people asking God to crush their enemies? Where is the Love? My heart felt conflicted.
Then, I started to ask, ‘Why was this important to write down and what was happening at the time?’ Another question could be, ‘what was their understanding of God at this time (especially with the Old Testament)?’
Have you seen Thor: Love + Thunder? (classic me, a marvel reference for so many things).
I’ve seen it a handful of times already (Thor is my favourite, btw), and, when watching it, it helped bring to mind the perspective that people had of how god’s interacted with them and what showed ‘god was on your side’ throughout history.
How did you know the god you believed in was pleased with you? If we look to Zeus and the other Olympic gods of Greek mythology, you would get what it was you were asking for. Whether that was rain, love, success in war or political advancement, or something else, if the god you prayed to was pleased (often including the offering of sacrifices), you would get what you wanted. If you asked and didn’t receive, well, god was displeased. The idea of the god you believed in ‘crushing your enemies’ so you could find advancement physically, culturally, or both, wasn’t odd back then.
So, when I read the Psalms, I can seek a sense of understanding of why they wrote what they did and how they understood God to be working in their lives through this lens of how other gods they were familiar with also worked. If you view the biblical narrative as a story of God meeting people where they are at, you see how God is taking what people understand of how gods interact and move within the world, and God is showing them how he’s different. Instead of a system with gods where you never understood what your standing was and kinda just hoped for the best, we see God show up and give the law which allows people to know exactly where they stand. It’s a progression to what they knew and understood and God interrupts that and invites them towards him. We see people change their understanding of God as time goes on, as they learn more, spend more time with God, and, ultimately, get to experience God in the form of Jesus. We see Jesus speak lines of ‘you once heard this, but I say this’ as a means to further expand how people understand God, ourselves, God in relation to us, us in relation to God, and how we all relate to each other. We don’t have the sacrificial system anymore, and that being done with is a great example of how God meets us where we are, invites us to see how things are different with him, and then shifts and changes what we do.
There’s actually a specific example used in Rob Bell’s book, ‘What is the Bible?’ that I appreciate that is under the title of ‘What about the contradictions?’. He answers that question and uses an example of passage from 2 Samuel 24 where it says that God incited David to take a census. Then, in 1 Chronicles 21 it says that Satan incited David to take a census. As he explains the spiritual nature of a census, and a few other things, we realize that “over time, people evolved in their thinking about God. At a point in history, the idea emerged that a good God wouldn’t incite something to do something bad, so there must have been some other force leading and inciting David.” The Satan explanation came in because “You can see how the idea of an opposing, evil, destructive force/spirit/god/goddess emerged as people became more sophisticated in their thinking”. When people used to attribute violence to their gods, asking god to crush others to advance you isn’t wild thinking. As time goes on, we see the narrative change as people understand God more as loving– not the one who would ask you to do harm but the one who would ask you to love everyone always.
When we ask, ‘Why was this story important to write down and what was happening at the time?’, we begin to also start to learn what peoples understanding of God was, which would impact the things they did, the stories they told, the details they found important to write down (and the ones they didn’t think necessary to include) and we are able to interact with the text in, what has been for me, a much more vibrant, interesting, and life-giving way.
As I slowly read through Luke, I see the story of Jesus’ love, acceptance, and counter-law actions stand out as inviting, inclusive, and boundary breaking. It seems to be a common thread you can see story after story after story. I see how the stories written about Jesus in Luke’s account tell of the greater biblical narrative of Love, Hope and Faith. And it also makes me think of my own life as a story lived out where I get to see how Jesus is meeting me where I’m at, breaking down my own ideas of god from the culture and time I am in, and pursues me with love, acceptance, inclusion (and yes, conviction and challenges, too!) and teaches me, from the pages of these many books deemed important enough to save and publish even now, can be words that the Spirit uses to meet me where I’m at, the same way God has always done with all people throughout history.