Disenchantment. It’s what Disneyland adverts rely on, reminding parents that their children won’t be forever wide-eyed and overawed at meeting Disney characters. Kids grow up, they remind us, so best take them to Disneyland now while the magic is still real. Disenchantment is part of growing up, and for me, that has meant realising that the Bible, like most other things, is not a magic book.
Writing in 1873, Matthew Arnold lamented the way in which the Bible was treated as a book of scientific, dogmatic propositions by many Christians, and therefore rejected by many on that basis too. He argued that after the Reformation, Protestants felt the need for an authority as fixed and as absolute as the Church was to Roman Catholics, and so the Bible came to be “endued with talismanic virtues.”
The language we use to describe the Bible, at least inside evangelical circles, betrays these talismanic virtues. Words like “infallible”, “inerrant”, “final authority” – for a book which was written by people, rather than directly dictated by God (and in fact by many groups of people over many centuries and in many contexts) to be described in these terms does seem to make claims that would be pretty magical. Although we might avoid a word like magic, it’s an appropriate description of the way we often treat it: if I read the Bible in the morning, my day will go better. If I need answers to a dilemma, opening the Bible will solve it. For any personal problem, from addiction to selfishness to depression to pride, we take people to the words of the Bible, and trust them to do their thing. And of course, it has the magical power of being able to end any argument or debate, with just a few words on any given subject being enough to bring a victorious cry of “because the Bible says so.”
If Arnold was right about our motivation to regard the Bible in this way being a need for stability and absolute authority, then disenchantment could leave us with a lot of uncertainty. So, is it safe for Christians not to regard the Bible as a talisman? Can we hold on to any concept of inspiration and authority without such a view? What is the Bible if not magical, and what role should it have in Christian life?
It might seem like it’s easier just not to ask these questions and leave our Biblical amulet alone, but I’m convinced it’s a constructive conversation to have. Naturally, I don’t have the answers. But I’ve got a few thoughts. Here are five quick reasons why I’m glad that in my mind at least, the Bible is losing its magic:
1. Avoiding idolatry.
There’s a perceptive phrase about the Trinity of conservative evangelicals being the Father, the Son and the Holy Bible, and not only because we’re a bit scared of charismatic worship. When we talk about the Bible in terms like “infallible”, and certainly when we see the book itself as the answer to all our dilemmas, don’t we risk worshipping the Bible instead of God? Don’t we elevate it to divine status, forgetting its human origins and considering it the Way, the Truth and the Life? We worship it as God’s Word, forgetting that the Word of God came not as paper and ink but as a human being, Jesus Christ. It is God, revealed in Jesus, who is infallible and inerrant, God who is the stability and authority we long for, and the Bible points not to itself, but to him.
2. Avoiding culturalising God.
As much as our tendency to worship the Bible, we also have a tendency to idolise the particular cultures represented within the Bible. Sometimes we recognise that a part of the Bible is ‘culture-specific’, usually when it involves an obscure Levitical law or slightly embarrassing instructions of the length of men’s hair, but the reality is that all of the Bible is culture-specific. Of course it is, none of it was written in a vacuum. Each text was written with a particular group of people, in a particular time, place and set of circumstances in mind. The more we let go of a talismanic view of the Bible, the less we idolise those cultural circumstances and get on with meeting God in our own.
3. Opening a dialogue.
As I wrote in an earlier post, there’s nothing more frustrating when you’re trying to have a discussion than someone playing the “but the Bible says so” card. Taking the words of the Bible as having an intrinsically magical and infallible nature, regardless of their literary or historical context, is a sure-fire way to shut down conversation. Christianity is not stagnant. There are always new questions, new challenges, new problems to puzzle over, and the Bible can be a great dialogue partner for working through those puzzles. But only if we respect the texts for what they are: letters, poems, sermons, songs, musings, folk tales and even satire. As Matthew Arnold would remind us, literature not dogma.
4. Affirming humanity.
Not only did the Word of God come to us as a living, breathing, sweating, bleeding human being, but the book we call his written word is about as human as a book can be. Not a scroll dropped from the heavens, or a voice dictating to one man in a cave, but the record of centuries of people and communities, documenting what knowing God means in their own experiences. That God chooses to use the articulated struggles, thoughts and prayers of flawed and frail people as a vehicle of communication is pretty staggering. That he makes himself known in communities’ history written down for their grandchildren, and in imaginative stories of heroes and beasts, that he somehow shows himself in creative outbursts and considered reflections, is incredible. To imagine that we hear God speak through the Bible despite its human authors is to miss the point entirely. We hear God speak through the Bible because through it he values and respects our humanity, and affirms our experiences of knowing him in all kinds of contexts.
5. Inspiring example.
With all of that said, we can conclude that the texts of the Bible give us an amazing snapshot, an insight into what it looked like for God’s people to meet him and live out their identity as his people in a few different contexts. Sure, some of them were particularly important contexts, like the context of those who met Jesus on earth and walked about with him as his disciples, or the context of those who first faced questions like who was to be welcome and included in the Church. We get the privilege of looking on as these people in these contexts work out their questions and learn how to love and serve God where they are, and we can be inspired to do the same. We can learn principles to help us navigate our own challenges and be encouraged by the various mishaps, uncertainties and failures of those who have gone before us, trying to learn from their mistakes. We can counteract our feelings of insignificance by seeing how our little piece of history fits into the much bigger story, and be inspired to make our chapter the very best it can be.
So I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. I hope you don’t think I’m dismissing, disregarding or devaluing the Bible. I’m just seeing as I grow up that the Bible isn’t magic. It’s much, much greater than that.
As ever, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have, any additional points to make or anything you disagree with. Leave a comment if you’ve got anything to say…