Our neighbor, George, recently attended a workshop called “Journey Through the Bible.” In one day they went over 100 key events in Holy Scripture. He said that one thing that captured his attention was the idea that it was better to have the Bible speak for itself rather than we try to speak for it. Another was that we do not have to defend the scriptures because for several thousand years they have been doing a good job standing on their own two feet.
If you have read (or tried to read) and understand “The Revelation to John” (the last document in the New Testament canon), you know that he writes in the language of symbols. These 2,000-year-old symbols do not apply easily to our lives today but the message of the vision speaks directly to our present world. Author Brian Zahnd writes, “for Christians living in an economic and military superpower and called by Christ to resist the idolatrous greed and militarism of empire, Revelation is supremely important.” He adds “the book of Revelation is easily the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible.”
Some well-meaning Christian writers have tried to literalize the various symbols of Revelation and make it tell a story it was never mean to tell about "end times or “foretelling future geopolitical events.”
George pointed out that John’s vision came near the end of the first century at a time when emperor cult worship was rising and the economic and political power of the Roman empire was increasing.
Apparently, many first century Christians were under life-threatening pressure to compromise or accommodate their allegiance in Jesus as the Messiah (“slaughtered for the word of God and the testimony they had given” 6.9) to the power of Rome. Revelation sees this as a battle between the “beast” (which is Rome) and God and Christ.
Revelation needs to be seen in the context of the time in which it was written. At the same time it still presents a challenge to believers today to remain faithful. Faithfulness is the major theme of the vision. Faithfulness to the Emperor or faithfulness to Christ or trying to accommodate the two together (remember faithfulness to Hitler while at the same time faithfulness to Jesus).
It is interesting that a number of Biblical scholars (like Brian Zahnd) have raised the contemporary risk of what they call “the tendency to deify the state” or “religious patriotism” or “civil religion” which could well be part of the American landscape today. Maybe the cult of emperor worship has not gone away.
The main issue at the workshop George attended was the question “who wrote the Bible?”
Apparently there were some who believed that God wrote the Bible and then presented it to us to be taken literally without any needed interpretation. You often hear “God said it, I believe it and that’s the end of it.” Which means discussion ended! They believed that God dictated the words to humans who simply wrote them down.
I love the scriptures but I do not worship them. I worship God. The Bible bears witness to the Living Word of God. The Bible does not point back to itself but rather beyond — “Jesus cannot be locked up in the Bible.” God is still speaking through these ancient documents. Our responsibility is to faithfully allow the scriptures to speak for themselves and translate their message into our daily lives.
I do not believe in a “flat” reading of scripture where every verse has the same weight. That is, all scripture is not equal. When some say following the reading of scripture “this is the word of God for the people of God” we tend to forget that every word in the Bible did not come directly from God.
Many times, Biblical writers put their thoughts into the mouth of God. Wouldn’t it be better to say, “This is the word from our Holy Scriptures for the people of God?” Many times, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures God was given credit for things the writer believed in. The “Word” for me is Jesus — “The Word (logos) became flesh and lived among us” (John 1.14)
Our Holy Scriptures were written by human beings (actually men) who were inspired by God through the Spirit. They were written as faith statements in the culture of the times in which they lived. One might even say that parts of the Bible are obsolete, like how it treats slavery, or the role of women or God as a violent god or many of the dietary rules.
In the closing discussion of his workshop, George said science and the opening chapters of Genesis do not have to be enemies. Science has helped us understand that the evolution of the Earth took a long time — in fact, billions of years. Many of us can see the Creator’s hand in these years of change.
Chapters 1-11 in the “book of beginnings” are not science — never pretended to be and are not to be taken literally. In fact to take them literally will destroy their meaning. Questions that were asked by the Hebrew people found their answers in powerful stories. Who created the Earth (actually two creation stores tied together)? Where did sin originate (Adam and Eve and the garden)? Where did murder come from (Cain and Abel)? Why was God so angry He wanted to start over (the flood)? How could there be one Creator and so many different people (the tower of Babel)?
I love the stories. I value the stories and I preach them. Powerful stories to take seriously for our lives today!
Let the dialogue continue. We only ask that you think on these things.
The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.