We can’t help it but we all read the world through western eyes and we certainly do the same with the Bible. With everything we watch, read or hear we make a judgment upon it from our way of seeing the world. We all have deeply held beliefs, ingrained patterns of interpreting the world around us. Each of these firmly held beliefs cast a shadow over the way we read the Bible. None of us approach the Bible with a totally open mind, clean slate or unshaped thinking. We have to be careful that middle class British or American values, family attitudes and work place norms don’t cast a value over the Bible that isn’t there or is significantly different.
Jesus was forever trying to shift the Jewish people from one cultural way of thinking to a wider Kingdom way of thinking. Lets just reflect upon the sermon on the mount for a moment. Jesus in Matthew 5-7 keeps saying, “You have heard it said, now I say”. The Jewish people had firm held beliefs that had come from the Old Testament but had become so dirtied by culture they struggled to unpick what was Bible and what was Jewish culture. Because of this Jesus was trying to pull things forwards, out of culture into Kingdom Culture by saying ‘now I say’. Whenever we need to approach the Bible we have to be open to what Jesus might be saying to us “This is what you think the Bible says, but now I say…” Let me make myself clear, Jesus didn’t change the Bible or its teaching, he just made it more real for the culture and more potent for the hearer.
Let me give you a good example. The Bible has been used to promote slavery in the past and during the same generation used to abolish slavery. One group used the Bible to promote their worldview whilst the other used it to change the world.
How we do read the Bible and how do we get the most out of it?
ONE: We must read the bible in community. The Bible was always a book that was read in community. The concept of personal Bible reading is a modern idea. When we read alone we can place our own view of the world onto the Bible. Together we are able to ask questions, wrestle with meaning and allow it to speak rather than let us speak into it. In Deuteronomy 6:7 it reads “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up”. Here we see that the scriptures were always to be talked about with others, not meditated on alone.
TWO: You aren't the focus of the Bible. God is the focus of the Bible, of which we are being changed into His likeness. Which means we don’t approach the Bible to consolidate our views but allow it to shape our views. We must always be asking: how do I allow the text to shape my life, thinking and values? Psalm 1 talks about a God shaped person being someone who meditates on God's word, because this person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in and out of season. When we are planted in God's book, not in culture, we can then be shaped by it and bear fruit.
THREE: We must read the Bible, not Christian culture. I was recently told by a Christian, “well, Christians don’t smoke”. I asked where this value came from and was told the Bible. When I followed up with the question quote me the passage and the person realised that smoking wasn’t mentioned but their view of smoking was shaped by the Christian culture around them. I’m not endorsing smoking, neither arguing that the Bible didn’t teach on it. But having travelled to Denmark, Holland and the Middle East I have realised that the church’s view on smoking is shaped more by culture than the Bible.
FOUR: Read with the Spirit. We must always read the Bible with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is always wanting to show us things we haven’t seen, He wants to challenge us and point us in the right direction. If we are reading with the spirit and we are open to being shaped by Him we will be challenged (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).
FIVE: If you always find the Bible agreeing with your views and you agreeing with it, then maybe you’re not reading the Bible. The Bible in its nature is challenging, not for some people but for all people. Which means we each should be challenged by its contents. Remember the earlier illustration of slavery; many used the Bible to back their corner. We must be incredibly careful that we aren't doing the same. We must always ask how does this challenge me? What must I do differently? Am I using this passage to back my own position? What is the Bible's position?
What is the primary force shaping your view of the world? Being honest with yourself is important.
Is it middle class Christian values?
Is it the world around you?
Is it your family values?
Is it being shaped by the challenge and encouragement of other mature Christians?
Is it being encouraged by the revelation of the Holy Spirit?
Is it the Kingdom culture found in the Bible?
If we don’t let Scripture shape us, trust me, something else will.