Just writing today’s headline brings me no small amount of trepidation.
Even after more than a decade of deep study, a master’s degree from a highly respected theological seminary, and seven years of professional ministry, I’m quite certain that there’s still a lot of stuff I get wrong about the Bible.
So beyond a bit of gratuitous clickbait, why would I go there?
What makes me think I have any credibility to talk about what I believe most of us get wrong about the Bible?
The Bible tells me so…
Let me rewind the tape a little (sorry if that reference mystifies my Millennial and Gen Z friends) and fill in some backstory.
Growing up in a white, middle class church in a white, middle class community, I was handed certain assumptions about what the Bible is and what it’s for.
I was taught that the Bible was where we learned about God. Where God reveals Godself to humanity.
And mostly, where God tells us the rules God expects us to follow in order to go to heaven when we die.
While I wasn’t raised in a literalist/fundamentalist congregation, and there was some room to consider whether some things might be read metaphorically and figuratively, there was still an assumption that the Bible held authority because the Bible says it holds authority.
And the way that authority played out was that you were expected to do what the Bible said…although in truth even that was more often than not boiled down to the 10 Commandments.
In fact, what I assumed about the Bible was that you basically had the 10 Commandments, and the rest of it was telling you how to follow them.
There was also some stuff about how God loves us, but it was mostly understood that the way God loves us is to punish us for not following the rules.
Is your fire insurance paid up?
So essentially, I was handed a belief system that centered on human behavior and how God was going to judge us on how well we followed the rules.
Even the concept of forgiveness was couched in the expectation that you “repent of your sins” and “give your life to Jesus.”
Otherwise, you were screwed. Eternally.
Essentially, the gospel was an existential fire insurance policy.
It’s not for me
But then something funny happened.
I actually read it for myself.
And what I found was not a story that centered on the rules, but on Jesus.
And that changed everything.
Instead of seeing the Bible as a constitution, I started to see it as a love story.
But the more I read and the more I studied, and the more I learned to locate the various literary genres of the diversity of authors of the collected canon, I started to understand something else.
It wasn’t for me.
Literature for the oppressed
Now I don’t mean to say that the Bible has nothing to say to me. Far from it.
But what I realized is that the contextual target audience for the narratives, histories, poems, songs, genealogies, and allegories was not middle class white suburban Americans.
It was for people living in exile (Old Testament) or under occupation (New Testament).
It was literature for the oppressed.
For the marginalized.
For the forbidden and the forgotten.
I learned, as Rob Bell says in his book, Velvet Elvis, that if the gospel isn’t good news for everyone, it’s not good news for anyone.
In my previous understanding of the Bible, the gospel simply meant to “believe” in Jesus so you could be forgiven for not following the rules and go to heaven when you die.
But when we flip the script and see the Bible as good news for the poor, the outcast, the widow, the orphan, and the prisoner, we see a much different story.
In fact, I’d argue, we see God in a much different light.
Exercises in missing the point
To see the Bible as literature for the oppressed is to see that, in many ways, it’s not good news for people like me. People who have lived in comfort and privilege at the expense of those who find themselves in societal and economic margins.
To be sure, it’s actually more of a challenge for us to see people equally, to recognize the inherent worth and dignity not just of other individuals but for groups and communities of people who are victimized by the very privilege systems that benefit people like me.
And to do something about it.
To view the Bible as an instruction manual for the afterlife is to ignore what appears to be God’s primary concern for the suffering of people in this life.
And with how people in positions of power and privilege perpetuate that suffering.
And I think that’s what most of us get wrong about the Bible.
If we simply read it for what it does to affirm what we already believe about ourselves, we’re missing the point.
If we expect it to tell us what the rules are and how to follow them so we can get an express ticket to a golden city in the clouds, we’re ignoring its essence.
But if we can use it to help us see the light and life in everyone and everything, if we can open ourselves to its critique of power structures and privilege, if we can let it teach us how to be more like Jesus—not in how we imagine his moral perfection, but in how we can live it out through care for people on the margins—we can begin to be the kind of people we were actually created to be.
And when we see the Bible that way, the world begins to change.