When I took my first Bible course in college, I was asked to memorize the books of the Bible. Many people in my class found this exercise of writing the books of the Bible from memory in list form very difficult. The spelling of the books of the Old Testament was particularly difficult. But it was not difficult for this Baptist. I can still easily recite the 66 books in order, with a little reminder about the minor prophets.
Baptists are often called “people of the book” because we place great value on Scripture. We were brought up with the scriptures from an early age in church and often at home. Many of us participated in Bible exercises, which required memorizing scriptures and being quick to find key passages. I wasn’t very attached to the Bible exercises, but I learned enough to create a base on which to continue loving and learning the Bible.
What I love about the Bible is the mystery. Often some of my fellow Baptists believe in inerrancy – that there is no error in Scripture, which excludes mystery. They claim we should take it at face value as literal truth. I believe we sell the Bible short with this view because the Bible is filled with many genres and authors with different purposes and cultures that span an immense period of time.
“We believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but it seems the authors didn’t know that.”
We believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but it seems that the authors did not know this when they wrote their stories, their prophecies, their poems about end times thought, their gospels and their letters, to name a few. Therein lies the mystery of this collection of writings that requires our study, deep reflection and interpretation. Our understanding of many passages changes and evolves with our understanding of God from our lives of faith influenced by the Holy Spirit. As Baptists, the priesthood of the believer—the idea that each of us is responsible to serve as our own priest—calls us to a relationship with God that gives us the gift of wrestling with Scripture to help us on our journey.
Many years ago I met with a person to train him on our new Sunday School program and to share the goals that I and the committee had created for our Sunday School ministry (they had missed Training). This teacher used to choose his own Bible stories and create his own lessons for the 2 and 3 year olds in his class. They wanted me to know that they were teaching the Bible to the children in their class. I applauded their efforts and expressed my gratitude to them for their dedication and love.
I also shared why I wanted all preschool classes to use the new materials. One of the reasons being that more Bible stories could be shared in a more structured way so that children hear more than a few selected stories repeated each year. And I wanted preschoolers to hear stories of Jesus. The curriculum I had carefully chosen emphasized gospel stories.
After introducing the program and demonstrated some activities, I was quite surprised to encounter resistance. The teacher said they just couldn’t support this plan because they strongly believed in teaching these young children “the Bible”.
“I was puzzled as to how teaching preschoolers about Jesus from the Gospels was not teaching them the Bible.”
During this time, I was puzzled as to how teaching preschoolers about Jesus from the Gospels was not teaching them the Bible. They could not answer this question. They couldn’t explain why they felt there was a problem.
Confused, I continued to talk about the importance of knowing the stories of Jesus, of building a foundation that, as the children grew and moved on to the next Sunday School class, would continue to grow in their faith, understanding that Jesus loves them, that they must love Jesus and their neighbour.
The teacher and I left this frustrated meeting. The teacher was so upset with the direction of the Sunday School ministry that he eventually left the church.
What I suspected then and believe now is that this well-meaning individual did not know what it meant to follow Jesus and worship God in spirit and in truth.
Perhaps we had failed to teach them the difficult journey of faith. They only knew how to worship the Bible.
“They only knew how to worship the Bible.”
They only knew how to teach preschoolers a simplified version of Noah’s Ark, when in reality the story is about a group of people and animals that die by the hand of God. We rush next to this – thinking this story is helpful for kids because it has a rainbow in it.
They only knew how to teach that God saves Moses as a baby in a basket in the river, not that Moses set the people free – a harsh story of death, slavery and finally justice set free from pharaoh.
They only knew how to teach that Jesus was placed in a manger as a baby and that baby would save us because we are so horribly sinners. This baby would grow up to die a horrible death on the cross, and we should feel guilty because we are not worthy of this sacrifice.
Instead of teaching that the great love of God sent Jesus to teach us to love, live and serve, they only knew how to teach one side of scripture – our sins are washed away with blood (yikes, not great no more for children), thank goodness!
They didn’t know and struggle with the Bible; they adored him.
This individual left and went in a church where they felt more comfortable. The problem is that Scripture is not meant to put us at ease. It’s supposed to be difficult.
“We can be people of the book. But we can’t just be people of the book.
We box be people of the book. But we can’t be people uniquely of the book. We are believers who use the scriptures to help us on our journey of faith. To direct us to God, to keep us on the right path, to lead us to love our neighbors as Jesus teaches us.
Ultimately, the Bible does not replace Jesus. When it is, bibliolatry is our religion.
Diana Bulter Bass says in free jesus, “Most American Christians are sort of librarians.” Jesus is the Word of God, explains Butler Bass. Not “word” in the sense of a literal word on a page, or a scripture, but something more mysterious. Jesus is in some way God, in a way we can’t quite fathom, an incarnation of God. God made flesh. Divine.
We follow this Jesus whom we are lucky to know in part through Scripture. When we speak of scripture as divinely inspired and living, breathing word, we can celebrate its role in guiding our struggle to know God and become more Christlike, but we must be careful not to elevate the Scripture above belief in God. Belief changes our lives, while bibliolatry asks little of us.
“We must be careful not to elevate scripture above belief in God.”
The recent rise of Christian nationalism speaks volumes. It’s easy to replace Jesus when all you worship is the Bible. It’s easy to promote the lie that the US Constitution was a divinely inspired document, and our country is supposed to be a “Christian nation”, when all you worship is the Bible. It makes sense if you replaced Jesus with who is in and out of ism and upright; then “the country of God” begins to ring true.
Former President Donald Trump is a librarian, as we saw when he held up a Bible in the air (sometimes upside down) in an attempt to justify his violent evacuation of protesters from Lafayette Square. Just to be clear, Donald Trump is not a savior, nor should he be confused with someone who looks like Christ.
Our Holy Trinity is not God, the Bible and the Holy Spirit. It’s God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
We can love the scriptures because they are a gift to us. Not to adore but to direct us to a God of love and therefore to direct us to a people of love.
Unfortunately, I was unable to meaningfully communicate this great love to the teacher in this story. I regret losing their friendship and trust because we couldn’t get along. But I believe in a God who is at work in the world. Maybe, just maybe, we will reconcile this friendship one day because God loves us both deeply and strongly without fail. In the meantime, I put my trust in the God of love.
Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.
The commandment of Scripture is love. Let us love God and one another as Jesus commanded us and keep our Bibles on our bedside tables and on our pews where they belong.
Julia Goldie Day is ordained by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and lives in Memphis, Tennessee. She is a painter and proud mother of Jasper, Barak and Jillian. Learn more about her website.
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