The Bible As Script(ure): Part One

As a child, I remember attending church multiple times each week. I participated in every program my Southern Baptist, megachurch created. And, I absolutely loved growing up among those people and those friends.

I also remember the emphasis my church leaders and teachers placed on the Bible. They would utter “The Bible is the Word of God” and that it was “perfect and infallible” and, perhaps most importantly, the Bible was “the instruction manual for life.” Whether this was intended or not, I came away from Sunday school with the assumption that the Bible was meant to be treated as an authoritative text that tells you how to live a life that pleases God.

And, I am glad that I was taught this idea as a child.

I say that I am glad for this teaching because it offered ‘a way to read’ (a hermeneutic) the Bible in a way that showed me how to treat other human beings in a pretty decent way. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Obey your parents. Etc. All of these are pretty good commands to obey as a youth.

The problem–and I learned this as I went through my high school years–is that the manner of interpretation never developed beyond literalism. I was never told any other truth besides the fact that the Bible instructs us how to live via a set idea of a moral standard. I realized that even the adults in the congregation viewed the Bible as, essentially, a list of dos and don’s hidden beneath the guise that ‘Jesus is the one saving you.’

The buzz word in church was ‘Scripture.’ Whenever we had a question (like, “How can an all-loving, omnipotent God allow children to die of hunger?” or “Why does the Bible say two different people killed Goliath in two different books?” or “If God desires that all people to be saved and is truly all-powerful, then why does God send people to hell?”), we were always asked in reply, “Well, what does Scripture say?”

What does Scripture (I maintain the capitalization of the ‘S’ as it surely would have been capitalized by my church teachers) say?

They would ask us this question as the ultimate trump card. It was as if they could just shut down our line of questioning by returning us to the very book that spurred on the question. All of this ultimately was meant to demonstrate to us that any question we ever had would be answered with Scripture.

As I went through college and a plethora of religion and philosophy courses, I often thoughts about my church experience as a youth. In retrospect, I see how binding and narrowing it was to view the Bible as an instruction manual, a to-do list, an answer key, a moral compass, or a tool for shutting down thoughtful and serious questions.

I wish my church teachers had called the Bible ‘Stricture’ rather than ‘Scripture’ because that more accurately captures how they treated it and how their hermeneutic functioned. Strictures are re-strictive, binding, and logical.

The problem (and I say this as a post-modern theologian attempting to recapture the imaginations of a past generation) with reading or viewing the Bible as Stricture is that it is dishonest to the actual content and history of the Bible. An honest reading of the Bible completely dismantles the possibility of the Bible being Stricture.

One of the stories I remember constantly employed to show that the Bible is supposed to be used as a tool for correct living appears in Luke 4. In this chapter, Jesus goes into the desert (a literal place attributed with the symbolic meaning of the place where demons/satan dwells). In the desert, Jesus confronts the devil (the word for ‘devil’ is diabolo, which is formed from dia [across] + bolos [to throw], and literally means to throw across or one [of many] that ‘throws across’ or distracts–we get the word ‘diabolical’ from this word). This devil proceeds to tempt Jesus with certain desires and each time, Jesus shuts down the devil by recanting verses from the Hebrew Scriptures.

At this point in the story, my teachers would have said something like, “So anytime you are faced with a temptation, just recall a Bible verse and you will defeat the temptation.” It would almost sound formulaic: if x happens, then recall y to vanquish x.

The story moves on, however, as Jesus goes from the desert to the synagogue (also a literal place, but the place associated with correct teaching and where worship takes place). In the synagogue, Jesus reads a passage from the scroll of Isaiah (let us remember that at the time of Jesus, there was no ‘Bible’, only different scrolls used in worship services). Jesus reads aloud a pretty edgy passage in which he acts as if he is the person who is supposed to be speaking the text. Then, Jesus makes an audacious claim as he says “Today this scripture (okay, this is a bad word to use right here as the Greek word used to denote the Aramaic word Jesus actually spoke is graphē, which would better be translated as ‘passage’) has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Here, Jesus essentially tells those listening to him that he has completed (or is completing the work the passage spoke of). Everyone, according to the text, was amazed with Jesus.

Let’s pause for a second to remind ourselves of the story up until this point. Jesus rebuked a devil in the desert three times using scripture. Then, he comes into a synagogue, reads a scripture, and says he fulfilled (completed the task, crossed the finish line [the root of ‘fulfill’ has to do with running a race], finished the job) that very scripture. And, everyone is amazed by this. They basically start treating Jesus like a celebrity.

And, here is where the story completely falls off the tracks. Jesus goes on to tell the crowds of people praising him that (in essence) he will not be welcomed anymore and that he only has come to seek the lowest of the lowly and the outcast among those on the socio-economic spectrum (which is strangely the essence of the passage [graphē] that Jesus said he fulfilled from the scroll of Isaiah).

As soon as Jesus utters these phrases, the crowd is filled–and this word shares the same root as the word Jesus used when he said the Scripture had been ful-filled in their hearing–with rage. In a subtle turn of events, it seems as though when the people heard Jesus fulfilling the Scripture (completing the work of the passage), they are filled with rage. Jesus’ Scripture fulfillment ultimately fills the crowd with rage. They decide to try to kill him by pushing him off a cliff. And, in true Jesus fashion, he disappears to live another day.

If we imagine this story as a series of events that occur over time rather than dislocated moral truisms, then we see a thematic movement at work right in the dirt of the text (or Scripture, if you will). The crowd loves Jesus as long as he sticks to the script. Rebuke the devil with the Scriptures, the crowd will love you. Read the Scriptures in the synagogue and say you are fulfilling them, you will be praised. Begin improvising and explaining the severity of what the Scriptures mean in actuality, well…then the crowds will literally try to kill you. So, what’s going on here? How does Jesus go from everyone’s biggest fan to their most hated villain in a matter of a few sentences?

Here’s my hunch at what is going on right underneath the surface. The first two movements of this story involve Jesus treating the text as Stricture. He employs the formulaic response to the devil and he reads directly from the text without deviating in the synagogue. These two movements are great for the crowd as they maintain the status quo. In the final movement of this story, Jesus deviates from the expected course of discourse. He begins to improvise and disclose a deeper reality to the crowds. Here, we see Jesus shaking free from the burden of the Bible as Stricture. Here (or there), we see Jesus leaning into the Bible as Script(ure). I use this term, Script(ure), to strike at the heart hidden in the word itself. A script is that written document given to an actress or actor so that they might perform the living play. No good actor, however, simply memorizes the script and regurgitates it without thought. Rather, a true actress learns the script, ingests it, becomes one with it, discovers its nuances, finds spaces to improvise, and (ultimately) performs the script for all to see with heartfelt integrity.

I think in this story, we see Jesus move from treating the Bible as Stricture to performing the Bible as Script(ure). He ingests, fulfills, embodies, becomes, and passionately performs the graphē for all to see. Unfortunately, the audience does not seem to take too kindly to Jesus’ performance and goes a little further than just throwing tomatoes at him!

I write this to urge you to consider following the teaching of Jesus hidden in the heart of this story. Do not treat the Bible as Stricture and do not settle for the preservation of the status quo. Rather, follow Jesus in treating the Bible as Script(ure). Learn to ingest, embody, improvise, and lovingly perform the Bible even if it leads to the religious crowds (your church teachers and leaders included) pushing you off a cliff.

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