NYOJoe 004: Many years ago, I regularly traveled past a church with a large monument of the Bible on their front lawn often causing me to reflect on our relationship to the Bible. So let’s talk about backroads, monuments, and the witness of Scripture.
- I started this conversation in episode 002: Silence, complicity and LGBTQIA inclusion
- What’s a Benny?
- Here’s an online version of Bible Baseball – for curiosity, not an endorsement.
- Listen to ‘Backstreets‘ by Bruce Springsteen, just because we’re talking about New Jersey and backroads.
Welcome to Not Your Ordinary Joe, a podcast about living as a follower of Jesus in the real world… here… now. No easy answers allowed.
Many years ago, I regularly traveled past a church with a large monument of the Bible on their front lawn, that often caused me to reflect on our relationship to the Bible. So let’s talk about backroads, monuments and the witness of Scripture.
My name is Joe Iovino, and I am not your ordinary Joe.
When you live near or around the Jersey Shore, you learn multiple routes everywhere — to work, the grocery story, church, everywhere. Because in the summer, you can expect the major roadways — the Parkway, 195, 34, 35, 37, 70, 72 and just about every other road that will take people from NY or Philadelphia to the beach — to be jam-packed, making your commute unbearable.
So you learn to travel the backroads — local streets, county roads and any other way around the traffic, crossing those backed up roads rather than trying to travel on them.
When I lived there, one of my routes to work took me way off the beaten path. I passed a literal “Easy Street,” and enjoyed views of farms and woods. While others were pounding their steering wheels at a near standstill on the parkway, I was slowly moving along a serene pastoral landscape. It felt good to be able to snake my way around, always moving ahead of those who didn’t know the area as well — the tourists, or Bennys as we called them in New Jersey never really knowing what that meant.
Along that route, a small non-denominational church was set back among the trees on one of those smaller roads. I don’t remember the congregation’s name, just that it had a giant hand-made lawn decoration — a statue of sorts — of a Bible that had to be about eight feet tall.
It was a striking site — and, well, more than a little odd. I often wondered what it said about that church. I’m sure they meant it as a sign of their perceived fidelity to the Scripture, but to me, it always looked a bit like an idol — the golden calf the Israelites crafted at the foot of Mount Sinai when they thought Moses’ trip up the mountain to meet with God and receive the Ten Commandments was taking too long.
Many summer commutes, I passed that giant Bible and pondered the role of Scripture in our faith journeys. Worshipping the Bible to the point of building a large representation of it, certainly didn’t seem right. But what is the proper place of Scripture? How should we think about it? Approach it? Read it?
Before we go any farther, I want to say that I’m a big fan of the Bible (ok that’s a weird way to say that). I’m a student of the Bible. In my church growing up, I was the Babe Ruth of Bible Baseball. I could answer the most difficult questions. In college, I was once told at a Bible study that I was thinking too hard about the Bible, and in seminary I took just about every Bible class I could find.
In college and seminary I was on the tail end of the Jesus Seminar — the “search for the historical Jesus” movement. And though I no longer spend much time reading Scripture in that way, I loved it.
I wanted to know everything there was to know. I wanted to be an expert on Scripture, but I soon learned that there are two kinds of knowing. There is knowing about a subject and knowing a person — being in a relationship with someone. Those two ways of knowing are related, but not the same thing.
And, quite frankly, you can have all the ‘knowing about’ knowledge possible, be a trivia expert even, and never really know a person the way you know a spouse, a child, a close friend.
It’s interesting, and honestly a little frustrating, was that like most subjects worth studying, the more I learned and studied, the less I was certain about.
So what kind of knowing should we have for the Bible?
The witness of Scripture
In an earlier episode (episode 2 – ‘Silence, complicity and LGBTQIA inclusion’) I introduced a concept I called ‘the witness of Scripture.’
The best way I can think of describing this is seeing the forest and not just the individual trees — to recoup my image of driving the backroads. It’s the ability to hear major themes in Scripture, themes that resonate throughout, the bass notes as Rob Bell likes to say — on which Scripture is built.
For example, again from ‘Silence, complicity and LGBTQIA inclusion,’ there is the theme of the image of God present in every human being, and how all of creation is a reflection of the creator. That’s one.
There are also themes of the journey of life and the guidance of God, freedom from slavery, wandering in the wildreness and finding our way home — to the land God as promised us. All led by God.
There are themes of wandering away from God, following others, and heroes’ journeys of faith out into the unknown.
Stories of obedience even when it’s unpopular. Stories of brokenness and healing, summer and winter, death and resurrection, separation and renewal — that’s a major one.
There are themes throughout, of caring for the those who are often overlooked and under-provided for, loving the outsider and welcoming the stranger — Who knows? You might be entertaining angels without knowing it.
As I write about these themes, stories come to mind — from Genesis and Exodus, from the prophets and psalms, from the evangelists, apostles, and gospels. They aren’t just one-offs, random verses selected to make a point. They are themes that each tell us something about God, about Jesus and the leading of the Spirit. They inform us about our faith journeys and our place within the history of humanity — from Creation to today.
And when you approach the Bible in this way, you probably won’t build a giant lawn decoration to it, but other beautiful things begin to happen. Scripture comes alive in us and we enter into a conversation in the present, not just about the past. We begin to see God at work in the ordinary moments of our lives — not just in the things we consider sacred, but in the mundane as well.
For example, if God was present in the dreams of the Josephs — both the coat of many colors one from Genesis and Mary’s husband from the New Testament — then God may also be present in my dreams.
If Jacob can sense God’s presence in the wilderness saying, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it” — can you and I begin to sense God in the places we would least expect?
If Abraham and Sarah entertained angels without knowing it, could we be meeting angels when we meet a stranger in need?
And if a bush could talk to Moses and donkey to Balaam — what might God be trying to use to talk to me? How should I be listening for God?
We could go on and on… Again, there is an amazing conversation that begins to take place between me and the holy, this world and God’s world begin to overlap and blend and the distinctions become a bit more blurred.
But when we idolize the Scripture — when we build monuments to the Bible and ascribe it to a place nearly equal to God — something else happens.
We tend to get focused on the trees rather than the forest. We tend to get caught up in the minutia and miss what God is really trying to say to us.
Here’s what I mean.
There’s this troubling verse in 1 Samuel 15 where God commands the people of Israel to attack the Amalekites, and God through Samuel says, “Spare no one. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.” When I encounter that verse, it’s pretty easy for me to say, ‘You know, maybe Samuel misheard God,’ or ‘Maybe this is hyperbole to make a point.’ Maybe the person who wrote this down later, blamed the Amalekites for all of Israel’s problems and was interpreting the story through that sinful lens.
But if you’ve turned the Bible into an idol, you can’t do that. You begin to see all the parts as equal rather than evaluating this tree in light of the forest. And so you begin to understand things about God that actually run counter to the rest of the witness of Scripture.
And that’s how you get these ideas that the Bible contradicts itself.
Reading this verse alone, you might extrapolate: Is God really OK with killing those whom he has created? Maybe God likes some people better than others. Maybe racism is OK, even sanctioned by God.
None of that works within the forest, but if you elevate this tree, you have to make room for that kind of understanding for who God might be.
And that’s happened to us throughout history.
For a couple of hundred years Christians in the US found evidence for slavery in the Bible — even seeing it as God sanctioned, even though one of the major stories of the Old Testament is the Israelite’s Exodus from slavery and the repeated refrain to remember that you were once slaves.
We did it with women clergy because there is a verse that says women are to be silent in the gathering. So we made a rule that ignored all of the evidence throughout Scripture of women in leadership throughout the Hebrew Bible and all the women who traveled with Jesus and are mentioned by Paul as leaders of the early church.
See how we can lose site of the forest for the trees? Lose the witness of Scripture through the viewing of individual verses?
We know of God’s love for all of creation — for the outcast, outsider, the one who doesn’t seem to belong, the ‘least of these’ as Jesus says in Matthew 25. So when we read a verse about God saying, “Kill everyone, “ we think, “Hold on! That doesn’t fit.” And we explore that verse. We approach it differently.
Oftentimes, people like me get accused of making the Bible fit our views. As if we got off the Parkway, the easy way, and got lost on the backroads, ending up in the wrong place.
But what that statement fails to recognize is that those views that I’m supposedly trying to make the Bible fit — the stuff I would stake my life on — were formed by the Bible. It is a reading of Scripture informed by Scripture — not some outside influence. It is a means of allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to me through the text, leading me to God and God’s love and grace. It is an understanding that the Bible is a means to the end of a relationship with the Divine and not an end in itself.
That’s what I was doing all those years ago. I wanted to know the Bible, but the Bible doesn’t want to be known. It wants instead to facilitate us coming into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Are you with me?
If you are sensing in me a bit of bias or defensiveness, I have to own that. But please hear this in the manner in which it is intended…
I don’t believe that a surface, literal, “plain reading of Scripture,” is taking the Bible as seriously as we do when we think deeply about what we’re reading, times when we have to wrestle with it because something doesn’t fit. There’s that whole meaning of the word Israel as ‘one who wrestles with God’ thing again.
I think it is far more faithful, is taking the text far more seriously, when we are careful with it.
For example, as a preacher I always tried very hard to understand what the text in front of me was trying to say before I preached it. I wanted to know what the author had in mind for the original audience. What the original point of the story or parable was, and is. Why did the author choose to tell us this story and not something else. And if we are going to look for clues, let’s stick with this author and not jump around the Scripture as if it has a single author.
So, for example, I always tried to avoid informing a story from one gospel by quoting from a different one. If we’re looking at a passage from Luke, let’s stick with Luke and not jump to Matthew’s telling of the same or similar story. Yes, both gospels might include it, but due to placement and purpose, they might be trying to tell us slightly different things.
Sorry if this comes across as defensive. Over the years I’ve been accused of playing fast and loose with the Bible, of hermeneutical gymnastics as some are fond of saying, to get the Bible to say what I want it to say, but that’s never been my intent.
Instead, I try to use the Bible to hear what the Bible is actually trying to say, and not just look at a random quote and extrapolate a bunch of things that simply are not part of the witness of Scripture.
No, I want to hear what the text has to say at a deeper level. I want to hear how it is drawing me nearer to the God it tells me about who is in constant conversation with us, forever inviting me to follow Jesus, and not just demanding obedience to a book, a verse, a random thought someone has decided has weight.
If we weigh it all the same, are we to hammer our weapons into farming tools (Isaiah 2:4) or our farming tools into weapons (Joel 3:10) — because both of those images are in there!
This is why I talk about the witness of Scripture, about taking the time to study and listen to God through the Scripture. To get a sense of the forest without worshipping the individual trees.
I don’t want to stop at knowing of the Bible, building a monument to it. I want to lead me to a deeper understanding of God, a growing relationship with Jesus.
I guess, to push the imagery a little, it takes getting off the highway, slowing down and getting to know the area by traveling the backroads. Taking our time to notice the scenery, getting a sense of what this place is really like — and not thinking we really know it because we hit the highlights, the tourist traps, the beaches the Bennies are rushing toward.
And when we’re talking about the Bible, that means not just knowing the Bible for the Bible’s sake, but getting to know the one about whom the Bible is written. To get a sense of God’s story and to find my place in it.
While the many in the faith may be stuck on the Parkway, stagnant, looking like they may even be going backwards. I hope I’m still going, still growing on the backroads. Still learning about the one who makes the journey worthwhile. Deepening my relationship with the one who gives all of this starting and stopping, joy and frustration, meaning.
To learn more about me and Not Your Ordinary Joe, go to joeiovino.com/nyojoe. There are links there where you can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening. Talk to you soon. Peace.