What is the Bible by Rob Bell – Part 17 Assumptions and AA Meetings
What is the Bible?
Part 17: Assumptions and AA Meetings
I remember the first sermon I ever gave like it was yesterday. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have. I was 21 and I volunteered to give the sermon (Who does that? Who volunteers to preach a sermon?). I knew the moment I stood up to start talking that this was what I was supposed to do with my life. It truly felt like it was the first day of the rest of my life, like my life was beginning all over again, like I was made for this.
I realize that may sound dramatic, but that’s what happened.
That sermon turned out to be the first of many.
I would study a passage in the Bible, and then prepare a sermon, and then give it, and then study another passage in the Bible, and then prepare a sermon, and then give it…
It’s what I’ve been doing for a while now. And I love it more than ever. I love the craft, the process, the sweat, the maddening feeling that comes when it’s close but not quite there. I love the hours of study and reflection. I love seeing it come together. I love it when I’m working on something and suddenly I see what I haven’t seen before. And I’m sitting there alone at my desk and I push my chair back and take a deep breath because I’m overwhelmed that whatever it is I’ve discovered I get to share it with people.
I say all of this because as a preacher, the Bible is where you start. And the Bible, as we all know, can be a problem. Some people are against it but don’t have any idea what’s in it, some simply don’t trust it, some see it as an obstacle to evolution and enlightenment, and others just keep repeating the same verses they’ve been repeating for years, wondering why everybody-including them-is so bored. And then some have so much baggage associated with it that they don’t even know where to start…
I find the Bible more fascinating more ever. As I’ve thought through my years of preaching, I’ve realized that there are a number of insights that have shaped how I approach the Bible, insights I’m going to do my best to explain here.
So if you’re burned out, turned off, or buried in the baggage when it comes to the Bible, this is for you.
First, you have to start with what you have.
I have a friend named Pete Rollins (I suggest reading his books, they’re splendid) who points out that one of the reasons AA meetings are so powerful is that all you have is your materiality. What does he mean by materiality? In an AA meeting, you can’t pretend. You can’t hide. You can’t be anything or anybody other than who you are and what you’ve done. You are powerless against alcohol, your life has become unmanageable, and you need help. You are there, in that room, sitting in that folding chair, drinking that coffee, in your raw essence.
If you were to say “Hi, I’m ______ and I’m alcoholic-but you have to understand that it’s not that big of a deal I’m really an incredible person who has achieved all kinds of amazing things, this is isn’t really my style to be at a meeting like this…” we would all know that you aren’t ready. You aren’t serious. It’s only when you hit bottom, when you are willing to sit with your pain and powerlessness and face it and acknowledge it and embrace it for what it actually is in all its raw materiality that you have a chance at a day clean and sober.
Now, let’s think of materiality in relation to the Bible.
The Bible is a series of writings from actual people who lived in actual place in actual times. That’s what we have. That’s what the Bible is before it’s anything else. That’s where we start. These people who wrote these things were self centered and funny and greedy and loving and unpredictable and generous and passionate and prone to do really, really stupid things.
Just like us.
They had experiences.
They told stories.
They did their best to share those stories and put language to those experiences.
When you approach the Bible, then, you have to start with what you do have, what you do know about it, what it actually is.
That’s where you start.
Second, then, the more assumptions you drag to the Bible the less interesting you will find it.
Let’s start with an exercise: You have thoughts about God and the Bible. Beliefs. Skepticism. Convictions. Anger. Experiences. Things people have told you. Things you’ve read. Opinions about the God you do or don’t believe in. Whatever else. Imagine those thoughts as marbles. Each one a shiny little ball.
Got it? Good. Now, take all those marbles and put them in your pocket. Or in a bucket. Or in the cup holder in your car. You get the point. Set them aside. Put them out of sight.
Now, read the Bible.
Without any of those marbles.
Pick a random passage.
Do you best to read it without any ideas about God entering the picture.
If you do this, all you have is the words on the page. Written by people, passed down by people, edited by people, decided on by people.
That’s what you have.
Now, let’s turn to some of those questions that often come up when people talk about the Bible. Let’s focus on some of the most common, almost cliche questions, like
Why did God tell those people to kill those other people?
Why would God create people if God knew they would screw things up?
Why did Jesus have to die-couldn’t God have saved the world some other way?
You’ve heard these, right?
Here’s why I bring them up: If you were to ask the person asking the question where they got their ideas about this being named GOD they have questions about they would most likely reply: From the Bible.
Are you with me here?
Do you see why this can be a problem?
The person asking questions like these already has a number of assumptions and beliefs and thoughts about God and the Bible that they bring to their reading of the Bible. So while they’re reading it, they’re constantly comparing what they’re reading to what they have already decided about who God is and what God is like. (This is especially true of religious folks who grew up hearing about a particular version of God-it can be very, very difficult to hear the Bible any other way.)
The art, the challenge, the invitation, then, in reading the Bible is to be aware as you can of your marbles and keep them in the drawer as long as you can. This is often why people who grew up in church go away to college and take a class in literature or comparative religions and have to read the Bible as part of their coursework and suddenly find it fascinating. Their upbringing actually inoculated them against the compelling nature of the Bible because it spent to much time telling them what it is…
Which leads me to a third point: Beware of sermons in which the point is to prove something about the Bible.
Not only are they often quite boring, and it’s fuzzy who the intended audience is (These are people who got up on a Sunday morning and the best thing they could possibly think of to do was get in the car and drive to a building to hear someone talk about a book that was written thousands of years ago by people on a different continent in a different culture who spoke a different language. They probably don’t need much convincing…)
but they’re a giant exercise in missing the point.
The Bible is not an argument, it is a record of human experience. The point is not to prove that it’s the word of God or it’s inspired or it’s whatever-is-the-current-word-people-are-using, the point is to enter in to its stories with such intention and vitality that you find what it is that inspired people to write these books.
(When you find something inspiring, the last thing on your mind is proving that it’s inspired, you’re too caught up in actually being inspired.)
If you’re trying to prove what it is,
you’re already lost in the deep weeds.
But if you go deep into the humanity of it, that’s when things get interesting…
Fourth, then, you have to let it be what it is.
There are lots of passages that are quite mysterious, words in the original language we don’t have adequate modern equivalents for, stories that involve practices and rituals we don’t have any context for…
But if you keep your marbles in the bucket, and you read and listen carefully, you start to see the story behind the story, the story about people waking up to bigger and and more expansive understandings of who they understand God is and what they believe God is up to in the world.
Your questions, then, start to take on a new character, because you begin to realize that the more you enter in to the humanity of their story, the more you discover that there’s something at work, something insistent, something enduring, something that won’t let these people go.
And then you realize that that same force, presence, pull, and call is at work today within you. And those around you.
And whatever it is that won’t let those people go won’t let you go.
So whatever your perspectives on the Bible, let it be what it is.
If you’re still holding on to baggage that you don’t need to be, let it go.
If you can’t read it without rushing to judgment, put some more marbles in the drawer.
If you’re only able to read it one way, ask for new eyes.
Next, let’s look at a few places in the Bible that demand we let it be what it is, starting with the resurrection.
Next – What is the Bible?
Part 18: Our Dude is Alive!
Source: Rob Bell on Twitter: @realrobbell or Tumblr: http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/