A while back I was discussing our faith with a young man I encounter on a regular basis. He describes himself as a ‘former Catholic’ or, more positively, as a ‘devout Atheist.’ He gave up on the practice of his faith because, the course of one of the religious education classes he attended at a local Catholic secondary school, he was told that the world was created in seven days. He was instructed that he needed to accept this because the Bible says so. When he questioned this reading of history from a scientific perspective, he was told that science is wrong. He decided then and there that ‘belief in God is for idiots.’
More recently I tentatively decided to give my young friend a book: a classic text written by Thomas Merton, detailing his journey from atheism to a deep relationship with Jesus Christ as a Catholic, Seven Storey Mountain. Before giving it to him, I tested out whether or not he would be willing to receive a book from me. He was, although admitted to being worried that I was about to hand him the Bible. He said that Christians had tried to do that before. This gave me food for thought. It hadn’t occurred to me to provide him with a copy of the Bible: but why not?
Personally, I am not a great fan of inexperienced individuals, unsupported and left to their own devices, being encouraged to read the Bible. We see the harm that it can do when people take passages out of context, with no training and guidance on how those passages are to be understood. A recent example of the harm it causes has come to us via the now infamous social media post by the sporting great, Israel Folau.
More often than not, it is the Bible in the hands of the inexperienced that has led to the situation Christianity finds itself in today. At last count, there are something like five thousand individual groups (or denominations) within the Christian fold. The vast majority of them have been started by individuals, or a handful of individuals, who took hold of the Bible and appointed themselves the authority on interpreting what the particular passages might mean.
These are, by and large, good people. However, the mistake that is made is this: obedience to God and everything that goes with that, is not the same thing as being obedient to my particular interpretation of my favourite passages of Scripture. An entry into understanding Scripture is first and foremost an entry into discipleship with Jesus Christ. We find in Scripture the seeds of understanding what that relationship might mean. It is a relationship in which we are invited into the long process of moving beyond ourselves, our own egos and instinctive preoccupations, and learning to look at the world with the eyes of love with which God looks at the world (John 3:15). With prayer and guidance, we come to understand what Scripture can show us about how to live that relationship in the context of our lives as they are today. We don’t do this alone, and we don’t set ourselves up as the sole experts on how this is to be lived and understood. We look to our spiritual guides (those in our faith community who are already well along on this journey) and our holy ones (the saints the Church has identified for us) for guidance. We remain humble and open to searching for new and deeper understandings, and we don’t imagine that we have all the answers.
No, I wouldn’t give my young friend the Bible. Soon, if he were open, I might give him a copy of the gospel according to Mark. I’d encourage him to read that from beginning to end in one sitting, and when he was done, I would talk him through any questions he might have. Once we had worked our way through that, I might give him one of Paul’s letters: perhaps Ephesians or Colossians. Gradually we’d get around to more and more of the Bible, but at his pace and only in the context of helping him build his relationship with Jesus Christ and with the Body of Christ. For that is what the Scripture is for: to bring us into connection with God and with one another. It is not a tool to be used to reassure ourselves that we are ‘saved’ and to cause hurt to others.
The Bible Is Insufficient
Some Christians have elevated the Bible to a place that God really never intended. We are a people centred on a person, not a book.
Jesus said to the Bible-experts of his time, the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” (John 5:39-40 NLT)
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for trying to get their “life” from the scriptures. Jesus claimed that the scriptures pointed to him and that real life was found in him, not in the scriptures.
The Pharisees had the “answers”. But, Jesus breaks it to them… the scriptures were never the true source of life. The real answer was right in front of them.
So for us today, the Bible is not sufficient on its own for the Christian life. Being a Christ-follower is about living and loving in community, by the Spirit, within tradition and scripture, centred-around Jesus.
Postscript: It is with sadness we advise that Shane Dwyer has resigned his role as Director of the NCE and CEC. Shane’s dedication to the ministry of evangelisation, and his giftedness in expressing the beauty and challenges of our Catholic Faith will be greatly missed. He is looking forward to working in the Archdiocese of Brisbane in a related role.
This article is part of Faith Journey, a newsletter from the National Centre for Evangelisation.