Maybe you grew up and couldn’t for the life of you place the dinosaurs in Genesis 1.
Or maybe - passionate and wide-eyed - you decided to study theology or biblical studies at university, only to encounter such a profound conflict between how the Bible is understood and handled within academic contexts compared with local church contexts, that you experienced something akin to the trauma of a tectonic plate movement.
On the brink of losing your faith, you put your Bible on your bookshelf, and did one of three things: you held onto your favourite verses and chapters and ignored the rest; you made the tricky bits work, but through a series a mental gymnastics; or you decided to base your faith on your current experience of God, through sung worship and prophetic prayer and community.
Or maybe you just lost your faith altogether.
I completely sympathise with you.
This is not an apologetics blog arguing for the literary sophistication of ancient manuscripts or the dynamic partnership between the natural sciences and the Christian faith. There is lots of exciting work out there exploring these areas by people who are doing a much better job at bringing clarity than I ever could.
I am writing this blog as part of a movement which is seeking to bridge the chasm between local church faith and academic scrutiny. Because that chasm is in me. I am both a trained sceptical, critical thinker - I like to spot patterns in the world and see why and how things do and don't fit together; and I am also a human practitioner of life, rooted in a family, with friends, in a loving local church community.
I am therefore not only unbelievably grateful for the incredibly thoughtful, careful and considered findings from the academic world, I also, like all of us want my life to work. As far as I am concerned, if the biblical worldview is the real reading of the world, then (having understood it and handled it with wisdom) it will work; it will deliver what it promises: human flourishing.
A bit like how understanding the law of gravity helps to explain why when people jump out of a plane without a parachute they will probably die.
The words of the 100s of divinely inspired poets, writers, scribes, scholars, editors, compilers, translators weave together a world view which is a reading of the world that actually works in real everyday human life.
Honesty rather than lying. Loyalty rather than betrayal. Forgiveness rather than holding a grudge. Generosity rather than stealing. Intimacy rather than independence. Stewardship rather than exploitation. Justice rather than injustice. Faith rather than unbelief. Heaven rather than hell. All of these are God’s ways and God’s ways work. People, families, cultures, nations which build according to the reality of God’s ways prosper. So, like a tree producing good fruit, the words in the Bible are the seeds of God’s ways in the good soil of people’s hearts which produce the good fruit of lives well-lived over generations.
Yeah yeah yeah. I hear you say. All worldviews vaguely claim those values. Why the Bible?
(Firstly, I would argue actually that no other worldview holds all these values, but the whole world has been sufficiently christianised in the last 2000 years that many people adhere to these ideals even if they don’t believe in Christ).
And secondly, what the Bible reveals is that humanity simply couldn’t attain to these values. We needed help. In stark contrast, all other worldviews (from ancient to postmodern) are essentially emphasising the same solution to the problem of the human condition: human effort. The Bible radically reveals an aspect of God that has never been heard of before or since: God’s work on our behalf.
What made all of these ideals possible; what sets the biblical worldview apart; what is at the heart of it all is: the human, crucified and resurrected God.
There is nothing like this anywhere. Nothing in the whole of human history remotely comes close to this revelation that God came in human form on our behalf. In his death all that was wrong with humanity was crucified forever, and in his resurrection all of Him, His new, honest, loyal, forgiving, generous, intimate, caring, heavenly human nature was released to the world forever.
And this happened in time and place.
Releasing humanity once and for all from the intolerable burden of self-effort. There is nothing like this anywhere; and yet we know when we are honest about ourselves and the human condition, we need it everywhere.
To return to rebuild after the earthquake. Let trust enable us to pick up the pieces of our scattered confidence in the Bible gently. Trusting the One who we know deep down was crucified for us.
If we trust this world view works, and inhabit it as if it is real, we will discover it is real. And somewhere along the way we find we make peace with those old questions: how to understand and handle the Bible with wisdom. Because we have encountered Jesus, the crucified and resurrected God.
In another words we need to trust in order to understand, rather than understand in order to trust. In the same way that we humans have known forever instinctively that if someone jumps from a great height they will injure themselves, or possibly even die, millenia before we codified our intuition in the law of gravity.
It is because it works that despite all the attempts to crucify this written word, it just keeps being resurrected from the dead.
And it may be that as we harness this knowledge in such a way that we embody it in our lives, we will find ourselves defying the seemingly endless limitations about what is actually humanly possible, and we will live truly extraordinary lives.
As it turns out, far from limiting our human experience, identifying how the material world is constructed, became the gateway to expanding our human experience. It was only when we understood and harnessed various laws of physics, including gravity, that we could put planes in the sky.
When we died to Genesis 1 having to work for a 21st century Western reader, and started reading it for its own sake - from the perspective of a minority group of Jewish scholars during a crisis in their history (the Babylonian exile), in the context of the cosmology and politics of the ancient near east, we not only discovered that this chapter in its original ancient Hebrew form is one of the most considered, beautiful, sophisticated, compelling pieces of literature from the ancient world, but we also discovered why it was written in the first place.
(If you want to know more about how to read the Hebrew Bible, I could not recommend more highly the FREE graduate level online classroom hosted by Dr.Tim Mackie of the Bible Project.)
So how do we understand and handle the Bible with wisdom? The irony is while some of us are trying to place the dinosaurs in Genesis 1 in a local church context it is because we are unwittingly reading the Bible through the secular lens which we inherited from our academic context.
We need to lay down our lens - relentlessly wanting to make the Bible primarily science and history and politics as we understand these disciplines to be, and let it be the only thing it claims to be - a Messianic text.
How do we understand and handle the Bible with wisdom? We recognise we need to read it through a lens, and this lens is Jesus.
The Hebrew Bible creates a silhouette of an anointed human who is to come, and the New Testament authors claim this anointed human, this Messiah, has come in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.
And the formation of this silhouette begins in Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is a Messianic text: it begins by making a claim that humans are designed to be God's image-bearers on earth. The Hebrew Bible then depicts both the repeated failure of humans to bear God's image, and the promise of a true human to come. Paul in the New Testament claims this initial aspect of the silhouette is uniquely fulfilled in the person of Jesus: He is the image of the invisible God.