Why it CAN'T Be "All About the Bible"
The other day we had a first time visitor at Sojourn who beelined to me after the service and immediately asked, “what version of the Bible do you use?”
This was my first clue that perhaps our church was not going to be a great fit for her.
We talked for a bit, then she went to our Info Table to inquire about small groups, after which she found me again and was irate to have learned that our small groups are not “Bible studies” in the traditional sense.
“That lady," she said, pointing a shaking finger at our staff member at the Info Table, "told me you don’t use the Bible in your small groups!?”
(Yup. I was right. Sojourn is not for her.)
She went on to express her utter dismay that any church would use anything other than the Bible for, well, everything.
“It all has to come from the Bible!” she insisted repeatedly.
“I’ll tell you what,” I responded, “if you are still curious about us, go to our website and listen to some of our sermons. That will give you a good sense about us. But I will say this, if your opinion is that it should be all about the Bible all the time, then I don’t think our church is what you’re looking for.”
She huffed and walked away. I don’t think we’ll see her again.
Later that afternoon I was reflecting back on my interaction with this woman and I was reminded once again of my commitment to the conviction that it simply cannot be “all about the Bible.”
What do I mean by “it?” I mean, "a faithful life of love rooted in a trust in God." But you can get even more specific I think, and say “a faithful life of love rooted in a trust in God and oriented in the way of Jesus.”
Or, put simply, "the Christian life."
And my opinion is, the Christian life cannot be “all about the Bible.”
For if it is--if my interlocutor from Sunday is correct--then we must be prepared to acknowledge that the majority of Christians since our religion began have been royally screwed.
Why? Because having access to a Bible at all is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s only in the modern world that a Christian could easily acquire a personal Bible. Prior to the invention of the Gutenberg press (15th century), which made it possible for individual Bibles to be mass produced (“mass” meaning a couple hundred a year, costing loads of money each), Bibles were copied by hand and incredibly rare. Individuals certainly would not have owned a Bible, with the only one in a town belonging to--and staying at--the local church.
Furthermore, it wasn’t until after the Protestant Reformation (16th century) that Bibles began being translated in anything other than Latin. So it’s only been in the last 400 years that Bibles slowly, slooooowly, have become more accessible to the average Christian. For most of Church history (and therefore, for the majority of Christians who have ever sought to live a faithful life of love in the way of Jesus) people simply have not only not had a Bible, but they haven’t even been able to read or understand one. They relied on their local priest being the sole owner and sole reader/interpreter.
So if the visitor to our church is right and the Christian life is “all about the Bible,” then is she prepared to say to the billions of Christians who have lived prior to the modern world--who did not have access to a Bible and therefore could not organize their life around it even if they wanted to--that their faith was somehow lesser? That they were doing it wrong? That God was less pleased with their faith?
I should hope not!
But it gets even more absurd.
The Christian church didn’t even have a Bible prior to the end of the 4th century! For the first 300+ years of Christianity there was no Bible to speak of. There were copies of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) in the local synagogues, and if you were lucky then you might occasionally get a letter read to your house church written by an apostle. But which letter? Which apostle?
Before the Bible was canonized at the end of the 4th century (meaning, the final list of who’s in and who’s out) there were many different possible “books” of the Bible.
So if the Christian life is "all about the Bible," if everything has to come from the Bible, if the Bible is the most important source of truth for the Christian, then what do you say to the first few centuries of men and women who were doing their best to live a faithful life of love to God, rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, before the Bible even existed?
Look, I don’t mean to make light of the idea that this woman (and so many others) has about the importance of the Bible in the Christian faith. I am all in on the Bible. I think it’s an incredible, inspired, sacred collection of books, letters, poems, and stories.
But I do wish that some Christians would relax a little bit in terms of just how important/central they believe the Bible to be. There is just no way that I can, with a straight face and a clear conscience, look at the billions of Christians who have lived between 33AD and 2017AD--the majority of whom never saw, touched, or read a Bible, and had no way to make their faith “all about it,”--there’s no way I can tell them that their faith was less than. That it was missing something. That they weren’t quite doing it right, but hey, good try!
So next time you hear someone (or heck, next time you might catch yourself!) talking about how everything has to come from the Bible, or that Christianity has to be "all about the Bible," just remember how horribly unfair that is to everyone born before the 20th century. It is a statement born of chronological privilege, something you get to say because you’re born in a world where you can make your Christian faith all about the Bible if you so choose.
That just has not been true for the majority of Christians who have ever lived.
And that’s why I say, it can’t be all about the Bible.