Why a postmodern Christian should know his Bible
A Postmodern language for absolute terms
The Bible has always been a work of great contention. Whether belief in the Bible’s historicity, or surety of the Bible’s claim to infallibility, believing in the Bible is a complex task. As Christians, it is a foundational task to our faith. The descriptions of God’s interactions with men over space and time have been foundational to that very faith. These stories have served to create a narrative understanding of the personality of the Judeo Christian God. To this end, countless cultures have embraced, accosted and sometimes pillaged the Holy Scriptures to be a defining aspect of their cultures.
This is easily demonstrated in postmodern America, where the Bible serves as a social narrative in Christianity, but with many varying interpretations of that narrative, resulting in countless denominations and quasi-religions. Indeed, many Christians claim to include belief in the Bible as a pillar of their faiths but seem to lack a definitive understanding of that inspired work, or a drive to include understanding it into their everyday lives. In this way, the Bible seems to be the constant New Year’s Resolution. For a book so widely sold, it is a wonder that it is also so unattended to by those who claim it’s authority.
Nevertheless, the Bible remains a work of authority in the Christian faith, even if by fame alone. This is due to it’s clear message of salvation for a broken humanity, an outline of the plan to make this salvation attainable and an introduction to the architect of mankind, and his salvation, Yahweh. Through the Bible, and it’s easy to understand message, countless people have come to put their faith in Jesus, have made radically positive changes in their lives and passed those changes onto the world. As with all powerful tools for change, men will distort and destroy with that tool what they can, despite this, the shear perpetual force for positive change found within Scripture is undeniable and invaluable.
It is in this light that we ask how such a tool became so underutilized in a society that so clearly speaks the praises of it. How did it come to be that everyone bought the Bible, but so few have bought into it? As Christians what is our responsibility to this book and how is life affected by our lack of commitment to a relationship with it?
An Enlightened man finds his answers within
If DesCartes were told that his works might outmode the Bible, he might have laughed. DesCartes was a Christian. He believed in the Bible. He believed in its authority in his life and believed that God could be proven. He believed that the ultimate proof of God lie in his own ability to disprove his own rational self and this sturdiness of surety gave him the springboard necessary to prove the rest of the natural world. It was on the basis of his axiom, “I think therefore I am,” that his Cartesian rationalism was developed. Science benefitted greatly from his legacy.
Yet, years later, philosophy often credits him as being a father of The Enlightenment era. This era, which employed DesCartes’ Cartesian Rationalism, was categorized by an extreme cynicism or doubt. This system eventually detached itself from the biblical core of a sincere knowledge, that the God of creation was knowable, and within two hundred years was being touted by men who denied the existence of that very god. Baron Von Holbach, a well known atheist, expressed his Enlightenment ideals thusly,
“Let us endeavor to disperse those clouds of ignorance, those mists of darkness, which impede Man on his journey, … which prevent him marching through life with a firm and steady step. Let us try to inspire him … with respect for his own reason — with an inextinguishable love of truth … so that he may learn to know himself … and no longer be duped by an imagination that has been led astray by authority … so that he may learn to base his morals on his own nature, on his own wants, on the real advantage of society … so that he may learn to pursue his true happiness, by promoting that of others … in short, so that he may become a virtuous and rational being, who cannot fail to become happy.”
Upon reading this conclusion by Von Holbach, it could be easily concluded that the Christian God has lost his place in a love of Truth, the morals of one’s nature, and one’s true happiness. How did such a paradigm shift take place?
DesCartes, along with other well meaning and devout Christians had removed an essential element to belief in God, while seeking to bolster that very belief. What they had inadvertently removed was a recognition that universal truth is something men must have help to know. The idea of deep universal truth as unknowable was at the heart of DesCartes’ development of Cartesian Rationalism. While devout Christian philosophers that came before him, like Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great extolled the virtues of nature, by appealing to the senses, DesCartes felt the need for something more. He could not reason past his own doubts about what he perceived. The outcome would be that knowledge of the world comes from a knowledge of oneself. Self, for DesCartes is the lense by which all truth is viewed since self cannot be doubted. As stated earlier, DesCartes assumed a relationship between self and God, presupposing that the idea of one’s self can only be derivative of God. Unfortunately, because doubt was the base philosophy, rather than a personal God, many who came after him did not.
Removing the glasses
As the world progressed, Christianity became a relegated truth. The Bible which was understood to be a book of pure revelation from the creator of the universe, became only that when viewed from a specific and antiquated lense. As society moved toward placing self as the lense by which to view the world around it, the lense by which revelation is viewed became murkier and murkier. Indeed, in this day the Bible is often no longer viewed as a work of inspiration at the hands of an almighty and personal being, but often as a mere fancy of man’s creation. It is, at best, nothing more than a mechanism produced by men to alleviate their fear of the unknown. Where Paul claims to Timothy that:
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
The Men of Science and reason make claims to each other that:
“…the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries”
Of Men or God?
When the Bible is known as the work of men, it can certainly not be known as the divine work of God. Paul spoke of this when he called the belief in Jesus “foolishness” if Christ’s resurrection did not occur in real space and time. To Paul, the Scriptures had a bigger importance than their effect on today. They redefined our pasts and shaped our future’s in not one life, but two: This life and the next. But when the Bible was divorced from revelation and became the work of men, it lost its authority to shape the life of men. This is not to say that the Bible lost its power. Vishnal Mangalwadi in “The Book That Made Your World,” states it well,
“The Bible created the modern world of science and learning because it gave us the Creator’s vision of what reality is all about. That is what made the modern West a reading and thinking civilization. Postmodern people see little point in reading books that do not contribute directly to their career or pleasure. This is a logical outcome of atheism, which has now realized that the human mind cannot possibly know what is true and right.”
Despite its power to shape lives and culture, because the Bible is now seen as a work of man, it has become a book that struggles to find its voice above other works of men. Never before had the sacred scriptures had to vie for a place on one’s proverbial bookshelf. Its status in years past was a guarantee. This is attested to by a well known fact of antiquity that Bible’s used to be chained to pulpit’s in the middle ages to keep them from being stolen. The Bible was the definitive voice on the knowledge of the physical and metaphysical. But, as a work of fiction in the minds of the post enlightened, the value of the Bible would soon be taken for granted. This is because for the first time in antiquity, the Bible had to be chosen. For it to be chosen, it had to be lifted beyond the realm of a literary work back into the framework it was presented in… as the very word of God. This is still waiting to happen.
How Christians view the Bible
Instead, Western Americanized Christianity has chosen to allow for the Bible to remain primarily a literary work. This too, is a natural outworking of post enlightenment thinking. For Christians who are born into this ontology, it is unsurprising that the Bible is sacred but without power. Instead, the Christian is left to find a place for the Bible amidst the cacophony of varying barkers in his life. Even if the Bible manages to come off a store shelf and into one’s home, placing its words and ideas out of the pages and into one’s heart is an even harder task. Even if a Christian is able to place the ideas in his heart, he has to peel back the filters with which he has come to look at his very being before he can begin to interpret those ideas into a meaningful application. Attempting to share those ideas and applications with a person who drastically needs that precious revelation is even more daunting. To convince a Christian that he should read his Bible as revelation is a herculean task in this light.
A Postmodern Argument
There are many arguments that one could make from a postmodern vantage to a inspire a Christian to read his Bible. Here are a few:
- The Bible is a story about us and God. To not know this story is to be ignorant of ourselves.
- The Bible has had incredible effects on any civilization that sought to employ it’s wisdoms. To not explore what it offers is to waste it as a resource.
- The Bible is the analog to today’s digital. It is the vinyl to today’s streaming. To know the Bible is to hear the authentic voice of the past.
- The Bible is the source work for the faith we have. To live as a Christian without knowing the source is to be fake and to have a poser/meta-faith.
However, arguments such as these, true as they may be, fail to communicate one simple, but important truth about the Bible; that it is a work of revelation. Without that fact in the argument, reading the Holy Scriptures is simply uncompelling when it stands against easier and more accessible, and quite frankly, less judgemental works. A rational person can reason away these arguments as relegated, non compelling or even archaic and cliche. Quite frankly, they would be right to.
The Bible Demands an Audience
The Bible doesn’t want to be read this way. Every book within is written with an expectation that the reader view it as revealing a truth once unknown, or shedding light on a truth previously revealed. Scripture is to be read, by its own telling, as the breath of God. It is, by its own testimony, a work of nonfiction. To support this, where it speaks as a historical narrative, it gives real dates, times and facts by which its audience can check its veracity and it calls its audience to do so. For instance, the Bible calls for a Prophet who is wrong or out of line with previous prophecies to be murdered by the whole community. Yet many Christian leaders today have a less than stalwart view of the Bible as historically accurate and actionable in its message to, even, Christian congregations. The concept of revelation is left unaddressed as the banner of non-believing critical scholarship is taken up in increasingly insecure statements which present the Bible as ultimately a work of man. Questions about biblical inerrancy are raised and biblical transmission is called into question. The intent of the authors of the Scripture is seen as unknowable and his mindset is dismissed as unimportant. In this way, proper exegesis has all but ceased to exist. Scripture has become a work of culture rather than of God. This is a bastardization of the Cartesian Rationale applied to Scripture. It states that we cannot prove revelation, therefore revelation cannot be assumed. Mangalwadi speaks of the short sightedness of such arguments
“Some friends maintained that the Bible could not be God’s book because it was the product of a particular human culture. Each of the Bible’s books bears the imprint of its human authors. Paul’s language, vocabulary, and argument are different from John’s. This argument seemed convincing until I paused to look at a lotus flower in our garden. It was gorgeous. It clearly depended on chemistry and climate. It was chemistry. It was also vulnerable to insects and humans. But could it also be God’s handiwork? Each of us wrote what our professors revealed. My notes were different from my friend’s notes, just as each lotus was different from the others. Yet what my friends and I wrote were words and thoughts from the same professor. Why couldn’t words bearing signatures of several authors be the words of one God.”
To ease the Postmodern mind, one can dive into the study of Scriptural Critique. Because the Bible is a relegated work that does not provide leisure or money for the Postmodern Christian, most will not. In this vein, the Bible can retain a semblance of its status as a foregone conclusion and available guide in the theological life of believers. To do this, it must simply pivot from a work of revelation to a personally inspiring work. Many have tried to force the Bible to do just that. For them, the Bible is not a necessity for the day to day ethical practices of those who believe. This inevitably leads to moments where a Christian is called to stand, theologically with the Bible though a postmodern mindset tells him to stand on the basis of self. To marry the two ideologies, he will hold the view that to be a Christian, one must make a Kierkegaardian leap of faith in the Bible’s validity, though it has not “earned” its status as valuable. In a pre-postmodern culture, the sacrifice of Isaac would be seen as an affirming act of revelation. Abraham would have, yet another, chance to prove that his faith in God was justified. However, in a postmodern culture, this would be seen from a wholly different perspective. Abraham would not know the mind of God as revelation. He would instead dread the experience. His obedience to God is an irrational state of mind which he developed in order to maintain his own love for God in the face of a culturally immoral act of murder. American Christians are not generally faced with as nearly substantial a crisis to bear in this day and age, but the choice is the same.
A Shattered Mind
To follow Scripture with the postmodern mind is to choose to bear the weight of, sometimes, culturally immoral commands. If one holds a postmodern premise, but also subscribes to the Bible, this can be a very difficult state of tension. Christians believe their own nature to be derivative of God, therefore they cannot live without embracing his word. As a postmodernists, they cannot fully embrace his word as having any higher revelation or authority, so instead, they relegate it to the place of irrationality. The Bible becomes a guilty pleasure. It has become the movie that everyone should see because it will, “change your life.” The informative power of the Scripture over a Christian’s life becomes tangential at best. The Scriptures no longer live and inform one’s life on a daily basis. They are like a good movie, once you have seen it, you have seen it.
But this doesn’t ease the Postmodern Christian. Instead, it creates inconsistencies in the mindset of the believer which force him to drop into a state of despair. It is simply intellectually dishonest to, “keep quiet and just believe.” A postmodern mind rebels against such a call to hide one’s doubt by looking away. This paradox is the Ouroboros of the enlightened man. The post enlightenment man becomes so divested from revelation that he is forced to find all truth within himself. But since he knows himself to be incapable of finding truth, or doubts his own ability, he must cling to revelation to have any truth. But since he cannot cling to revelation as truth, since he has removed that possibility, he rots away having no truth in revelation or in himself to rely on. His actions become meaningless gestures with endless interpretations and no true value. His sincere love for God or self is now irrational at best. The Bible speaks of this process clearly,
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and darkened in their foolish hearts. Although they claimed to bewise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images of mortal man…”
Dropping the Scales
Sincere men of God, resonating with the power of his word, but looking at it through a postmodern enlightenment filter, have preached the word triumphantly. There is no denying the power of God’s word to shape cultures and the hearts of men, despite their worst intentions. But still, the love for God’s word as revelation, as actionable and as significantly necessary in the hearts, minds and lives of believers continues to dwindle. This is a truth Paul, Peter and John warned about vehemently in the Epistles. They knew that one day, the true words of God would be mistaken for a lesser version of truth. In this way, those of us who have seen God’s word but mistaken it for a lesser version are not unlike Paul who saw God in Judaism but fought God in Christ. For Paul, it was an undeniable revelation that resequenced his thoughts into admittance that Jesus was God. For Christians who hold the postmodern idea that the Bible is valuable, yet claim that it has no rational power or authority in your lives, is it possible that you are in need of the scales dropping from your eyes as they did from Paul’s?
A Return of Power
The Bible cannot be hid away. If a Christian is to believe in the value of the Bible, a Christian must weigh the value of the Bible without the lense of postmodernity. He must treat the Bible how it demands to be treated and call it categorically true or false. And he must give weight to what he finds.
Heading to Damascus
Tho Paul committed murder for his beliefs, he can be admired for the zeal with which he pursued the new Christian religion. It was on the road to Damascus, where he had intel of a Christian cell, and it was here that God intervened in his life to show him the truth. For Paul, the truth that he met on the Damascus road was, by his human power, inevitable. Paul was primed to see the truth, because he was willing to pursue it at all costs. But it was God who reached into history, on that road, to give Paul what he had been looking for. God had to directly interact with Paul for him to recognize what he was seeing as Truth. It is a sad reality that many Christians still wait for God to reveal his truths to them, as if God has not already spoken. This is not because God is not listening, or is not there. Unfortunately, though the truth has already been revealed to Christians and neatly packaged in the Bible, many Christians are simply uninterested in the authoritative truth that the Bible gives. Unlike Paul, they are unprimed for an encounter with any truth. They do not understand it philosophically, though they believe in it morally. Instead, they confidently believe that they have all they need to interpret any truth that presents itself, without a revelation from God. When truth comes before them, they would not even acknowledge its presence, let alone seek to understand it. Mangalwadi states it like this:
“They presumed that because we have eyes, we can see for ourselves without nonhuman aid. Our eyes are indeed as wonderful as our intellect. But to see, eyes need light. Why would eyes even exist if light did not? If intellect cannot know truth, perhaps it needs the light of revelation. In fact, intellect can know nothing without revelation.** It seemed to me that the intellect’s existence required prior existence of revelation and communication. To a priori rule out revelation was putting confidence in eyes while excluding light…”
Understanding the Bible first means understanding that you are not equipped to understand the Bible without using the tools contained within it. Even someone as trained as Paul needed a revelation to place his training in order. Even after this, he had to contemplate all that he had come to know, heading off into seclusion to study. Revelation is present, but it is only appreciated by those who open their ears to hear it.
Be Not Just Hearers
Though the Bible is present and speaking to those around, even those who accept its message have a hard time listening to it. What should be done? As a doctor becomes defined by his calling, so must a Christian become defined by the calling of the word of God. But this cannot be done by simply admiring the Scriptures. A doctor becomes worthy of his calling by discipline, accountability and immersion in his field. As lives hang in the balance under his care, he does not have the luxury to view his medical books as a literary work with a special place in his heart. If, as a Christian, you hold that God is the creator of the universe and therefore the personal and infinite sustainer of all life, than you must treat your calling with similar bravado.
Many Christians preach the Bible without such boldness. Labeling it as a precious treasure, they sincerely beg young believers and non believers to hold their own Bible’s in such esteem. But when it comes time to practice the methods of the Bible, or to call upon its sage wisdom, that Christian would rather call to the gods of culture for advice or salvation. Christians would rather go to Facebook or Instagram than go to their Bible for advice. In their defense, they have not been taught better. To read the Bible properly is to enrich the lives of Believer’s with every principle that one needs to battle every sort of crippling issue life might throw at the Believer.
Man Cannot Live By Rules Alone
In reading the Bible this way, we affirm a truth that is central to our Christianity. God communicates. He intends to be understood. He dynamically adjusts himself to our needs while remaining faithful to his character. He is consistent in his message and he intends what is best for us. Without understanding that the Bible is revelation, we are left with nothing but a rule book. This is a particular cruelty in that the Bible states plainly that its rules are ones which cannot ever be perfected. If God has a manual to follow rather than a message to reveal about how we came to be here, than we will eventually outgrow his usefulness.
For God to be really deserving of being God, his rules have to be a precursor to revealing a deeper truth about his person. And this truth must be capable of fully holding the weight of our moral and cultural selves and keeping us from sinking into despair. Believing that Christianity holds no real revelation but instead is a series of human ideas and, or, that these ideas are influenced not by an intentful relational being but instead by mechanisms of necessity throughout human history, leaves Christianity to be relegated to eventual nothingness at the most, and mysticism at the least.
When a person understands the nature of Revelation in scripture, they are sealed in the knowledge that God is worthy of that title because he is personal like we are, but more. He has a plan for us that is much bigger than we have imagined for ourselves. He is active in providing for that plan regardless of our inactivity. In the name of relationship, he seeks for our commitment to that plan. He wants us. To be a Christian without understanding Revelation is to claim that you are the child of a machine; that a thing which is lesser than your ability to grow has sustained you. Logically, as you grow, you will have to come to understand that thing is not God or you will be forced to lie to yourself to keep it as God. If Christianity is what it claims to be, than none of these options is healthy. You may love God because he provided for you in your infancy, but in your adulthood, you will betray him rather than betray yourself. And not having an accurate understanding of Revelation has left countless Christians with a faith and a truth that is nothing more than a transitory beauty, filled with empty and powerless words. But with a proper understanding of Revelation at the foundation of Christianity, we can have assurance of a personal relationship with a god that is capable of reasoning along with us.
Come Let Us Reason Together
In the postmodern world, Reason reigns supreme. It is a self governed reason, but it is a form of reason nonetheless. When a Christian reads the Scriptures as divorced from reason, he reads them wrong, no matter the sincerity behind his interpretation. The Bible read in this context creates an unsustainable philosophical minefield for a postmodern thinker. His only choice is to keep it locked and hidden away from his soul, so that he might not accidentally destroy himself while exploring the richness of God’s graces that it guards. To know the Bible becomes debilitating at this point. Without accessing the depth of Scripture, life loses definition. Without definition, life is meaningless. Having the feeling that the answer to life exists in front of you, but sincerely believing that the answer is a lie would be tortuous. For the watching world, it would be foolishness. Mangalwadi again speaks sadly of this truth when he says:
“Now, having amputated the Bible, the Western educational machinery is producing “strays,” lost like Cobain. It can make good robots but it cannot even define a good man. The postmodern university can teach one how to travel to Mars but not how to live in one’s home or nation…”
This is in stark comparison to the biblical work of the Apostle Paul who boldly states:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
With such a tacit difference in ideologies, between the modern biblically amputated Christian and the Apostle Paul, is it any wonder that Christianity produces more strays than it does converts? If our faith is a true faith, then we must allow God to define himself. His word states that it is to be pursued as the useful tool for all things. This is not a sales gimmick, to get one in every household. This is a warning on a battlefield to take special heed as trouble comes our way. A Christian should familiarize himself with the Bible. He should immerse himself in the study of it. He should engrave it upon his heart. But most of all, he should allow it to redefine the way in which he perceives reality. To hold this function back from the Bible is to withhold the impasse for a Christian’s growth and well being. To do anything less is to remove the very reason why a Christian wishes to be saved. That Christian will end up disconnected, disjointed and confused about who God is and subsequently who he is as God’s creation.
If you are a reasonable person, you will presuppose that the Bible is the revealed word of God, before you treasure it as something less. If you believe it is the revealed word of God, than you will familiarize yourself with every sinew of its body so that you may better know who God is. Learn its transmission, its development, its cultures, its history, its effect on the world and its plan for you and me. Prepare yourself to find joy in understanding why the whole of the Bible is the Good News of God. As David alluded, carve God’s word in your heart. If you take on this task, your faith will bring you more enlightenment than your own understanding ever could.