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1,189 chapters (or more) [1]

Somewhere in the growing pile of books threatening to bury my bedside cabinet is one which, when the cares of life o'erwhelm me, I know I can turn to, open at random, stab blindly at the page with my finger and find a word to minister to my need. It is 'The Biggest Ever Tim Vine Joke Book'.
  • "Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels."
  • "I've just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I'll tell you what, never again."
  • "Rome wasn't built in a day. That's Milton Keynes you're thinking of."
  • "So I was taking the M4 out of London, and this bloke said, put it back."
  • "The trouble with an all day breakfast is you've got to eat it so slowly."
  • "This bloke left a huge lump of plasticine in my dressing room. I don't know what to make of it."
We all know the old story about the man who tries similar with his Bible. Hoping for guidance, he opens at random and alights on Matthew 27v5b: "Judas went out and hanged himself". Slightly disconcerted, he has another go. This time, Luke 10v37b: "Go and do thou likewise". One last try, desperate to find something a bit more reassuring... John 13v27b: "Whatsoever thou doest, do quickly"!

This particular 'sermon illustration of choice' has become a staple for a good reason. I don't think that reading the Bible in such a way prevents God from speaking to us (surely He can do that in any way or circumstance He chooses), but I do suggest that it indicates a misunderstanding of what the Bible is, which may well contribute to missing out on much of what it says. Here are some examples of what it is not:
  • An miscellany of abstract thoughts and platitudes to be drawn out at random, which can be relied upon to say 'nice things'. (We might want it to be like this sometimes, but I for one would be highly suspicious of human fabrication if it were).
  • A 'magic book' -- a compendium of verses which work like spells on a level which bypasses our understanding. (An appealing notion to those who like the idea of power, but the authority of the Bible rests originates in a personal God, whose action is at His discretion and initiative, not an impersonal force which may be 'harnessed').
  • An untestable collection of arcana detached from our day-to-day experience. (We might long for the simplicity of such mysticism -- there would certainly be little scope for controversy or dispute. But if we are at all concerned with 'truth and reality' we should be reassured rather than disturbed to find the Bible full of statements that are either true or are not; which can, moreover, be investigated, and which have wide-reaching implications either way).
The best way to start to get a feel for what it is, is to read it -- a few big continuous chunks, at least, spanning Old and New Testament and some of the different literature types (history, poetry, prophecy, letters, law).

Here's how it looks to me, as I read and get to know it better (a life-long process, I anticipate): An account, in a diversity of genres and writing styles, with a multiplicity of human voices, spanning a long and historically turbulent period of time, of a loving, personal God intervening in His creation -- ongoing-ly, and ultimately in Jesus, 'the Word Incarnate', whose life, death and resurrection are presented as a turning point in all of human history -- and offering us the opportunity, which still stands today, of entering in to a whole new kind of life. Now, I'm not really at all satisfied with that as a precis -- in a sense that's my point. If God could tell us all He wanted us to know about Him in one long and badly-punctuated sentence, well, probably He would have done so. Instead He engages with messy human history and speaks through messy human beings, and in the process a very real trail of evidence emerges which is complex, and challenging -- even difficult in places -- and confusing sometimes. The written record is intimately connected with our experience of reality -- shot through with pain and brokenness, because the events and interactions with which it is concerned took place in this broken, hurting world. But at the same time steeped in love and concrete hope, because that is the reality of the One who initiates the interaction.

Engaging with the Bible sincerely, then, takes time and effort, and very often involves an element of grappling. But the endeavour, even at its hardest, can itself be a powerfully relational experience, especially when accompanied by prayer and especially if (as I believe) God Himself speaks to us and produces in us an ever deepening understanding and knowledge of Him as we seek.
"Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law" (Psalm 119v18) 
"...I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him..." (Ephesians 1:16-17)
This is why the 'pick a verse...any verse' approach doesn't really cut it. It simply doesn't make the best or wisest use of the resources He has given us -- He wants us to engage our minds, after all. 

It is also why proof-texting is a dangerous game to play. To quote my sister, who was quoting her pastor, who was doubtless quoting what appears (according to Google) to be a well-repeated apothegm: "take the text out of context and all you are left with is a con".

For those not familiar with the phrase, to "proof-text" means to take an isolated quote from a larger piece and cite it in order to reinforce a particular point. In the case of the Bible, someone taking a particular theological/political/socio-economic stance might use a verse or collection of verses to justify their position. Or, a detractor might point towards individual short sections that they feel reflect badly on the Bible as a basis for rejecting or ignoring the whole. Obviously, being able to cite the sources which have genuinely shaped and directed our own understanding is an extremely valuable part of any critical process. All too often, though, we are tempted to simply bring our existing set of fixed ideas to the text and cherry-pick the bits we like or which support what we already think -- with little regard for the real overall message (having just submitted my dissertation, I fear I speak from guilty experience). [2]

Shoe-horning the Bible into our own agenda may well be extremely effective in human terms. It may help us win others over to our cause. It may gain us leverage or lend us an appearance of respectability. But it can never actually legitimise a course or a notion that we are already pursuing; it simply doesn't work that way round. Living 'in line with the Bible' means shaping ourselves (with God's help) to it, not shaping its message to our priorities. It means reading and allowing it to speak to us [3]: informing our thinking, governing our choices, and even perhaps (which may be a scary thought) challenging our theology.

Conversely, some might wish to dismiss the Bible because it doesn't fit with their own agenda. But if the basis for dismissal is a handful of unexamined, decontextualised verses one may be in danger of setting up a straw man argument -- a caricature of the real thing that is easily attacked but not actually a true representation. I appreciate that, for many, life is complicated enough -- quick and lazy answers that seem to 'do' are very appealing. But I really would urge those who would be sincere in their scepticism to at least check out the Bible for themselves before rejecting it. What if, after all, it turns out to answer to the complications and burdens of life rather than adding to them...

I guess my point is that the Bible is big enough and complex enough to provide all sorts of ammunition on either side of all sorts of arguments, if that's all we're interested in. But if we're genuinely interested in entering into God's plans and purposes, or at least finding out if such a thing is possible and/or desirable, then we have to at least try to start with what the Bible actually says and figure out what we think from there.

As I learn to do that, slowly and falteringly, my own experience is very similar to the one described in  Psalm 119, which I've already quoted from above. It's actually the longest chapter in the Bible -- an enthusiastic celebration of God's law (that is, such parts of the Old Testament as had been written down by then) and the life of understanding, liberation, and transformation that it invites us to. Here's a bit more of it:
How can a young man keep his way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
    let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
    that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
    teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
    all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
    as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
    and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
    I will not forget your word. (9-16)
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes;
    and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
    and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
    for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
    and not to selfish gain!
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
    and give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant your promise,
    that you may be feared.
Turn away the reproach that I dread,
    for your rules are good.
Behold, I long for your precepts;
    in your righteousness give me life! (33-40)




[1] Which is to say, the Protestant Bible has 1,189 chapters; the Catholic biblical canon is slightly broader (as is the Eastern Orthodox). A discussion for another time/forum, I feel!

[2] Nowadays we don't even necessarily think of one-liners having context: the internet -- with its tweet-length mentality and resources such as Wikiquotes -- keeps us well-supplied with already-decontextualised soundbites. We usually have to go considerably out of our way to track down the original source if we are concerned about correct interpretation.

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