The Book that is an Image

St. Hilary

Scriptura est non in legendo, sed in intelligendo. [Scripture is not in the reading, but in the understanding.]  St. Hilary, 4th century AD

When I was an atheist, I’d search the Bible to see if it could convince me of Christianity’s claims. After all, this was the book, the center of Christian life and the authority of the church. I thought that if I couldn’t make peace with the Bible, then I had no business calling myself a Christian.

It didn’t take long for me to get discouraged or even disgusted. My desire to be convinced seemed to come from such exalted places, and the Bible by contrast contained so many buzzkills. The slaying of women and children in the Old Testament by God’s chosen. St. Paul saying he doesn’t “permit women to teach.” The fire and judgment featured in the book of Revelation. The seemingly manifold contradictions.

After I’d encounter such things, I’d shut the Bible and say to myself, “Well, whatever you are, you aren’t a Christian.” And then I’d go maybe even a couple of days convinced of that assertion. But then I’d hear a piece of sacred music, or read a poem by John Donne or a novel by Marilynne Robinson, and I’d be back at it, trying to have a reason to stay away. So I’d open the Bible again and the cycle would repeat itself.

It is how many people, especially in America, view the Bible. Even if we weren’t raised Protestant, we all have the image of the fire-and-brimstone preacher, holding up his Bible, calling it “The Word of God.” If you were raised without religion in the West, you probably especially view the Bible as the sole source of Christian authority. You think of it as kind of a rulebook for the Christian life. If you don’t like it, you don’t like Christianity. Or so we’re told.

So I recalled these dark days when I read a recent interview with Judd Apatow in The New York Times last week. The interviewer asks him what book was the most disappointing to him, and he answered:

“The Bible. It’s just not working for me. I wish it was. Wouldn’t it be great if it did work for me and I had the peace one gets when knowing the universe is just and kind and guided by eternal intelligence? Maybe I’m reading it wrong.”

The first thing you should notice is that he is trying to find something in the Bible, a message that he thinks is in there somewhere: assurance that “the universe is just and kind.” So already he has a vision of Scripture (and probably religion as a whole) that secular[note] I should add here that I use Alexander Schmemann’s idea of secularism being a Christian heresy, the core of which is anti-worship, not anti-belief per se. For more, read his great essay “Worship in A Secular Age”[/note] hip-types peddle when they’re trying to feel good about themselves: the appeal of religion is in the “comfort” that it gives you that “everything will be all right.” And you can’t blame them for having that sentimental caricature in their minds. Certainly the secular world promotes that view. Equally certain is that Bible salesmen have sold this view of the faith so as to have mass appeal (and seculars love to treat charlatans as the real voice of Christianity). And of course we all see the multitudes of weak and desperate people out there clinging to what little hope they have, and it is natural to see that and think “I don’t want to be like that.”

But for unbelievers, reading the Bible doesn’t confirm that caricature because Christianity really doesn’t contain any notions of comfort that could be put on a Hallmark card. What then happens for the unbeliever is that they take the opposite view of the Bible: that it is terrible, oppressive, and immoral. And that is usually the end of the story, as it was for me for so many years.

Until you read a great Christian intellectual, or the Saints, or encounter the multitudes of great Christian artists from history. Then the question arises: “How can the core of this faith seem so beautiful but the things on the periphery so unappealing?” The Bible contains so many specifics, after all. Wouldn’t it be nice if it could just get to the point, get rid of the ugly stuff, and tell us that everything is going to be all right?

It wouldn’t. The Bible isn’t a lot of things that it is supposed to be, according to the world. It is the Word of God in the words of men, the perennial vehicle of the divine message, written by inspired Christians who were already fully Christian even without the Bible.

And Mr. Apatow is right. It isn’t for him.

II.

Here are some things that the Bible isn’t.

A good argument.

The Bible does not contain any good arguments for why you should believe. And not only are there no arguments, there are very few claims in the Bible that even take the form of an argument. Indeed, approached with the attitude of a modern skeptic, the Bible not only fails to convince but, worse, seems to vindicate the notion that believers are the historical equivalent of backwater hicks. Who could believe that this book contains the central truth of human existence, when the language is so partial, so historical, so contradictory, and so many of the central characters rampantly immoral?

The Scriptures require exegesis and have always required exegesis. It isn’t a pamphlet that is handed to pagans and unbelievers to convince them of anything. Notice that for all the debating the early Christians did with pagan philosophers, as far as I can tell, none of them ever suggested their opponents should read the Scriptures. Rather, they appealed to philosophy, theology and experience to make their case. Scriptures came later, after they already loved Christ.

If you seek good arguments for Christian claims, you read the great artists, intellectuals, and Saints. The Scriptures are for the community of the Holy Spirit. It was written by that community and it is through them that the Scriptures are gifted to humanity as a whole.

Ahistorical.

“Christianity is a religion of historians.”[note] •Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d’Historien, “Cahiers des Annales,” 3 (Paris, 1949); English translation, The Historian’s Craft (New York, 1953), p. 4.[/note] The history of the world is the history of salvation. God became man, suffered, and died at a certain discrete point in history. The customs and culture of the time and place where eternity intersected with finitude are forever remembered by the Scriptures. The Scriptures are not ahistorical. The great mystery of the Bible is that it was inspired by God but in the words of men, men from a certain time and place.

Far from indicating that the Christian message is irrelevant to our time, the very partiality of the Scriptures hints at their eternal purpose. The Christian view of the universal is that as long as we live in history, the universal is never approached impartially or non-specifically. If you want pure universal truth, you ride a donkey; you kiss a leper; you compromise yourself by doing something, by becoming vulnerable. Truth is not a set of abstract rules, but a Person.

A list of rules.

We owe the notion of the Bible as some kind of a rulebook to the so-called “fundamentalists” whose ideas were adopted by the secular world (which is what happens when you allow the most abrasive Christians to represent the core of the faith). To fundamentalists, what is fundamental isn’t some kind of return to a more ancient version of the faith (though they certainly claim that) but rather a kind of rule-finding, so that what is fundamental to Christianity becomes a kind of list.

The Bible does contain plenty of overt commandments, and that should not and cannot be evaded. The problem is that these commandments can never be separated from Our Lord’s frequent lamenting about our chronic misunderstanding of his commandments. Exegesis of the Scriptures is therefore required even for a serious study of Christian ethics. Without knowing Christ as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” no coherent system of Christian ethics is available to the skeptical reader of the Bible.

Reassuring and nice.

The Bible’s message of comfort and hope cannot be separated from asceticism. It is one of those Christian paradoxes: you gain joy by taking up the Cross and making His life yours. The Truth is a Person, and he died a horrible death. Not exactly something that belongs next to your grandma’s Precious Moments dolls.

The caricature of Christianity as a sentimental religion mostly about being nice to people is derived from the secular world, though tragically adopted by many Christians and churches. Thankfully, the seriousness of the Bible undercuts this silly notion.

“For everyone”.

The Scriptures are the inheritance of all mankind, but this gift is only received through the Church. The Church as a whole is guided by the Holy Spirit, and the Church alone has the ability to interpret rightly, to exegete. The very fact that early collections and fragments of Scripture were used in the Liturgy before the full compilation of the Bible suggests that Christians were from the very beginning interpreting Scripture within a dialectical framework that takes us beyond normal reading comprehension. As such, they considered the Scriptures to be off limits to outsiders. Consider what Georges Florovsky writes[note]from “Bible, Church and Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View”, p. 18[/note] about the third century Christian, Tertullian:

Tertullian’s attitude to the Scriptures was typical. He was not prepared to discuss controversial topics of the faith with heretics on the Scriptural ground. Scriptures belonged to the Church. Heretics’ appeal to them was unlawful. They had no right on foreign property. Such was his main argument in the famous treatise: De praescriptione haeretkorum. An unbeliever has no access to the message, simply because he does not ‘receive’ it. For him there is no ‘message’ in the Bible.

Without the Church, the Bible is nothing. So yes, Mr. Apatow, and yes, all you unbelievers looking for succor, you are reading it wrong. If you want convincing, read the great works of Christian intellectuals or encounter the works of the greatest artists in history and search your own heart. If you can’t have faith after that, don’t be surprised when the Word of God seems like a mere book to you instead of a Person.

III.

For Christians, the fundamental prompting to faith does not consist of arguments but of a story. That story has its basis in the innermost parts of the human being – “The Kingdom of God is inside you” (Luke 17:21). Realizing the Truth of Christ is not like realizing the truth of the fact that you have brown hair. It isn’t like realizing the truth that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. Realizing the Truth of Christ, at the individual and fundamental level, is story-like, poetic. It feels like the rolling-back of a stone in your heart. Indeed, St. Gregory Palamas calls faith “an intellection of the heart.” The heart acts like a mind.

Read with this theological reality in mind, the Bible is “opened up” (Luke 24:45[note]”Then He opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures.”[/note]) for us by the Holy Spirit through the Church. Seen in this light, the Bible suddenly becomes everything it is supposed to be: the Word of God in the words of men; the firm foundation of all dogma and sound theology; the Good News. But not until then, and certainly not when read by anyone looking for convincing.