Scripture in the Real World

The Bible is described as quite a few things. One of the most popular descriptions, which I personally despise the most, is that the Bible is a manual. (I did an entire post on why I hate that so much.) One of the most interesting comparisons I have ever come across is that the Bible is like the HBO hit show Game of Thrones (GoT.) I read it no less in a popular Christian magazine. What makes the comparison very interesting to say the least, is that the work of George R.R. Martin is very far from being family friendly. Apart from the cool factor for Christians in communicating their views to use pop culture references I believe it is hinting at something very important.

Game of Thrones is essentially a political drama set in an epic sprawling fantasy world. Imagine a grimy, treacherous and sometimes shockingly explicit version of Middle-Earth. The kind of comparison that was made correctly identifies the Holy Scriptures as primarily a narrative, something most Christians miss. There are rules in the Bible but it is not a rule book. The moment you recognize the Scriptures as an epic you immediately begin to see the shortcomings of many popular ways of using the Bible.

There is of course a vast difference between the drama of the biblical narrative and GoT. Thematically too they differ greatly. Tonally speaking however, the Bible is closer to GoT than the divinely approved self-help book many believers make it out to be. The Bible is as we would say today “dark and gritty.” The Bible does contain explicit material. There are some episodes during the judges which are pretty horrific. Sometimes I wonder if it is right for Sunday school kids to read some of the stuff in the Bible. There are things in it if it appeared anywhere else we would censor. I heard the creator of Veggie Tales Phil Vischer, in his eponymous podcast say he struggled with how to represent the Conquest of Canaan with benign vegetable characters for young children in Christian homes.

The reason why the Bible isn’t a prosaic list of do’s and don’ts or a bunch of namby-pamby fairy tales for adults is that it is a historical narrative. It tells the story of God through the story of his human creatures. Our stories are messy. What attracts most people to GoT is that it about a group of dysfunctional families vying within and without for power. It’s about flawed characters who commit mistakes and that reminds us exactly of us. The Bible is of course infinitely more compelling because it is about a real family, the human one, with the focus narrowed on Abraham’s family. It talks about people who actually lived in this world with their triumphs and their many more failures.

A few months ago I decided to read through Genesis again. Genesis is divided into two parts, chapters 1-11 and then 12-50. One thing that really struck me this time going through the first part, also known as the primeval account, is that it is mostly very tragic. Sometimes we get distracted by the more fantastical elements in it along with the rest of scripture. Only the first two chapters are idyllic and the rest of it is about different types of human failure and its devastating consequences. Admittedly, the opening of Genesis is a very difficult portion of scripture to make sense of, especially to the modern reader. Whether you interpret it literally or not, when you pay attention to it thematically, it offers some profound insights on the human condition.

Humans have been blessed with unparalleled privilege and responsibility by their Maker over his creation. This is something we see today however it offers a poignant explanation of how come this blessed world is in so much disarray. Something very early, went very wrong in the human family which fundamentally changed the course of human history. This thing is called sin and there is no better way to diagnose what’s wrong with the world. Humans are the common denominator in the world’s trouble therefore it must be something within our nature. Yet there is a desire within us to do the right thing which means the problem is not confined with us. There must be a mysterious external force with a diabolical agenda against the human family. The satan is not just a concept depicting internal struggle but an entity to be contended with.

However, the story is not all doom and gloom. After the first couple’s transgression there was a prophecy that their offspring will crush the serpent. Even though they were expelled from their omnibenevolent creator’s presence, he had not given up on them. He still chose to use human beings to accomplish his great purpose for creation. Now Eve thought it would be their son Cain but their family was further broken apart through him. In this story there is no deux ex machina. What she thought would be resolved in a generation has taken millennia.

Unlike ancient myths which were guided by a strong sense of fatalism, in this story there was hope. However, this hope offered no easy way out and had to emerge through the conflict and pain. As N.T. Wright would put it, it created the strange situation where humans were certainly part of the problem but paradoxically were also part of the solution. This story of the divine cosmic agenda was carried forward through flawed human agents who sometimes got it right but mostly got it wrong. Instead of bypassing the brokenness, God  decided to use it as the raw material for restoration. The story has finally reached its climax through the Messiah but the Son of Man had to suffer so through it he might be exulted. As he said in the Gospel of John, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.”

The word of God is a rock sturdy and strong but we must remember stone is also hard and rough.I am glad that Bible is not warm and cuddly. Perhaps, it suits my pessimistic personality but great stories have pathos. It is about the true story of life. In the biblical narrative real people behave as real people do. It gives me confidence that the Bible is for the real world, the world in which I live. It doesn’t offer me fluffy promises to keep me anaesthetised from the pains of life. I can therefore trust it that it is telling me the truth.

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