The Strange World of the Bible
Bible Text: Psalm 19: 7-11; 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman
Summary: Studying a foreign language is analogous to delving into the strange world of the Bible, written in different languages and cultures through thousands of years. In this respect, our ability to lovingly engage with those who are different in our midst is an indication of our ability to hear the Bible because it also confronts us as “strange” and “other.”
Ruth and I were studying Hindi during our first several months were in India. It’s a strange language with sounds we struggled to vocalize and a foreign script that we had to learn. It never quite behaved as we learned it’s patterns of putting together vowels, verbs, and sentence structure. Our language teacher taught us the grammatical rules but there were piles of exceptions. A young woman who was studying with us was very logical and right-brained and the lack of clear order in the language drove her crazy. Ruth and I were just lost as we stumbled around trying to speak very simple sentences.
We had to swallow our pride and talk like babies even though we were adults. Our language teacher told us that you can’t learn to speak a new language without first butchering it. You need to wing it and be willing to make lots of mistakes. As we slowly immerse ourselves in it, we gradually discover that it’s a new and strange cultural world. It comes alive and can be so much fun. Languages are imbedded in specific cultures and express things in certain ways that carry that cultural understanding. An example is that the English language is forward and direct while many Asian languages are more self-effacing and indirect. For example, we would say, “I ran” but in Filipino, it’s turned around to, “Running was done by me.”
Languages have long histories, going back thousands of years. They gradually evolved as they encountered different cultures, and new situations. Consider how much our English language has changed in the relatively short time since the King James Bible was written. For instance, the King James phrase “bowels of mercy” sounds strange and conjures up images we’d rather not consider.
The Bible is also many thousands of years old, written by many different authors living in cultures and responding to situations very different from our world today. If we treat it like a one-size-fits-all-how-to-grow-up-Christian instructional manual and go to it for ironed-out answers it will drive us crazy in the same way as the very logical young woman in our Hindi language class was driven crazy when the rules didn’t fit and the language didn’t behave like she thought it should.
Studying the Bible is like studying a different, strange language. This can be hidden from us because biblical scholars have worked hard over the years pouring over ancient manuscripts, figuring out which are closest to the lost original manuscripts, and then translating them into our language for us. Quite regularly, a new, more contemporary version of the Bible is published for us.
Last Sunday I said that it is better to understand the Bible as a book of wisdom than like an instruction manual. But what does that mean and how does it shape our understanding of the authority of the Bible? In our scripture readings for today the Psalmist exalts in the law of the Lord, saying that in makes us wise and is sweeter than honey. Likewise, the Apostle Paul tells Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction.” How do we understand that and how does it shape our lives and our Christian fellowship?
About fifteen years ago, I and my colleagues in the Bible and Religion Department at Eastern Mennonite University were discussing some of the divisive issues in the church when one of us commented that an underlying problem was that we don’t have a common understanding of the authority of the Bible and how it shapes our lives. I had recently read an article by biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann on his personal journey in understanding the Bible. That gave us the idea of organizing a weekend gathering of professors, pastors, and church leaders to share our personal journeys with scripture. Out of that we developed the book Telling Our Stories: Personal Accounts of Engagement with Scripture. At the beginning of the book, we wrote:
All Christians acknowledge the Bible as the authoritative source and standard for faith and life in the world. We recognize it as the essential book of the church; it shapes our worship and our life in community. . . Yet where does the authority of Scripture lie? How do we understand the Scriptures to be “holy?” Can we live with words like inerrancy and infallibility? Each Sunday morning, in the gathering of a typical congregation, there are many responses to such questions. It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to know how our common confession of the authority of Scripture is guiding us in finding common ground amid the divisive issues we face.
The story of my personal journey with scripture is one of the chapters in the book, which I’m drawing from for this sermon. For me, digging into the ancient history and culture of the Bible makes it come alive. It’s the joy of discovery. I also try to be aware of how my life, my culture, my social status, and my experience shapes my understanding of the Bible. I try to be aware of the stuff I bring to the Bible.
My journey began when I was a boy listening to by Grandpa Sensenig’s sermons in the Old Order Mennonite church that our family attended. Most of the other preachers spoke in German, using a sing-song voice. I understood them but thought it was so boring. Grandpa preached in English. The wooden benches were hard, and my feet didn’t quite touch the floor. They would fall asleep no matter how much I wiggled and squirmed. My Dad allowed me one trip to the bathroom during the service and I calculated it carefully for maximum benefit, staying a long as I dared and then slowly returning to my seat.
Grandpa was an unsalaried, self-educated, farmer preacher. Several things he told me stuck with my as I grew older and did my own wrestling with the text of the Bible in a very different world from the one I grew up in. Grandpa said that he could distinguish between the different biblical authors because each had their own style of writing. He also liked to compare the translation in his English Bible with his German Bible.
Those observations served me well when I encountered historical and literary biblical scholarship in seminary. The Bible has not come straight from God. No matter how we understand God’s inspiration, we need to recognize that people wrote the Bible. Even Grandpa Sensenig knew that. In that sense, insisting that the Bible is infallible is a bit silly. It’s better to say that it’s our reliable and trustworthy authority or guide for life and faith.
Even if the Bible were infallible, it would still need to be interpreted by fallible people using fallible languages—and that’s the rub. We often don’t understand ourselves very well. As a young man in the Philippines, I encountered a radically different cultural world and social reality and that helped me grow up and understand myself better.
There I encountered grassroots Filipino Christians, a brutal dictator named Marcos, and leftist revolutionaries fighting to overthrow him. I saw the raw edge of American military and economic policies. For the first time, I encountered the twisted face of real poverty and hunger. I saw the limits to which human brutality and violence could go. I learned to know real, existential fear. And I saw how global inequalities skew all relationships, including those in the church. Ever since, when I study the Bible, I try as best I can to see it through the eyes of my Filipino sisters and brothers. For example, Mary’s song about God bringing down the mighty from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things took on new meaning when I heard it read in a Christmas service in Manila.
When we truly respect the authority of the Bible, we will not see it as a one-way conversation. We can and must talk back to it and interpret it in response to our experience. This gives us the freedom to respect its authority while interpreting in in ways that are life-giving. This is demonstrated in the Bible itself as writers engage and reinterpret older scriptures. I’ll talk more about that next Sunday.
Our ability to lovingly engage with those who are different in our midst is an indication of our ability to hear the Bible because it also confronts us as “strange” and “other.” It connects us with many voices from eras and cultures radically different from our own. If we look hard enough, the Bible can help us recognize the other in ourselves. This, in turn, enables us to reach out to all people with the love of God as demonstrated in the life of Jesus.
It has been quite a journey for me, beginning as a young boy listening to my Grandpa Sensenig’s simple but insightful understanding of the Bible. It has not always been easy as I encountered strange worlds and difficult new situations. It sometimes took all the courage I had. Sometimes I failed. To live is to struggle and we meet God in this interplay between the Bible and our lives.
 Walter Brueggemann, “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection,” in Gingerich and Zimmerman, Telling Our Stories (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2006).