How do you understand the Bible? I recall a 1998 song by Burlap to Cashmere called “Basic Instructions”. It used a commonly employed initialism of the word Bible: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. It raises all kinds of bad theology and perpetuates Christianity’s focus on the afterlife as more important than our time here on earth. When everything is directed beyond our earthy life, it seems our earthly life is for little more than preparation for heaven. We know that Ignatian spirituality directs our attention on the gifts God has given us in this world, here and now. It calls us to discern how to live as our true selves and build up God’s kingdom on earth.
The other concern about viewing the Bible as “basic instructions before leaving earth” is that the Bible is far from a set of basic instructions. Tim Mackie, co-founder of The Bible Project, says we often assume the Bible is “somehow like a moral rulebook of divinely approved behaviour.” But, he points out, the stories in the Bible are filled with examples of people you don’t want to be like. Rather, the stories in the scriptures serve two specific purposes: they tell us a particular people’s experience of God and they act as a kind of mirror to ourselves so we can learn more about who we are in the context of God’s greater story.
Humanity’s Evolving Image of God
People often struggle with the fact that God seems pretty wrathful in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), but is incarnated as a compassionate and non-violent lover in Jesus. If the various books and stories in the scriptures are the stories of a certain people’s understanding of God, then this can make more sense. We see how the biblical authors put God on the side of the Israelites in war and named God as the cause of their enemy’s destruction. People use God in this way even today, attributing certain outcomes—especially when it involves harm to an enemy—to God. The Bible reveals that our image of God has evolved and moved closer to the Truth, as we see in the person of Jesus Christ: a God of true unconditional love and companionship. Our own images of God evolve as we grow and mature in our spiritual life.
Scripture as a Mirror
Now this doesn’t mean we don’t indeed see a theme of God’s faithfulness throughout the Hebrew Bible. In fact this is the second purpose of the stories: they reveal to us the ways we have continued to turn away from God despite God’s faithfulness. That is the larger message conveyed. Jesus himself used stories to hold a mirror to us. Parables lead us to ask questions about who we are and how we’re loved and forgiven.
When the Bible is treated as a moral manual, then we can easily find ourselves cherry-picking content to support our own moral paradigm. But if we view the Bible as a collection of human stories, stories of how we are trying to come to know and relate to God, then we see a greater pattern, a greater Truth.
Our Lives as Scripture
Ignatius understood the transformative power of story. The Spiritual Exercises is not only an entrance into Jesus’ story, but into our own story. We discover that Jesus’ story is our story, and it’s the story of humanity. As we pray with the scriptures we see certain patterns in ourselves, we discover parts of ourselves in the worst parts of the biblical characters, but we also see the true selves underneath that, which Jesus is calling us to. The Exercises remind us, through Jesus, that it’s not just about where we’ve come from and where we’re going, but how to live now.
Ignatius takes this further, essentially treating our own lives as a kind of living scripture. We pray not only with the Bible, but the narrative of our own lived experience. We can hear God speak through our story, our memories, our hopes and dreams, our human struggles. The Examen prayer is essentially an imaginative prayer using our own daily story. If the Bible is a record of humanity’s encounter with God, then are not our lives a continuation of scripture, of that encounter? We can speak quite eloquently about sacred scripture being divinely inspired and alive, yet we cannot forget about our own sacred story, our own encounter with the living God. Ignatian spirituality values the sacredness of both of these “texts”.
- Listen to my 3-part interview with the co-founders of The Bible Project
- Objectifying God
- Threat or Freedom? – Two Ways of Reading the Gospel
- Rejecting the Popular Image of God
Listen to the podcast version of this post…