Only Crazies Take The Bible Literally

“Do you take everything in the Bible literally?” I was asked.

“No” I said. And I think you’re probably a bit of an idiot if you do.

The truth is, no one takes everything in the Bible literally. Well, I’m pretty sure they don’t. Even the person with the loosest possible grasp of different genres of writing and the way in which people use language must be able to see that everything in the Bible isn’t to be taken literally (he says knowing, sadly, he’s undoubtedly wrong).

For example, I recently had one of my teenagers come up to me and ask a question about the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation. Her philosophy teacher had challenged her on it and she didn’t really know how to respond, although she did say she didn’t think that only 144,000 would be saved. Her teacher responded by saying that if you take the bible literally, you have to believe that.

Erm…expelliarmus!

It’s worrying isn’t it. Not that only 144,000 might be saved but that there are people teaching at A Level who seem to think that that kind of flawed thinking is some kind of knock down argument to be used against Christians. What’s happened here is that we’ve found someone who, like many others, seems to have little to no grasp of the fact that the Bible features lots of different genres of writing (isn’t it great people like that get to teach others). Revelation is apocalyptic, not really a genre we have today, but clearly not something to be read literally, but something filled with picture language pointing us to real life truth. On his reading, presumably he also thinks we’re all on the lookout for a seven headed, ten horned beast rising out of the sea too!

It’s frustrating because that kind of thinking is so clearly idiotic. I wonder if he’d also like to ridicule Christianity on the basis of the woman described in the Song of Songs. Here she is:

She’s a regulation hottie alright!

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the writer’s description of the woman is clearly not literal. He’s using metaphor and simile to describe her beauty. Admittedly, his language is a bit culturally removed from our own. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I felt led to tell my wife that her nose reminded me of the tower of Lebanon and her belly was like a heap of wheat (probably the last time I was looking for a perplexed look/a slap). It’s poetic language, to be read as poetry. Is the woman very beautiful? Yes. Does her hair literally look like a flock of goats? I’m not going to insult you with an answer to that one.

The thing is, the majority of people have no problem understanding this sort of thing in real life. On the whole, when people use a turn phrase, other people understand what it means without any confusion. For example, I’ve never once said to someone, “I’m completely shattered” and had them stare around in confusion because I’m not literally lying in a thousand fragmented pieces across the ground. It’s understood that I’m saying I’m tired.

I remember a few years ago when I worked for a very high church, I got into a slight disagreement with the vicar over transubstantiation. I don’t believe the the bread and wine is literally the body and blood of Christ, but merely a symbol or representation them in order to remember Jesus’ sacrifice. However, the vicar was scandalised and got me to look up Jesus’ own words.

“What does he say? This is my body. Is, is!

At the time, I didn’t have much to say in response apart from that I thought Jesus was clearly speaking in a symbolic sense. Today I’d probably say I think that’s OK as long as people are consistent in the way they interpret the rest of Jesus’ words. So if you’re going to say that the bread and wine is literally Jesus’ body and blood because he uses the word “is”, I hope that when Jesus says “I am the gate” you think Jesus was literally made of wood and swung on hinges.

Please close me behind you.

“That’s ridiculous,” you say.

Ah, but what does Jesus say? “I am the gate. Am, am!”

Of course, I sincerely doubt he believed that because it’s obvious that’s not how Jesus intends us to take those words. Personally, I think the same can be said for transubstantiation but that’s a whole other argument (although I will just add that Jesus never actually says the wine is his blood, he says the cup, so if you’re going to take it literally, I hope you don’t think he was talking about the wine, because that’s literally not what Jesus said).

The Bible is crammed with different genres: law, poetry, history, parables, letters, wisdom, apocalyptic, prophecy etc and they all need to be read as those genres are intended to be read. Some are literal and some aren’t.

Do I take everything in the Bible literally? No, but I do take everything in the Bible seriously.

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Don’t Cling To The Bible

“Don’t cling too closely to the Bible. It’s not that important.”

That’s a paraphrase of something said to a friend of mine as he attended a Christian course. Both he and I agreed that it’s that sort of comment that immediately puts us on the defensive. It wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds though. In essence, this person was saying that we shouldn’t hold the Bible so tightly that it becomes more important than God.

And there’s a lot of truth in that isn’t there? We don’t want to become people who effectively say we worship God the Father, God the Son and God the Bible (a very real danger in conservative circles). At New Word Alive a few years ago I attended a series of Wayne Grudem’s seminars on the Bible and he said it’s all to easy to make it sound like we worship the Bible rather than Jesus. His answer to those accusations was to invite people to come along to church and let them see for themselves if that really was the case.

So that initial paraphrased quote (I’ll just call it a quote from now on), despite its unfortunate wording, seems quite reasonable doesn’t it? It seems to occupy that hallowed middle ground between the Liberals who don’t really seem concerned with the Bible at all, and the fundamentalists who read everything 100% literally. But I’m not sure it does. For all it’s well meaning intentions, I think it highlights a misunderstanding of what the Bible really is, and so rather than occupying a middle ground, actually ends up in a sort of biblical no mans land.

It’s 100% right to say that our love should be directed towards God and we must avoid the very real danger of worshipping a book, rather than it’s author. But there in lies the issue. God and his word are not that simply divided. The quote sounds like a reasonable thing to say because many of us slip into the trap of thinking in terms of God and the Bible as completely distinct entities. I mean, one’s a person and one’s a book for goodness sake. Why wouldn’t we think like that? But the reality is subtly different. Try thinking in terms of God and God’s word and suddenly that quote begins to look absurd.

Look at it this way, the basic premise is “love the person (God), don’t end up just loving a book.” But it’s not just a book. It’s the words of the person. What would it look like if I applied that thinking to my relationship with my wife? If I told you that I love Becca but I don’t really need to pay that much attention to what she says, or that what she says isn’t really that important, I think you’d begin to question the reality of my love for her and the nature of our relationship. What would it say about my love for her if I think that her words may be worth listening to but I shouldn’t cling too closely to them? And so more importantly, what would it say about my love for Jesus if I feel that way about his words, the Bible? Suddenly, we begin to realise that divorcing the two from one another becomes a little bit silly.

…and so by extension think what he says is quite important too!

After all, the disciples seemed to realise loving Jesus didn’t mean having intense feelings about him in some abstract way, but listening to his words and then putting them into practice. As Peter says:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

We can’t leave Jesus’ words behind (I mean, where else would we go?) therefore we can’t leave the Bible behind. There’s no other place to go if we want to know Jesus and hear what he has to say to us today. This isn’t a 2000 (or more) year old document simply recording a bygone age but it is something living and active.

So do make sure you love Jesus and not just his book. But do treat Jesus’ words as important, do cling to them, because these words are the only way we know anything about Jesus in the first place, these words are the words of the person we claim to love most & these words are the words of eternal life.

Unpacking Exodus

So after recommending Dig Deeper, it’s rather apt that the next book I want to recommend is it’s follow up, “Dig Even Deeper: Unearthing Old Testament Treasure” also by Andrew Sach & Nigel Beynon.

If you’ve read  Dig Deeper, then you’ll have been left with a pretty hefty toolkit ready to put into action as you delve deeper into your Bible. But you might still be feeling a little shaky about using some of those tools in the real world. You want to have a crack but are a bit worried in case some of your application ends up a bit wonky or the main point of your talk, which you’ve spent hours painstakingly building, suddenly falls down. That’s where Dig Even Deeper comes in handy.

The second book gives you a chance to see the tools in action on a far bigger scale than the previous volume allowed for. It’s really one long worked example, taking the reader through the entire book of Exodus whilst putting to use many of the tools the reader has acquired in the first book. It still has a number of exercises for  readers to work through themselves but most of the book is dedicated to the authors unpacking the text itself.

We’re currently going through Exodus with our older youth group and the book’s proved invaluable in dividing up the text as well as in unpacking it in preparation for the sessions. I’ve also been using it for my own quiet times over the Christmas and new year period and it’s certainly made me look forward to picking up my Bible each day and has really opened up Exodus to me.

I probably wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read Dig Deeper. The authors seem to assume you’re familiar with the bible tools and so you might struggle a bit if you haven’t read the previous instalment. However, if you have read the first book, I’d recommend getting this follow up. It will definitely give you the chance to see the tools put to use in more depth and is also a great companion to working through Exodus, either individually or with a group.

 

Get More Out Of Your Bible

It’s been a while since I’ve written on here and even longer since I recommended a good book. Well, it would appear that good books are like buses. No, not filled with annoying teenagers blasting offensive rap music out of a smart phone, but they come in groups. So I thought whilst I was on light duties, I would try and take some time to recommend some books which I’ve found invaluable of late.

I thought I’d start with “Dig Deeper: Tools To Unearth The Bible’s Treasure” by Andrew Sach & Nigel Beynon.  Dig Deeper is one of those books that I’d been aware of for a while but had always thought wouldn’t have much to offer me. After all, I’ve done a theology degree and I got an A in English Literature  & Language at GCSE. I didn’t need anyone to tell me how to read. (Ahh pride!)

Well how wrong was I?! Dig Deeper walks you through 17 different tools that enable you to get more out of your Bible reading. The Structure tool helps you pick out helpful things like ‘sandwiches’ and “chiasms” that will give you a clue as to what the author is trying to get across. The Linking Words tool is great for epistles and really helps to unravel the logical flow of their arguments. And the Narrators Comment tool is great for unlocking those awkward narrative passages where it’s easy to understand what’s going on, but often a lot more difficult to work out what we’re supposed to take away from it. And that’s only 3 of the 17 tools for you to get your teeth into. Since reading this book I’ve gotten so much more out of my Bible reading than I had previously. Even though some of the tools seem to state the glaringly obvious, you’ll be surprised at how many things we can easily skip over and so often miss not only the richness of the text but also, quite often, the point!

Dig Deeper

Most of the chapters are quite short and contain an explanation of each tool with a few short examples, a worked example and an exercise to do yourself. I’ve been using the book to train leaders at our monthly meetings, looking at one tool and month and we’ve worked through the exercise together. It’s also been incredibly helpful in preparing talks and Bible studies, as well as in One2One Bible reading partnerships. I strongly believe that as youth workers, we’re not just called to teach young people what the Bible says but part of our role is also to teach young people how to read the Bible for themselves. It’s been really encouraging to introduce some of the tools to our young people and see them begin to discover some of the Bible’s treasure as they’ve put them to use.

It’s quite a slim volume so it’s a great book to give to teenagers, perhaps as a gift for their baptism or confirmation, as they leave the youth group or even just for those who are keen to dig deeper themselves. It’s also a great resource for leaders and other Christians, and some churches have even run courses for their whole congregation based on the tools in the book.

If you’re a youth leader and you’re serious about teaching the Bible and teaching your young people how to read it, then this book is for you. In fact, I can’t really think of any Christians for whom this book wouldn’t be a worthy addition to their bookshelf.

A Few Ideas to Get Kids Reading the Bible

As leaders, we’ve recently been thinking about how we can move the members of our 14-18’s group forwards in their walk with Jesus. For a number of our young people, we feel that they really need to get stuck into the Bible. It seems that most of our young people don’t really read the Bible at all outside of church or youth group settings. I don’t know exactly why this is. Literacy does appear to be down on what it once was and there are plenty of other things to distract our young people away from having a regular quiet time so maybe that’s part of the problem. But lately I’ve begun to realise that a lot of our young people just don’t know how to read the Bible.

That might seem like a weird thing to say but I think it’s true. For a lot of young people the Bible just appears daunting and inaccessible. That’s why I think that we owe it to our young people to give them a way in so I’ve decided to have a crack at referencing a few ideas that may help. Of course, if anyone reading this has any other ideas of how to encourage our kids to read the bible then I’m all ears so please do leave a comment.

One2Ones

If I lived in a perfect world, every single member of my youth group would be involved in a One2One bible reading partnership. This normally involves two people (although groups of three can work) meeting together once a week or at the very least, once a fortnight to read the Bible together, with one of the partners being an older, more experienced Christian. These partnerships can be invaluable in getting our young people looking into the Bible in more depth and the relationships formed there also allow for a greater depth of pastoral work and often last on long after the partnership has ended. I’ve found that there are two main barriers to these partnerships. The first is getting young people to see the value in them in the first place. The second is having enough people in your leadership team or within your church who will be suitable/willing to take on the responsibility. If you can get a few people into this and enjoying it, then use them to spread the word. Kids are always more likely to want to do something if their friends are doing it, rather than us oldies telling them it’s a good idea. And once you get your young people into a bible reading partnership, most won’t regret it. For some ideas of materials for One2One bible reading, check out One2One books 1 and 2 by Andrew Cornes as a starter. Having worked through book 1, I’d recommend that partners use the questions in the book to get to grips with the passage before they meet together, and then use that to spark a discussion on the passage and it’s implications when the partners meet together.

Bible Notes

There must be a million and one bible notes out there for young people, all geared towards different age groups and circumstances. The Good Book Company provide a shed load of material including Engage, Discover and Explore. You may want to make these available to every member of your group, or you may feel there are those in the group who would particularly benefit from a set of notes and so pass them a copy. I guess the effectiveness of bible notes will vary from person to person depending on how they are made use of. Still, they can be a helpful way to make the bible a bit less daunting.

Wordlive

Wordlive is an initiative from Scripture Union providing interactive ways for people on the go to engage with the Bible. Once you’ve signed up for Wordlive you can receive daily bible passages via email, podcast and RSS. In the world of smartphones and iPod’s this kind of stuff is invaluable. Each days contains ideas for preparing yourself beforehand, a bible passage, a reflection on the passage and a way to respond. There are also additional thoughts and reflections for each day on the Wordlive website. It features varied content and media meaning that there is generally something for everyone here. If you’ve got tech savvy kids, then Wordlive might be a great way to encourage them to get looking at God’s word.

Hopefully some of these ideas might help you get your young people started on reading the Bible. I’m always open to hearing new ways to get our kids into the Bible though so please do leave a comment if you have any other ideas or resources that you’ve found to be useful.

Ch-Ch-Changes!

Riding in swiftly on the back of the Bible Centred Youth Work conference I have decided to make some changes to the way my week is timetabled.

The first thing to change is my day off. I had been having Saturday as my day off but I’ve decided to switch this to a Monday. The thought behind this is to allow me to schedule in more face to face time with the kids. Hopefully I’ll be able to meet people for breakfast/coffee on Saturday mornings whilst using the afternoon or evening for more social type things with the whole group. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly ground breaking, even just watching some films or playing table tennis but hopefully we’ll also get out on some trips to some places a bit further afield. This may also present some chances to meet some of their friends in a non-threatening environment.

Other changes have been afoot amid our 11-14’s group. The group currently meets twice a week; on a Friday and also on a Sunday morning during the morning service. Up until now both groups have been heavily Bible focused, which of course is a great thing, but I began to realise that we had perhaps gone too far in our emphasis on biblical teaching and so were neglecting the relationships side of things. The emphasis on teaching had also served to alienate our fringe members, leaving us with a committed core but not much else. So I’ve taken the decision to change Fridays format to a much more social occasion. The previous format had us meeting for an hour of Bible study, albeit done a bit more creatively, followed by us eating a meal together. This has been tough as a number (read the majority) of kids just weren’t in the right mindset for an intensive bible study on a Friday after a week at school. So the plan from now on is to do 40-45 minutes of activities followed by a 15-20 minute Bible study and then to eat together. The activities will be a whole variety of things from dark games, talent shows, messy games, pizza making, egg drop challenges and movie night type things. The plan is that Friday will primarily be our shop window with Sunday remaining our time of really focused teaching. Hopefully the changes on a Friday will make the group more accesible to the non-Christian friends of our kids and we hope that in the long term they will begin to invite more people along. I’m keen that we keep 15-20 minutes of Bible time though as it’s important that our priorities as a group are still clearly in view  and so I’d be reticent to cut down the Bible time to anything shorter than that.

As I said, Sundays will remain our main teaching time but I’ve made the decision to make the move to using ready made resources for our programme. Up until now,  I and my leaders have done pretty much everything from scratch, both with the 11-14’s and 14-18’s. This obviously creates a huge amount of preparation time, especially when you have 4 groups all looking at the Bible each week and you’re low on leaders. The reason for doing everything from scratch has quite simply been because I’ve felt the pressure too. It’s probably more self imposed than external but I had always shied away from using ready made resources as I thought others might think I wasn’t really doing my job probably, like I was cutting corners. Like I’ve said before, it’s easy to fear man and not God. But now I’ve had a change of heart. It’s not a cop out to use ready made resources as long as you prepare them well and adapt them to your group. There are pretty much no Christian resources which are usable “out of the box” without you adapting them. This still takes time but obviously not as much. Having resources also makes it easier for inexperienced leaders to try their hand at planning and running sessions without feeling like they don’t know where to start. That’s why I feel this is the way forward. I’ve got so bogged down in prep that I don’t have time to meet people, which really defeats the object of what I’m here to do. So with our 11-14’s our Sunday material will nearly all come from outside resources. We’ll also start to use more resources with our 14-18’s group although there will still be a good chunk of our programme running from scratch in terms of preparation.

I’ve also decided that it needs to be a priority for me to take on some more One2Ones, or rather One2Twos. We’ve had a real struggle with leaders recently and so I feel meeting as a triplet is the way forward, at least for now, although I can see benefits to doing that in the long term. The changes to the format of our 11-14’s group means that I will now have more time in my week to get face to face with people, as opposed to being stuck behind a desk prepping. I’m absolutely convinced of the value of reading the bible together one2one or one2two and the more of this we can do with our young people, the better. It gives great opportunities to really look in depth at what the Bible says and the relationships built within those partnerships ultimately allow the time looking at the Bible to be more fruitful as people feel more able to open up and be honest about their Christian walk.

If all these things fall into place, I’m confident that not only will my work be more enjoyable, but more importantly it will be more fruitful. The move to resources will take a lot of pressure off of me and the change of format will hopefully encourage some of our fringe membership back as well as being more accesible to the outsider. Some people might not think it’s a big deal if we lose fringe members of our group whilst a committed core are built up, but I do. Whilst it’s making disciples, not a large group that is important, I’m also aware that “God’s Word is never wasted” to quote one of my lecturers. That’s why we shouldn’t underestimate the value of a large number of people hearing the word even if they don’t appear to be responding to it. After all, who knows whether we may be sowing seeds for someone else to water in the future and for God to give the growth to. That’s why I want to make it as easy as possible for young people to come and hear the word. Couple this with the possibility of building better relationships with my young people and the chance to read the bible with more kids, and the future is actually looking pretty exciting.

The Numbers Game

When a new year rocks up on my doorstep I always fall foul of the same trap – thinking that somehow this year is going to be ‘different.’ All the things that were a problem last year will miraculously disappear and something new and exciting is going to happen. This is at worst naive and wishful thinking at best and I know that, yet somehow I’ve done it again.

One issue that’s been playing on my mind for the last term is numbers. Now I know it’s not about numbers and I’d rather have 5 serious committed Christians than a group of 50 people who just aren’t fussed. But I haven’t been able to shake the fact that the 14-18’s group does seem to be smaller in number than it was when I started. There are some positives here though. Although the numbers have dropped, we’ve all agreed as leaders that what we are left with is a much more solid and committed core than we had when I started. That’s not to say that everyone who comes is a committed Christian, far from it, but we can’t shake the idea that ‘something’ is ‘going on.’ So maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m falling foul of worrying more about the numbers than about whether these kids love Jesus.

I think there are probably a number of reasons it bothers me though. Since I started, we’ve definitely had a heavy focus on our bible study groups and our youth meeting to be times when we gather around the Bible. We come to hear the word of God, to be challenged by it and to be changed by it. The Bible is how God has spoken to us and so that’s what we use as our authority. What can I say, I’m pure bred evangelical and I’m very much of the opinion that it is the gospel that is going to do the work, not me or any flashy gimmicks, and so if the word is taught faithfully then we will see results. That’s not to say that we don’t teach creatively, in fact I actively encourage people not to just get up and talk at the group, but rather to teach it interactively and drawing on the culture we live in. But it has to be faithful to the word, not just a gimmick for the sake of it. It’s great for us to use videos, music, flipcharts, memorable phrases, dramas and anecdotes as long as they are servants to the word and not the other way around. It’s the word that is going to change lives, not whether I can body pop to “We No Speak Americano,” and then find some tenuous link to salvation from it(perhaps the fact that not speaking Americano wouldn’t have been a problem at Pentecost!*groan*). The word is powerful enough on its own. When I go into the local secondary school, I could give the best apologetic talk known to man but it has nothing on actually reading scripture to those kids there that have never even looked at a Bible. There’s no magic formula, it’s just the power of the word of God. And those of us that teach at the group have been really lucky to have some great training from our church and others in the wider area and so without meaning to sound arrogant, I think we’re generally pretty good at teaching the Bible clearly, relevantly and faithfully.

So why then have people dropped off?

I have a few theories. I don’t know which are right, if any.

Firstly, the people who have dropped off were never those who seemed to have any real commitment to Jesus. There may have been some commitment to the group, but that was about as far as it went. I don’t believe in sugar-coating the Bible (there’s no need too. I’ve found that when it comes to games, treat them like they’re 5 and they love it. When it comes to the Bible, treat them like their adults) and so we’ve stood up and said some things which people will have found difficult to hear, things that are challenging sin in their lives and pushing them out of their comfort zone. I think that this may be a contributing factor to the drop off. Ultimately, some people will reject the word and walk away because the price they’re being asked to pay and the sacrifice they’re being asked to make are too high, just like the rich man whose face fell when Jesus told him to sell all he owned. There were other gods in their lives, so that there wasn’t room for God. I’m very much in two minds as to how to react to this though. My natural reaction is to just let them go. Why put hours of time in trying to woo back those who aren’t really bothered (at least for now) when I could be doing a deeper work in the few who are? Sometimes you just dust the dirt off your sandals right? But another part of me is saying, should I really just let them walk away because it’s a lot of effort? I know though that if I’m truly honest, I worry about them walking away because of how it looks to the rest of the church, the ones who only see in numbers. Would I only be ploughing away at getting certain kids back because I fear man more than God?

If it’s true that they’ve left because we teach the Bible and refuse to compromise on the truth, then that would lead me to conclude that those we have left are those that God wants to be here right now, the ones that the word is at work in. Yes the numbers are smaller but I keep entertaining the idea in my head that sometimes you need to prune to encourage growth. My hope is that this smaller committed group are going to make a big splash for Jesus and we will grow again but that we needed this drop in numbers to allow us to disciple the ones we have left. This is the idea I haven’t been able to shake from my head. The ‘one step backwards, two steps forwards’ idea. But if it’s true that this is what’s happening, then it’s not even one step back. These are all steps in the right direction. It’s only in our worldly views that a drop in numbers means things are being done wrong. It might be exactly what God wants for now. My vicar has said on numerous occasions that I picked the group up at a low ebb spiritually and when I look back to when I started, I can see that to be true. Yes the numbers were bigger, but we were spiritually far poorer.

I suppose that’s the problem with me talking about not seeing ‘results’. More often than not, I’m looking through the wrong lens (the numbers lens) and wondering what everyone else must be making of it. The lens I need to keep firmly in focus is the “true disciples of Jesus lens.” And the fact of the matter is, we don’t know the result because we haven’t reached the finish yet. Sometimes things look bleak mid-race but there’s a last-minute spurt no-one was expecting. Where will we be this time next year? Doubled in size? Or halved? And if we are halved, does that mean that we’re doing something wrong? Or is God just defying our worldly wisdom.

Maybe I didn’t need anything to change over the new year. Maybe the problem is just in my head.

Of course, the other option is that I’m just doing a very bad job. Hmm…