Men strapped into floating beds, and other things we don’t understand

Why is the man strapped into the bed Grandma?” And there begun the attempt to explain gravity to a two and a half year old during her bed time story as she pointed at the picture book. But she wasn’t taken in. “Why is the bed floating in the sky?”

This grandmother didn’t tell the young girl to stop being stupid because you know, bed’s don’t fly. Nor did she say stop asking questions, just accept that the bed is floating in the sky.

Small children are inquisitive, they ask questions, and they know when you’re not given them the full answer. They keep asking questions, they want to understand. Because beds stay on the floor and people aren’t strapped into beds. So why is the man strapped into the bed, and why is the bed floating round the sky?

If this young girl decided to start a global conversation about beds flying around the sky and the inequity of men being strapped into such beds we might find it cute, we might admire her pluck and wish her well.

But we’d also want to encourage her to look at some books, consider what others have said and discovered in the past as they explored the same dilemma. Why does the apple fall from the tree? Why do objects float in space?

I don’t really understand why beds float through space, or would if there were any out there. You can tell me it is about gravity, and why that disappears in space. You can explain to me the pull of the earth, the moon and the tides. I can read and I can learn. And this makes me think, perhaps I should understand a little more about gravity – I have stopped asking the questions that are obvious to a small child and just accepted that when I get to bed tonight I don’t need to be strapped in.

There are other things I don’t fully understand, and other questions I should continue to ask. Questions which I asked once upon a time, questions which provoked me to think more, learn more, investigate and find out. Questions which got me thinking, some which I found answers to and others that remain unanswered. And many questions for which I stand on the shoulder of historians, translators and theologians that have asked hard questions and challenged prevailing consensuses over many years.

I listen to what others have to say about the Bible. I do not know Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic, and if I did, it’s highly likely I would be learning from others’ traditions of translation. If I rose to the very top of the pile I might have something original to say about a phrase or two. I want to ask hard questions of the Bible, I want to subject it to scrutiny and rigour, but I have to own an epistemological modesty which accepts I am unlikely to be able to answer all the questions I pose and that I will have to accept guidance from those who know more than I do.

While I listen to what scholars and translators and theologians and pastors who spend their days understanding and teaching the Bible, I also have a responsibility to probe their understanding, to place it against the mirror of the world I walk through each day and see if the messages it tells continue to apply in the way they are teaching them.

The Bible is a hard book to understand, it is many books, it is literature, it is history, it is wisdom, it is made up of letters and poems and the occasional recollection of a trance. Quite frankly, it is often bizarre. It is beyond me. Some of it doesn’t make much sense, every now and then I find a new passage I may have skimmed over before or perhaps eluded my reading eyes one night when I was going through the motions. Punishing one with a deceitful tongue with the sharp arrows of a warrior and the burning coals of the broom brush. I didn’t even know broom brushes had burning coals until a week or two back when I started going through the Psalms of Ascent with Eugene Peterson’s Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

Some parts of it are written in language I struggle to comprehend even when translated into English, other parts are written to contexts so foreign translation only does half the job. To fully understand the Bible you need to be fluent in multiple ancient languages, conversant in the historical context of a wide region through thousands of years, up to speed with the political ebbs and flows of empires encroaching from different corners of the world. You need to know everything from the likely habits of first century tent makers, doctors and tax collectors, to the warfare of ancient kingdoms and the role of harpists. Some knowledge of camel roaming habits three thousand or so (the ‘or so’ matters) years ago is also likely to be required.

And something else. The Holy Spirit.

Because I also believe in the perspicuity of the scriptures. I do not believe you need to be fluent in Greek, or a trained theologian, or an ordained priest, to read and understand the Bible. I do not believe you need to be those things to share with others what you learn, or to help communities grow in relationship with God through an understanding of His word.

I read the Bible empowered by the Holy Spirit, our counsellor, the one who enables us to know God, who remains with us, who gives us power and who brings us peace. Through the Holy Spirit we are able to know God, and the primary way we do that is through the Bible.

The Bible is more than just a book, but it is not divine. The Godhead is not a quadhead. It is not father, son, holy spirit and the good old book. I struggle to describe it, as concepts of inerrancy and infallibility are so tied up in American connotations and debates about what the creation account means. And yet to deny these things immediately opens up the charge of not taking it seriously, of being willing for it to be wrong, of undermining how we understand God and his redemption of humanity. I’m reminded of a response I made to debates several years ago around the atonement, I don’t believe we’re saved by a correct understanding of the atonement – but by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I don’t grow closer to God by being more determined of how right the Bible is. Theology can be a bit like Facebook stalking. We can learn a lot about God without actually getting to know him. And maybe our approach to the Bible if we don’t engage with it can be like insisting a girl is into you just because she poked you three years ago. I believe the Bible has authority, I believe it is an authoritative guide for faith and practice, I believe it teaches me about God and tells his love and his justice, and I believe it.

I’m writing this because Steve Chalke wrote something. I’ve hesitated from replying as too have several others. I wondered if I had much to say, or if it was worth saying. But I believe it is. Steve Holmes and Dan Strange have offered excellent responses from far more erudite theological minds. My response comes from someone who asks questions and wants to ask more. From some one keen for the Bible to be a conversation partner and not a dictator.

It’s so easy to write lines like that, a conversation partner and not a dictator. It’s the stuff of straw men, non-sequitors and false dichotomies. And these are littered throughout Steve Chalke’s full article. Lines that are easy to nod your head to until you stop for a moment and work out whether they are accurate. A few years ago, at the time of the last US presidential election I criticised a couple of prominent American evangelicals for inferring that if you wanted to vote for morals you should vote for low taxes and limited gun control. If this then that. And here Steve Chalke presents an approach that suggests if you take the Bible seriously you will take the approach he has and unlike those who come to conclusions he disagrees with.

We read the Bible in community and we learn from one another, as we also learn from those who have gone before us. As we learn together, as we look at what it says we ask the hard questions, but not just to ask more questions but to grow closer to the truth. If questions are all there is then truth is an elixir beyond our reach. And I believe not only that it is within our reach but that it can set us free.

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