It’s probably not best practice for a preacher to say this publicly, but my sermon this weekend was pretty awful. I think it’s because I’ve psyched myself out thinking that my congregation isn’t interested in the esoteric, mystical theological nerdiness that I care about, so I got tangled up in knots trying to figure out how to craft a relevant message instead of listening to what God had given me to say, which is why it never came together. So first I wanted to say I’m sorry to anyone who was there. And I wanted to try to write now what I should have pulled together more coherently before I stood up in front of God’s people. What I wanted to say in my sermon is that the Bible is so much more than a reference manual or a rulebook; the reason it’s called “God-breathed” is because God wants to use it to make our existence inspired, which means to live in the freedom and delight of His breath.
Our church sermon series this month is called Roadtrip. This weekend the title was “Follow your GPS” and it featured a verse that I’ve wrestled with for a long time: “All scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). I’m not in love with the way that fundamentalists have used this verse as a proof-text over the last forty years of their dominance of American Christianity. I’ve often made the point that this verse doesn’t say anything about scripture being a biology or history textbook. It has a pragmatic purpose. It’s useful for something specific.
When I was in seminary, I took a theology class in which we read Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, his teaching about how to interpret the Bible. As part of the research for my term paper, I read an article which pointed out that Augustine interpreted 2 Timothy 3:16 very differently than we do today. Whereas we read the statement mostly as an affirmation of scripture’s authority (“All scripture is God-breathed and useful”), for Augustine, the statement pointed to the endless potential to find meaning in the most obscure details of scripture (“All scripture is God-breathed and useful“).
So for Augustine, 969 years, the lifespan of Methusaleh in Genesis 5:27, must have some kind of symbolic significance that is “useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness,” whereas for us, it’s simply an scientifically embarrassing Biblical “fact” that we have to agree with if we accept the inerrancy of the text.
In the modern conception of truth, the indifferent details are what confirms the veracity of a story. If I’m telling you a story about my day and everything conveniently fits together in a way that confirms the point that I’m trying to make, then that makes my story sound contrived. But if I throw in details like, “I remember the car I parked behind was a red Volkswagen with a ‘Virginia Tech’ bumper sticker,” that makes my story more credible because I wouldn’t have any reason to make up those details.
For Augustine, there were no indifferent details in scripture. So the oak of Mamre, to give another example, where Abraham receives the three angels in Genesis 18 has TO HAVE some kind of symbolic purpose “useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness,” whether it’s the Hebrew letters in the name or the species of the tree or the word Mamre itself, some meaning, even a Christological meaning, can be dug out of that tree through years of meditation and interpretation. Augustine comes up with many wild, allegorical interpretations for psalms and other texts, particularly the Song of Songs, which becomes all about our mystical relationship with Jesus instead of just being a steamy love poem about a young Jerusalem couple in the post-exilic era.
In any case, I’m much more enchanted by the way that Augustine and the ancient Christians read scripture than the modernist approach in which it’s divided into indifferent details and “Thou shalt nots.” There’s so much of scripture that doesn’t tell us what to do but rather tells us who God is. When people are looking to the Bible as a reference book or rulebook, they simply ignore the parts that don’t spell out clear “Thou shalt nots” as indifferent details. But what I’ve found to be the case is that what inspires me to live like Jesus is not knowing the rules so much as falling in love with my Creator.
The Biblical book that honestly has a greater impact on my behavior than any other is the Psalms. The psalms don’t really tell me what to do in the sense of giving me commands. They do give me verses to meditate on:
“The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.”
“When the Lord brought the captives back to Zion, we were like those who dream; our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues were filled with song.”
“My soul waits for God longer than the watchman waits for the morning.”
“Weeping remains for the night but joy comes in the morning.”
“My tears have been my food day and night while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is your God?'”
“In you, O Lord I seek refuge, do not ever let me be put to shame.”
“I waited patiently for the Lord, He inclined and heard my cry. He lifted me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay.”
Somehow when these psalms become the poetry that naturally moves through my thoughts as I consider my surroundings, I can feel God’s breath passing through me. It’s not that I’m resistant to the parts of the Bible where there are actually “Do this” or “Do that” type statements. I just don’t really find as many straight-up commands as the fundamentalists seem to want the Bible to be exclusively about. What I find are mostly statements about God’s nature that have implications for how I live and through which God seems to be speaking directly into my life at that particular moment in time. It seems to me that the more I fall in love with God and the beauty of His poetry, the more I am inspired to live differently.
I’ve been ruminating a lot on John 3:8 lately, where Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses and you do not know where it comes from or where it is going; so it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” This is such a beautiful expression of life in the spirit. But if that’s what life in the spirit looks like, then why do so many Christians look nothing like that? It seems like many Christians take pride in how inflexible they are. There is a conservatism for conservatism’s sake that seems to be more about giving yourself a justification for scowling at other people than it is about a genuine love of the inspiration God offers through His word.
I just wonder how many of us espouse the beliefs we do out of fear of the heresy-hunters we perceive around us whose zeal for “orthodoxy” is a projection of the same fear. God wants us to be free the way the wind is free. He doesn’t want the idols and addictions of a sin-soaked world to own us; nor does He want us to be enslaved to an anxious fear of mystery and a need for control and correctness.
I’m not saying anything against the authority of the Bible. The more we trust those God-breathed words, the more they can inspire us into freedom. I do have a problem with the way that “Biblical authority” functions in the abstract meta-conversation of many conservative evangelicals. It seems like they don’t want the Bible to have a word that is inspiring and liberating, because it needs to be an onerous sacrifice to follow so that some spiritual currency can be earned as a result. This seems to be the latest iteration of the age-old heresy of works-righteousness.
What I can say about the God-breathed words of scripture is that they have made my life meaningful and poetic, whereas a decade ago when I was trying to live a Bohemian, poetic life with things like marijuana as my pseudo-source of inspiration, all I ended up with was anxiety and depression. That’s why I say that obedience to God and inspiration are the same thing. The holiness that results is not a dour, scowling disposition, but rather the capacity to love freely and live imaginatively the more that God has purged our souls of all the things that keep us from dancing whichever way He blows us. Become His breath.