When Scripture Talks Back

Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” There’s a certain simplicity to this sentiment that no doubt adds to its appeal.


Statements like these represent a common strategy for reading the Bible and reveal a perspective that understands that Bible as speaking with one voice, with absolute clarity, on nearly every question we could ever have. This kind of perspective seeks to offer black and white answers to black and white questions, ignoring the world of deep greys in which we live. There are certain questions to which the Bible does not give a black and white answer, and to pretend that it does is dishonest.

Questions such as these complicate the way we think and talk about Scripture; and if we continue to wrestle with these questions we also should assume that our youth do, too. Reading and wrestling with the Bible ought to mean more than simply making the biblical texts “relevant” to their lives. Memorizing the books of the Bible in order and mastery of Bible drill games, while useful, are far less important than discussions of how we read the Bible. 

This is why I suggest moving from seeing the Bible as a monologue delivered from on high, to an understanding of the Bible as a divine dialogue that speaks with multiple voices. The Bible is a vast conversation, often messy and muddled, into which we are invited to listen and to speak, and this is precisely where its beauty is to be found.

Diverse Voices

The primary issue with the way of reading the Bible highlighted above is that is assumes one-way communication from God, to the biblical authors, to us. The Bible essentially becomes one massive monologue, and the whole book is meant to communicate the exact same thing. Again, I understand the power of this perspective, but I also find it deeply problematic. If this our model for teaching the Bible in youth ministry we are teaching unhealthy and unsustainable reading practices.

For starters, this perspective unnecessarily obscures the diversity of voices and perspectives preserved within the biblical witness. When we think of the Bible a single book rather than a collection of books written by distinct people in disparate times and places, we lose something crucial. Our task should not be to smooth out all tensions in the biblical texts, but to grapple with those tensions and hold them up as model for the life of faith.

The Problem of Exile

A number of examples could be raised to highlight the internal dialogue of the Bible, but one that I find particularly helpful is between Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80. Both texts deal with the same basic problem, but in drastically different ways: the problem of exile.

The respective defeats of Israel and Judah at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians and subsequent banishment of many from their homes and land was more than a national disaster; it was a theological catastrophe. The violence of exile rendered God’s covenantal promises dubious. What happened? Why were they being punished so? Were they no longer God’s treasured possession? Or, worse still, had God failed to protect them? Had God been defeated?

These are perhaps some of the questions rattling in the minds of the people as they wrestle with the problem of exile. Indeed, the experience and catastrophe of exile haunts much of the Hebrew Bible. But, perhaps surprisingly, not all biblical authors answer the basic question of exile quite the same way.

Isaiah’s Vineyard

The prophet Isaiah, for instance, offers an allegorical song about a vineyard. The vineyard is called “beloved” and is planted by the vintner with care “on a very fertile hill” (v. 1). Because of the care and precautions taken by the vintner he expects the vineyard to produce a bountiful crop of grapes, but instead “it yielded wild grapes” (v. 2).

Through some clever rhetorical maneuvering the prophet uses the allegory to declare the culpability of the people for their own exile. For Isaiah the answer is simple: the people were disobedient. This is our lot because we were unfaithful. We disobeyed God and this what we deserve.

The Psalmist’s Accusation

The Psalmist, however, has a slightly different take on this question. In Psalm 80, instead of a penitent prophet crying for repentance from the people, we see someone who is deeply troubled at the idea of a God who could allow such an atrocity.

Contrary to Isaiah, the Psalmist does not call for repentance from the people, but instead calls for God to change because, according to him, it is God who broke down the wall. The overarching sense of the Psalm is that the people are being punished unjustly, and that God needs to be stirred to action. The Psalmist even seeks to strike a deal with God, bargaining that if God will again look upon the people, “Then we will never turn back from you; give us life and we will call your name” (v. 18).

When Scripture Talks Back

A Divine Dialogue

The beauty of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalm is that they don’t see eye to eye; they fundamentally disagree regarding what for them was a major theological issue. Yet, both are allowed to stand side by side in the same sacred corpus; somehow we consider both true.

We could try to harmonize these accounts; we could offer a reading of the Psalm that assumes its author shares the same perspective as Isaiah, but that would seem to do a disservice to the raw honesty and emotion of the Psalm. Or we could pit the perspectives against each other and try to decide which one is right. Which one more accurately represents the God we know?

The beauty of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalm is that they don’t see eye to eye; they fundamentally disagree regarding what for them was a major theological issue. Yet, both are allowed to stand side by side in the same sacred corpus; somehow we consider both true.

Instead, I think a better, and more fruitful, reading strategy would be to hold both texts side by side, preserving both voices in this divine dialogue. Our goal should not be to decide which one is right, and to present them in perfect harmony, but to highlight the diverse theological perspectives within the biblical witness. This kind of dialogical approach ought to be fundamental to the way read and teach the Bible.

How Now Do We Read Scripture?

Teaching and embodying a dialogical approach can help shift the way youth interact with the Bible for the better in at least three ways:

  1. A dialogical approach allows for richer engagement with the Bible, and helps give a better sense of the diverse voices preserved within our sacred literature. It gives a more honest image of the Bible that doesn’t seek to smooth out every tension, but deals with the texts as they are.
  2. A dialogical approach emphasizes the process rather than the end. Hopefully none of us would claim to have all the answers. While we generally know on some level that faith is a constant wrestling with big issues, we tend to teach that faith is black and white. If we began to care less about the answers and more about the dialogue we might be surprised by the value we find in the process itself.
  3. A dialogical approach better prepares youth to engage the world around them and to be more open to dialogue with folks who think differently. We are so bad at disagreeing, especially in the church. We need to teach our youth the value of listening and learning to disagree more hospitably. A dialogical approach allows them to see diverse perspectives existing side by side while still being invited into the same sacred space.

 


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.

 

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