The Discipleship.Network Interview
Phil Miglioratti interviewed Glenn Paauw, author of “Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well”
Phil ~ Glenn, the main portion of the title makes me think you were prompted to write from a place of concern . . .
Glenn ~ I’ve worked for nearly three decades in Bible ministry and publishing. The clear disparity between the significant sales and distribution of Bibles and the level of Bible engagement and understanding has become increasingly distressing to me. Simply pressing on and publishing, selling, and distributing more of the same kind of Bibles seemed fruitless as a way to change the story of the Bible in our world. The Bible does not exist just so we can make money selling it. The Bible was given to us so it could play a vital role in God’s mission to the world. We have the ability to hinder that mission. And right now the research on Bible reading and understanding, as well as the Bible’s influence, is fairly devastating. It is trending even further downhill. My hope was to write a book that presents a fresh approach to the Bible, one that gives us a chance to change how the Bible is faring in our world.
Phil ~Sadly, we are only now emerging from a content-centric approach to disciple-making. How could your sub-title serve as a simple but expansive explanation of the Church’s task of disciple-making?
Glenn ~ Happily, there’s a whole new world of Bible engagement right there, waiting for us to rediscover it. “Read and live” captures the discipleship dynamic that the Holy Scriptures are supposed to provide. There is content to be known and understood, for sure. But the whole point is for the Scriptures to take up their role as the crucial guide for our lives. Or, even better, we can say the whole point is for us to take up our role within the compelling and restorative story of the Bible. That’s the real end game here.
Phil ~ “The Bible does not need to be saved because of any defect in itself, but because we have distorted and misread it.” I do not read this as if you are referring to those who have a weak or watered-down theology; on the contrary, you seem to be speaking to those of us who receive the Bible as the Word of God . . .
Glenn ~ Yes, you’re right. As I say in my introduction, we know there is widespread disregard for the Bible. More and more people are simply ignoring it. That’s bad enough, and a serious problem. But it is perhaps even more scary to consider the possibility that even when we think we are taking the Bible seriously, we might be mistaken about what the Bible really is, and what we’re supposed to do with it. It isn’t enough to simply convince ourselves we have a high view of Scripture as the Word of God. We might say that and yet still be making big, important mistakes about how to read and understand it well, about how to live it well in a world like ours today.
What mistakes? Well, that’s what the book is about. In short, we’ve complicated its form, resorted to snacking on it in little pieces, failed to take seriously its historical nature, lost track of its overall story, characterized it as a passport for escaping the world, read it in isolation from others, and neglected the rightful place of beauty in the Bible. This is what the Bible needs to be saved from.
Phil ~ How have we “buried (the Bible), boxed it in, wallpapered over it, neutered it, isolated...individualized...minimized...lied abut it”?
Glenn ~ This is all about what has happened to the Bible in our modern era, including our turning the Bible into a commodity. Modernity favors certain approaches to things. It likes to segment things into small parts so they can be better understood. It likes to systematize things. And when we add to that what happens when we put the Bible into a modern consumer context, more things happen. Bible selling of course concentrates on individuals, and the benefits of a product that appeal to individuals.
So there is great pressure in a consumerist and modernistic context to turn the Bible into a particular kind of thing. This context forces the Bible into something that is typically broken down into smaller, supposedly easier to understand little parts (like verses). It packages and sells the Bible in a way that will appeal to consumers. This makes it very difficult for the Bible to have any other voice than a nice, pleasing, encouraging voice. But that’s not the real Bible, not the whole Bible.
The whole Bible, this complete collection of different books, is actually very challenging and even corrective in its voice. It is meant to judge and heal, to shine light on the hard, broken things, and then to restore and save. It is meant to be taken in completely, not just in preselected and easy little bits. We have to be self-reflective about the era we live in, and what this cultural setting does to our Christianity and to our holy writings.
Phil ~ You wrote: “If the Bible isn’t what we’ve thought, we have to face the implications.” What are those implications, especially as they relate to the task of disciple-making?
Glenn ~ This can be very hard to do, because it involves some repentance (saving always does). In the modern period we’ve formatted the Bible like a reference book. It’s important to remember that this is neither original or natural for the Bible. This format has of course invited us to then use the Bible like a reference book, and this now has a centuries-long history. But what if this model is incorrect? If the Bible isn’t a reference book, if it’s not a flat book in which each individual piece can be lifted out of its context and used as a stand-alone piece of divine revelation, then we have to revise what we’re doing with the Bible. If we can recover something closer to the Bible that God actually inspired, then there are implications.
If the central units of the Bible are the whole books it’s made of, then our first obligation is to be regularly reading these whole books. If there are different kinds of writing in the Bible, then we need to learn the conventions that go with each of these kinds of writing so we interpret well. If the Scriptures come together to tell the story of God’s defeat of sin and death and the restoration of his creation, then we have to learn this story. If the story is centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, then we have to learn how to read every part of the Bible in proper relation to the story of Jesus. If the Bible is about the formation of a new redemptive community in the midst of a broken world, then we need to be reading the Bible in community and not just alone with our own thoughts.
So being a disciple of Jesus must include doing right by the Bible. We have to start doing it justice. The Bible is where we learn who Jesus is, and what story he was born into. There is no serious following of Jesus without a decent understanding of the meaning of his story in its biblical and historical context. I think this means the church has to quit taking the Bible for granted in the disciple-making process. I think we need to start being much more intentional in giving disciples these tools to both read and live the Bible well.
Phil ~ How will we know “we’ve hit the heart of it all – that the Bible is achieving its purpose-”?
Glenn ~ When we find that the Bible is at the center of how we think about our own mission and purpose in life, that’s a sign the Bible is becoming what’s it’s supposed to be in our lives. When our Jesus-following communities are having ongoing, quality conversations about the Bible, and are working together to live this story out in our communal presence in the world, that’s a sign the Bible is being saved.
Phil ~ Please comment on how these ideas/suggestion apply to our calling to “make disciples” –
• Storytelling – the big goal of the Bible is to invite us into its story, to take up our own role in its ongoing drama of restoration and life. All the smaller parts of the Bible (principles, moral teaching, history, prophecies, etc.) come together to serve one purpose: to welcome us to the life of God that has come and is coming into this world. This is the story of the Bible. Therefore, as disciples, we must be comfortable with the category of story, and with being constant storytellers of both our own stories and the great story of the Scriptures.
• “Big” readings” – Modernity pushes us toward “small readings”—small in actual size, and small in vision. Those who read and digest the holy writings well, will increasingly experience “big readings”—feasting on larger portions of the Bible, and resonating with its expansive vision for the reclamation of all of God’s creation. The scope of the Bible’s story includes all of my life, everything I am and do, and it includes the life and purpose of every creature on earth.
• The corruptive impact of evil – The Bible helps us realize how deep the brokenness of the fall actually goes. It’s so much more than the fact that I occasionally commit some sins. Evil is radical, in the sense that it gets at the root of all kinds of things in God’s world. So the solution to evil has to be just as radical to combat and defeat it. This means that a superficial discipleship will be completely ineffective is producing Christians capable of playing their parts in God’s redemptive story well. And this in turn means that if Christians have only a superficial familiarity with the Scriptures, their discipleship will be only a shadow of what it could and should be.
• Our neglect of communal Bible reading? – To read and study the Bible on our own is a good thing. Its message is personal, meant for me and my world. But if we neglect the communal experience of the Bible (not always “studying,” but just reading out loud together, discussing together, working out its implications together) we are missing the primary way God intended the Bible to do its work. The Bible is a book for community formation, not self-improvement in isolation from others.
• Justice – One of the implications of regularly experiencing “big readings” of the Bible, as I’ve mentioned, is seeing the all-encompassing scope of the Bible’s story of salvation. Christ has reconciled all things on heaven and earth (Paul, to the Colossians). The destruction of evil and the restoration of right relationships throughout the creation is therefore clearly the goal of the story. Justice is all about God settings things right. So biblically, there is no conflict or tension between evangelism and justice, or discipleship and justice. It is not a choice between “personal salvation” or “social justice.” God’s kingdom is about his will being done on earth (our realm) as it already is done in heaven (his realm). The Bible will be saved for us when we live out this integrated vision.
• Elegance – This is an interesting one. At one level, we very literally need to start reading elegant Bibles—presentations of the Bible that are clear, elegant and simple in design. Our modern Bibles are way too complicated and visually distracting. We should welcome back a very intentional beauty to our physical presentations of the Bible, including an appropriate level of artwork and craftsmanship.
But there is also the need for us to pay more attention to the Bible’s beautiful and elegant use of literary forms in its telling of God’s truth. This is part of his revelation to us. He chose to use different kinds of writing. The parallelism of Hebrew poetry elegantly shares different angles on important spiritual points. Poetic metaphors and word pictures strengthen the emotional impact of prophetic messages. Etc., etc., etc. Modernity often overly-complicates things. We can welcome back an ancient, elegant simplicity to our experience and our understanding of the Bible.
Phil ~ Speak to the calling and need for servant leaders to reassess how they incorporate the Bible in their disciple-making ... whether they preach, teach, write, mentor, facilitate, produce resources ...
Glenn ~ It is clearly time for a Bible renaissance. The research shows us falling into a Dark Ages of biblical illiteracy and indifference. It’s not going to happen by pushing harder to get people back into the old, modernist Bible and old, modernist ways of reading. It’s going to take our embrace of a new Bible paradigm, a fresh, honest, natural approach to the Bible that honors the kind of writings God actually gave us.
Phil ~ Glenn is there another insight or idea you’d like to share with the Discipleship.Network community?
Glenn ~ The Scriptures are a gift to us, given by the Creator and Father of us all. Currently, we are not receiving this gift well. C. S. Lewis said the first thing to do with any piece of literature is to receive it on its own terms. We should commit to doing that with the Bible. We must simply receive it before we begin to use it.
Phil ~ As you assess the Church in a rapidly changing culture, are you hopeful about the future of how we perceive the Bible?
Glenn ~ Christianity always has to interact with the age in which it currently exists. Modernity has deeply shaped both the form of the Bible and what we think we’re supposed to do with it. But right now there is an increasing acknowledgement that we’re not doing well with the Bible. This is also a great opportunity.
I see new signs of hope that people want to rediscover the Bible, to live with a new paradigm for the Bible. Publishers are developing new “readers” editions. People are hungry, ready to start feasting on the Bible. The Reveal Study found that the single biggest thing people want from their church is help to read and understand the Bible. I think the Bible reading revolution has already started, and it’s only going to grow.
Phil ~ Please write a prayer you would encourage each disciple-making reader to pray.
Glenn ~ Here’s a variation on the New Exodus prayer that Jesus himself taught us:
Make your name holy, as we live your word out loud.
Bring your kingdom, as we share your story with the world.
Welcome us now to the feast of your word, as we wait for the bread of tomorrow, the messianic banquet that is coming.
Forgive us for our neglect of your word,
and may we in turn be gracious with each other as we imperfectly put it into practice.
Save us from the great trial, keeping us safe in the arms of the Word himself.
May it be so.