Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

I have been sidetracked from writing for the past several weeks by a health issue. I plan to post about that on my Family Blog on Sunday. What follows here is a draft of a section of the introduction to a book on Bible study on which I am working. The book is currently being called Encountering God in the Scriptures: Inductive Bible Study for a New Generation. Constructive feedback will be appreciated.

The Elephant in the Room

In 1970 James Smart, a leading Presbyterian scholar, wrote about The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. He was writing against a liberal theology which had combined with a progressive philosophy to produce the “social gospel.” Many of the leading churches had concluded the Bible simply wasn’t relevant for modern times; it was at best a record of how people long ago had sought to understand their world and the God who may have created it.

It is now four decades since Smart wrote to challenge the church to return to the Bible as a God-given book worthy of dedicated study. Yet, instead of being resolved, the problem of neglect for the Holy Scriptures has expanded into much of the Christian world, especially in the more developed nations. Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics, who were once known as “people of the Book,” are now woefully ignorant of the ancient texts. We live in a time when the Bible is cherished as an artifact and ignored as a revelation. For many it has become the proverbial “elephant in the room;” a presence too great to be removed and too mysterious to be explored.

All too often we are like the blind men of the ancient Indian proverb. Having never seen an elephant they were led to an old and gentle mare where they were stationed around it. Each was asked to describe the animal they were feeling for the first time. The one at the head spoke up quickly with a tone of fear as he pushed away the trunk, “it is a giant serpent.” At the opposite end his friend stood curling the tail around his hand and replied, “you silly man, it is no serpent; it is something we can use. It is a rope.” Another clung to a giant leg and announced “It is no serpent or rope; it is a tree under which we can take shelter.” The one at the side of the beast exclaimed “No! no! no! It is a wall. Behind it we will be protected.” Finally, the one being cooled by the flapping of the elephant’s ears added, “I know what it is; an elephant is a fan.”

If we were to expand the parable we might imagine how those who cannot hear experience the elephant. How would the experience of those who cannot smell be different from our own? How do people who only see elephants at the zoo or a circus experience them differently than the scientist who studies them, or the person who trains them to perform, or the person who uses them in the jungles as a means of transportation or a beast of burden? At the risk of overreach in our exploration of the parable, how would we experience the elephant in the room if it was wild and untamed, a beast that refused to be controlled? If we are to truly know the elephant we must realize it is more than the sum of its parts. It is a living and dynamic creature. We must also recognize our experiences with it, even our combined experiences, are inadequate to completely know it.

If we begin to experience the elephant from all of these vantage points, our understanding of the elephant would expand as would our questions about elephants. Just how big do elephants get? How long do they live? How strong are they? What noises do they make? What do they smell like? What do they eat? Where do they live? How do you train an elephant to stand on its hind legs?

Like the blind men most of us connect with only portions of the Bible. There are passages we like and others we hurry through or skip over. If we are not careful we will limit the Word of God to the role we want it to play in our lives. For some the Bible is to be revered but not explored; it is too awesome and demanding to be engaged. Others know it only as a textbook to be studied for its practical applications. Others cling to its presence, if not its content, as a shelter from the storms of life. Still others find in it a wall behind which to hide from the dangers of life. Still others get just close enough to be cooled by the freshness of its presence.

God is present in His Word. The Bible is far more than a record of how people sought to know God, or even how people once experienced God. The Scriptures are the voice of God echoing through the ages, the Word of God carried by the Holy Spirit to every generation, the presence of God making Him known to all who would attend to it.

Bible study should aim at knowing God and His purposes for our lives. It is a spiritual process. But Bible study should also be a reasoned and disciplined process. If the Bible is infinite and eternal as the voice of God, it is also historical and temporal. It is both a divine book and a human book. God’s Word inscripturated foreshadowed the mystery of God’s Word incarnate. In Christ God has become flesh; in the Bible God’s word has become human language.