May 2014: The Bible is not flat

EarthThe Earth is roughly spherical, deformed slightly by spin and gravitational forces. The same force that makes children’s legs fly out as they sit on a spinning roundabout affects the Earth! Most people today would accept this, having seen photographs from space. In ancient times, some among the Greeks at least knew it was not flat. However, that went against the visual evidence then available to ordinary people, and it made no practical difference to assume that it was flat. That is no longer possible: we have to assume it is not flat, as we fly from continent to continent, and watch the video that comes from the International Space Station.

Christianity has a problem today, which is that a significant number of us have never realised that the Bible is not flat either. It is a collection of books from different times, written for different purposes. The way we interpret these books has changed; we no longer need to read them all literally but can find deeper meaning in them. Some parts are 'higher' than others, meaning that we pay more attention to them; and over centuries, the parts that get the most attention have changed. Why should this be?

Human civilisation has changed over time. We collectively face questions that must be answered in each generation: how we should live together, what constitutes good government, how we should use and manage the resources of the world including minerals, animals and plants, and so on. Each generation builds on what the previous has bequeathed it; new insights into the physical world arise, and old answers become less effective. Levels of education and awareness change. In some periods of Western civilisation, Christianity has been assumed, and even legally required; in others, not so. Attention is therefore given to different parts of the Bible, as believers address the different issues that become important over time. In some periods, the question ‘how should we live’ was the same as ‘how should we be Christian’; but this is clearly not true today.

If we try to answer ‘how should we live’ using answers from the period when that question was identical to ‘how should we be Christian,’ the answers will not be effective; yet we often come across vocal Christians doing exactly this in public. The result is excessive stress on some matters that come up infrequently in the Bible, to the exclusion of other more serious matters that have become relevant again. If Christianity can be taken for granted, our conduct as Christians is a matter for public debate; but when Christianity is not able to be assumed, our public statements should point to our need to respond to Jesus in our own individual and collective lives. Our attention should be on those parts of the Bible that demonstrate how belief in God is helpful today, and that describe God’s continuing love for us as revealed in Jesus, rather than on those parts that describe ancient laws, practices and attitudes that are no longer relevant.

In the end, shifting our point of view ‘upwards’ reveals a wide story arc in the Bible, a story of radical love that develops over time and space as we grow in our understanding. Just as we must be high above the surface of the Earth to perceive that it is not flat, so it is with the Bible!

Parkdale Church of Christ 2012-18 —A community of faith, hope and compassion.