Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Maps of Faith

January 30, 2017

You may have heard someone say the Bible is a Christian’s road-map. The Bible, they say, tells us how to get to where we are going, complete with detailed instructions on the best way to travel through our lives. I don’t know about you, but that never made much sense to me. Personally, I don’t find road-maps in the Bible, I find stories, wonderful, complex, holy stories.

A road-map is designed to help us get from one place to another, typically in the most direct manner. Find a map of the Interstate Highway system and we can plan our route from New York to Seattle in 15 minutes, if we bother with a map. Most likely we’ll program a GPS or use the Google maps app on our phone. It will be fast, efficient, and easy. We won’t be bothered much by anything located between New York and Seattle. We will be in our private car, listening to our personally selected music , our climate control precisely set, our cruise control on, our seats comfortably adjusted, with our beverages in our convenient individual cup holders.  We can make our plan and never detour, never get lost. It is efficient, but not particularly interesting way to travel.  In my experience, that’s not how life unfolds, certainly not the life of faith described in the Bible.

And so I began to wonder, could the Bible is a map of some kind? If so, what sort of map is it? A state map? The bus route? A map of the world? A star chart? Is it a map of the fire exits out of the building?

I think the Bible is most like a topographic map, a map for a particular kind of travel.

Topographic maps require close, careful study. The longer we look, the more we discover. Topographic maps show us the terrain, the high places and the bogs. They show us which rivers have rapids and waterfalls.  They mark the deserts and the forests. They tell us which lakes last all year and which dry up in the heat of summer. The map shows us where to find springs and wells.

The contour lines on the map tell us how steep the climb up the hill will be and where we will find a gently sloping path into the valley. Glaciers and scrub land, forest and swamp , each are each accurately noted.

The trails of those who have traveled this way before are marked for those who follow. The paved road, the unimproved road, the scenic tour are all on the map. The foot trail, the switchbacks, the tough climb, and the dead end are on this map as well. If we study the map we may discover there is more than one way to get there from here.

The map helps us find the good campsites, where there is enough space and fresh water for us and the anyone else on the trail. These are the places where people can gather safely, tell their stories, and rest for a while. We can locate towns and villages.  We can also find the abandoned settlements, where a community could not sustain itself. A close study of the map may help us understand what happened. Were they too far away from reliable water or maybe prone to flood? Perhaps too high up for crops to grow?

We have the map because someone came here first, paid attention to what was around them, and left a careful record for us. The map can’t tell us everything we need to know, but it helps us keep our bearings.

It seems to me the Bible is most like a topographic map. We are shown the lay of the land. Given a terrain of faith. We are shown the contours and textures of the land by those who went before us. They left us the record of travels through mountains and valleys. They show us where people wandered off the path and they point the way back. Dangerous cliffs and dry wells are all marked out for us. But also, we find where the rough places turn into a plain. We find the way out of a dead end canyon. And we find the place good, fresh water is always present. The places that sheltered other travelers are marked. We are able to rest where pilgrims have always rested safely. The Bible, if we let it, changes us from travellers and tourists into pilgrims.

We must chart our own way through the wilderness and find our own path, but we  needn’t travel blindly. We have the Bible, carefully and lovingly written, handed on from traveler to traveler. It’s more concerned with safe passage than speedy travel.  And if we are willing, there are fellow travelers around, companions for the journey.

Topographic maps and the Bible, each in their own way, help us appreciate the land around us and they help us to walk with intention and care. They give us the courage to explore the country we are passing through.  Because it is as much about the pilgrimage as it is about the destination.

Note: This is a revised blog post from Feb 29, 2008.


Who is wrong and who is right?

October 26, 2015

You only have to be in a Bible study group for a short time or read a few books about the Bible before you realize that many passages of scripture have  more than one possible interpretation. Perhaps you have had the experience of being in a small group and having someone say “I always thought those verses meant XYZ.” and then you said, “I always thought they were about ABC.” Lets look at Psalm 121 as an example of where that might happen.

Psalm 121

A Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills- from where will my help come?” What do you think that means? Many people read this as a reference to God. We look up and God will come to our aid. However, in the Ancient Near East the hills were the sites of pagan shrines, the high places. So perhaps the psalmist is asking, “Who will save me from pagan gods?” Or perhaps the psalmist  is aware that bandits live in the hills and is wondering who will save me?  I suggest that all these are plausible readings.

What about verses 5-6? Asking God to protect us from the sun makes some sense. But what about the moon? We don’t typically consider the moon something we need  protection from. We don’t think of the moon as a force which can strike us. In the Ancient Near East, the sun and the moon were considered deities and therefore something followers of the one true God of Israel would need protection from.

I think this psalm was originally about  God’s protection from pagan gods. So would someone be wrong to think about this psalm in a less specific way- about God’s protection in general? Of course not. My point is that more than one interpretation is fine. Now that’s not to say that any and all interpretations are fine. If someone thought that Psalm 121 was about protection from aliens, that might not be a legitimate reading. Although if aliens actually do show up someday, we might have to revisit that.

Psalm 121 is a fairly mild example. We could find many other examples, but you get the idea. What the original audience believed a text is about, what we believe, and what future generations believe may not be the same thing. Our question remains, how do we know who’s interpretation is right? The search for the correct interpretation has divided many a group of believers.

But still, who is right?

And why did God write the Bible in such a way that we can have multiple interpretations? Why wasn’t God more clear?

I think we may be asking the wrong questions, focusing on the wrong things. What if its not about being right? Could our being right not be the thing God is most concerned about?

Perhaps the ambiguity in scripture is to help us listen and learn from each other. Perhaps we are supposed to be learning how to live together without agreeing on everything.

I’m not suggesting that interpretively anything goes. But there is middle ground between having one and only one correct answer and saying that every possible answer is permissible. Brothers and sisters in Christ can faithfully arrive at different conclusions about some things.

We are saved by faith in Christ, not by correct answers. Jesus didn’t command us to be right. He commanded us to love each other, to support each other, to listen to each other. Can we give up being “right” about every single thing in order to live together?


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