How do we read the Bible? A silly question you may ask, but an important one if we are to find the truth that sits beneath the surface in this book of books. Do we read it literally from the translation we have in front of us? Is it the word of God that holds true at all times and in all places? Is it a book of fact verified and proven to accurate in all ways? Or is it something more or different altogether?
Reading the Bible literally is like looking at a painting and only seeing the picture sitting on the surface of the canvas. We see only what we see. If we only see the picture and don’t strive to se the meaning hidden in the picture, something of the perspective of the artist, their culture and philosophy, we will only ever see a painting we either like or don’t like, judged only on what is visible.
The Bible is more than literal words. It is more than what we read. We now know much in the Bible no longer holds true as verifiable fact or history. It is an amalgamation of events and history brought together to tell a story.
The Bible is a book of poetry, a lyrical book of metaphor and mythology, not myth as fairytale, but myth in it’s classical sense. It points to meaning without describing that meaning directly. It hints at the mystery of life and calls us to get in touch with what dwells below the surface.
The Bible calls us back to mythology and symbolism, something we in the western world have discarded. We no longer engage with meaning making myth and it comes at a cost. Humans need poetry and myth to make meaning of their lives. When we ignore such it reappears in negative forms – mental health issues, violence, abuse etc. We spiritualise, medicalise, rationalise and ignore dreams, visions, insight and intuition. Our literal response is to normalise behaviour, thought and action so that we produce a flat one-dimensional world of proven fact and experience. Anything outside this is does not exist.
The Bible requires much more of us. It requires us to dive deep into its poetic style u to discover more. It requires us to dive deep in side ourselves to hear what the spirit is saying and to engage with the very forces ebbing and flowing in us, forceswe describe as good and evil, darkness and light, positive negative. It requires us to be open to a sphere of experience not visible in a literal world.
It also requires us to understand much of the writers purpose, who they are writing to and what they needed to hear. Paul and John write to the Ephesians, not to give them a book of practical advice as we read it – read you Bible, pray, live a moral life and accept Jesus as Lord – but to encourage them, telling them the struggles they face aren’t personal and these struggles are shared with others.
Susan Hylen writes of this passage:
“While modern Christians are likely to have a view of heaven as a paradise in which no evil dwells, the writer of Ephesians is drawing on a different set of cultural assumptions, one in which a struggle between cosmic forces occurs within the heavenly realm. Christians, who already reign with Christ in some sense, are obligated to participate in this struggle.”
Paul is writing from prison to a church of new followers struggling to find their way. John writes to the same group of people in his Gospel, people facing persecution from within and without the church. They have been betrayed and abandoned by friends and family, neighbours and social acquaintances because of their new found faith in Jesus the Christ.
What started out as a great epiphany, a moment of great joy was now fast becoming a nightmare. What they expected, a life of joy and the coming of the kingdom of God appeared further away than ever. It was hard, painful, and full of threat. They could die for their faith or at least be cut off from their Jewish heritage. Everything they knew no longer applied and they were cast out of the synagogue and society, as they knew it. They were alone.
Paul writes some words of comfort and support: (vs10-13)
He recognises the difficulties they are facing for their faith. He understands the struggle it is for them to remain faithful as young Christians, wondering whether they got it totally wrong. Where is God? Where is this Jesusthe Christ? Where is the solidarity and support they thought would be there? What has happened to my friends and families? Is it really worth it to be a follower of JesustheChrist or should we just abandon it and go back to where we were?
Paul offers encouragement:
First, this is not just about you. This is an eternal battle, an eternal ebb & flow that continues in the heavens. It finds its form in the world in the shape of the secular and religious leaders who are persecuting you for your beliefs, ostensibly for different reasons, but in fact because you challenge their power. Heaven is not a place where you can eat as much fairy floss as you like without getting cavities! It is a place where you continue to engage in the eternal battle.
In our modern world we think in terms of self. We perceive events and actions in terms of how they impact on or find their way out of ourselves. Paul reminds us, and the Ephesians, this is not the case. The world holds much more variety and mystery that that. It engages us in a story which is both uniquely ours and uniquely eternal and universal. We are engaged, not as the centre of the action, but as one of the many players in the eternal story.
Paul is encouraging them to stay engaged because they are an integral part of the biggest story possible and their struggles and difficulties with the powers active in the world has meaning and purpose. It has solidarity and belonging. It has the imprimatur of faith, hope and compassion found in faith in JesustheChrist.
Secondly, Paul intimates that this is not just the experience of new followers but all followers. He reminds them that he is in prison for his faith, and will probably die as a result. When John writes to the same church he holds up the example of Peter who had already been martyred for his faith.
Thirdly Paul is suggesting that they don’t have to be perfect. They will fail, slip, make mistakes, struggle with loyalty and get it wrong. But they are to do everything possible to maintain their faith right up to and including that terrible day, the day when their faith will be ultimately tested by the Romans or the religious leaders, the powers at work in this world. The suggestions made calls them into a deeper relationship with their faith where they will begin to understand another realm at work – the spirit realm and it is not to be feared.
We live in the Spirit. Jesus was the embodiment of the spirit alive in the world – or at least that was how the man Jesus was seen. He was true, righteous, prophetic, and open to hear God in the world. He was filled with the Spirit, as we are, if we but understand that our real life is spirit not physical.
Reading the Bible requires us to delve below the surface of what we read, to understand it as mythology, the world of the Spirit. Like the Ephesians we are to avoid simply looking at what is happening in front of us or to us as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Our lives are lived across the material and spiritual worlds and our experience has meaning in both realms. Once we let go of the literal we begin to grapple with the forces at work within and without, the ebb flow of spirituality sapping and energising us at the same time.
Gordon Graham in a reflection upon understanding art applicable to our understanding of Bible as poetry and myth, suggests that while art, and for us the Bible, speaks of a particular event or circumstance, they also speak to the general – the universal. The Bible collects characters and events and put them together to tell a story and even though those characters and events may never have happened as it is told. Art, which the Bible most certainly is poetically, ‘may be imaginary through and through, but it can still enable us to look more sensitively at people, circumstances and relationships in our own experience. the question to be asked is not, ‘Does this effectively capture the scene portrayed?’ But ‘does this make us see this sort of event or circumstance or group of people differently?”
It is challenging but it is the essence of our life. Amen.