Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Better Metaphor for the Bible?

I ran a seminar on the Bible at a recent conference and took with me a glass bowl in which I placed pieces of paper with individual verses from the Bible written on them. I asked each person to take one and that could be an “inspirational word” for them that day. A couple of people were quite encouraged by what their piece of paper said. Most were simply bemused; some even amused. Verses like “He fled naked, leaving his garment behind” (Mark 14:52), “I wish they would castrate themselves” (Galatians 5:12), “Jahaz, Kedemoth, Mephaath” (Joshua 13:18), or even just “He said” (Job 3:2) don’t exactly lend themselves to being emblazoned on inspirational posters.

My point was not to denigrate the Bible. I love the Bible. I have devoted my life to teaching it. But my point is that many Christians treat the Bible as if it is a kind of “promise box” which contains these individual nuggets of wisdom and inspiration called “verses.” We treat it quite flatly, as if each one of them should work in exactly the same way. No wonder so many of us struggle to read it! And no wonder our society sometimes ridicules Christians for following it if we have given the message that that is what the Bible is and how it works. Because it is impossible to read the Bible that way, and I would suggest it is impossible to live in response to the Bible if we are attempting to live out of that metaphor.

For starters, the Bible isn’t made up of verses. It is made up of books (and letters and collections of poems and laws and more.) Books are written as wholes and designed to be read as wholes. Imagine taking To Kill A Mockingbird or A Tale of Two Cities and cutting them into individual one-line pieces and expecting them to impact you in the same way the whole book does. Books just don’t work that way.

The verse numbers we are familiar with were first included in translations of the Bible in the 1550s. And they are very helpful! If we want to study or discuss the Bible in community, it works really well in our literate culture to be able to look up a numerical reference to make sure we are all on the same page. But they were never designed to completely change the way we think about what the Bible is.

So what is a better operating metaphor for the Bible? As a collection of books spanning a variety of types of literature and historical periods, the metaphor that I find resonates well is that of story. The Bible is God’s story; a story in which we are invited to participate. Individual parts of the Bible contribute to that overarching story in a variety of ways. The historical books tell us about the God who made Himself known to different people in different times and places and through them we learn about the God who makes himself known to us in our time and place. The prophets and poets proclaim the words God spoke to His people and the words they spoke to Him and through them we can hear and speak in similar ways. The Gospels reveal to us Jesus Christ: who He is, how He speaks into the world, and His saving death and redemptive resurrection. The letters of the early church reveal the way people applied their faith in Jesus to the realities of their lives and again enable us to do likewise.

One of the dangers of using “story” as our metaphor for the Bible is that sometimes people hear the word story and immediately think fiction. That is not at all how I am using the word. One of my favourite things to do is listen to other people’s stories and share my story and see how they interact. These are not fictional! Rather, telling our stories is the way we relate and engage in community. We live out of stories. And so I love the picture that God invites us to live out of His story.

NT Wright does a much better job of explaining this metaphor than I ever could. He speaks of the Bible as an unfinished drama, one in which we are given the first few acts and the concluding scenes but invited to improvise our own part. This article on the authority of the Bible, and particularly the section on Authority of a Story, is well worth a read if you want to pursue this idea.

But I’ll conclude with another picture. Last year I had the opportunity to visit a church in a Northern Territory Aboriginal community. An indigenous artist has drawn nine paintings which together tell the story of the Bible. They hang on the walls of the church to be “read,” much like the original purpose of the stained glass windows in many European cathedrals. And when the community of God’s people gather in that place, they are literally gathered  within God’s story. That is another metaphor that really resonates for me. The church is constituted in the midst of God’s story. The Bible is not a collection of verses we can pull out as daily motivational sayings, nor wield as weapons in some kind of war. It is the story which gives us life as God’s people and it continually invites us to enter into and embrace the part our own stories can play in His.

Aboriginal Art Revelation

Today would be a nice day to be in Mwandi …

It’s Monday morning again. Where would I like to spend the day if I could go anywhere just for a quick visit? Going back to Mwandi would be a wonderful, albeit heart-wrenching, way to spend the day.

Fishing on the Zambezi River
Fishing on the Zambezi River

Mwandi is a little village in south-western Zambia and I took a team to visit there just over five years ago. I’d love to see what has changed since. We worked with the local church and an Orphans and Vulnerable Children Project which provides education and food in order to support the kids staying in the local community. These are kids who have lost one or both parents to AIDS, and in a village where 60% of the population are under 16, this presents huge challenges.

AIDS Education Sign
AIDS Education Sign

Mwandi is also an incredibly beautiful place, right on the Zambezi River. We passed a tower of giraffes on the way into town and spotted hippos and crocodiles in the river. The sunsets were stunning, the local woodworker hand-carved intricate treasures, and we dined on freshly caught fish from the river. Neither the place, nor its people, should be defined by what they don’t have.

The Mission Hospital
The Mission Hospital
What do I love about Mwandi?

The people, absolutely the people. They were so incredibly welcoming and hospitable to us despite the cultural faux-pas I’m sure we were making left, right and centre. They had so little and yet they were so generous and open hearted.

Entrance to the Village Chief's Residence
Entrance to the Village Chief’s Residence

I also loved the warm weather, the community culture, and the peace and solitude readily available. Walking through the market and hearing the sharing of lives along with produce. The giggles of children watching us walk by with our strange clothes, language and customs. The roadside entrepreneurs selling everything from haircuts to mobile phone minutes. The warm welcome into people’s homes and the opportunity to join in whatever was going on from singing and dancing to making mud bricks to gutting fish.

The OVC Project
The OVC Project
What did I learn from my time in Mwandi?

I was inspired and taught by the deep faith in Jesus I saw in action. As a Westerner with the title “Rev” I was treated with respect, even deference, and looked to for teaching and comfort. But I learned so much more than I was able to share. It was an incredibly humbling experience to pray for those who were dying and to try to share hope with those who had lost loved ones that day. I felt so out of my depth and my comfort zone, but God gave me incredible opportunities to learn from being stretched in those ways. I also felt shame at the excesses of my life, the stuff that I do not need and yet cling to, and the way that I compare myself to those who have more and feel either justified or jealous. And I was challenged by the way people shared their lives and cared for one another which stands in stark contrast to the isolated, independent lives so often lived in my cultural experience.

A villager's kitchen and living area
A villager’s kitchen and living area

Mwandi is the kind of place where you find yourself thinking, “I will never be able to go back and live my life quite the same way I did before I came here.” And yet it’s so easy to forget and slip back into what seems so normal and innocuous when you return home. I want to remember my visits to place like Mwandi because I need to be reminded every day that the way I live is not the experience of the majority of the world, and because I want to live my life in light of how they have to live theirs.

Sunset over the Zambezi
Sunset over the Zambezi

Is Australia guilty of telling a single story about refugees?

If you haven’t already seen it, this TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well worth 19 minutes of your time. She talks about the dangerous power of a single story. The way we too often assume that people who are different from us can be defined and summarised by one story, whereas our own culture is allowed the complexity and contradictions of multiple perspectives. The effect of doing this is to emphasize the thing we see as different and to minimise our shared humanity.

Her message is powerful and resonates for a number of reasons. I was challenged and intrigued by the way she talks about stories, and how we can make a story an entirely different story by starting it with “secondly.” In other words, the point at which we choose to begin telling someone’s story will completely shape how we hear and understand it.

The comment that really resonated with me today, however, is this one:

Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Why did this hit me so strongly? I think it is because I am afraid that this is what I see happening around me.

Australians have started to tell the story of people who come to our shores seeking refuge in a particular way. We define their whole story by that one action. We are starting their story with a “secondly.” Our government has even pronounced on what language is and isn’t acceptable to describe these people. We are being shown them as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again.

When we define people as only one thing, and a thing that we think we are not, it becomes very easy to see them as “other,” and to dismiss the rest of their stories. We end up dehumanising them. I have observed it in the way different tribal groups relate to one another in parts of Africa. I see it in the way the early Jewish church struggled to accept Gentiles in the New Testament. I’m even noticing it in the way young men speak about women online. And I hear it every day in the rhetoric and debate that surrounds the “issue” of asylum seekers in Australia today.

At the political level, it can feel like this battle has already been lost. Many seem quite comfortable accepting the single story we have been told.

At the personal level, I’m grateful for those who continue to listen to the myriad of different stories from those who make up the Australian community in all its diversity. If you’re looking for a good place to start, check out and maybe take the time to listen to just one of the many stories there.

I would hate to think that my life could be defined by a single story someone else told about ‘people like me.’ I hope I can show that same grace to others, no matter where they come from or how they arrive on my doorstep.