For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
-John 5:36-40 (NIV)
Susan Bennett is Siri, the digital personal assistant who speaks to you from your iPhone or iPad. Based in Atlanta, Susan has done voice-over work for twenty years, for everyone from Cartoon Network to Home Depot. In 2005, she signed to do work for a software company. They had her enter a recording studio and read various phrases and sentences for hours. Those snippets were then pieced together by computers in a process called concatenation. So, however real Siri may sound, when she tells you the weather or reminds you of a meeting it’s just a recording of Susan Bennett saying random words and phrases stitched together by software.
I know, it kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?
I probably don’t have to tell you this, but talking to Siri isn’t the same thing as talking to Susan Bennett. Siri might give you a recipe, for instance, that Susan Bennett wouldn’t recommend. If you called Susan right now, she wouldn’t know your schedule for tomorrow. And she would almost certainly not play music for you.
Through the magic of concatenation, we can hear Susan’s words without actually hearing anything she’s ever really said.
I hope not, but sometimes I wonder if we make the same mistake in reading the Bible.
We like to tell ourselves, and one another, that all a person has to do to be a Christian is read the Bible and live out what he or she sees there. We talk like there’s nothing to it, like anyone who can read can do it.1 Of course, the history of the church would suggest that hearing God’s voice isn’t quite as easy as reading a page of text. And living it out is even harder.
Let me be clear: I don’t think the problem lies with the Bible. I would, like most believers, affirm that the Bible is God’s word. What that might mean, imply, demand - we’ll leave that for another time. Suffice to say for now that the problem isn’t the Bible - it’s the way we use the Bible. A verse here. A phrase there. The process of concatenation comes to mind.
It’s a problem that’s unique to Bible people. Look at the Bible scholars of Jesus’ day, as a “for instance.” They were convinced that in the Scriptures was the key to eternal life, if only they knew them well enough. Studied them hard enough. Practiced them faithfully enough. So they did; they studied, worried, debated, argued, dissected, analyzed, and categorized the Bible. They were even convinced that, by applying biblical texts to the issues of their day, they could find out what the Bible said about things it never directly addressed.
Concatenation. They knew God’s word. They would have said they heard his voice. But they never really heard God speak, because instead of letting his word change their hearts and minds, they set about piecing together a phrase here, a word there, to support what they already assumed God was saying.
You know this because when the Word made flesh came to live among them and open God’s kingdom to them, they didn’t recognize him. He spoke with a voice they didn’t expect, and so they rejected him and refused to hear him.
They weren’t ignorant of the Scriptures - far from it. They weren’t intentionally trying to miss God’s work in the world. The problem is that they had a concatenated Bible built of proof-texts and dogmas, and that never really sounds like God. Not any more than Siri sounds like Susan Bennett.
As Bible people ourselves, may we take a warning from them. In their zeal to be biblical, they weren’t that different from us. And in our tendency to stitch together a Bible that answers our questions and speaks to our needs, we might not be that different from them. If we think God’s word only agrees with our political convictions, we almost certainly have a concatenated Bible. If what we know as God’s word only challenges what other denominations are doing and never asks tough questions of our own fellowship, our Bibles are concatenated. If God’s word never speaks to our own shortcomings, condemns our own sins, calls us to repentance, or opens our eyes to new ways in which we might see God working in his world, then maybe the problem is that we’re hearing a word constructed out of snippets, clips, and sound bites. If we find God agreeing with us most of the time, it might be because we’ve built concatenated Bibles.
Believers talk sometimes about living in the word. What we mean by that, I think, is being familiar with it, studying it, learning it. And, of course, that’s good. But it’s even better, I think, to have the word of God living among us and in us. And, of course, in Jesus the Word was made flesh and came to live among us. That means that any reading of Scripture that contradicts his purposes, values, and demands is the wrong one. It may be a fair enough imitation of the word of God, but it isn’t the genuine article. His voice will always expose our concatenated Bibles for what they are.
The Word made flesh has poured out his Spirit into our lives, and into our community life as the church. And so we ask his guidance in reading the Bible, so that we can hear the voice and see the form of God. Without the Spirit’s guidance, as experienced through the whole church, how can we hope to hear God’s voice in the Bible? Without the Word made flesh, how can we come to him and have life?
So let’s have the courage to dispose of the “Bibles” we’ve created for ourselves, the ones built out of proof-texts, favorite verses, and private interpretation. The ones that may sound a little like God, but don’t really represent him very well. Let’s read our Bibles with eyes on Jesus, hearts full of the Holy Spirit, and ears attuned to hear our brothers and sisters. And God will speak.
Though he might not tell you the weather.
1What does it suggest about our understanding of Christianity if it’s only for those who can read?