Friday, February 23, 2024

Time-Traveling Bible Readers

 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4, NIV)

Back in 2011, the Chinese government banned time travel. Or at least strongly discouraged it.

      Now, before you celebrate that the United States can actually pull ahead in the Back to the Future Race, the Chinese weren’t actually concerned about you strapping a flux capacitor to your DeLorean and trying to get that piece of junk up to 88 mph. They just don’t want you to watch Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd try to do it. 

     What China actually banned — uh, discouraged — is TV shows and movies about time travel. 

     Their argued that shows with time travel plots treat “serious history in a frivolous way” and “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.” The government says such programming lacks “positive thoughts and meaning.”

     All of that ignores that some of the most-beloved TV shows and movies ever include time travel — think Dr. Who, Outlander, Russian Doll, Quantum Leap, Time After Time, Terminator, Back to the Future (And a few lesser-known but still great ones like Run Lola Run and Idiocracy) — and seem to be just full of positive thoughts and/or meaning. Most people think the ban, or whatever it is, came about because of the popularity of a couple of Chinese TV shows of the era that featured protagonists drifting around in time.

     In a country known for wanting to control the narrative of its own history — aren’t you glad we’re not like that? — the almost-ban probably had a lot to do with the fear that the history seen in those shows might expose the official history as an alternate timeline. The reference to “reincarnation” and “superstition” suggests, too, that concerns about unregulated religious beliefs might have something to do with it. 

     But it might also be this: the protagonists in those shows seemed to find some kind of happiness in the past, a happiness that they couldn’t find in modern-day society. Which cuts against the grain of the state’s narrative that they are an ideal society.

    China wants media consumers to keep their feet planted in the present, or in their version of the past, or in the sparkly future they envision. They don’t want people slipping around through the time stream, creating alternate pasts and other possible futures and holding up inconvenient mirrors to the world they live in now.   

     That’s how you know that a time-travel show or film is good; it’s not really about going back or forward in time. It’s about what traveling to the past or future says about the present. It’s about finding meaning in shared history, even when it’s painful to do so, and perhaps finding unity, joy, and hope in setting our eyes on a better future.

      Reading Scripture, in this way, is time-travel.

     I know, that sounds weird. But consider that the Bible is a set of ancient documents, the most recent of which was written, conservatively, almost two thousand years ago. Some of those documents tell stories that occurred in even earlier times, some in what we’d call prehistoric times. They’re written in ancient versions of unfamiliar languages, by long-gone cultures. They are firmly set in the past.

     But if we believe their central conceit — and why spend any time with them if we don’t? — they have something to say about our lives now, today. It’s amazing, really, that we’d give ancient writings from an obsolete culture that kind of influence. Of course, it’s because we believe that they say something about a God who doesn’t change, who is faithful throughout history. That they say something from that God, actually. That what he did in the past gives meaning for our present. That he’s doing the same things now that he did then. That we can expect him to do the same things throughout our lives and into eternity. That they tell us about hope, and life, and justice, and righteousness that overcomes death, sorrow, violence, and hatred. 

     So reading Scripture is about slipping back and forth through time. No DeLorean or “strange things afoot at the Circle-K” required. But you can’t read Scripture correctly or helpfully without that slippage.

     Sometimes we like to think we can read Scripture with our feet only in the present. Saw something on social media just this week: “If a Bible question requires outside help, such as historical or cultural references, the question is not necessary to answer, since God has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness in His word, and that with that word we are complete, completely furnished for every good work.” Ironically enough, the OP misunderstands the text it quotes, 2 Peter 1:3. It’s God’s power, and our knowledge of it through Jesus, that gives us life and godliness. Peter, when he wrote those lines, new nothing about a New Testament. He’s certainly not saying that God gave us an instruction book, and all we have to do is read it. The Bible tells us of God’s power and love for us, but there’s nothing transforming about just reading it. Knowledge is necessary. One of the virtues that he tells us to add in the next few verses is knowledge. 

     The Bible can be hard to read. Isn’t it Peter who also tells us that some of what Paul wrote can be hard to understand and, so, prone to twisting by false teachers? Things like historical context and an understanding of the language and culture of the biblical writers help to safeguard Scripture from being misused and abused. Reading the Bible with an understanding of the past helps us to better understand what it has to say to us today. And also what it doesn’t say to us.

      But to read it with our feet only in the past is to ignore that it does have something to say to us now. Jesus told some of his critics to “go and learn” what Hosea the prophet meant when he said that God desired “mercy, and not sacrifice.” They were experts at what Hosea meant back then. He thought they needed to do some work on what that meant for his day. He told his audience in one sermon, “You have heard that it was said…but I say….” It’s great to know what the biblical writers said. But we have to do the hard work of interpreting those words from long ago to understand what God is doing in us and through us now. And what our future looks like because of him. 

     So it’s not either/or. If you aren’t willing to learn about what the Bible said back then, you shouldn’t be dogmatic about what you think it says now. And if all you’re interested in is what it said in its original time and place, you’re not going to be very good and applying it to life in a world that’s so much different.

     So grab your Bible and do some time-traveling.                      

1 comment:

  1. I love the concept of reading Scriptures as a form of time travel. Only the Bible makes meaningful application to all three phases of life - past, present and the future. Thanks