Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.
Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.
What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?
Our big ideas to this point: The Bible is not the basis of our faith; it is a collection of writings pointing to an event and a person who is the basis of our faith. No one just picks up the Bible and reads it; instead we all come to it with our own ideas–formed by culture and tradition and prior interpretation–as to what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it.
At this point, let us turn to the question: What is the Bible for?
In order to guide our thinking on this question, we will utilize insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“. Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers. His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.
Enns’ description of what the Bible is uses three key words seldom used in any evangelical discussion of the Bible: ancient, ambiguous, and diverse. His big idea in this book, which is also the big idea for much of his other writings as well, is that the Bible is not designed to give us hard and fast answers on all subjects it addresses, but instead to lead us into wisdom. Here are some money quotes from early in the book:
I believe that God knows best what sort of sacred writing we need. And these three characteristic ways the Bible behaves, rather than posing problems to be overcome, are telling us something about how the Bible actually works and therefore what the Bible’s true purpose is—and the need to align our expectations with it.
…Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.
So what does Enns mean by wisdom and what does he mean when he says the Bible is intended to lead us into wisdom? Another money quote:
Wisdom is about the lifelong process of being formed into mature disciples, who wander well along the unscripted pilgrimage of faith, in tune to the all-surrounding thick presence of the Spirit of God in us and in the creation around us.
…the Bible is a book of wisdom rather than prescripted answers, and inviting us to accept the sacred responsibility of pursuing wisdom and thereby learning to live well in God’s creation.
In other words, God is not what we would call a “helicopter parent”, giving us the Bible as a clear and exhaustive guide to every possible situation we could conceivably encounter, hovering over us at every moment to make sure that we are following its clearly and explicitly stated directions/expectations, and then rushing in to fix things so that we always stay on the right path. If God were that kind of parent, the Bible would look and feel much different than it does.
When we are too committed to harboring and sheltering our familiar false expectations, the Bible itself has a wonderful knack of disrupting those expectations, challenging our categories, and, if need be, agitating our complacency. And the Bible does this simply by—I will say it again—being its ancient, ambiguous, and diverse self, oblivious to our expectations, so ill-suited as a field guide for faith, so reluctant to be co-opted by our questions and the agendas that drive them.