Working the Bible Puzzle

It can take quite some time to learn how to work the Bible puzzle—and for many of us, one of the first steps seems to be coming to the realization that it is, indeed, a puzzle at all! I remember taking offense when I heard a certain author call it that sometime in the early 2000s. My view of it at the time went something like this:

  • We’ve been “given everything we need” in the Bible, so it’s all in there.
  • If we were just faithful and diligent, it would all make perfect sense. It’s very “clear”.
  • The Spirit helps us understand it, so what’s to puzzle over? (The way I understand it, therefore, must be pretty close to being right.)

This view isn’t shared by every Christian, but I find it’s a fairly typical one, more or less. And it was certainly mine. But it was also flawed. And it’s the sort of view that tends to remain intact when it’s not under the pressure of honest and rigorous questioning. So when we stay in our routines, and stay around the people who already think like us, we’re never going to realize all the soft edges that these rules have.

For example, if we all have the indwelling Holy Spirit, and if he is helping us all to understand the Bible, how come we don’t all agree about what the Bible means? And if the Bible is so “clear”, then why is there so much disagreement about it? And if we have been “given everything we need”, how come we ourselves are constantly bemoaning the sorry state of the churches?

Now, I want you to understand that this is not me saying that the Bible’s no good, or that it’s not from God, or that it’s “full of contradictions”. Nope, not at all! This is me saying that the Bible is simply not the document that so many of us think it is. For example, it’s neither of these popularly-accepted things–not exactly:

  • The Blueprint for the Church
  • Life’s Instruction Manual

This is not to say that we can’t learn a great deal of useful information from the Bible—for we most certainly can! But it is obviously not laid out like a blueprint or an instruction manual. It might have some things in common with such documents, but it’s simply not the same type of document as either of those. In fact, one quite obvious fact that’s often overlooked is that the Bible is not a document; it’s a collection of documents, written by many authors over a long period, and in various genres. And part of the “puzzle” aspect is figuring out how best to read each of those types of writing.

For example, there are many camps that are stuck on the idea that the Bible is the “literal” word of God. And let me say for the record that I totally agree that there are many literal statements in the Bible. Many! But there are also many figurative statements in the Bible. For example, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” And I’m going to go out on a limb here and submit that this was metaphorical speech, and not literal speech. So it immediately breaks the rule, “The Bible is the literal word of God”. Right? Even if a thousand other passages might have been intended literally, this one was clearly not. So it breaks the rule.

And that may be one of the first steps of working the puzzle for many—learning how to try out the possibilities for how an author intended to be understood in this or that Bible book—or even in different passages within a book, or even within the same chapter! And right away, we can see that this could get quickly out of hand for someone who’s concept of the Bible is that “It’s very clear”. We may do it without realizing it, but if we import into our religion this idea that it’s all supposed to be “very clear”, then we rule out the possibility that God might just be the sort of sophisticated being who uses figures of speech, and who expresses some deep things in parables. And neither of these forms of speech (or writing) are “very clear”—by their very definition. They both quite deliberately insist on explaining one thing in terms of another. So this requires that the reader/listener have some skill at decoupling from the figure/image/parable he or she is being presented with, in order to get to the real intent of the writer/speaker.

And that, my friends, is puzzle work. It’s the dance that’s danced between the poet and the reader, and between the novelist and the reader. It’s the game that’s played between the crossword puzzle writer and the player—and between the comedian and the audience. It’s the “inside joke” between good friends. It’s the silent-yet-effective scheme between the pitcher and catcher. It’s a next-level way of communicating between smart people. And God is definitely like this. So the question is, are we?

And some, apparently, are quite adamant in insisting that God would never speak that way, or have any author write that way—or especially, have us learn to read that way! So they rule out that kind of communication, and insist instead that everything in the Bible must be “literal”. But really, do they think that Jesus and the apostles had literal bark and leaves—since he was “the vine” and they were “the branches”? Well, of course they don’t! But they are so not going to stop and sort out their beliefs about such hermeneutical rules, now, are they? They’re not going to say, “OK, let’s break it down.”

If that camp were to admit that the Bible is indeed some sort of a puzzle in some ways, then I expect they would very quickly publish a bold claim that they have indeed been given the key to solving it. And for the nonthinkers in the crowd, this would be a very satisfying announcement, indeed. But this wouldn’t explain why they don’t all seem to be handed the same key. That is, why they don’t all come up with the same solutions.

So it’s an oversimplified, overgeneralized view, and it simply doesn’t work in every case. It’s the classic example of an idea that “makes sense, if you don’t think about it”. That is, it’s the sort of thing that we can indeed manage to believe, but only if we hold it in some sort of intellectual suspension, and protect it from wondering and questioning and from being observed for too long. And that’s exactly how some prefer to run their religion—in that sort of isolated, protected suspension. They are not the sort to “give careful thought to your ways”, as the Bible writers stressed in so many various ways over those centuries. Rather, they are the sort to make adamant assumptions about the rightness of their ways. And this is why they don’t like the idea that God might just have had things put in the Bible that require lots and lots of thought—lots and lots of pondering and puzzling and comparing and testing and such.

Ironically, they believe in a savior who deliberately taught things in parables, when he could have spoken plainly and without figures of speech (John 16:29), but they don’t want to suit up to play the parable game with Jesus. They don’t want to play the metaphor/image game, so as to learn how to decode Jesus’ meaning. Nope. They don’t want to learn how to dance with him—to learn the ebb and flow, the give and take, of the way he likes to interact with their minds. They’d rather just decide summarily what it meant, and then simply claim to know—not leaving it up to responsible caveats such as, “…if I’ve understood it correctly” or “…if I’ve interpreted the figures of speech as the writer intended.”

In short, they seem to want a cognitively-simple religion, where what Jesus and God actually gave them is one that requires the believer to use his or her brain regularly and rigorously. It even reminds me of the time when the disciples said to Jesus, “send them away so they can get something to eat”, and Jesus surprised them, countering with, “No, you give them something to eat.” Huh? Us? No, we didn’t sign up for that kind of exertion; we just came along to watch and see what happens today.

Now, I’m sorry to tax you, dear reader, but I put all that out there simple as a metaphor—-explaining this kind of resistance to getting involved in terms of that kind of resistance to getting involved. And I believe that this is why they resist thinking of the Bible as a “puzzle”—because they know that puzzles are puzzling and taxing and tiring and sometimes frustrating. Jesus’ actual religion is one that can often leave the disciple mentally and emotionally tired at the end of the day. And some days, it will leave then mentally and emotionally intrigued. And some days, they have more questions. And on other days, they figure out some answers, and are jubilant about it. And that’s how it is. That was the actual plan. That was the actual process of learning that God and Jesus had in mind for the Christian.

But if your camp is infected with much of this “It’s very clear” mindset, you need to understand that this is going to keep you from wrestling with the scriptures deeply enough to perceive the questions that should be popping up as you read. It’s going to keep you from experiencing what God and Jesus had in mind for you.

I used to be in a camp like that. (Several, actually.) Ironically, the last one I was in thought it was “very clear” while also thinking that their “very clear” view of the Bible was superior to the view of other camps. That is, they recognized that somebody from Camp A really needed to wise up and migrate over to Camp B, with its better way of looking at things. But what they could never seem to figure out is that they themselves had settled in Camp B, and were having the same attitudinal problems as the folks in Camp A. That is, surely there’s some Camp C that has made improvements over some of Camp B’s view of things, but Camp B, thinking “it’s very clear” and “it’s all settled” is quite unlikely to become aware of Camp C’s point of view, because they think that their own Camp B has got it mostly figured out already. And meanwhile, the folks at Camp B are still critical of the folks at Camp A for having that same complacent attitude about their understandings of things.

(This is what I call the Gap Trap—where we get caught in the gap between where we used to be and where we could be by now if we weren’t in such a crazy hurry to put down stakes and start a new permanent camp to call home.)

I’ve seen this behavior again and again over the years—and I was so good at it myself! I think we get into it for several reasons, one of which is that we don’t really love the idea that God put us here on this Earth to learn and grow and to wrestle with the truth and to decide if we’re going to make peace with it or not. We don’t like the idea that he gave us a lifetime’s worth of pondering material all at once in a big book that we’re never going to be able to understand completely. We don’t like the idea that it won’t all make great sense at once.

And meanwhile, we may have this strong inner sense—this dream of a world in which it does all make sense at once. But we need to understand exactly what that is. That, my friends, is simply the error of mistaken worlds, for it is not this world, but the next one in which the puzzles are all solved. And we are not there yet.

So as long as we’re here, we had better roll up our intellectual sleeves and get busy learning how to work the puzzles God gave us, considering them from all angles and doing our best to make good sense—honest, rational, and responsible sense—of them, and remaining always open to the possibility that some new information tomorrow might just improve our understanding even more! Just keep in mind that when you’re faced with some problem and you go to Jesus, pleading, “Lord, please solve this puzzle for us!”, he might just surprise you and say, “No, you solve it!”

And if you press him, he might well pepper you with some questions designed to get you thinking straight on the matter. For example, he might ask things of this sort:

  • Who made the brain with which you could think about this problem for yourself?
  • Who made the eyes with which you could read all about this sort of thing in the scriptures?
  • Who made your mouth and ears with which you could discuss these things rigorously with other believers?
  • Who gave you your imagination with which you could test whether you’ve considered all the possibilities?
  • Who made your hands, with which you can keep notes of what all you’ve considered so far?
  • Who put curiosity in you that you could even wonder about such things?
  • And whose scriptures are constantly calling you to wisdom and to knowledge and to giving careful thought to things, and to examining yourself to see whether you are really in the faith that I teach?

And I’m just making up this conversation, of course—though I’m modeling it after bits and pieces of real conversations found in the scriptures. And one further ironic statement pops into my mind—a logical argument I could see God making to us intellectually-lazy people today:

  • You are constantly saying “He has given us everything we need for life and godliness”. Yet I have given you all those things I just listed above—to help you understand the Bible—yet you won’t use them! And instead, you come to me making the grand assumption that I am, through my Spirit, helping you to understand the Bible—and you don’t even understand it enough to know when you’re interpreting it in such a way that it contradicts other things you are convinced it says.

Now, I am no prophet, so I do not speak for God, and he most certainly did not tell me to write that statement above. Nope. But that’s something I can imagine him thinking and saying to us―based on the other things I’ve read him expressing in the scriptures.

The old saying says something about the error of having “brought a knife to a gun fight”. Well, I think we can make a similar error here in this world when we bring assumptions to a thinking fight—when we bring hearsay to an evidence fight—when we bring laziness to a working fight. And there are certainly times we we have showed up to a figurative fight wielding literalism—or got it wrong the other way around.

I think that God knows the Bible has some tough material in it, and that he wants us to puzzle over it. I think that some of this is by design. I think we’re supposed to have questions, and are given the things we need (as in the list above) to work the puzzles for ourselves to good effect. And if that sounds tiring, there will always be some preacher in some camp promising to do all that work for you—or that it has somehow already been done for you! And it seems that millions find that promise irresistible.

And I wonder if this isn’t somehow similar to what happened in the Garden, when the idea of getting all knowledge all at once proved just too overwhelming for Eve. I don’t know any church that promises an instant download of all knowledge. No, it’s more subtle than that, but it’s fairly similar in a way. What they seem to be offering is a vague complacency that “the church” somehow collectively understands it all well enough, more or less, and that you can count on the church to have your back, and not to let you be (too) wrong about such things. So, even though you may never hear such ideas expressed explicitly, don’t be surprised if you develop some attitudes like these:

  • If I were wrong about this, I would know it.
  • God wouldn’t let me be wrong about this.
  • If I were wrong about this, my preacher would have told me.
  • God wouldn’t let my preacher be wrong about this.
  • God wouldn’t let all these people be wrong about this.
  • This idea has stood the test of time; it’s a tradition for a reason!

Since I gained the courage to start asking some really hard questions about the Bible and our beliefs about it, I started realizing that I had held a lot of these cognitive biases. And I also have discovered a lot of instances in which I had got the Bible wrong. And sadly, I’m not done with that process yet! The more I study and reflect, the more I realize that this or that in my understanding needs to be tweaked—and the more I tweak, the more it distances me from the attitudes I used to hold and the camps I used to frequent. And I could be wrong about this, of course, but I do think that at the same time that I’m being distanced from those, I’m getting closer to understanding God.

So if God wants me to work that puzzle, I’m OK with that!

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