Make no little plans; they have no magic
to stir men’s blood.
— Daniel Hudson Burnham
Once upon a time, a boy disobeyed his parents’ warning and wandered into the surrounding woods of their cozy, idyllic village. The woods, they told him, were wild and savage and filled with magic. Deep in the woods, the boy found a man named Tanndor who threatened to eat him. The boy fled, but returned the next night, asking Tanndor if he knew any magic. Only a magic story, the wild man said.
He told the tale of a sickness that threatened to kill an entire kingdom, but their king took the sickness upon himself and died as a sacrifice for the kingdom. Three days later, the king returned from death and led the kingdom to a new land, where the taint of illness would not follow.
As Tanndor told the tale, trees split apart, the ground ripped open, animals screeched, and the moon melted. The boy, upon hearing the story, left the old man and returned to the safety of his village. The next morning, the boy told all of his friends the tale and during each of the telling, horrible disasters ensued. Whole fireplaces burst apart, homes were split open and streets ripped to shreds.
The adults soon learned of the spreading of Tanndor’s tale, but they couldn’t stop it. Every time they found a youngster telling the story, they would stop him or her only to hear three more tell the story. Soon, the whole village had been destroyed.
Devastated, the adults found Tanndor and accused him of ruining the town. “I might have,” he said. “But there’s another Kingdom we can go to, the one without the taint of illness.” Where?” they asked. Tandoor replied, “Let’s find the king in the story. What, you thought it was just a story?”
When asked about the Bible, most Christians will affirm it’s an important book. Some will use such words like “inerrant” or “authoritative”. A small minority of these Christians will quote the motto, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And an even smaller group within this group, have their own scientists and schools to conform all scholarship to the literal, present day reading of the Bible. For a while, Evangelicals have claimed they were a “Bible-believing” group and have attached “biblical” to every discipline in order to affirm its authority.
But what if some of the problems found in the present day church’s witness are due to Christians not taking the Bible seriously enough? This seems to be absurd since the pride of the fundamentalists and those who hold to inerrancy is the cry, “How much more seriously can we take the Scripture?” It shall be argued that although the present day church has done quite a bit to defend and present the Scripture, its view of participating with God on a local level is meager and weak. Instead, a more aggressive belief of the Scripture must be taken. The virtue needed, when coming to our understanding of the Scripture in our neighborhood, is incarnating God’s word. In other words, we must become the Bible we preach.
Like everything, submitting to Scripture can be found in levels. Cutting through an onion reveals the layers within layers – deep into the heart, the foundation of the vegetable. So too, when we journey deeper and deeper into God’s word, we see the story that can and has changed the world before our very eyes. As we believers mature, we travel through four basic levels of yielding to Scripture: agreeing, believing, obeying, and becoming.
This is the first and most superficial level of yielding to the Scripture, yet it’s the most common place in Protestantism. Ever since the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, the pulpit has been the chief source of leadership within the local congregation. The Bible, from the pulpit, is not only read, but exposited and reasoned and explained and argued for, and encouraged to be followed. In essence, the pulpit-centered church spends most of its time, money, and resources arguing people into agreeing with the Bible. All of architecture in the church is centered around the pulpit, most of pastoral training is geared to reasoning with Scripture, and small group ministries, in this model, are centered around either understanding what the Bible said on Sunday or what other Bible passages say about other, more tailor-made topics.
And why is agreeing with the Bible so important? It’s right. It’s true. It’s a fact!
It’s right…but according to whom? It’s a fact, but according to what standard? It’s true, but who are the ones bestowing truth upon the Scripture? And do they see themselves in competition with all of the other truth-sayers surrounding us in our postmodern, globalized stream of information?
Back to David E. Fitch. He writes of a story of a discussion where he claimed inerrancy was too liberal.
Inerrancy begs the question “inerrant according to who?” and too often the “who” consists of scholars, scientists, and archeologists. They are the ones we allow to determine whether or not there are errors or not in the Bible when we consent to this strategy. They are the ones we are reacting to when we defend the Bible using “inerrancy”…This strategy therefore ends up putting us in the position of forever looking over our shoulders to see if science has another problem with the Bible. So I believe the Bible is without error, but I need more than that!
This is inerrancy as put into the propositional camp of “just agree.” But what if there’s more to it than just the Bible is right, factual, and true?
This flies in the face of most Evangelicals who have spent millions of dollars creating a new science to coalesce with the literal reading of Genesis, to somehow talk the science community into agreeing with the Bible. The flaw of this approach is we are now using someone else’s construct of truth (science’s) to affirm God’s Word. Why not, then, just worship that construct and not God?
Or archeology? Much of my time in the pulpit has been spent with outside resources to talk people into believing the miracles of the Bible…because archeologists told them the stories were true! Or psychology? Or history? Or any other scholarship the Bible must bow down to and kneel in order to get everyone to agree with it? The greatest flaw in under-selling the power of Scripture by getting people to “just agree” with the Bible is that it is out-of-place in the age of postmodernity and it dethrones God as the Alpha-Omega of Scripture.
In our present age, do people still hold to practices that have been proved to be unhealthy, unreasonable, or against many truth constructs? In Canada, we post pictures of a damaged lung from a long-term smoker on the box of cigarettes. According to the “just agree” camp, this information should stop all forms of smoking. Does it? Obesity is a leading cause of child diabetes. The cure is a proper diet and lots of exercise. This has been proven, taught, and modeled in our schools and by our teachers. Based upon the idea of “just agree,” there shouldn’t be any obese children in our town because education and reason has won the battle. And yet…obesity is on the increase, not the decrease.
Let’s say a pastor is horrified when his teenage daughter thought it was okay that her best friend was gay. “But didn’t you hear my sermon on homosexuality,” he asked. “I gave some really good reasons why it’s wrong.” His daughter shrugged and agreed that his reasons were very good. “But my friend is still gay,” was all she said. For her, his point was valid but it was one of many points. She let her father win the argument by agreeing with him, but he lost the ability to influence her. Agreeing with God is not equal to following Him.
The weakness of presenting the Bible as just a reasonable document of historically true, scientifically viable, and psychologically healthy book of advice is that it denies its origin: it was God-breathed and God-spoken. What is the most intimate proximity you can experience with another person? It’s when you feel one’s breadth on your own skin. I feel my wife’s breadth on me, I feel a whole host of positive sensations; I sense the bitter, soured breadth of a stranger on an elevator, I’m unsettled for the entire ride.
God’s Word is God-breathed. “All Scripture is inspired by God,” 2 Timothy 3:16a explains. Inspiration is a weak word in today’s vernacular, for it can be used to explain the effect of being passed by a Kenyon runner during a marathon to working alongside a righteous grandmother at a soup kitchen. Inspiration, in the Hebrew context, is found to be akin to life. God breathed life into Adam (Genesis 2:7), and to demonstrate life (John 20:22). To say the Bible is God-breathed is to assign an out-of-the-science-box quality to the literature; it was intimately formed and shaped by God, God gave the Bible life, and now it is alive in our midst.
The Bible is a God-given, magic book. Calling it magic does not mean it is a book of spells, that it is intrinsically holy, or that the pages are full of pixie dust. No, it is not by itself special. However, it does something no other book can do with its success: it reveals the Mission of God. This takes belief that is not afforded by modernity. Modernity is ruled by progress, science, and empiricism. It cannot make sense of such a wild claim. Luckily for today’s church, we’re no longer modernists and the setting is now postmodern. Postmodernity has plenty of room for the Jedi, wizards, magic, miracles, and the Bible being the Living Word of God.
But belief is not enough. An elderly theologian once quipped to a class full of young pastors, “We don’t need more believers in our world to make a change for Christ.” The room gasped, as the old man intended. He then finished his thoughts. “Any fool can believe. What we need for our world to experience the incoming Kingdom of God. We need more followers of God.” James 2:19-20 states, “You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe-and they shudder. Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless?” The problem is that belief can be commodified.
You can believe from the back row of a dimly lit mega-church, never engaging in ministry or God’s mission. Belief can make you an idle, lonely, and bored consumer. The lie of consumer Christianity is that all you need to do is believe and keep believing in the Bible…just enough to buy Christian products, attend Christian institutions, and bear the image of Christian name brands. Meanwhile, the Mission of God marches on while Christian consumers are left in its dust. Believing in the Bible is not equal to following Him. It falls short, for our human hearts crave more than just belief.
“All Scripture…is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” 2 Timothy 3:16b-17 says. This is why God gave us the Bible, right? For us to change our behavior, to accept a new way of living? Isn’t God interested in our daily decisions, our habits, and the rules we are to follow? If this was the case, then why did God give us a book of stories, poems, letters, and other such documents as if all humanity needed was a rulebook to be followed, a “one-size-fits-all” spirituality by ancient laws that could always be applied in every time, every culture, and ever neighborhood?
It’s interesting: God committed to a work in a specific community in order to leave behind a story for any future communities to learn about how God does His Mission. You can’t capture the sense of God or what He can do with people by a rulebook alone. No, the Word of God is always found in community, in experience, in story, and in cooperation.
God’s revelation is found in story: character, setting, and plot. How does the setting shape the follower? How does God speak to the faithful community or neighborhood that calls them to His mission? Eugene Peterson, in his memoir The Pastor, seeks to answer how his setting shaped him just as the Bible had shaped the setting for Israel:
I have often occasion while walking these hills or kayaking this lake to reflect on how important place is in living the Christian faith. As I let the biblical revelation form my imagination, geography….became as important in orientating me in ‘the land of the living’ as theology and the Bible did….Soil and stone, latitude and longitude, lakes and mountains, towns and cities keep a life of faith grounded, rooted, in place. But wherever I went, I always ended up here. This was the geography of my imagination.
Obedience can miss context, which is the very thing God used in Israel’s transformation and is using in our present day, the context of the immediate neighborhood. Therefore, we need more than a rulebook; we need a story that reveals a mission. And by the revealed mission of God, we enter into it and become transformed by its purposes: inside-out. This is what God desires most. Obedience of the Bible is pretty close in following God, but He wants more than just our actions and behaviors. He wants our whole being to become.
God does not want us just to agree, believe, or obey the Bible; He wants us to become the Bible to our neighborhoods, as we cooperate with His mission in our immediate, localized setting. Through yielding our hearts, minds, strength, and our relationships to Him, we let the Scripture transform us into the church needed as partners in His plans. This requires us to experience Scripture, not simply read or follow it. The process calls us to allow God’s words to take over our own. And it takes a life-long pursuit of God in our transition from complacency to holiness. Eugene Peterson describes, in regard to writing, the level of commitment required to speak of God:
Pastor John of Patmos showed me the way. He wrote what he saw. His Revelation is the result. It is a thorough immersion in and the last word in what is often named Spiritual Theology, lived theology, comprising the entire scriptures and the witness of the communion of the saints.
Our words, The Word, and all of the words in between serve as bridges either to the holy or the profane, the common or the supernatural. The sifter of our language of these words must always be The Living Word, the one whom became flesh for us and is dwelling amongst us. In other words, the incarnate, living word of God must be incarnate in the church if ever we are to be a witness to our post-everything setting.
Our neighborhoods do not need more sermons about the Father’s love to the Prodigal Son: it needs more loving fathers to our own prodigal sons. The people near us are not in need another expression of “go and sin no more;” they need to be forgiven just as Jesus forgave the adulteress. And our communities do not need to hear more about the Bible, but they need to step inside its pages to become its embodiment within a local congregation. Alan Roxborough Jr. writes, in his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood:
“Scripture can only really be engaged as its performed within a community of God’s people…I’m going to argue that one of the most critical ways of performing Scripture and entering the world of God’s story today is by discovering how to perform together the world of Luke unfolds to the Gentile Christians be is addressing….Luke’s stories invited these second-generation Christians into an understanding of what had taken place that would help them confidently perform the gospel in their own context.
This is a radical departure from the approach of most churches which tend to be centered around the pulpit, for the emphasis is no longer solely on the service but also the potluck afterwards: how are we embodying, becoming, transforming into Scripture.
The church becoming the Living Word of God to their neighborhood: this is how the future generations shall experience Christ. The virtue needed for this is incarnation. Are we, as the church, willing to become the Bible to our neighborhoods? Our world may ask us to stop preaching about the Good Samaritan, but they may, on the other hand, be waiting for us to love and care for the actual injured travelers right in front of our building’s front door. In other words, we will never be stopped by the world to become the Good Samaritans to our immediate world. If we desire for the neighborhood to experience the Gospel, it must be found in those incarnating God’s words.
 Fitch, David & Holsclaw, David. Prodigal Chistianity. (San Francisco: Josey Bass Publication, 2013), 69-70.
 Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir, 11.
 Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir, 243.
 Roxborough, Alan J. Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 133.