If you’ve languished in the Christian subculture long enough, you’ve probably heard someone describe the Bible as “God’s love letter to us.” I’ve heard it countless times, and probably used such language myself before. But I’ve been rethinking that phrase a little bit recently. If, as a whole, the Bible is a love letter, then it is certainly the strangest love letter I’ve ever read. I’m guessing not too many suitors try to woo potential brides by relating the story of a man getting a tent peg hammered through his head and into the ground while he is sleeping.
I don’t think the first person to utter this phrase meant any harm by it. In fact, I’m positive that it was intended to help people understand how great and important the Bible is. However, I think something unintended–and untrue–is communicated by this statement. When we convince ourselves that the Bible is God’s love letter to us, we start to believe that everything in the Bible was written specifically to and solely intended for us.
But here’s the problem with this: the Bible was written to a specific people group in a specific period of history, and those people lived on the other side of the world two-thousand-plus years ago. When we read the Bible as if we–21st century Americans–are the original intended audience, then the potential for poor interpretation is massive. The Bible isn’t God’s love letter to us; it’s a collection of historical documents written to a specific people at a specific time with the dual intentions of helping those people learn about God as revealed in Jesus Christ and teaching them how to live their lives accordingly.
This isn’t to say that the Bible is irrelevant today simply because it was originally written to a people from a culture that is vastly different from our own. As a Christian and a pastor, I believe the Bible is among the most relevant pieces of literature currently available. However, I also believe that we need to be wise about the way we read and interpret the Bible. Two thousands years and half a planet is a gigantic chasm to cross, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build a bridge anyway.
Misinterpretation of the Bible happens all the time. I think that a great deal of that misinterpretation is due to a misunderstanding of what the Bible is. When we convince ourselves that the Bible is written just for us, we ignore the fact that it is richly wrapped in a culture and language that is hardly anything like our own. This can be dangerous if we rip certain verses out of their cultural contexts and impute to them the status of universal truth.
A fairly innocuous example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 11:14: “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” Taken by itself, this verse seems to condemn me as vile for no other reason than the fact that I currently have long hair. If the Bible was written specifically for us today, then it’s pretty evident that I had better quit writing and head over to Great Clips, lest I risk facing God’s wrath. But this verse was written to people living in the ancient city of Corinth (which is in Greece) in the year 53 AD (which is a long time ago), and it would be highly irresponsible for us to ignore that fact.
In first century AD Corinthian culture, a man who wore his hair long was likely a prostitute. Prostitution, so far as I am aware, has never been an occupation that is held in high esteem. Nor am I aware of too many prostitutes who get into the sex-for-pay business due to a love of the work itself. Typically, people are forced into prostitution either by someone else or by the fact that they see it as their only means of survival. Therefore, Paul’s declaration that a man (a first century Corinthian, mind you) wearing long hair is disgraceful was probably not hotly contested.
In contrast, ancient Jewish culture viewed long hair on a man as an outward symbol of his extreme but venerable dedication to God (see Numbers 6:5; Samson is a well-known, if fatally flawed, example of this).
In 21st century America, long hair on a man can have a variety of connotations: rockstar, hippie, karate master, motorcycle rider, Willie Nelson aficionado…but certainly not prostitute! Long hair on a man is not disgraceful in 21st century American culture, just somewhat uncommon. Now we find a cultural gap between us and Paul’s original audience.
So what are we to do with this verse? Ignore it? Of course not. We need to cross that cultural gap by uncovering the heart of what Paul is saying, instead of taking it at face value (after all, God has always been more internally focused than externally). Perhaps Paul is a making a point about how Christians are to conduct themselves in public spheres, not as prostitutes (or the cultural equivalent) but as people who have been saved by God’s grace. For me as a 21st century American Christian, getting a haircut would be a pretty lame excuse for conducting myself in a manner worthy of the gospel. After all, I highly doubt my long hair is leading anyone astray. Instead, I should be more careful with my words and more giving of my time.
Like I said, that’s just one example. I could explain others, but I don’t want this post to be insufferably long.
I’m not trying to rebuke anyone here. Rather, I simply intend to challenge the way you think about the Bible. When we turn the Bible into “God’s love letter to us,” we are in danger of making it all about us. This would be not only a great injustice to the culture and history in which the Bible was written, but also to the word of God.
Now, is the Bible made up of letters? Yes. And is it the primary communication of God’s love for us? Of course. But it isn’t God’s love letter to us. It is a collection of historical documents written to a specific people at a specific time with the dual intentions of helping those people learn about God as revealed in Jesus Christ and teaching them how to live their lives accordingly. It is my hope that we will view the Bible in this accurate light, lest we misinterpret it according to the fickle whims of our earthly desires.