This command meant to take the Bibles we held at our sides and hold them in front of us. Each kid held a Bible, and the leader checked to make sure nobody had the advantage of holding our thumbs over the pages. This was a race.
"Hebrews 11:9. Hebrews 11:9." He always said it twice, slowly, to make sure everyone got it. We waited. "Charge."
The room filled with the sound of kids opening the books and flipping the pages rapidly. Some murmured the books, "First and Second Thessalonians, Titus, Philemon..."
I was perhaps twelve, and I was so good at this game, they kept changing the rules to assure the other kids I wasn't cheating. There was only one other girl in our group who was faster, but when we weren't on the same team, we could both win.
Chapter, verse. I stepped forward and waited, ignoring the glances of disgust and defeat from the other kids. It was their own fault they didn't pay attention back in Sparks, and didn't know the books of the Bible as well as they did the alphabet.
The leader waited for the commotion to stop. "Cynthia?"
I projected with my strong debater voice: "By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise."
This memory didn't come back to me until I was reading Rachel Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town, and today it disgusts me.
The verse meant nothing. The competition encouraged bad teaching. The words we used were the worst: "Draw swords. Charge."
As if the Bible is a weapon, and our ability to find random things in it, out of context, as quickly as possible, is some kind of important strategy in a war against other people.
For years afterward, I thought the Bible was a weapon. The AWANA Bible Drills used warfare words to reinforce this. One of the best Apologetics speeches I ever gave in high school didn't quote the Bible, and I paid for my oversight: all three judges gave me second place. Their comments said I was the best speaker in the room, but because I didn't quote the most important source material, it wouldn't be conscientious to rank me first.
Not quoting the Bible in that speech was unintentional. Ironically, however, my point in the speech was that you can't quote a book other people don't agree with to convince them.
When I read the whole Bible for myself at age 16, I noticed a weird silence: it never referred to itself.
I mean, there are ways to argue the Bible's self-reference. Common examples include 2 Timothy 3:16 and Revelation 22:18, but these don't refer to the 66-book canon Protestants use today, nor the 71-book canon the Catholics include. Those verses refer exclusively to the writings of Moses and the book of Revelation, respectfully.
But growing up, I was given synonyms. I was told the Bible was "The Word of God." I was told the Bible was "The Sword of the Spirit." When I memorized Psalm 119:11, "I have hidden Your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against You," I was told it meant I should hide Bible verses in my heart. It would help me avoid sinning.
The Bible gives definitions for these phrases, though. "The Word of God" is pretty clearly defined as Jesus in John 1 and communication with God in Genesis 15:1. The Word is God, not the Bible.
The same was true of the "sword" thing. Paul gave a metaphor in Ephesians 6, and said to use the sword of the Spirit. At Pentecost in Acts 2, the Spirit of God came upon the people. I find it worth noting that people who received the Spirit could communicate with each other (across language barriers, and drawing upon what they shared in common between different religions and backgrounds) when the Spirit first manifested itself at Pentecost. Paul uses the metaphor of armor and weapons, then says "oh, by the way, guys, we don't actually fight people. We fight spiritual enemies." The sword is God, not the Bible.
In short: to use the Bible as a weapon to prove other people wrong is completely unbiblical.
So why is this terminology so commonly misused?
Well, the church authorities did a thing in 1646. In an effort to reunite church and state after the Reformation, the British Parliament asked some learned theologians to define the Protestant faith. The result was The Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: this was after a major church split between Catholics and Protestants, and not all Christians universally agree about this. Note also: this is rather late in church history.
The Westminster Confession of Faith has a major logical inconsistency in its closed-canon take on the Bible. Here's how the Westminster Assembly described it:
"Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased."
In short: God doesn't speak anymore. The Bible is the last of the revelations of God. Prophets, therefore, are necessarily heretics and cannot possibly be speaking by inspiration of God.
This shook the very foundations of the faith. The phrases that once meant God, and direct communication with God, now meant the Bible. King David's psalms were no longer about prayer, worship, and personal communication with God. They now seemed to be written in awe of a book; one not yet available in David's time. Every mention of "the Word" in the Bible became self-referential, and no longer reflected its intended meaning.
I don't hesitate to say that the Bible is the Protestant idol. It replaces the voice of God.
When Jesus said he'd die and send his disciples a "Helper," he fulfilled that promise by sending the Spirit. Today, many Protestant churches silence their young people who try to listen to God.
Salvation means a totally different thing now. This is also due to other claims in the Westminster Confession of Faith, but there are roots of it in the Protestant take on the Bible. Salvation used to be about following a person, a Spirit delivered through the defeat of death's dominion over the Earth. Now it has more to do with whether you're headed to heaven or hell after you die, and what proof of this salvation can be proven by selected, competing excerpts from the Bible. This kind of nihilistic take on salvation is what happens when you cut God -- the active influence of the Holy Spirit -- out of the gospel.
The Westminster Assembly had no right to make the claim that God had decided to stop revealing himself. As evidenced by their writings, they themselves hadn't experienced revelation from God. The only way to claim the end of revelation, though, would be to get revelation about it. Therefore, they made the Bible their God in place of God based on authority granted by the British government, not God.
This is why I'm not Protestant. I'm not Catholic, either, because I think Catholics did the same thing, except they made the Pope the voice of God instead of God.
It's scary to believe God doesn't use some kind of surrogate communication, like the Pope or the Bible. Man, if God can reach everybody, even the illiterate and poor who can't read the Bible, and even those who don't have elected standing in some church hierarchy -- gosh, anything could happen. It almost sounds like God is available to everyone, which is kind of like what Jesus taught.
One of my biggest role models is Joan of Arc. She was young, illiterate, female, French, a peasant: all the things both Protestants and Catholics (most consistently, anyway) wouldn't give authority. I believe God chose her to end the hundred years' war, and she really saw visions of Saints and communicated with angels.
I think the Bible is a great read, but it's not a sword. The sword of the Spirit is way more dangerous than our petty arguments about which political position the Bible supports. The Spirit does crazy things like put seventeen-year-old girls in charge of armies, reveals itself to people who have never heard the Gospel in their corner of the planet, and decide to become a man to join the human experience with all its pain and struggles, and defeat evil with love.
So why do I bother with the Bible if I don't think it's a book of rules and life directions, a pamphlet on which party to vote for?
First of all, I think if the Bible was supposed to be in bullet points, it would have been written in bullet points. Second, I've read the Bible, but I don't feel obligated to read it every day, or even regularly.
Growing up, I heard the phrase, "A Bible that's falling apart belongs to someone who isn't."
Then I watched that phrase get disproven, over and over again. People can get more bitter while reading the Bible. People commit suicide over their marked-up Bibles. People can spend their time highlighting phrases and wearing out those thin pages, all in the process of building a case for their view on an issue. I've been guilty of that last one. Hell, I AM guilty of that last one right now. It's a hard habit to drop when my audience won't listen unless I throw in some Bible references.
If someone comes to me and says, "I feel bad because the Bible isn't alive to me so I haven't read it in a few days," I don't get upset. Sometimes I recommend they read it less. Other times I offer some tips, like starting with the gospels and following a schedule to read the whole thing in six months. It depends.
Sure, certain phrases jump out at me when I'm reading the Bible. I don't think that's because the Bible is the surrogate voice of God, though. I'm a quotation collector; phrases stand out to me all the time, whether I'm reading George Orwell or Khalil Gibran, or listening to Rush.
More than that, I understand when someone has trouble reading the Bible. I've wrestled with it, too. It's a dense book. It can be challenging to understand, and I think it's supposed to be complex. It's full of stories that are, pardon me, nothing less than fucked up.
I take the Bible for what it is, which is a lot of things: the history and law according to the Israelite leader Moses. The imperfect musings of Job and his friends, none of whom can be quoted to prove what God thought because He lectured them at the end for their ignorance. The all-too-human outcry of the Psalmist's struggles with faith, which are arguably the earliest emotional reaction to haters with their death threats. The dreams and visions of the prophets, including both the interpretations they got and the crazy stuff for which they never found an explanation. Wisdom from the wisest guy who ever lived, and his apparent lamentations on the crushing emptiness of life. The pieced-together legends of that one time God showed up as a man. The fragmented, so-obviously-lacking-context letters his followers sent each other, when they were trying to figure out how to make Christ-following into a lifestyle. Story after story after story of God showing up in the middle of the lives of the people we'd least expect God to care about.
I read the Bible because I have empathy for those stories and writings. I think maybe Jesus would hang out with me, even when I turn to alcohol out of pain. I think maybe the nightmares I have are like those the prophets couldn't quite decipher, even though they prayed as earnestly as I do out of fear in the middle of the night. I think maybe I'm depressed, but the wisest guy in history knew depression, too. When I feel like an outcast for acting on what I think I God tells me to do, I remember just about everybody who let the Spirit speak was an outcast, too.
Honestly, while I'm getting things off my chest, I think making the Bible into what Protestants claim -- sufficient, inerrant, closed, necessary for salvation -- gives the Bible less respect than it deserves.
What I just described gives the Bible power. It also puts revelation and instruction where it belongs: from the Holy Spirit.
I know, I know, that means people can run around claiming God says all kinds of whacky stuff. But doesn't that happen anyway? People lie and make stuff up no matter what the belief system is. I try to use logic and critical thinking no matter the source, whether it's someone saying God told them something, or someone saying the Bible has a line to dictate life choices.
I'd rather let God be his whacky, infinitely unpredictable self than set up a system that limits the way God works. And the most consistent thing I've learned from reading the Bible is that God works through people deemed least important by society. If the Bible got its authority from government and some dudes who, by their own confession, never actually heard from God, I doubt it's what those dudes said it is.
That's why I don't think of the Bible as a sword.