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The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell

The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC


Is the Bible Inspired?

2 Timothy 3:4--4:5

22nd Sunday after Pentecost - Year C

October 20, 2013

"All scripture is inspired by God."  My grandfather clearly believed this.  One look at his Bible, which as the first grandson--and a preacher to boot--I have inherited, tells how he felt about it:  tattered, worn, underlined, marginalia, prayer requests jammed between the pages. 

My first day of seminary, Fr. Roland Murphy unluckily for me, picked me out of sixty students and asked, "Is the Bible inspired?"  I squeaked a nearly inaudible, "Yes?"  "Why?" he roared firmly.  Clueless, I resorted to humor, "Well, I find that very often the Bible agrees with what I think."  A woman next to me, not grasping my cleverness, shot back with, "No!  I think the Bible is inspired at precisely those points where it disagrees with what I think."  The class oohed and ahhed--and then my roommate bailed me out by saying:  "Yeah?  Like those passages that say women shouldn't speak in church?" 

"All scripture is inspired by God."  We do not think of the Bible the way Muslims think of the Qur'an--as dictated directly by God.  The Bible has that awful, lovely human element.  God inspired the thing, guided those who were writing--but they were human, they did their best.  Inevitably they made booboos.  Historical mistakes are interesting, aren't they?  People say, "Oh, that invalidates the Bible."  But is this really the case?  Years ago I threw a birthday party for my dad's 70th birthday and people came. Then over the dinner my dad said, "Why did you go to all this trouble this year?"  I said, "Well, dad, you're 70."  He said, "I'm 69."  Now you could say, "Oh, that invalidates your relationship; you had the date wrong."  But I think it's endearing that there was a mistake. I like it that the Bible is kind of messy because that means there is room for me.  The families that are described in the Bible are a mess, kookily dysfunctional.  I like that.  There's room for me in there; there's room for all of us in there.

Sometimes people ask me if we take the Bible literally or not.  Is it fact or is it metaphor?  The answer is... Yes, it's both, and it's easier than you think to tell which is which.  Little children can do this.  When my girls were about 5 and 7, I would read to them as I would put them to bed at night. We were in the thick of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when I got to the part where the good lion, Aslan, dies--and I told this with great dramatic flair.  They were fighting back tears.  Aslan, whom they'd grown to love, had died.  The next day, their great-grandmother Stevens, whom they adored, died.  I went in to tell them--and we had tears once again.  But they fully understood the difference between the two.  One was just a figment of somebody's wonderful imagination in a book they cherished; the other was a real person.  We would be going to a funeral. 

The Bible is very human, and it's messy.  It's also big and long; it can be a little bit intimidating.  But the Bible is understandable.  I had an attorney in my office a couple of years ago.  Now this is funny.  He said to me, "James, I've tried and I've tried; I just cannot make any sense out of the Bible." I said, "You've got to be kidding me.  You attorneys are the people who devise complex documents that I have to pay another attorney to explain to me and you can't understand the Bible?  My grandfather with an eighth-grade education understood every word in this book and treasured it and lived by it."

What is the function of this curious book anyway?  2 Timothy rather wonderfully says,

All scripture is inspired by God

and is profitable for teaching,

            for reproof, for correction,

            and for training in righteousness,

            that the man of God may be complete,

            equipped for every good work.

 

We focus too much on the nature of Scripture--as if "inspired" means it has some radioactive, holy property.  No.  God reaches down and uses the Bible to be "profitable for teaching."  How do we know what we know?  And especially about God?  How good of God to give us a book.  Actually, a whole library of books, not easily simplified or distilled, a lifelong reading project?  How else would a good, yet complex, God be known to us?

Scripture is profitable also for "reproof."  Ouch.  There's a cartoon I copied and have had hung in my office for three decades now.  It was drawn by Charles Schulz, known for his cute Peanuts comic strips.  There's a young man with his Bible splayed open.  His girlfriend is trying to get his attention.  But he waves her off, saying, "Don't bother me. I'm looking for a verse of scripture to back up one of my preconceived notions."  No reproof going on when we hunt through Scripture to find something to back up our pet ideas about life and God.  It's always reproof, whether we're ready for it or not.

A hardly noticed but significant sea-change has happened during my years in ministry.  When I started out, if someone wished to compliment me on an especially solid sermon, he might say "Pastor, you really stepped on my toes today."  Nowadays, nobody thanks us for stepping on their toes.  Today, the most grand compliment anyone can think of to apply to a sermon is something like, "Pastor I agree with you."

From "You stepped on my toes" to "I agree with you" is an epochal distance, measurable in undeniable cultural shifts.  Once upon a time, we expected Scripture, sermons and worship to fix what was wrong in us, to heal the contrary that had grown up like weeds.  But now we seek agreement; we look for Words from Scripture that suit, words from the preacher and other worship leaders that fits me and my pet notions about the good of the world.

Scripture is "profitable for training in righteousness."  Not just training, as in knowing more religious facts, but "training in righteousness."  Reading a book might actually make you good.  Reading this book might actually save your soul.  God, how we need a training manual in righteousness.  We live in a vapid culture where anything goes, where pleasure trumps the good, and God gets reinvented into whatever image that suits us. 

Right after 2 Timothy pronounces Scripture as inspired, the epistle presses on to tell us why this will matter in the future, even in 2013:  "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths."  Now Paul wasn't predicting what the American spiritual landscape would resemble in 2013, but he could not have been more accurate.  "Itching ears, teachers to suit their own likings." 

A couple of years ago we were sorting through curriculum options, and the nagging issue of church folk forming groups to study books came up--some that made our staff quite uncomfortable.  We were asked why it matters:  Why not just read a spiritual book about the life of faith?  Just any book?  Given the topic it must be lovely! 

I came up with this distinction:  There are books about Christianity, or the Bible, or even Jesus; and these are popular, and well-marketed--and the plot of these books is...God exists to serve me.  Then, there are another batch of books, not so hip, with lower sales; but they are the ones to read, for their plot is...You exist to serve God.  And it's hard. 

That's what the Bible is pretty clear about.  Little Bible nuggets that are tasty and soothing don't get at the heart of this book of lunacy God has bequeathed to us.  How fascinating:  2 Timothy 3 says, "All Scripture is inspired."  Really?  All of it?  All the sorry sagas of broken families, potentates who lusted for power and sex, believers whose feeble faith must have made God or onlookers chuckle, idolatry and crass misbehavior, gross misunderstanding--and even the rich, beautiful portions of Scripture become pearls before the proverbial swine--which would be us. 

Yes, this is All the Scripture that is inspired.  Messy, human, broken, miserably lacking in potential and lackluster in performance.  Why would God use such a book?  Because God wanted the book to make sense to people like us.  Because God wanted to redeem the broken, lackluster and messy.  God's very project to save us was to become one of us, and a poor, no account guy from out in the middle of nowhere who recruited few followers, and those failed him.  He was accused of partying too heartily, carousing with the wrong types, then he died a brutal, criminal death, a shameful showing for a sad human being, much less God almighty.

This is God's story, and this is my story and yours.  And it really is a stunningly beautiful story.  What chance does the Bible have in a cynical, pluralistic, depressed era like the one we inhabit?  None, if we holler that this or that verse suits us as inspired.  No, the Bible is like a quirky, surprisingly alluring ballad.  We can trust its beauty. 

When he was still a student, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father was the pastor.  "How the Christian overcomes evil"--the sermon--was punctuated by an illustration from mythology.  The sirens sang seductive songs that lured sailors into shipwreck.  There were two, though, who managed to navigate those treacherous waters successfully, and King contrasted their techniques.  Ulysses stuffed wax into the ears of his rowers and strapped himself to the mast of the ship and by dint of will managed to steer clear of the shoals.  But Orpheus, as his ship drew near, simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than that of the sirens, so his sailors listened to him instead of to them.

The Bible isn't a big fist.  It's a beautiful tune, a wildflower a child picks to bring to mommy, an infant's fingers reaching out of the cradle.  After all these years, and so many tunes, countless flowers and a holy host of children being born, the Bible is still a lovely thing, a motley mess, as broken down and vulnerably human as Jesus being nailed to the cross.  In its pages we glimpse the very heart of God.  And we read on, heads bowed, so very grateful that

All scripture is inspired by God

and is profitable for teaching,

            for reproof, for correction,

            for training in righteousness,

            that the man of God may be complete,

            equipped for every good work.

 

including the reading of the Bible.  Sometimes my mind wanders, or I get busy, and I'm not sure I'll really read my Bible today.  But then I remember:  When I read the Bible, God is pleased.  And I really do want to please God.  And so I take it, and read wonderful words of life--and God smiles.

Let us pray.  Almighty and gracious God, we thank you for the gifts--the Bible, Scriptures--and ask that you use it to teach us, to reprove us, to train us in righteousness so that we may be complete, know you, to serve you.  In Jesus' name.  Amen. 

 


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