How do biblical texts apply to modern society?

[I was recently invited into a Western Civilization class and was asked a number of deep, thought provoking, and difficult questions by the students.  There was not time to deal with each of them, even in brief, in the class and so I am responding to them here, one at a time.  I hope I do their questions justice.]

At its heart the Bible makes the claim that it is the story of God’s interaction with humanity and creation; it tells of God’s creation of the world, the purpose of humanity, the rebellion of humanity, the consequences of that rebellion, and God’s plan to restore humanity and reestablish creation to its intended order. If one accepts this premise, then the Bible points humanity toward God and provides us with an understanding of our purpose as humans. It becomes obvious that correctly understanding the Bible then leads to understanding where modern society is and is not acting/living/moving in accordance with God’s purposes for creation. So, if the Bible is true then God is the author of life, meaning that life is dependent on living in accordance with God’s ideals. Meaning societal decay can be attributed to humanity failing to live out the purposes of humanity in concert with God’s desires.

That is a rather technical answer, but it is the short answer. Obviously, there is something behind this question meant to be more practical, and I think it has to do with morality and modern living. The difficulty that many have with understanding the Bible in modern society is that very few ever begin in the proper spot. Most people jump to Leviticus and the law code for being a 10th century BCE. Israelite and ask, how does that apply to modern society. Rather, we must start with the heart of the message and work out in concentric circles of theology. The core of the Bible is that humanity was given freedom of action by God and has consistently used that freedom to act selfishly (this begins in Genesis 3). God desires that we live in relationship with God and one another (the reason for the life death and resurrection of Jesus); and life in relationship with God revolves around “love God, love others” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your intensity. Leviticus 19:18 Love your neighbor as yourself, these are combined by Jesus as his reflection of “the most important commandment” see Mark 12:30-31). This message lies in opposition to our tendency to be selfish. From here we build out what actions and attitudes help me to fulfill this command.

At this point the rubber meets the road in rubbing against all cultures (not simply modern western culture). We think in terms of the Bible giving laws which must be obeyed; but the Bible is more like a user’s manual telling us how our lives are meant to operate. We often think of the Bible as rules for appeasing the god (a very pagan way of thinking), rather than seeing the Bible as a message showing us how to properly live in the world created by God. This is what makes things like “A Year of Living Biblically” humorous but also slightly dangerous; the emphasis is on living out commands so as to appease the divine wrath. Thus, we have to sit down and pick and choose which commands are relevant for us today, and it leads to problems. Rather, Biblical laws are an outgrowth of the way we need to live in order to reflect God’s intentions for us. We say, “do not murder” and yes that is a law in the Bible. But we obey it because it is an outgrowth of the idea that God is the creator of life and the only one who has a right to control end life. We are to reflect the purity of God, which led ancient Israel to food restrictions, but it is entirely possible to live a pure life without these food restrictions. This is where humility comes into the picture. It takes much thought, reflection, and study to understand how the principle of “love God, love neighbor” plays out in society. It takes years of listening to God and those deeply connected to God to figure out right and wrong.

The Bible is the message of how God desires humanity to live and act, not in laying out a bunch of laws but in showing us how creation operates and how we can get into step with it. Picture yourself as a radio the Bible is the handbook which tells you how to adjust the frequency to pick up the music which is God. Notice in the analogy (no matter how bad it is) that it is not about do’s and don’ts, rather for the radio to do its job (play music) it must be aligned to the frequency at which the music is broadcast.

Again, in a nutshell, the bible is the story of how the universe works and why we seem to struggle in it and how we can overcome that struggling. If we as a society listen to the text it will help us grow and advance far beyond what we often think possible. This is a huge subject and it takes years to learn and helps to go through it with people who are mature and can help point you through the difficulties. For more information I highly recommend watching these videos from The Bible Project (How to Read the Bible: What is the Bible).


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