Over the weekend, I pick up JR Daniel Kirk’s Unlocking Romans and made my way through the first chapter. Already I’m intrigued and delighted by his approach. He raises some interesting questions regarding the book of Romans that, frankly, I’d never even considered asking of the text.
It is so difficult and yet necessary to approach something you believe to be familiar in a fashion that makes it suddenly unfamiliar. Every thought requires extreme effort. Still, this is exceptionally helpful. Over time, our perceptions of a particular object get covered in dust. They no longer shine with meaning as they once did. When we force ourselves to view the object in a new way, from a new angle, with new lenses, we begin to see glimmers of radiance behind the dust. All is new again.
Anyway, what I am loving, already, about Kirk’s book is that it is raising an issue that I believe is a severe plight on many evangelical Christians. Often, when Western Christians approach the Bible, we think we know what it is about. We think we know that this collection of books is about us and how the Lord saves us from sin and offers us passage to heaven.
Perhaps we’re right, on one level. The Bible certainly speaks through the centuries to all generations in all places. And surely a part of the overarching storyline is Yahweh’s effort to deal with a broken creation. And, yes, the goal is restoration (though the whole “heaven” talk, well, I’ve got issues).
What we so often forget (or never knew) is that these books are also uniquely about God working through a specific people (Israel) in specific times and specific places to accomplish that restoration. We forget that Paul, like Jesus and David and Moses and Abraham (kind of) were all Jews living in (mostly) Palestine. We forget that they thought themselves as part of a grand story. And so we forget that what they say, the words they use, fit those specific contexts. The result, often, is that we read a Bible that the authors never wrote.
So I keep coming back to this: for those of us who are committed to the Christian Scriptures, we simply must learn the story. As best we can, we have to learn the narrative, the chronology, and the social, political, economic ethnic contexts around these texts. It’s our best chance at shaking the dust off these stories that we regard as formative.