Of what real, practical use is Christianity and the Bible?
This question arose a little while ago at a small group I attend. A very good friend expressed the view that the Bible isn’t really a practical book, and by extension that Christianity isn’t a particularly practical religion.
Now my friend is one of the most practical people I know. (Hello Dan if you’re reading this!) He used to fix planes and now runs his own small business. He’s a man of science and sound sense. So when he suggests that the Bible or Christianity isn’t entirely practical, it’s a point worth pondering – because he really is practical. And I think he has a point.
A practical Bible?
What actual, practical use is the Bible? It’s a fairly mixed bag. The Old Testament is very practical if you want comprehensive instructions for building a tabernacle (though you can probably get a flat-pack one from Ikea now). It’s also got some very practical instructions for 15th-century BC religious desert nomads – including some handy household tips for getting rid of mildew by sacrificing pigeons.
Perhaps more usefully for us, the book of Proverbs offers some sound practical wisdom for everyday life – admittedly alongside slightly less helpful advice on beating your children.
More broadly, the Bible of course also has a lot of generally sound guidelines and principles for life – the 10 commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s ethical teaching and so forth (though most of these need a fair bit of re-contextualising and interpreting to be truly helpful for our situations now).
But the Bible plainly isn’t a ‘practical’ book in any usual sense. It’s not a DIY manual, nor does it offer a lot of help with fixing your car or installing computer parts. It doesn’t help you choose the best mortgage, pension plan or insurance deal – well, besides offering ethical advice against dodgy investments and usury. And given that the most recent parts were written nearly 2000 years ago in a pre-industrial agrarian society, it’s clearly not going to offer direct practical guidance on many aspects of modern life.
Not that any of this stops a certain kind of well-meaning but misguided Christians from producing books on the Biblical Diet, or Biblical DIY, or whatever. And of course many people do try to use the Bible as a practical manual for all aspects of living, but I think this misses its real purpose.
A wicked book?
Of course some would say that the Bible is so full of abhorrent teachings that it’s of no use whatsoever except as bonfire kindling. It’s racist, sexist, homophobic and violent, the horrible ravings of a homicidal maniac.
Suffice it to say here that I too struggle with many elements in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, but I don’t think that it’s an evil book. It has certainly been (mis)used by many for evil, but unfortunately that’s a danger that goes with the territory – all ‘scriptures’ and manifestos can be abused. It’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t abuse it. And as part of this we do need to be pretty careful in how we read and apply it – we clearly can’t just assume that something that may have been appropriate for desert nomads in 1500BC is equally applicable to us now.
It’s about relationship
Where I believe the Bible really comes into its own is in revealing and addressing the human heart and human relationships – with each other, with ourselves, and with God. For by and large these things haven’t changed and don’t change. It’s what another friend from the same small group calls ‘Bible in a nutshell’ – i.e. that it’s all about relationship. (Hello Phil if you’re reading this!)
The world is unrecognisably different from how it was just 100 years ago, let alone 2000. The practical challenges of life have changed beyond recognition. But people themselves are not all that different, deep down. We’re still made of the same stuff and subject to the same weaknesses and flaws – rage, envy, prejudice, greed, lust, pride, selfishness and so forth. We still have the same deep needs to be loved, to be significant, to be forgiven, to belong. We still experience loss and loneliness, bereavement and grief, joy, suffering, jealousy, hope, longing.
And it’s these shared human experiences, these flaws and needs and feelings common to all of us, to which the Bible continues to speak so powerfully and relevantly.
It’s about Christ
Okay, the Bible isn’t just useful for teaching us about ourselves. To state the utterly obvious, it’s also uniquely able to point us to Christ and so show us something of God, of what he’s like, what he does and wants and asks of us. Without the Bible we’d clearly have very little clear idea of Christ’s life and teachings and character. In that sense it’s of immense and unparalleled importance, regardless of whether or not it’s of ‘practical’ use.
Nonetheless, the Bible isn’t enough in itself. It tells us many vital things about God but it does not (cannot) tell us everything, for God is beyond words and description and ultimately beyond comprehension. It shows us something of God but it does not (cannot) contain him.
As Jesus put it, ‘You diligently search the Scriptures because you believe that in them you have life; yet these same Scriptures point to me’. The primary purpose of the Bible is not to point to itself but to point to Christ, who alone is the true and living and eternal Word of God. Jesus, not the Bible, is the one in whom we have life and redemption.
So the Bible is not the destination but the signpost – yet as such it is still certainly of great use to us.
An impossible religion?
Nonetheless, if we’re honest a lot of the teaching in the Bible seems wildly impractical, even implausible – loving enemies, laying down your life for others, loving the seemingly unlovable, forgiving those who’ve done you terrible harm. And that’s just for starters, and leaving aside all the really weird supernatural stuff about spiritual gifts, healing the sick, speaking in tongues and so on.
So is Christianity really a practical religion – or one that’s even at all possible to follow? Perhaps it depends what you mean by ‘practical’ and ‘possible’. It’s certainly not easy. As G.K. Chesterton famously said: ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried’.
It seems to me that in large part Christianity is impossible; yet ‘what is impossible with humans is possible with God’. We can’t do or be all the things that Jesus sets before us, not by a long chalk. But by God’s grace and with God’s help we can make a start.
Next time then – of what actual, practical use is Christianity?