The bible isn’t like trail mix – you can’t just pick out the bits you like.
One of my friends posted the above on Facebook, with a link to an article by a pastor which went on to explain about how God’s love is expressed in God’s laws and moral standards for living. I have to confess I didn’t read that much of the article because I only agree with half of the opening gambit – the part that says you can’t just pick out the bits you like. It seems to me that trail mix is actually a great image for the Bible. For a start, both are made up of very disparate ingredients. There’s fruit, seeds, nuts and, if you are lucky, chocolate in one and there’s poetry, stories, history, philosophy, polemic, erotica and regulatory documents in the other. Trail mix has a variety of textures – brittle and crunchy, soft and chewy – and a variety of flavours – sweet, fatty, nutty and salty and the satisfying blend of an immediate energy burst from the sugars with a longer energy boost from the fat and protein in the nuts and seeds.
And the Bible has many different textures too – all the textures of human life are represented in these pages from ecstasy to despair, from honourable to abominable, from delight to disappointment. Similarly there are standout differences in the flavours of the books that make up the bible. Some of the stories are horrific, and some are heart-warming. Some of the books dealing with the laws for regulating the life of the community can feel dry or even cold, like the careful limits set for retribution and compensation for injury to people or property in Exodus. On the other hand, the details of the cultic practices of the temple and proper worship involving the sacrifice of sheep, cows, pigeons and doves and the sprinkling of blood and the burning of carcasses sound unpleasantly messy and far removed from our experiences of – or hopes for – worship. The prophets can sound like oddballs, or they can sound like nags going on and on about looking after the poor and the widow, about turning away from the cultural norms in relating to God, each other and the planet. And sometimes they paint a beautiful picture of the world where God’s longing for us to be partners in God’s vision for the world is fulfilled. As for the visionaries, well they can sound like harbingers of doom or like guarantors of glory depending on your viewpoint.
Trail mix is best when it’s eaten by the handful so that you get a random selection of the ingredients. Picking out bits effectively reduces the overall experience and potential nourishment and flattens the flavours. I think this is also true of the bible. Even though some of the flavours in our sacred texts are bitter I think that, if we read them in the context of the whole, they have a gritty honesty to them. This is the truth about the human relationship with the Divine. Sometimes we totally misunderstand God, misrepresent God, and mistake the divine intention for humanity and all creation. Having these texts in our scriptures ought to go some way towards keeping us humble, ought to remind us how easily we form God in our own image and with our own limitations. Neither Jews nor Christians claim that our holy texts were dictated by an angel. For me, their authority as guide and revelation is not reduced by the less than savoury parts – indeed, these add integrity because they bear witness to growth and failure in understanding. They allow me to recognise my own faith journey in the journey of Israel, of the disciples and of the early church communities.
But there are challenging texts, nonetheless. And sometimes we are totally blind to the truth of our own complicity in picking and choosing.
It seems to me that often preachers who insist on taking the whole bible seriously are actually also deeply engaged in picking out the bits they like best – it’s just that their favourite bits are the ones that insist that God will deal harshly with those who fail to live up His standards, and reward those who are properly moral.
I think our trail mix bible offers us a much fuller picture of God, a much fuller picture of what it means to be human and a much more hopeful picture of what communion with God and all of creation might be.