Why “The Bible is our Instruction Manual” is the Worst Metaphor in the History of the World

It has happened on several occasions that I have been in some class or conference listening to a teacher expound on this or that Bible story. Some teachers are more interesting than others, and yes, on occasion, my mind starts to wander and I find myself wondering how long I can wait to buy my daughter’s fall boots before they’re sold out.

Then I hear the speaker say “the Bible is our owner’s manual.” I sit up straight, the adrenaline flows, and I am prepared for battle.

Anyone, I assume, who still uses this metaphor, does not only not understand the Bible, but is causing needless confusion for those people who are still unsure as to how to understand what seems to be—let’s be honest, here-—a really strange book. I have spent not a few small group sessions passionately explaining why the Bible is not a manual, and have been rewarded with sighs of relief and expressions of gratitude from people who thought there was something wrong with them because they just didn’t get it.

I think I understand why people use this metaphor. Western society is predicated on the idea that everything functions in a predictable, systematic way. The car, the automatic litterbox, and the cat that uses the automatic litterbox, all operate in a way that can be fixed if something goes wrong. When they break, we reference the manual, do what it tells us to do, and it all works fine again. (In the case of the cat, the manual is a vet, but the principle is the same). Part of this worldview includes the assumption that the most valuable information is that which is immediately useful (or “practical”).

While this worldview has been very successful at creating a comfortable, well-fed society, it has the added advantage of being simple. When something breaks, we read the manual and we fix it. I can easily imagine some pastor working on his weekly sermon late one evening and congratulating himself for coming up with such a clear, clever metaphor for how the Bible can be used to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

The problem with this metaphor, however, is that it just doesn’t work.

If I am getting an error message on my computer, I look up that particular message in the index, find the page in the manual where the problem is described, then use that answer to fix the computer. Then I close the manual and don’t open it up again until I get the next error message. In most instruction manuals, the information I want is topically organized and made up of clear, propositional statements. The Bible, on the other hand, is over three-quarters narrative. And the rest of it is poetry, letters, and some genres that don’t even exist anymore.

Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect that one of the reasons that God did it this way is that readers (or hearers) of a story become emotionally invested in the characters in a way that people who read instruction manuals never do. If a person believes, as I do, that God is the main character of the Bible, then what better way to find out what God is like than to see how He interacts with His people? What better way to understand God’s love than to see Jesus hanging on a cross? I don’t often agree with Rob Bell, but I think his thoughts from Velvet Elvis are worth quoting here:

And while I’m at it, let’s make a group decision to drop once and for all the Bible-as-owner’s-manual metaphor. It’s terrible. It really is. When was the last time you read the owner’s manual for your toaster? Do you find it remotely inspiring or meaningful? You only refer to it when something’s wrong with your toaster. You use it to fix the problem, and then you put it away. We have to accept the Bible as the wild, un-censored, passionate account it is of people experiencing the living God.

We are a culture obsessed with the “practical.” If Joe pew-sitter doesn’t walk out of church with “Five Tips for Improving Your Marriage” or “The Secret to Reducing Your Debt,” he accuses the pastor of not being “practical,” (which, apparently, is the worst thing that a speaker can be accused of). The problem is that this person’s definition of practical is not whether something is useful or not (what, after all, is more useful than learning about the creator of the universe?), but whether it will fix whatever situation is looming largest in his mind at the moment. (For more about the problem with the word “practical,” click here).

“The Bible contains all the information you need to be happy,” Bible teachers have said to me. “Just do what it says and it will make your life better.” Suddenly, the Bible’s focus has been completely reversed. No longer is it a book about God’s plan to redeem the world, but now sits on the shelf in the “self-improvement” section between Suze Orman and Deepak Chopra.

This self-absorbed view of the Bible was perfectly illustrated a few years ago by a person in my Bible study. While discussing God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, someone asked me how these things applied to him. When I responded that this promise was made specifically to Abraham and was an important first step in God’s plan of salvation, he wondered aloud “why would God put it in the Bible if it didn’t apply to me?”

There are multiple other problems with using the “Bible as manual” metaphor and they are all equally damaging. If the Bible is a manual, then every story in the Old Testament must have a moral that’s directly applicable to the reader. If the Bible is a manual, then any instruction to anyone in the New Testament is applicable to every reader, even if there are two contradictory instructions in two different books. If the Bible is a manual, it must be understood in concrete, literal terms, just like any other manual.

Most damaging of all, I think, is the implication that if the Bible is a manual, following it should be simple. To be sure, there are things about following Jesus that are simple, but the process of living the Christian life is not. And the Bible most certainly is not. A person who begins his Christian journey with the assumption that the Bible can be used like a how-to book will be weirded-out within the first 10 chapters of Genesis. Frustration and disappointment follow. At worst, the person turns their back on their faith because no one can give them an honest answer about why the Bible is so…well…weird. At best, they continue their Christian life loving Jesus but being afraid to open up God’s word because someone once told them it should be easy.

I can hear some of my friends say that I’m blowing the use of a harmless metaphor way out of proportion. But the fact is that the words we use matter. The words we use to describe a thing shape how we think about that thing. Words have power. l won’t attempt to offer an alternative metaphor to describe the Bible because they would all fall short. I will just say that once the Bible is allowed to speak for itself, it is endlessly fascinating, exciting, frustrating, and inspiring.

Nothing like an instruction manual.

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Comments

  1. Jim says

    >The most important and most complicated things we learn in life we don't learn from owner's manuals. Things like relationships, language and my own strengths and weaknesses are learned from observation of examples and practice. It's time-consuming and often we aren't even purposely learning. Those stories in the Bible are examples that help me learn something pretty complicated. It's crazy to think that learning about God and how we relate to Him would be done in as simple a way as I learn to assemble a bookshelf.

  2. Mirche says

    Thanks for this analitical understanding of the bible as “instruction manual” it helps me to think about it deeper. I think that the Bible is indeed much more then one simple “instruction manual” but also much more then every book or written letter in the world. The Bible is a written witness about Jesus Christ as the risen Lord mostly in a narrative way. The same Spirit that has inspired the Bible helps us today to understand His word as it is in Christ Jesus exlusively revealed as the way and the truth and the life that are leading us to the Father who is in heaven. I can read instruction manuals or other books or letters even if their autors are dead, but if Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead nobody can understand and live like in the Bible is written, commanded or promised (1. Cor. 12, 3). Leslie Keeney you are writing: »The Bible, on the other hand, is over three-quarters narrative. And the rest of it is poetry, letters, and some genres that don’t even exist anymore.« I like instruction manuals in a narrative way that are written in a letter most even if I am not the only one to who the letter is addressed. And if there is some poetry, like a love letter or some other genres that don’t exist any more (I like it even more to read and to live accordingly!)

  3. says

    Very thoughtful post! I would also add that the “instruction manual” metaphor can lead to religious violence. The Hebrew Bible can easily be used to sanction violence in the name of God (and has been used that way). When used as a manual, the entire anthology becomes a “prescriptive” text rather than descriptive, as you so clearly noted with your story about the promise of Abraham. Thanks for this post. Very thought-provoking. :)

    • lckeeney says

      Thanks Crystal,

      I hadn’t actually thought about the idea that the “manual” metaphor can be used to sanction violence, but you’re absolutely right.

      That makes it even more important to get to the end of my project of developing a christocentric hermeneutic so those OT passages can be interpreted in the light of Christ.

  4. says

    I have heard the “manual” slant before, but I believe you’re the first individual whose beautifully refuted the dastardly metaphor. All my life, the Word has taken on profoundly provoking depths as I’ve gotten older. Yes, it is Power. By beholding one becomes, and what you “eat” is what you become. Thank you for making the inner mental wheel works turn some more today :) Blessings!

  5. Bekah says

    I may sound like I’m arguing, but I really do agree with you. When people rely too much on this metaphor, or others that mean the same thing, it can diminish the other aspects of the Bible that are just as important. I just want to say that – at least with people I know – the heart of the instruction-manual-metaphor is not “the Bible is here to always and only fix all your problems”. It’s “the Bible should be where we go first to look for answers”. You look in the manual because you trust that that’s where the answer to your question is waiting. And this is also incredibly true – and it’s important that it’s true – of the Bible. True, the metaphor is way not complete, and does tend to hide the heart of the Bible (and of God). I just think that it does hold SOME merit.

    Still, you’re right. It’s become the only way some people think of the Bible. And when we limit our understanding of God to one metaphor or picture or thought, it still hides so much of who God is. And that can be extremely damaging.

    • lckeeney says

      Bekah,

      You make a good point. I, too, know people to whom the metaphor “instruction manual” primarily means “the first place we should look because we trust it.”

      But as you say, the metaphor also puts severe limits on how we think the Bible should function. The problem is that these limits are usually unconscious. We don’t even realize that the words we use to describe something actually begin to shape how we perceive it.

      Thanks for the insight.

  6. Sue Ellen Fontenot says

    I was brought up believing the Bible was an instruction Manuel. Especially the new testament. I have been in spiritual limbo for so long, I could not get my belief system up and running again. I have question the exists of God, Jesus, holy spirit, I was raised from day 1 that there was a man named Jesus and he was my salvation, and there is God. Because of events in my life, I’ve caused, and hurts, mistrust, faithfulness and just simple unconditional love that was ripped from my life by others, I have been lost, and my Mind has question all my beliefs I have had since 1951, I’ve never read the Bible in any other way than for how I am suppose to live. My siblings and I were taught that the Bible had answer for everything. I love to read and never once thought about reading it as a novel. THANK YOU you have given me a different perspective to read the Bible. I pray God opens my eyes, mind, and SOUL to reclaim what I lost, a new revelation, that I can, find my way back to God, Jesus, and my right to be saved, and that it’s ok if I never am never more than 1 trillionth of the CHRISTAIN that I always thought I had to be. because I can’t get thru a day, with out making 1 sin after another. And knew I was going to hell. So now you have given the direction I needed to opening up my Chance of believing, and regain my faith again. Cause I do not want to go to hell, and I want to be a walking example of what Jesus wants me to be and not a stumbling block for others like me, or for those who have started down the path t salvation. THANK you for sharing your knowledge with us Sinners! !!!!!!!

  7. Brian Giselbach says

    It is hardly the worst metaphor in the world. A metaphor shows likeness by comparison. A metaphor is not an exact likeness. The Bible is like an instruction manual in that it instructs us in living our lives in God’s grace (Titus 2:11-15). I need the Spirit to guide me into the relationship I need to have with God. The Spirit guides me (and all of us) through the written Word (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Is the Bible an instruction manual in every sense of what an instruction manual is and does? No. As with any metaphor there is likeness, but the user of metaphor should be aware of difference.

What do you think?