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.