By the Book

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Bethsaida studios is best known for the wildly popular Elder Scrolls and Fallout video game series.   These role playing games have adapted an open world model that give the players a lot of freedom to explore venues like the majestic Skyrim or the stark Capitol wasteland.   For a lot of players the feeling of exploration creates the major appeal of this game.   There is a lotto discover, but the discoveries that fill me with the most delight are books in Skyrim and magazines in Fallout.   It is exciting to find these, because reading them often gives an automatic skill boost in the topic being read about.    

I like the idea of reading a book instantly equating to gained skill, experience, and expertise.  We believe books are important, but we do not believe they are the key to doing everything.  Imagine if someone read hundreds of business leadership books and then applied to be the CEO of a fortune 500 company, claiming that being well read qualified them to helm the company.   We tend not to look at books like the video games do where they create an instant skill boost, so that application would probably would not be taken seriously at all.  However, that is more or less what Nathaniel Greene did in his era and no one questioned it!   Even crazier, simply reading worked! 

Nathaniel Greene was born into a well to-do Rhode Island family.  Despite being taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic Greene did not have much formal schooling because his father thought industrious work was the best teacher.   Nathaniel was indeed industrious, and upon the death of his father in 1774 he successfully took over and led a growing business empire.  However, war with England was on the horizon.  Nathaniel, an American patriot, turned his mind to military matters.  However, he did not set his eyes on being a solider but on command.   Which is what indeed happened.  By 1775, Nathaniel Greene was a Brigadier General in the Continental army.   He had only been a solider for six months, he had never been part of a military campaign, and he had never even set foot on the battlefield.    What qualified him for his high rank was his extensive knowledge of the military arts that he acquired almost entirely from reading books.   Before enlisting, Greene had used his considerable wealth to buy every book, treatise, and pamphlet on military theory that he could get a hold of.   As historian David McCullough writes in the book 1776, “It was a day and age that saw no reason why one could not learn whatever was required- learn virtually anything- by the close study of books, and he was a prime example of such faith.”   Despite the fact that his experience initially came from books, he was successful in his military career and he owed it all to the skills he got from reading books. 

Of course as Christians, perhaps we should not find the power of a book to change lives to be that unbelievable.   John Wesley once wrote, “I want to know one thing the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!  . . . Let me be [a man of one book].” 

 We believe that one book, the bible, does have the power to change lives.    However, we have to confess that by and large that belief is academic and not always based in experience.   Study after study has shown that biblical literacy in this country is decreasing, and even regular church attenders no very little about the Bible.

The most basic question we can ask about the Bible is “What is it?”  There is a cutes-y answer to this question that has gained some traction.  It turns the word Bible into an acronym that means Basic Instructions before Leaving Earth.   At first glance that seems clever, but it also could not be more wrong.   The bible is not an instruction book.   An instruction book is linear, dry, and efficient.   The bible is much more nuanced than that.  An instruction book is what we use to build a Lego set not live a changed life.   It is not right to call the Bible basic.  It is full of poetry, of wisdom, and of truth.  It is so much more than just a list of steps.   We do the scripture a profound disservice when we treat it like simple instructions that we only look at when we need an answer.  We do the scripture wrong when we proof text a scripture out of context and try to shoe-horn it into a situation in our life where the scripture does not honestly apply.  An instruction book is something we only use when we need it to fix a problem, and the Bible should not be used that way.  The bible is not meant to just tell us what to do, it is meant to transform us.  

            If the Bible is not an instruction book, then what is it?   As far as the United Methodist church is concerned, there is an official answer.   The official doctrine states, “We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.  It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for our faith practice.”   The Bible is not an instruction book but it is an authority.  The bible is the ultimate authority on the essentials of salvation, and in doing so reveals God to us. 

Paul writes about this in one of his letters to Timothy where he writes, “All scripture is God-breathed.”   The simple and deep truth of the Holy scriptures is that from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 is that they are divinely inspired.   The scripture was written in three different languages, it was written over a period of hundreds of years.  Some of it existed as oral tradition to be compiled by editors, other portion have been preserved by the church since it was first written.    The context the scripture was written to ranges from an apostate nation of stiff-necked people, to Greeks needing to be convinced of their need for Jesus, to start-up churches struggling with doing life together.   Church tradition, our own experience, and scripture itself confirms that the one thing tying all of scripture together is the divine inspiration of God.  

This means that for “what the bible is”, it is our primary source of knowledge for knowing God.   It is only through the scripture that God has revealed Godself.  It is because and through the scripture we know of God’s everlasting mercy and love.   It is because of the Bible we know the story of God’s grace.  It is because of the Bible that we know Jesus Christ is the source of salvation that reconnects us with our heavenly Creator.

            This is why the Bible is so important.  Not only does it contain everything necessary for salvation and reveal that to us, but the Bible transforms us.   Like a skill book in The Elder Scrolls reading the bible can and does create an actual change in our being.  It truly does have the ability to level us up.   

In the video games the only way to get a skill benefit from the book is to actually go through the in game process of opening the book.   Possessing it is not just enough, the book has to be interacted with.   In the same way, the bible only benefits us if we open it up and truly spend time seeking to understand it.   Likewise, Nathaniel Greene became an army general because he read books.   These books were not just instruction books, but they were knowledge that he internalized and claimed.  He allowed the books to mold and shape him.  He made what they contained part of who he was.  The scriptures are God-breathed and as such they do transform us.   When we internalize and claim the eternal truth of scriptures, when we allow the one book to mold and shape us, it becomes part of who we are.   And who we become is more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom the Holy Bible has revealed and made known to us.    

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