“For the word of God is living and active.” Hebrews 4:12
These four pictures have one thing in common — they are each famous works of art. They are also arranged in a particular order, progressing from the most realistic (a photograph) to the most surreal (Picasso’s Guernica). I have included these because I have come to a revelation– one that should have been obvious to me and, I fear, may have long been obvious to you — the Bible is a work of art. The Bible is not just an instruction manual — although it has that aspect. It is not a catechism. It does not just set forth concise propositions of truth, although thankfully it does state propositions. But most of the Bible is narrative, with a fair sprinkling of poetry. It tells a story and stories have an artistic quality. They convey meaning without stating it specifically. Some precision in communication is sacrificed in the hope that other virtues will be enhanced.
If we think about it, a good story does have virtues that propositional statements aimed at the exact same point do not have. For one thing, we remember stories long after the propositions have been forgotten. For another, stories reach places propositions do not. In rhetorical terms, they have pathos, not merely logos. Simpler put, they touch our hearts as well as our minds.
Now God has not left us with nothing but art — a Bible with no skeleton that gives it a definite shape. It is not a book in which everything is subject to debate and individual interpretation, much like the most avant garde sculpture. God has hemmed us in with some propositions for our own protection and encouragement. See, for example, the epistles of the New Testament. But he has also put some flesh and blood with the “bones” of the scriptures so that the word of God might be, as it says of itself, “living and active”.
Thus, the Bible has a range of styles of expression much like the four pictures above. Some of it is clear and distinct — like a photograph. John 3:16 comes to mind. The parables are more fuzzy, but still relatively clear. They remind me of the Mona Lisa — the picture is clear enough, but some tantalizing mystery remains. At the farthest end is that which requires the most imagination. The book of Revelation is the most obvious example. It reminds me of a Salvador Dali painting — everything is kind of dreamy and things are not always what they seem.
In fact, Revelation 11:8 is the verse that really got me thinking about this whole issue: “Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified.” (Rev: 11:8). For a left brainer like me, that sentence is more mind expanding than LSD. After all, Sodom and Egypt are two different places and neither of them are where Jesus was crucified. God is teaching us with metaphors and asking us to use our imagnination. In short,he is using art!
Because so much of the bible is art and not science, it is inexhaustible in what can be learned and very little, if any, can be said to be known comprehensively. My own experience has been that exploring the Bible is not unlike the exploration of the new world done by guys like Magellan and Columbus. We begin with a core of knowledge that we can and must grasp firmly (the mainland of Europe, if you will). This is what can be stated propositionally. It is extremely important. In fact we have to return to it periodically when the unanswered questions begin to overwhelm us. Like the “weaned child with its mother” described in Psalm 131, we often need to be comforted and calmed by the memory of what we already know. But the unknown still calls to us. So we keep setting off on adventures, seeking new understanding (making maps as we go for others who will come after us).