Is it more faithful for Christians to have a “high” view of scripture or a “low” view? Consider the differences between watching a movie and being part of the cast.
To watch a movie is to be presented with a finished product that cannot be changed or influenced in any way. A moviegoer buys a single ticket for a single, completed show. They enter a passive environment in which the story moves from screen to viewer and never the other way around. Viewers can see all aspects of the story as presented, but none of what happened behind and between the scenes. The moviegoer may very well learn concrete lessons from the movie – at times the lessons and information may be so good and beneficial that the moviegoer changes what they do and prioritize in life. That change may inspire the person to go forth from the theater and sing the praises of that story or even teach the vital life lessons learned to others in their life. Those who hear about the movie may be influenced to go and watch for themselves – their experience of watching the movie and the lessons they take may even be shaped deeply by what they heard before watching for themselves. But the movie itself will always be a final, self contained product that remains entirely separate and distinct from its viewers.
To be part of the cast, on the other hand, is to play a vital role in the story being told. Every scene is a world unto itself even when it is part of a seamless whole. The actions of any given actor are influenced deeply by the script, the director, every action and choice of a prior scene, and all those on camera in the present shot. Each member of the cast and crew then influence and change what’s being produced even though they can never dictate or determine the final product. Every actor intimately knows their part of the story and far more of what it took to make each scene than can be found in the final product. The information in the script can certainly offer lessons, but it is the experience of acting that shapes and transforms both actor and story. To tell even the exact same story using the exact same script with a different cast and different direction can produce a dramatically different movie, which may result in a radically different experience for an audience. Everything that is true about a moviegoer may also be true about its cast – from lessons learned to singing praises, a cast member may, after the movie’s launch, be indistinguishable from a mere moviegoer. But there is no movie without a cast and no cast without a movie.
When I hear Christians speak of a “high” view of scripture, I cannot help but imagine the experience of reading the Bible like that of the moviegoer. The Bible is God’s final, authoritative word, subject neither to alteration nor deletion. The Bible must speak with one voice and remain one whole no matter how different or disparate any particular part may seem. We may try to imagine our lives as some sort of sequel or next chapter to the Bible, but to even imply that we could change the Word of God is blasphemous to its core. There is often an almost willful blindness to the extent to which history and contingency are essential features rather than accidental aspects of the words we read on the page. The Bible has a message that is timeless and unchanging – learning and memorizing that knowledge may teach us vital lessons that apply to every aspect of a life. The story we find in the Bible compels many people to go forth to sing God’s praises and invite others to read the story for themselves. Though the words on a page never change, the people with whom we first encounter the Bible deeply shape how we read those words and the meaning and purpose we take from them. But the Bible is also, distinct from any community we join or part we play, a final and self contained product to which we can never add even a word.
When I hear Christians speak of a “low” view of scripture, I cannot help but imagine the experience of reading the Bible like that of being in the cast. The Bible is like a script that is both a finished product and yet not complete without us to act it out. Every different book is both a world all its own and also an integral part of the whole. Every time and place in which the Bible is read is like a different cast and crew that have to work out their unique way of bringing the script to life – the message of scripture is the messenger as Christians and communities both embody and transform the Kingdom of God here and now. The making of the Bible is as central to the Christian’s experience of the story as what is written on the page – historical study and literary analysis are like learning the prior versions and adaptations in ways that also clarify the director’s choices for the present telling. No matter how impactful and meaningful the words and messages of scripture are, it is not words on a page but habits and practices of community that transform the world. The choices each Christian makes obviously affect those inside the cast we call church and those outside alike going forward, but later choices can also dramatically affect everything about how an audience will rewatch the opening scenes. A “low” reading of Scripture may result in every response and action emphasized by a “high” reading – from singing praises to encouraging others to read – the practical implications may be indistinguishable to a stranger on the street. But, in this view there can be no true distinction between the story and cast – reading the Bible is always an invitation to take part in a story that is still being written.
Neither approach to reading scripture is exactly right or wrong and no one does one to the complete exclusion of the other – but, to claim that a conservative “high” view of scripture grounds the church in biblical authority whereas a progressive “low” view of scripture leaves us subject to the whim and fancy of culture is a categorical mistake. In my experience and understanding of the Christian faith, the deepest, clearest call of Jesus is for us to take part in the story of God’s people; not to take lessons from a finished book. We can no more hold the Bible like an object at arms length than we can come to know Jesus without being changed as we change the world. If a ‘high’ view of scripture means treating scripture like an object we hold in our hands rather than a world we inhabit with all God’s children, then consider my view of scripture as ‘low’ as they come. (Philippians 2:5-11)