The Bible Is Not a Book

Five reasons to claim the experiential, creative, communal nature of Christian scripture.

Today, brothers Chris and Andrew Breitenberg release Parallel Bible, the world’s first social, visual Bible — a resource that combines the arts of photography, storytelling, and conversation with scripture (think Instagram meets the Bible). The app is available for download today on iTunes. Find out more at

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The Bible is not a book. It began long before pages and ink and leather binding. It began as epic tales told around the campfire and in the public square. It was legendary ballads and laments and proclamations of jubilee.

The Bible was spoken, handwritten, printed, then coded and has remained in black-and-white text for 500 years (on parchment or screen), lagging behind world-changing advances in communications praxis and philosophy.

But it is possible to connect with biblical text beyond reading or listening. We live in a digital-visual age of response and sharing and we are all, to one degree or another, experiential learners. An experiential reading of the Bible delivers a much more lasting imprint on our memory and enriches our personal (and collective) faith journeys.

In the spirit of Lectio Divina, gospel contemplation and Saint Clare of Assisi (gaze on the cross, consider, contemplate, imitate) here are five reasons we should retool our approach to the Bible.

1. The Bible should connect us to our world.

The Bible calls itself “living and active.” While we celebrate the mystical possibilities of this idea, perhaps the clearest meaning is that the text comes to life as we ourselves live it out, in the world around us. Our experience of the text is enriched by strengthening the direct connection between it and the world we live in.

On your commute, you may pass a crumbling wall everyday. But attach a verse to it, for example, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19), and the wall is then imbued with deep meaning — in this case, Jesus’ message of resurrection and restoration. Now we pass the wall and see its restoration, not just its crumbling. In this way, scripture starts inhabiting the world — not just the Bible.

2. The Bible should be deep and free.

Franciscan friar Richard Rohr has been known to say, “literalism is the lowest form of meaning.” How true! The beauty of God’s word is its depth of meaning. The more we exchange, share, imagine, and experience the stories of scripture, the more it starts to penetrate our soul and become part of who we are. Rather than acting on us externally, it takes shape internally, to be lived out in the world.

Christian apologist C.S. Lewis writes, “Freedom is the gift whereby you most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality.” The Bible acts as a launchpad toward freedom and yet, it must be experienced freely. By removing many of the constraints currently strapping the Bible to a host of long-standing stigmas, we repave the road to the chance for an experience of this freedom.

3. The Bible should lead us to growth, not safety.

Too often, the Bible becomes a place of safety for Christians. But experiencing the Bible as a challenge to our current paradigm and moving beyond our comfort zone is to cry out for God to meet us there. Psychologist Abraham Maslow writes, “You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.” Nothing about Jesus’ life or his call to his disciples — to you and me — suggests anything safe. Jesus is leading us toward growth.

When the Bible pushes past the text into a personal experience, when it moves us into the beautiful mess of community, when it inspires the oft-painful sublimity of creativity, when the Gospel is no longer the message we read, but it’s the life we live, growth (where the ego is, in fact, less) will be the natural state of being.

4. The Bible should be creative, not conforming.

Education expert Sir Ken Robinson recently said, “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” As this relates to the Bible, Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic Church, adds, ” . . . somehow the Bible has been taken and turned into a manuscript of conformity. It needs to be reclaimed as a manifesto for creativity.”

The conformity of the Bible to a specific physical state — black-and-white (and sometimes red) text — must be challenged and reclaimed for the creative twenty-first century human. The text will always remain, but it will no longer conform to the page and screen in columns of letters. We now will find the sights and sounds of our lives right alongside the words. And at this edge, this fringe intersect between scripture and experience, inspired ideas have the right conditions to blossom.

5. The Bible should lead to communion in relationships.

With God. With our neighbor.

The Bible is all about relationships. Even hearing or reading the Bible itself requires connection. The Bible is a collection of stories of people expressing their relationship with God — a pursuit of communion with God and with each other.

It’s these relationships we then imagine and see in our lives. Daniel in the Lion’s Den. The Israelites in the Desert. Mary weeping at the foot of the cross. Jesus praying in the garden. These aren’t just stories to be read, they are moments we encounter and relationships we know in our lives.

It’s communion in relationships that this retooled approach to the Bible offers. A community table where everyone has a place. The choice to occupy that place is up to you, but your chair will never be taken away. That chair is your chance to be heard; and therein your chance to be known. Our voice crying out in the city, through the wilderness, ‘You too shall be seen, you too shall be heard.’”

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Sergei Zolkin.

Chris Breitenberg
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  • Joe DeCaro

    “The Bible should be creative, not conforming,” but in fact, the Bible is “transforming,” e.g., “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

  • bakabomb

    Life’s reality is a bit more complex than Maslow’s dichotomous view of “safety” vs. “growth”. We start out as spiritual infants and (hopefully) grow and mature into the spiritual “adults” the Creator intends us to become. This most certainly requires us to stretch our wings and learn to fly — and, yes, inherent in that is always the possibility of crashing. The Bible continually challenges us to take this risk. Yet, like a bird’s nest or an airplane’s hangar, it also offers a place of refuge and safety.

    There are excellent online tools that help keep the Bible ever fresh and new to us. They allow us to create our own parallel Bibles using the translations of our choice. They provide interlinear formats by which we can compare translations in our native tongues against the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. They offer commentaries, from the simple to the complex, that lead us beyond the words to the history, culture and theologies that underlie them — stretching our minds and expanding our horizons. Each of these tools helps us make the Word more relevant to, and useful in, our modern lives. We owe it to ourselves to explore them.

  • nwcolorist

    Some excellent ideas here.

    Too often I’ll attend an inspiring church service and when I leave promptly revert to my old secualr thinking patterns.The Apostle
    Paul tells us to be in continuous prayer. While that seems a formidable command, he may mean to develop the habit of an
    attitude of prayer. Brother Lawrence called it “Practice the Presence of God”. The word ‘practice’ makes it easier to do.

    As you also point out, our goal should be growth, not stagnation. It needs to be built on the foundation that Jesus provides. But
    that doesn’t mean we live in the basement. Watching for ways to reach out to others, even in some simple manner, is important.

    I would, however, question your point that safety is something to be avoided. David’s psalms are filled with prayers for safety
    from those who would persecute him. The word ‘comfort’ is found throughout the Bible. Paul speaks directly to the subject in
    1 Corinthians. And Jesus specifically sent us the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

    Thank you Chris and OnFaith, for providing a thought provoking article.

    • chake

      I find it interesting that so many believe the Holy Spirit didn’t exist before the ascension of Jesus. It is a theory which is antithetical to the concept of the trinity. And I would appreciate any opinion on where our soul comes from. The soul is a religious concept nobody will speak about except in a most vague abstract way.

      • nwcolorist

        We know the Holy Spirit, as part of the Trinity, is eternal. He was here before the Creation. (Genesis 1:1).

        But Jesus said in John 17, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper (Comforter) will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.”

        That appears to present a puzzle. It might be a good topic to study.

  • chake

    Theologians and other learned Biblicists need to come down of their high horse and stop inventing words and labels that ninety percent of Christians don’t understand and don’t care about. The end result is the fifty cent words and labels are divisive.. Also people need to understand the Bible for what it is. It is a collection of ancient and early Christian writings containing much truth and wisdom. It is not. I repeat not, the inerrant Holy Word of God to be taken literally in its entirety. Nobody takes the entire Bible literally so please that segment that says they do — stop pretending you do. You don’t. Understood correctly the Bible and the teachings of Jesus should draw people together not divide them.

    • Robert Elmore

      I believe the Bible to be the Word of God. And one day so will you.

      • chake

        If somebody wants to call the Bible the word of God that is OK. I grew up in a very conservative religion and even at the age of 12 it was plain to see the Bible wasn’t inerrant. It was also obvious to me even back then that to take the Bible literally was not only a mistake but it would cause one to miss the intended meaning. In the decades since I have found nothing that would change my mind form my opinion in those early years. For example there are enough contradictions in the first three chapters of Genesis if you don’t take it as allegorical mythology handed down orally for thousands of years before Moses wrote it down you might as well say just say those chapters are meaningless.

        • Robert Elmore

          Chake, Your salvation is based on faith.
          If you can not accept the first 3 chapter, then how can you accept the unbelievable fact that Christ is the only begotten Son of God, that He died for your sins, and after 3 days was raised from the dead and if you believe on him you are saved?

          • chake

            You have to discern what to take literally and what is allegorical. Yes Jesus died and rose. Unfortunately far too many Christians think John 3:16 is a get out of hell free card. It is a good start but repeating the cliched verse isn’t the end of your commitment to following the truth the way and the life, it’s only the beginning.

      • Šimon Leška

        No. I will not. Never. I have seen what religion can do to people.

  • Russ Dewey

    When I saw the headline “the Bible is not a book” I wondered if it would be completed as “…it is a library.” That would have been nice, because it a basic and important insight from the last few decades of Bible scholarship. The gospels (and valid letters of Paul) have to be read in the context of their cultural and history, to really understand what they are talking about.

    This scholarship has been pouring out for several decades now and although the scholars themselves come from a variety of different traditions (Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, agnostic) the scholars who use historical evidence (people like Borg, Crossan, Pagels, and even Spong and Ehrman if you are brave) are converging on a basic core of insights. Yet almost all these insights seem to be ignored, or perhaps taboo, in conservative faith circles. Conservatives are in danger of getting left behind in the area of knowing the basic historical facts about their own faith.

    I would rather pursue the truth without fear. Seek a variety of high quality, well qualified, scholarly voices, and compare them. Dive into the study of Biblical culture and history and learn where the books of the library came from and the subtle differences between them and what each writer was trying to accomplish, and your understanding of the Bible will be much richer and fuller.

    • Jim

      And when I saw the headline “the Bible is not a book”… I wondered if it would be completed as “it is the Word of God”.
      That would have been the most correct and appropriate insight. And the “scholars” who do not understand the deeper
      spiritual meaning of Scripture have nothing left except the historical record.

    • jack

      This is a brave attitude, but how many are able to follow the archeological arguments and evidence. Surly God did not require that common people should need such esoteric help in order to understand his words. This would set the scholars up as some sort of priesthood; a new form of catholic bureaucracy standing between real people and their god.

      • Russ Dewey

        The scholars I mentioned all write very clearly. They are not hard to understand. Getting some people to read ANY book is impossible… But if a person wants to find out about the historical and cultural foundations of Christianity, there has never been a better time. An amazing amount of high quality, readable material is available.

        What’s remarkable is that people coming from very different backgrounds (Catholic, Lutheran, American evangelical…) are coming to the same basic conclusions, without any conspiracy except the usual scientific conspiracy to follow the evidence. It is like having all the clues at a crime scene investigation add up. The picture of the early Jesus movement, and the historical and political context of the gospels, is fascinating and inspiring. You could even say it helps you get the deeper meaning of scripture! Understanding historical and cultural context helps you know what the authors really meant. I value that. Too often we have to rely on interpretations that come from 3rd Century “scholars,” and that’s what is being held up by ignorant people as “God’s word” against today’s much better informed scholars.

        So maybe today’s scholarship is not “forbidding” so much as “forbidden”! A lot of people say that, actually: much of the currently popular scholarship has been known to seminarians and researchers for many years but was deemed unsuitable for the flock. Well, the reason is clear. If you want people to worship the book itself, as a perfect manifestation of God, you cannot treat it as a human product, and you cannot undermine any of the traditional interpretations. (Hence the usual response of anger and fear if you bring up scholarship to somebody who is a devoted believer but does not know ANY of the scholarship.)

  • Jim

    When I saw the headline “the Bible is not a book”… I wondered if it would be completed as “it is the Word of God”.
    That would have been the most correct and appropriate insight.

  • Admiral Nissan

    It is not a book. It is a collection of inspired books. However, it is not the crap described above.

  • billy roche

    What is the Bible? It is a collection of stories about the life of Jesus. These stories were written years after Jesus’ death and given as their title, the name of Jesus disciples, who were by then long dead. The stories that “made it” to the bible were those preferred by church leaders. History suggest that these early church leaders had an agenda about Christianity that did not include “other” ideas. Include the Torah and the books of the prophets and you can build a script for a porno-war mini-series. Include the Revelations of John and you can write an advertisement for doing dope. Other “books” contain beautiful lessons and suggestions for living life. It is (the old and the new) a great read.

  • billy roche

    What is the Bible? It is a collection of stories about the life of Jesus. These stories were written years after Jesus’ death and given as their title, the name of Jesus disciples, who were by then long dead. The stories that “made it” to the bible were those preferred by church leaders. History suggest that these early church leaders had an agenda about Christianity that did not include “other” ideas. Include the Torah and the books of the prophets and you can build a script for a porno-war mini-series. Include the Revelations of John and you can write an advertisement for doing dope. Other “books” contain beautiful lessons and suggestions for living life. It is (the old and the new) a great read.

    • Pilipo Underwood

      You have forgotten the Old Testament is the Bible as well. It’s writing is just as interesting and problematic.

    • JosephinaAngelina

      If you’re talking about the New Testament, the narratives of Jesus were written 20 (Mark), 30 (Luke), 35 (Matthew), and 50 years (John) after the events, and propagated to a world of hostile eyewitnesses. Any false agendas would easily be refuted by the two powers (imperial Rome and the Jewish theocracy) who had a vested interest in doing so.

    • RenegadeScholar

      The stories that “made it” to the bible were those preferred by church leaders.

      you are free to read the non-canonical writings and decide if they are consistent with what was understood about Jesus–or not. If you do, you will see that they are clearly not.

      These stories were written years after Jesus’ death

      The only history we have of Hannibal was written at least 30–and sometimes more–years after his death…and written by his enemies. Yet we don’t question the accuracy of these. Wouldn’t you think that Hannibal’s enemies had an “agenda?”

      History suggest that these early church leaders had an agenda about Christianity that did not include “other” ideas

      No. YOU suggest that. “History” does not.


      Your years-long intensive secular-materialist training is interfering with your natural God-given spirituality.

      It’s still there for you if you look for it.

      • billy roche

        I did not “make up” the idea of an agenda put forward by early church leaders. I note it. You are free to read about it. Yes I am also free to read the non-canonical writings (and I have) and see if f they are consistent with what was “””advanced about Jesus years after his death by those same church leaders”””. Of course it would not be. That is why those writings were not chosen by those early leaders! W/O any desire to show disrespect to you, can you say idiot loop?! B/C you are in one. And who, BTW, authorized these early “leaders” to set the rules and beliefs of Christianity? My natural god-given spirituality tells me to keep looking. Nothing wrong with that is there Pilgrim? To me, Arias makes sense. Nicaea was, and remains, political gobbledygook. You can cover over truth but you cannot destroy it. It is 2015. The questions posed by early Christians regarding the nature of Jesus, monotheism, and the trinity remain. Brutality and massacre by the Church fathers not with standing, they remain.

  • Daniel

    Literally, the Bible is a collection of books.

  • billy roche

    JosephinaAngelina and Joseph Underwood
    Please read my post

  • Emerald Twilights

    The Bible is, indeed, a book. A book of books.

    Each one of them totally and completely –– first to last, jot to tittle, alpha to omega –– human creations with no god anywhere involved.

    Which means they include some pretty good and worthwhile stuff. Like the things compatible with the values of secular humanism.

    It’s a priceless human artifact and enormously interesting. If for nothing else, it gives us clues to the invention of Christianity from out of the Jewish life and Roman death of Jesus thru the creative appropriation and interpretation of Jewish scripture.

    The sooner more people figure out that it’s not the word of a god the better off the world will be. Ditto Islam and the Qur’an.