Know the Neighborhood

When it comes to your Bible, are you a local or a tourist? When we study and begin to learn the ins and outs of our Sacred Text, we gain a deeper understanding that’s essential for discerning truth.

Topics: The Bible

One of my favorite movies is What About Bob? Upon taking an extended vacation to the holiday destination of Lake Winnipesaukee, Bob (clearly a tourist) purchases a T-shirt that reads, “Don’t hassle me, I’m local.” It articulates a principle we all know to be true: There are two versions of any given city—the version known by the tourist and the version known by the resident. This principle is a good reference point for those who travel, but it’s also a good reference point for those who stake their lives on the words of the Bible. When it comes to the Bible, are you a tourist or a local?

Several months back, I read a piece in a travel magazine about Budapest. The article described the city and suggested places to see, stay and dine, as travel magazines typically do. Because I had never been there, every suggested site and restaurant sounded like something not to be missed. But then I read a travel article on my hometown of Dallas. Immediately my perspective on travel magazines began to shift. Like the article on Budapest, the Dallas piece described the city and suggested places to see, stay and dine. But because I know Dallas, I read these descriptions and recommendations with a more discerning ear. The restaurants and lodging listed were the biggest red flag—touristy spots that were overpriced or just average. It occurred to me that the article may have had more to do with advertising than being helpful.

When it comes to the Bible, are you a tourist or a local?

I know Dallas. I know my way around town. I know the obvious places people visit, and I know the places that are off the beaten path. I know the areas that are picturesque, as well as those that are poverty-stricken. I have context for the whole town, which colors my perception of any one part of it. Because I have firsthand knowledge of the area, I will take someone else’s opinion of it with a grain of salt. When we don’t know a town firsthand, we’re at the mercy of the opinions of others.

The same is true of the Bible. Think of each of its 66 books as a different city. You might be content with reading commentaries or listening to podcasts about these cities, but you’re likely to come away with insights that are less than accurate. If you’ve visited a book occasionally, you might be able to relate a few facts about a particular chapter or repeat an interpretation of a particular verse. You might be familiar with its well-known, “touristy” passages—like the famous “but God” statement of Ephesians  2:4 or the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel. But if you don’t know the book firsthand, at street level, on more than a partial basis, your view of it will likely be someone else’s. And like an article in a travel magazine, that view will be colored by the aim or bias of its author.

With regard to the Bible, Christians should be able to say, “Don’t hassle me, I’m local.” We should not relate to it as tourists. A tourist’s conception of the Bible allows the very real hassle of false teaching to creep into the church. Because many Christians have not “walked the streets” of our Bibles, we are overly susceptible to the views of others, right or wrong. Like would-be travelers or gullible sightseers we take as fact the opinions of the “experts” about the 66 cities we have rarely or never been to visit.

But here’s some good news, travelers: It’s not hard to get a working “local” knowledge of those books of the Bible. No complicated, super-scholar strategy is required. Unlike Budapest, which would require traveling a distance at considerable expense, these 66 cities are not distant locations. The Bible lives on our bookshelves and our devices, rarely more than an arm’s length away. We learn its locales by reading each book from start to finish, and then repeating that process until the map is etched in our memories. Thanks to modern technology, we can listen to the Bible, as well as read it on our own. Getting familiar with the Bible has never been easier.

The firsthand knowledge of the text that helps us discern between teaching that is accurate and teaching that is not can be attained simply by reading entire books from start to finish and then reading them again. And again. And again—until they become as familiar as the streets of your hometown. Don’t settle for a tourist’s view of the Bible. Go local. Get in the text so you can learn to discern and so you can know the joy of calling it home.