We got a new mail carrier some time ago, and I keep getting letters that are clearly intended for someone else, judging by the names and addresses clearly marked on the front of every piece of mail. This is a problem, big enough, perhaps, for even the US Postal Service to take notice. “Yeah, hi. Listen, I have a letter and small package here for Mary P. Thompson of 987 Chestnut Avenue, which does not remotely resemble my name or address. Please advise.”
That’s what I’d like to say if I ever actually get a live person on the phone at the good local branch of the USPS. My realistic options are either to lurk in the bushes and pounce or, if pressed for time, simply stuff it all back in the mailbox and hope the new guy figures it out. Still, in an act of petty vengeance, I dug up my curbside mailbox and affixed a new one fifty feet farther away at my front door. That’ll learn ’em.
Reading someone else’s mail is a bit tempting, I have to admit, but if you stop to think about it, apart from being illegal, it is a complete waste of time. Even if the letter lets you in on some sordid personal details, it doesn’t matter. What good does it to know that, say, someone’s marriage is falling apart or that they had a great time at Six Flags?
Letters have a context that the sender shares with the addressee. You are neither. The information does you no good. Cut it out.
It has struck me over the years that some of the most important pieces of literature in the entire Bible are
written two thousand years ago
by people I’ve never met named Paul, Peter, James, John, and some others
and intended for people I absolutely know nothing about
in places I am not remotely familiar with
in a culture I really cannot hope to grasp.
As one of my seminary professors said, “Reading the New Testament is like reading someone else’s mail.” That might be the most valuable thing I ever learned in seminary. And now I pass it on to you, at a far lower cost.
And yet, this is not mail we are supposed to stuff back in a mailbox. We are supposed to read these letters—and not only read them, but find some way to draw them into our own lives.
Think about that for a minute. I think about it a lot.
And it doesn’t really help make this any easier to say these letters are inspired by God. That still leaves the question of why God would decide to inspire context-dependent personal correspondence and expect us to “get it” two thousand years later in a very—I will say it again, very—different time and place.
Doesn’t God realize that we don’t share the common understanding that, say, Paul shares with the people in Corinth or Thessalonica? Doesn’t God realize that making twenty-two of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament letters means that we will have to think—really think—about what these letters were meant to do and then be really thoughtful and intentional, maybe even humble, about how to engage them for ourselves?
Doesn’t God know that we will have to exercise tremendous—what’s that word again? Oh, yes—wisdom in order to know how or even if these words will apply to others in their own context-dependent situations?
Leaving the snark aside, I think that letters are the perfect format for a sacred book that is not intended as a helicopter-parenting manual, but as a source of wisdom. We can’t simply just drag these letters into our own life as is. We have to work at finding the connection between then and now.
I don’t think the value of these letters lies in our ability to ignore their time and place and make-believe they were written with us in mind every bit as much as the ancient Jews or Roman citizens they were written to. We get something out of them only by wrestling with their “historical particularity” (as some put it) and then doing the hard work of accepting the sacred responsibility of discerning how all of that works out here and now in whatever situation we find ourselves.
The letters of the New Testament are wisdom documents.
We are watching some of the earliest followers of Jesus working out what it meant to walk with God in their moment in time.
When we read these letters we are watching wisdom in action.
These letters are not one-size-fits-all documents detached from their ancient moments, ready to touch down just anywhere and anytime without a moment’s reflection. We read these letters wisely not when we simply graft the words before us onto an entirely different time and place, but when we study them to see what they are about for there and then so we can see more clearly, guided by wisdom, how we are to bring that biblical wisdom into our here and now.
Of course, this brings us to the apostle Paul, who wrote perhaps as many as thirteen of the twenty-two letters and who is always easy to understand and never ever says anything controversial. See, I left the snark aside for almost a whole page.
This post is an adapted excerpt from How the Bible Actually Works.
If you enjoyed this blog post and/or How the Bible Actually Works, we’ve developed a 6-part video series based on the book that we think you’ll enjoy.