…or book of the living?
As a child I was fascinated by the rites and rituals of ancient Egypt. At one time I could have ‘picked out’ any one of a catalogue of gods from their pictures and told you about their particular roles. Like many little boys, I relished the details of the whole mummifying process, and my eyes shone when I went to visit the Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum with all its breathtaking treasure. Today ancient Egypt has come to London again, with a spectacular exhibition at the British Museum entitled: Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. John Taylor, curator of the exhibition, writes “The Book of the Dead isn’t a finite text – it’s not like the Bible, it’s not a collection of doctrine or a statement of faith or anything like that – it’s a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey.”
As a ‘practical guide to the next world’, there is a kind of painful irony to all this. Whilst the few undisturbed ancient remains lie sleeping under desert sands, not far away the streets of modern Egypt are in ferment. A practical guide for the next world would seem like something of an indulgence when the current one is in such a state. The ancient civilisation which brought us chariots of gold and masks of lapis lazuli has turned into a modern one where police officers fire live rounds on angry protesters, and fighter jets swoop low over the city making the windows rattle. For many in Egypt, a year which started with the unimaginable violence of worshippers murdered at church has only got worse.
So, if the Bible is not a ‘practical guide to the next world’ like the Book of the Dead – what is it? Is it maybe a ‘practical guide’ to this world instead? Certainly the creative and imaginative ways that radio, television, printed media and churches are marking its 400th anniversary for Biblefresh year would make you think so. We must beware, though, of treating the Bible like a recipe book. If Christians in Egypt could have turned to the relevant verse and found a ready solution for their nation’s ills they would have done it by now, I’m sure. It has to be studied, contemplated, explained and absorbed – none of which is a quick process.
Maybe one thing which makes it a book of the living, rather than a book of the dead, is that God provides people to interpret it. In Isaiah 30 there is a verse which is either deeply heartening or extremely intimidating for preachers, depending on your state of confidence:
Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity
and the water of affliction
your teachers will be hidden no more (v.6)
The Bible is undoubtedly intended to act as a ‘guide for this world’ but preachers, the Spirit who inspires them, and the people who listen to them with discernment are all part of the deal.