The Bible: GPS or Map?

Magellan Blazer12 GPS Receiver.

Image via Wikipedia

I had been truant with my blogging these last two months due mainly to unforeseen family circumstances and the summer family vacation. But I will try to make up for it this month with a number of blogs inspired by my recent vacation to the Canadian Maritimes.

It was our first ever trip to the East Coast, and since we failed to get any good maps of the Maritime provinces I decided to buy a GPS to help us navigate our driving. I was pretty impressed by my GPS. It was accurate most of the time and it also could point out points of interest – like closest attractions, closest gas stations – which proved immensely useful on our trip. My experience with the GPS, however, reinforced an analogy that I had used in the past with my university students. Is the Bible more like a moral GPS or map? Do we read the Bible for specific step-by-step directions to our moral questions to which we only have to obey, or should we read it as providing us a big picture map – contours of the moral landscape – with which we have to make our own navigational choices as to which step to take? Let me explain. (I am, in this post, leaving aside doctrinal questions and focusing on the ethical and moral questions that people often seek answers for from the Bible.)

My GPS was accurate ninety-percent of the time. There were the odd occasions when it was totally off target and steered us to the middle of nowhere. On other occasions, it got us within a few blocks of our target destination. Sometimes, though, it would steer us in rather weird paths, taking back roads, side streets, alley ways that most locals wouldn’t use, though it did eventually get us to our destination. The GPS was most effective in urban areas but it was a little unreliable or inaccurate when it came to rural roads and towns. I did almost all the driving, so my wife was the navigator with the GPS and she always used it in conjunction with the map that we had.

My wife much prefers maps. She despises mapquest or google map directions. “Give me a good detailed accurate map,” she would say, “and I can find my own way there.” But having used a GPS now, she understands its allure to most users. The GPS really simplifies navigation for drivers. It does all the work. For the most part, we don’t even need a map. We didn’t need to figure things out – where we were, where our destination is, and how we are going to get there. The GPS figures it all out for us and tells us commands and directions every step of the way. It was navigation for dummies.  We didn’t have to think, which was dangerous on those occasions when the GPS was wrong.

A lot of times, Christians treat the Bible like a moral GPS or, at least, a moral mapquest. We have an ethical question and then we go hunting through the Bible’s pages for a clear cut direction or command on it. We want the Bible to tell us explicitly what to do or not do in our specific situations. We expect it to give us clear directives.

The problem is that the Bible wasn’t written as a moral rule book with an easy to search index on various topics even though some publishers try to present it as such. Also, the Biblical writers were writing, first and foremost, to address their own issues set within specific cultural and historical contexts and morality. These issues may not always overlap with our own current questions.

Finally, the Bible as a whole tells a worldview story that gives us a big picture framework of ultimate reality and, hence, the values that matter in that reality. A GPS approach to the Bible for specific directions overlooks this biblical feature.

I believe that we should approach the Bible as an accurate map that shows us the moral landscape and where the ethical true north is. We need to take into account the worldview story that the Bible lays out for us – of the creation of a good material world, the distortion of brokenness and sin, the restoration work through Jesus Christ culminating in the total renewal of all things at the end – and read the specific sub-stories in the Bible that makes up this big story as explorations of those who have gone before us. These are the navigation paths that the biblical writers have travelled with varying degrees of success. We study those paths as suggestive for us but not as directives that we must slavishly follow because our world is not exactly the world of the ancients. The landscape may have changed. There may be roadblocks today or chasms in places where there weren’t before for the ancients. Or there are other moral possibilities that were not available for the ancients to try at that time.

What I am basically trying to say is, in the words of theologian N.T. Wright, God gave us the Bible to stimulate our thinking, not to stop us from thinking. To read the Bible as a moral GPS guide is to cease doing the hard work of research, studying, thinking and figuring out our own way and our moral choices. We abdicate our moral responsibility or reduce it to the point of simply obeying the directives from our Bible GPS. Sometimes that works – depending on the moral issue and how much it overlaps with the ancient concerns – and sometimes it goes terribly astray. That’s how it is with this moral GPS approach: it’s morality for dummies.

But we cannot abdicate our moral responsibility that way. I don’t believe God created us to simply be obedient morons who can’t think for ourselves. We think for ourselves, but we think within the framework of God’s moral reality. What the Adam and Eve rebellion story highlights is that we rather make our own moral map rather than rely on God’s map for us. We chuck the map out of the window and try to figure our way around on our own wits. That surely is a recipe for disaster. And there are many signs of our moral lost-ness in our culture.

But by treating the Bible as a moral GPS, Christians have gone the other extreme to doing very little thinking of their own at all. All their efforts go into searching out verses or passages that can speak to our current moral questions and then stubbornly obeying them in a black and white dogmatism. A more healthy alternative, I suggest, is that we study the Bible within its worldview story – its big picture map (metaphorically speaking) – and decipher how we should best proceed for today’s moral issues, given what we learnt from the biblical ancients’ moral travels, where morality’s true north is, where the Biblical worldview map clearly lays out dangers and pitfalls – the proverbial “here be dragons” of ancient maps of lore! – and a sense of where our moral destination or goal should be.

I know I am speaking in metaphors and generalizations without naming any specific examples. I am doing that deliberately for this post as I don’t want any specific moral controversial issue to sidetrack the main point I’m making here: the Bible may not give answers to all our specific moral questions as it wasn’t written for that purpose; it’s written more to give a moral framework for us to find our answers.

Follow up post: Bible as Map Part 2

(An example of a biblical worldview map approach to a current issue is my post on a Christian perspective on the environment issue.)

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
This entry was posted in Bible, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Bible: GPS or Map?

  1. peddiebill says:

    I too have wondered about the Bible as a map. Unfortunately the GPS analogy (which I like) has the implication that unless it is continually updated as a map it becomes increasing misleading. Many of the so called moral directions of the Bible are unhelpful because many new paths are now in existance. The moral framework was great for the time but unfortunately we need a vastly different framework for the modern world. Think of all the moral directions in the Old Testament designed to help an embattled people survive. Among the 613 commndments in the Bible there are directions for what the people of God should wear, how they should cut their hair, what they should eat and how they should treat those with different beliefs (ie very badly). These days when people can travel to different cultural and religious settings these commandments are badly dated and when acted on we get the horrible consequences that we see today. Even more to the point we have new moral problems which – because the moral GPS is not properly updated there is little that really helps in the Bible. What about euthanasia, genetic engineering, the arms trade, aid for third world countries, abortion, foreign policy, coping with different denominations of Christianity, religious extremism etc etc ? The standard religious traditions slow the response to new situations until the Church starts to become irrelevant.

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    • Shiao Chong says:

      Thanks Bill for the comment.
      I agree with your assessment about the problems when we approach the bible as an ethical GPS, and then are stuck with ancient Hebraic/Semitic directions because they weren’t updated to a more contemporary map.
      This is also why I prefer the Bible as a compass and map analogy over the GPS. I prefer to see the Bible as laying out the moral map of human reality, and gives us a moral and spiritual compass of what “true north” is. And we have to figure it out ourselves how to navigate the particular contexts that we are in to get to “true north”.
      Many, not all, of the Old Testament injunctions to Israel, therefore, can be seen as Israel’s ethical navigation in their ancient cultural context, given the compass and map that they understood from God. So, not all of these navigational moves are applicable to our context today as we are in a different spot, so to speak, from where they were and might actually need to travel in a different direction to get to the same ethical destination.
      Jesus, in the New Testament, I think it partly trying to re-frame this concept of God’s laws as a compass and map, he is trying to fulfill the law, not by slavishly copying the letter/rule (GPS style) but by applying the intent of the law (compass & map style). I hope my analogy makes sense. Jesus, of course, in his ministry, resurrection and ascension, clearly clarifies to all what God’s “true north” has always been that may have been obscured over the ages by the Pharisees and Jewish religious tradition.
      As I write this, perhaps, I should have focused more on the “compass” than the “map” side of the analogy. As you suggested, a “map” can still give people the idea that you need to slavishly follow something. And maps do need updating from time to time. But a functional compass is always true and need no updates. True north is always the same but it is a different direction relative to where you are personally facing.
      I wonder if that is a more helpful way of putting it.

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  6. Great, great post! I loved the comparison with the GPS and Bible.

    What you said was true, people must look at the Bible through a worldview, not just “North America” or “Asia” or what not. When we spend time looking for what God tells us to look at, we find our True North, we learn unimaginable lessons and obviously, we become closer and more stronger to God.

    The Bible is like the Book of a Typical Life. It tells you what you should know, what and what not to do, and it never ends like you mentioned! You are encouraged to keep looking deeper and deeper and to expand your knowledge! It’s a great thing, I always read my Bible and I can’t stop reading it 🙂

    Anyways, great post again! Hope to read your posts soon!
    – Filemon L. Nava Sr.

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  7. Great post, Chong. It is very similar to the argument made by Christian Smith in “The Bible Made Impossible”.

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