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David Cameron Shouldn't Be Calling the Bible a 'Handbook' for 'Moral Guidance'

09/08/2013 17:05 BST | Updated 09/10/2013 10:12 BST

The prime minister has said that he thinks the Bible is 'not a bad handbook' for 'moral guidance'. I know what he's saying, and I appreciate the endorsement, but it's not quite as simple as that.

Have you tried using the Bible as a handbook? It doesn't work. It's like trying to decide what phone to get by reading the Yellow Pages. A while back, I couldn't decide whether to go into advertising or IT so I went to look up the answer in that indexy bit at the back of a Bible. But there were no mentions of either career there - hopeless. Another time, a friend of mine wasn't sure whether dinner or a movie was a better choice for a first date, so I suggested she check 'The Handbook'. Apparently, the guy broke it off after she tried taking him to Mesopotamia. Mind you, I did once dip into the New Testament for dieting tips and I have to say, I slimmed down pretty well eating nothing but locusts and honey.

I asked some experts on Scriptural interpretation and hermeneutics why I was struggling to get much sense out of the thing. They said the problem was - and it's a common one, apparently - that I was trying to use the Bible as a Magic 8 Ball but kept forgetting to shake it first.

The trouble with the 'Bible as handbook' idea is that just isn't how it works. The Bible is a collection of books that tells the story of God and the world. It's an account of an ancient dialogue initiated and inspired by God with human beings. It contains various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, voices. In that sense, the Bible represents a conversation. Ultimately, the Bible, a collection of written words written over 1,500 years, bears witness to God's living Word, Jesus Christ.

And when it comes to 'moral guidance', there's a similar problem of reductionism. Sure, Scripture can (indeed it must) inform moral considerations and actions. But treating it as though its sole function is a sort of 1920s manual on how to be a well-behaved Englishman is reductive and misleading to the point of misrepresentation. You could say it libels the Bible.

It's like going up the Burj Khalifa and saying 'I quite liked the carpet. It would go rather nicely in my lounge' - or visiting the Grand Canyon and saying 'it seems a pretty decent space for the dog to have a runaround'. It might be true, but it's a small part of a much greater whole. And to only use it insofar as it suits your own convenience is to rather miss the point.

I'm glad David Cameron appreciates and values the Christian Scriptures. I hope he increasingly encounters and engages with them. I'm confident that, as he does, he'll discover the Bible is a much bigger story than anything so small as a 'handbook for moral guidance'.