You may have heard someone say the Bible is a Christian’s road-map. The Bible, they say, tells us how to get to where we are going, complete with detailed instructions on the best way to travel through our lives. I don’t know about you, but that never made much sense to me. Personally, I don’t find road-maps in the Bible, I find stories, wonderful, complex, holy stories.
A road-map is designed to help us get from one place to another, typically in the most direct manner. Find a map of the Interstate Highway system and we can plan our route from New York to Seattle in 15 minutes, if we bother with a map. Most likely we’ll program a GPS or use the Google maps app on our phone. It will be fast, efficient, and easy. We won’t be bothered much by anything located between New York and Seattle. We will be in our private car, listening to our personally selected music , our climate control precisely set, our cruise control on, our seats comfortably adjusted, with our beverages in our convenient individual cup holders. We can make our plan and never detour, never get lost. It is efficient, but not particularly interesting way to travel. In my experience, that’s not how life unfolds, certainly not the life of faith described in the Bible.
And so I began to wonder, could the Bible is a map of some kind? If so, what sort of map is it? A state map? The bus route? A map of the world? A star chart? Is it a map of the fire exits out of the building?
I think the Bible is most like a topographic map, a map for a particular kind of travel.
Topographic maps require close, careful study. The longer we look, the more we discover. Topographic maps show us the terrain, the high places and the bogs. They show us which rivers have rapids and waterfalls. They mark the deserts and the forests. They tell us which lakes last all year and which dry up in the heat of summer. The map shows us where to find springs and wells.
The contour lines on the map tell us how steep the climb up the hill will be and where we will find a gently sloping path into the valley. Glaciers and scrub land, forest and swamp , each are each accurately noted.
The trails of those who have traveled this way before are marked for those who follow. The paved road, the unimproved road, the scenic tour are all on the map. The foot trail, the switchbacks, the tough climb, and the dead end are on this map as well. If we study the map we may discover there is more than one way to get there from here.
The map helps us find the good campsites, where there is enough space and fresh water for us and the anyone else on the trail. These are the places where people can gather safely, tell their stories, and rest for a while. We can locate towns and villages. We can also find the abandoned settlements, where a community could not sustain itself. A close study of the map may help us understand what happened. Were they too far away from reliable water or maybe prone to flood? Perhaps too high up for crops to grow?
We have the map because someone came here first, paid attention to what was around them, and left a careful record for us. The map can’t tell us everything we need to know, but it helps us keep our bearings.
It seems to me the Bible is most like a topographic map. We are shown the lay of the land. Given a terrain of faith. We are shown the contours and textures of the land by those who went before us. They left us the record of travels through mountains and valleys. They show us where people wandered off the path and they point the way back. Dangerous cliffs and dry wells are all marked out for us. But also, we find where the rough places turn into a plain. We find the way out of a dead end canyon. And we find the place good, fresh water is always present. The places that sheltered other travelers are marked. We are able to rest where pilgrims have always rested safely. The Bible, if we let it, changes us from travellers and tourists into pilgrims.
We must chart our own way through the wilderness and find our own path, but we needn’t travel blindly. We have the Bible, carefully and lovingly written, handed on from traveler to traveler. It’s more concerned with safe passage than speedy travel. And if we are willing, there are fellow travelers around, companions for the journey.
Topographic maps and the Bible, each in their own way, help us appreciate the land around us and they help us to walk with intention and care. They give us the courage to explore the country we are passing through. Because it is as much about the pilgrimage as it is about the destination.
Note: This is a revised blog post from Feb 29, 2008.