Why We Can't Have Nice Conversations
This. Is. A. Book.
So spoke the seminary professor after throwing a Bible to the floor and stomping on it. I never witnessed this act--it was years before my arrival at Perkins--but it was a story the professors I knew loved to tell. I don't remember the name of this particular professor, but I wholeheartedly agree with the point he was making to a shocked classroom of East Texan Methodists: idolatry is a sin. Anything besides God can be made into an idol, including, perhaps especially, this book. And yet Christians of every persuasion routinely assign it more weight, power, and authority than the God it supposedly tells them about--the one this very book quotes as saying not to make idols of anything, including books.
You may, like those East Texan seminarians, be in a state of shock that I am casting aspersions on this book. You may consider it the Word of God. You may even consider it the inerrant Word of God. If that's the case, it's best you stop reading this essay, and find someone else writing from your viewpoint, because you're not going to like what I have to say about the Bible. Perhaps you come up short of that "inerrant" thing, but still place a great deal of weight on what Scripture says, searching it for answers to your questions, advice in times of confusion, words of comfort in affliction, inspiration in defeat. You may still want to look elsewhere, but if you've got an open, probing mind, we may be able to have a dialogue.
Here's the problem: there are two irreconcilable ways of reading the Bible. The first takes it as, for the most part, inerrant and literally true: both versions of creation, the Flood, the sun standing still, Jonah in the belly of the fish, all four versions of the life of Jesus, and so on. The second approach views the Bible as a collection of historical documents, compiled over the course of a thousand years to tell the story of God's evolving relationship with humankind. All of this has to be read critically, placed in its historical, sociological, and literary context. For the most part, this approach views Scripture as symbolic and metaphorical, revealing deeper truths through stories and writings that should not be taken literally.
Representatives of these two approachs may appreciate each other for the sincerity of their beliefs, may enjoy the same kinds of religious music, may be moved by the same acts of worship and preaching. But they are never going to agree on this one thing, no matter what they may say to each other. In my mind, the literalist approach to reading the Bible is a form of idolatry. In their minds, that makes me a heretic. So it's best we just don't get into it, not if we want to be friends.
For the record, here's what I believe: the Bible is an amazing book of great power and beauty. There are parts of it that are among the finest things written in ancient times. The Succession Narrative, for instance, which tells the story of how David became king and then began the only dynasty in the history of ancient Israel, is much like Malory's Mort d'Arthur. The prophets wrote timeless social criticism that has as much relevance to modern times as it did two and a half milennia ago. Some of the parables of Jesus are so universally moving that they function as miniature gospels, presenting a complete spiritual worldview encapsulated in a few minutes of story-telling. Paul's soaring rhetoric provides a tremendous model for persuasive speaking. And so on. I could go on listing the good bits for hours, and still not be done. I honestly believe this is one of the greatest works of literature ever created.
But here's the rub: it's a book. These are stories, poems, essays, and yes, polemic. They are meant to inspire, chasten, encourage. While they are historical documents, from which we can learn a great deal about the times and places in which they were written, they are not history. This is hard for many people to accept, including many who, having the same kind of seminary training I did, should really know better, because much of the narrative in the Bible presents itself as history. But in fact, the discipline of history as we know it, sifting through actual documents and records, weighing eyewitness accounts, seeking to arrive at as accurate a picture of the past as can be done with the materials available, then acknowledging how much of the emerging picture still remains uncertain, did not exist at the time this book was being written. People told stories about history to reveal capital-T Truth. But they weren't writing small-t truth. Legends about the creation, the flood, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Joseph, Moses, David--all of these circulated for centuries before anyone thought of writing them down. The good part of this is that the stories took on added power as storytellers embellished them, tricked them out, created new details that heightened their power and added to the deeper Truth about human beings and their difficult relationship with the Creator. Eventually, they were written, and as one of my seminary professors liked to say, at that moment the inspiration died. Once a story is in print, it's set--especially if it is institutionally canonized. There's no more working with it, updating it for contemporary audiences, teasing out of deeper meanings. Future generations must puzzle over what is actually going on in stories whose ancient details are as alien to them as if they came off a flying saucer.
That is, fortunately, how people of faith have handled these stories--for the most part. Prior to modern times, religious art usually clothed the characters of the Bible in garments that reflected the culture of the artist. There was no effort at historical accuracy; the artists understood they were working with an old story, and were attempting to make it relevant to a contemporary audience. This worked well until the Reformation, when a German monk named Martin Luther decided one of the problems with the Church was that its holy book was written in an ancient language only spoken by priests. He went to the original languages and translated them into vibrant sixteenth-century German. Suddenly anyone who could read could interpret Scripture for himself or herself. And now the gloves came off.
The Bible is the most-published book in the world. Its countless translations give ordinary, untrained believers access to it--or, really, to interpretations of it--which many of them read along the lines of the first camp, the literalists. Some, finding contradictions galore, not to mention wacky stories about God that just don't ring true, toss it aside, unable to appreciate the metaphorical power of the book. Others take it to mean what it says, and say what it means, and come undone when it is suggested to them that none of the events depicted probably happened as described, many never happened at all, that almost none of the "authors" actually wrote the books attributed to them, and hardly any of the quotes actually came from the people who are depicted as saying them. The Jesus Seminar has exploited this upsetting revelation with great success, reveling in the discomfort of Christians who would just rather not hear this stuff, let alone apply it to their precious book.
I understand how unsettling it can be. There was actually a time when I had a quasi-literalist view of the Bible. Then, at the age of 23, I got in an argument with a literalist friend over the existence of hell. I couldn't believe a loving God would condemn anyone to eternal damnation. He said it was in the Bible. I said the Bible was full of contradictions. He said, "Are you saying God can't write?" I decided to dig in and find those contradictions, and read the thing from cover to cover for the second time in my life. (I had previously done this while in high school.) By the time I finished, I had found a wealth of contradictions, but also had been deeply moved and inspired, and decided to go to seminary to find answers to my questions.
Seven years later, I emerged from seminary with more questions, but they were no longer about the Bible. I now understood it for what it was. My questions now were about whether I could ever sincerely present my understanding to a congregation. I found that, in fact, I could not, that I had to compromise, toning down my knowledge of the source and nature of the Bible. It's a compromise most preachers make. I don't have to anymore, because I took myself out of the preaching game thirteen years ago, and don't intend to go back.
It still haunts me, though. My previous post about the anti-Jewish core of the Christian message got me trolled by a Biblical literalist. No matter how I reworded my knowledge of the Bible's origins and nature, he refused to hear me, constantly beating on the drum of literal truth. In the end, I gave up. There is no seeing eye to eye on this. We can't agree to disagree. He's just wrong. And he can never admit to it, because at the core of his faith is his belief, not about God, but about this book.
It's just a book. A beautiful, powerful book. But a book.