2014 Religious Trends
Scripture Is More Like A Beach Than A Path
Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.
I spent last week on the North Carolina coast with friends and family, on our annual beach vacation. I spent hours sitting in my chair, right on the edge of the surf, watching the waves come in and out over the sand, and, more slowly, watching the tide go in and out. This is mesmerizing and intoxicating, if you let it be: the back-and-forth of land and sea, played out across a few dozen yards of territory that is sometimes one, sometimes the other, all depending, improbably, on the position of the moon.
My vacation wasn't all just sitting, though. On a few occasions I managed to rouse my body into a run—a jog, really—along the sea. Sometimes this was on the beach, right along the waterside, where the sand is firm enough to support a lumbering thirty-something vacationer at an embarrassingly slow pace. Other times my runs were on a running and biking path, built further inland right by the main road, but still parallel to the coastline. One day, after one of my seaside runs, I noticed something: the smartphone app I use to track my runs had produced a map that put me as running about twenty yards out into the surf! I compared that run to one that I had completed on the inland path. That run was mapped out just as it should be: my route was superimposed right over top of the path. I realized what had happened. My phone was not malfunctioning; it was just that I had completed my beachside run at low tide, and the spot where I was running would later be underwater. The mapmakers, of course, facing the task of making a map, had to make a decision about where to put the coastline, and I assume they followed some industry standard for how to do so. But at the moment I took my run, the reality of where the coastline lay was at odds with where the map said it should be.
What does all this have to do with scripture, and progressive Christian views of it? Quite a lot, I think. For years and years, Christians—and especially Protestant Christians—have treated scripture like a path. They (we) have assumed that the Bible was a discrete, knowable, definable thing, and that the thing itself would always overlay neatly with our expectations of it. We had in our minds a notion of scripture: as inerrant, or inspired by God, or internally consistent, or always pointing toward some Christian end. And because we assumed all these things (and other things too) about the Bible, because we assumed that the Bible was part of a static landscape of eternal consistency that never changed, we sometimes found that our map was inaccurate. Or shifting, or unreliable, or just plain confusing.
It turns out that reading (and living by) the Bible is much more like running by the sea than running on a path. Running by the sea is like running in a giant grey zone, where waves can dart up the shore and nip your shoes, where an unusually low tide might have you running in crumbling sand where the water would normally be neck-deep, and where any maps are strictly provisional and advisory.
Progressive Christians have, by and large, come to terms with this state of affairs. They (we) have recognized that the strict maps, the ones that say that scripture is absolutely this or that, are not wholly truthful. The real world is much more complicated than that. Progressive Christians have become acclimated to the gray area, and have learned to live and thrive where the space is sometimes one thing, and sometimes another. The maps don't lie, exactly; they just have limited usefulness, and they sometimes can mislead you with a confidence that doesn't always correspond with the real world.
The Reverend Doctor Eric C. Smith is the Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Englewood, CO. He joined the First Plymouth staff in July 2007, after serving a church in Asheville, North Carolina, for five years. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation from the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver, a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Bachelor's degree in English from Mars Hill College. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007.