Do I Love the Bible? It’s Complicated.

Christians like me, who lean left on political and social issues, are often accused of failing to honor the Bible as an authoritative source. As Derek Penwell noted in a recent Huffington Post piece (“The Problem with Assuming Liberal Christians Hate the Bible“), the opposite is often true. We lefties take the Bible very seriously, basing our views on such things as women’s roles in church and family, societal obligations to the poor, gun laws, and homosexuality on Biblical ideals, including radical acceptance and love, hospitality for the outsider, a broad definition of “family” that transcends biology, equality in Christ, and God’s love as the most powerful force in the universe. The reason that I think we Christians should focus more energy on issues around poverty than sexuality, for example, is that Jesus did.

To prove that we take the Bible seriously, left-leaning writers, such as Penwell in the above-mentioned post and popular blogger/author Rachel Held Evans, are fond of asserting, “I LOVE the Bible!”

Whenever I read such a declaration of love for scripture, no matter how heartfelt and authentic, I get a little squirmy. Because I’m not sure I can honestly say that I “love” the Bible.

Some parts of the Bible give me chills, because of how they communicate truth with indelible images and masterful poetry.

The valley of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37: 1-15) -

And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Also from Ezekiel, about hearts transformed (Ezekiel 36: 26) -

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

When the prodigal son returns home (Luke 15:20) -

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

And Paul at his finest, bringing us back to the fundamentals (Romans 8:38-39) -

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Some parts of the Bible comfort me, giving words to the prayers I cannot utter on my own and reminding me that our questions and struggles about and with God are neither new nor unique.

The psalms that admit to anger and despair, while clinging to the promises of God’s love, forgiveness, and care (Psalm 27: 13-14) -

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

Confessions that acknowledge how mixed up we are (Romans 7:18-19) -

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

Reminders that even Jesus’s closest friends messed up, really messed up, over and over again (John 18:25 – 27) -

Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing there warming himself. So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you? He denied it, saying, “I am not.” One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

Some parts of the Bible leave me exasperated and confused, because they seem to contradict other scriptures, or are just plain hard to read.

The admonitions about women’s leadership in the church, juxtaposed with the vision of there being “neither male nor female” in Christ (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35  and Galatians 3:28) -

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

vs.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s regular use of run-on sentences and inability to get to the point already, such as the opening verses of Romans. It takes a special, um, talent to apply such a convoluted overabundance of verbiage to a mere salutation:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures,concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh,who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake; among whom are ye also called to be Jesus Christ’s: To all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Fundamentally, I believe the Bible is the primary narrative revealing what we as Christians believe about God, the world, and the people who inhabit it. The Bible tells me…

That God created the world and all creatures who dwell within it.

That love is God’s essential motivation.

That all people are made in God’s image.

That the earth and its riches are gifts of which we are stewards.

That God’s forgiveness is unlimited.

That Jesus Christ showed us how to live an abundant life characterized by love, hospitality, nonviolence, and forgiveness.

That everyone is welcome at God’s table.

That everyone sins and everyone can be forgiven.

That God gives particular attention to outsiders—children, women, the sick, prisoners, the poor—and so should we.

That love, light, and life are stronger than hatred, darkness, and death.

And so much more….

But while I love these truths and believe they are necessary for my life and the world’s healing, I find much of the Bible difficult to read—inaccessible, dull, contradictory—even if some favorite passages never fail to inspire or comfort. Do I love the Bible? Not if by “love” we’re talking about the eager anticipation of spending time in a pursuit that is unfailingly engaging and energizing. Not if we’re talking about the deep satisfaction of becoming utterly immersed in a story that portrays life so poignantly that it changes me from the inside out. I simply don’t love the Bible the way I love favorite books that I read over and over, never tiring even though I know the stories by heart—A Prayer for Owen Meany,  My Name is Asher Lev, The Stand, the Harry Potter series. The Bible is too full of contradictions, unanswered questions, and those awful run-on sentences for me to get lost in it the way I get lost in my favorite books.

But while favorite novels might (and often do) offer important insights about faith, grace, and pain, I ultimately end up back with the Bible, knowing that, while it may not always be the most gripping literature, it has a vital, primary role that no other book can match. I know that, while some favorite Bible passages engage me as fully as a masterfully written novel or poem does, the Bible’s less engaging bits still contain insights and perspectives that we need. I know that I need the Bible if I am to nurture a growing, substantial faith. I know that the Bible harbors layers of meaning and surprises that require a lifetime of careful reading to uncover.

My love of favorite books is a lot like the love of a teenager or twentysomething in his or her first truly serious relationship—exciting, consuming, intense, energizing. My love of the Bible is more like the love of a long-married couple—necessary, steady, committed, built on habit rather than adrenaline, and the source of occasional surprises, insights, and revelations if I am paying attention.

Do I love the Bible?

I guess I do, after all.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Believer Insight

    I do command you for trying to tell us you love the bible – I’m happy for everyone that dose. The verses you stated are not confusing, this is showing us you are ignorant of scripture. Hang in there and ask for help from the Father, the Holy Spirit is ready to help.

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      Believer Insight, if you are telling us that you understand every single passage in the Bible with utter clarity, you have achieved something I’ve never heard another Christian ever claim to have achieved. In fact, Peter himself said that Paul’s writings, like much of other Scripture, truly is hard to understand. (2 Peter 3:16.)
      Blessings,
      Tim

      • Believer Insight

        Never said that Tim – but I have the basic understanding. What do you need to know? Do you know the meaning of ignorant? Yes it sounds bad but all it means you don’t have the understanding of a particular subject. Yes `Peter was also Ignorant.

  • Sandra Orrick

    My relationship to Scripture is similarly conflicted, in that I see much evidence of confusion and contradiction and yet the Bible is all we have to reveal God’s will and ways. The written Word is obviously a product of human endeavors. Furthermore, Jesus the Christ, the living Word, stated clearly that He had much to teach us while He walked on earth but that we could not receive it. He promised to send us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. In fact, He said “I will come to you.” Without the Bible we would not know this. It is precious but flawed.

    • Suzanne Spiers

      Well, we could spend hours considering whether and where scripture is flawed and that would be a legitimate distraction from putting what it says into practice. I learned a long time ago that it was not possible to explore every argument and decide whether this part or that part of Scripture was accurate or flawed. My years in Bible college showed me that there were many schools of thought on various aspects of Theology; hence there being so many expressions of Christianity demonstrated through the many denominations. My answer; it is quite simple. Read the Word regularly, pray regularly, talk to God about everything and do not leave out the bits that you think He will not like to hear. Put into practice all those things like being kind to others, loving others as myself, forgive others, turn the other cheek, advocate for truth and justice where necessary and make sure that I fellowship with other believers. My salvation is not dependent on my goodness or acts, many and much of which is extremely flawed due to the fact that I am a human and designed to learn and to fall many times; hence the need for me needing a lot of compassion and forgiveness from God. Needless to say, after being a Christian for a very long time now, I am still nowhere perfect. I can say with surety though, that I am changed greatly from the new Christian that I once was. The Holy Spirit promised me that He would lead me into all truth, He would live within me and guide my steps and that it would be He who would carry on to completion that which was started within me. I am a happy human being, free from guilt and joyous and peaceful most of the time. So, might I suggest that unless it is your calling to examine Scripture minutely and find out where it is wrong and where it is right, just put it into practice in your life every day and that is sufficient. The time to be perfect is when we live eternally with God and have new eternal, indestructible bodies that are wholly spirit and not Earthly any longer.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Loving the Bible in that mature way you describe is the type of love that is borne of the Spirit, I think. For me, I love the Bible because the more I read it, the more I learn about God. Even after reading all of it several times through, studying passages and themes, listening to sermons and reading books and article on the Bible, I am constantly learning more about God every time I go into the Bible.
    Cheers,
    Tim

  • Joseph William Toth

    Ms. Dollar, I enjoyed this blog very much! As I live anticipating the milestone of 76 years on this planet, I feel a certain urgency to get things sorted out before it’s make my maker time. Yes, as with many, I’ve made some progress since emerging from my fundamentalist roots. As for the Bible, of course it’s more than one book and as in any other anthology, some entries I like a lot for the most part, others very troubling. Do I pick and choose? Yup!

  • Ryan Hite

    The bible is something that can and should be interpreted for yourself. You should not listen to how others interpret it. Do it yourself and do it in the context of your life. Remember that the bible was written by different people going through different times over thousands of years.

    • Alice

      It is important to read and think for ourselves instead of following a particular Bible teacher blindly, but saying we should not listen to others at all is arrogant. Even though there are basic teachings in the Bible that are easy to understand, it was written in a time, place, culture, and language very different from ours, so how can we possibly understand its nuances with no background information? Even reading an English translation is listening to other people’s interpretation because it is impossible for translators to be 100% neutral. This why serious Bible students use multiple translations and study the original languages.

      If listening to Bible teachers is wrong, then why does the New Testament often refer to teachers and prophets positively? Why bother having group Bible discussions, sermons, blogs or books at all if Christians cannot learn from each other? Everyone has different perspectives, life experiences, and education, and that is something to celebrate, not hide from. A potluck is much more delicious and interesting than eating a sandwich alone.

      • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

        I agree that interpreting the Bible solely “for yourself” and in the “context of your life” is limiting. For me, that’s a huge reason (one of many) that Christians need to be part of a faith community and also why I struggle with the “spiritual but not religious” ideal, which implies we can figure out spirituality on our own, without the trappings of religion. Religion, including Christianity, certainly has plenty of historical baggage, and Christians over the years have made plenty of errors. But I still believe a vibrant faith needs to be informed by the wisdom of faith communities (and the individual teachers, preachers, scholars, and others who make up those communities) as well as the wisdom of Christian tradition. I know that I, for one, NEED the wisdom of those who have studied Biblical history and languages more fully than I have, to help me make sense of scripture.

        • Phil McLarty

          Perhaps, Ellen, spirituality is an awareness of a positive with-it-ness with anything – regardless of any particular with-it-ness origin. Sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells or their memories. Thus, anyone (capable of awareness? – not sure here) can be spiritual. Religions seem to have a rather distinct origin, historically, and are associated with a particular person – Christ, Buddha, etc. – and, usually associated with a Deity (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, to list a few).

          • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

            As C.S. Lewis said in “Perelandra” about listening to spirits: “There are spirits and then there are spirits, you know.”
            It’s important to be careful which you listen to. Same goes for spirituality and being spiritual. Many will lead you to places you don’t want to go.
            Blessings,
            Tim

  • ChuckQueen101

    I love the Bible because it is such a complex book full of contradictions and incongruencies as well as transformative texts. There are many ways to approach a text: critically/historically, theologically, spiritually, etc. The spiritual journey reflected in the life of biblical texts/communities echo my own — three steps forward and two steps back. The Hebrew-Christian Scriptures have the wonderful capacity to self-correct and I am both comforted and challenged by the rich diversity of texts and faith perspectives.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Beautifully said. Thanks

  • billwald

    Love a book? Any book? Boggles the mind.

    The Bible contains sufficient information for faith and practice. How do I know? Jesus is quoted as saying that the Tanakh contains information sufficient for faith and practice.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Ellen, I truly enjoyed this piece, weaving all the different elements together, even the loose threads of doubt or confusion, as a weave of the whole person. Human. Bravo.

  • Suzanne Spiers

    Well, if a Christian takes his or her faith seriously, Scripture is one thing designed to make us grow and mature as people. It is very hard to stop things that are harmful to ourselves and others such as gossip and addictions. It is very hard to be loving and forgiving to those who have hurt us terribly; just think husbands or wives who have cheated on us, betrayed us, used the household funds to gamble, sexual abuse, inadequate child-raising. These are just some of the things that many of us have or will encounter. I believe that our growth towards being like Jesus is a journey, to be faced courageously and honestly, digging deep to root out the core of those things that are destructive to life. I also think that if I put into practice what Jesus says, then it makes my life go a whole lot better and if I pray and meditate, then it actually makes my life function well. Life on Earth will never be free from problems and suffering, but we are here to grow up and mature into what God created us to be’ to reflect His glory and the life of His Son. The Holy Spirit living within enables that to happen. It is a relationship, not a religion and it is a living thing to be lived out and walked each day of our lives.

  • LogicGuru

    I don’t like the Bible one bit. Why should I? I’m a liberal Christian–Christianity in my culture religion. I enjoy the ceremonies and myths. But I detest the Bible. Liberal Christians IMHO have given too much to the evangelicals, trying to pretend that we like the Bible too but just have a different interpretation or whatever. Why bother. And yes, I know the Bible really well, and I can even read the New Testement in Greek–with lots of help. I’m very familiar with it. And I can’t stand it. Boring. Pointless. Worthless.

  • Bud Young

    I was raised to believe the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. To talk of contradictions or any part of the Bible being just a myth always caused a bit of an uproar. As I have grown in my faith, my approach to the Bible has grown. I used to dislike the Bible because of the closed-minded attitude that was forced on me. Now, I recognize the humanity in the Bible. I see the issues the writers of the Bible struggled with. Most of which we still struggle with. I love the Bible now. Honestly, I see those who considered the Bible perfect as more worshiping the Bible than worshiping God.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      My dad (Episcopal priest) calls that (worshipping the Bible) “Bibliolatry.”


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