#SKEPTIMERGENT: trophy bibles

I am uncontrollably drawn to people who share one of my passions: the Bible. But, ironically, the people I think who most share my fascination with that “sacred” library of documents are not typically of the orthodox Christian variety. The people who seem to be most interested in the Bible – the people who actually read it, study it, analyze it, question it – tend to be atheists, agnostics,  unorthodox Christians, and so on.

It didn’t take me long to pick up on this when I was employed by churches. As I became more interested in the Bible, the lack of interest from most devoted churchgoers became astonishing. People who would fight and argue about the Bible, people who claimed that it was the most important thing in their lives. People who would probably die for it, if they had to. But, maybe a comparison could be made here: is the husband who fights for and defends his wife, no matter what the cost, the “good” husband, or the one who consistently loves her and treats her as his partner, day in and day out? It seems to me that these are two different kinds of devotion: one of possession, and one of participation. I think many more “believers” in, “defenders” of, the Bible would fit the former category, people who use the Bible as a trophy, as a public sign of ones devotion, devoid of any actual engagement.

Maybe this sounds like a harsh criticism, an exaggeration. Lots of people actually read their Bibles, right? Well, I’m not sure this is the case. I’m not sure how many people who believe they are supposed to be reading it but aren’t would actually ever tell anyone. But, this is not my point. I think there is a huge difference between a purely “devotional” reading of the Bible and a personal responsibility, a commitment, to having a relationship with the Bible. The devotional reader has probably memorized thousands of verses. They may even read the Bible every day. But, I think the true lover of the Bible does much more than this. Just like in any real relationship, the lover argues with the Bible. Disagrees with it. Wrestles with it. Takes ownership of his or her part of the relationship. And, sometimes, the lover wants to just chunk it. To give up. To find a new partner.

I think this is why so many people are actually scared of “critics” of the Bible. They haven’t actually taken the time or effort to get to know it. To understand it. Their only reaction is defensive, because there’s not actually any depth to the relationship. I would guess that this is the case for the majority of people who claim to “believe” in the Bible. And, honestly, from my end, as a lover of the Bible, a person who has an enduring fascination with it, I wish those people would just either – to put it bluntly – shit or get off the pot. Commit or quit pretending.

I’ve been thinking lately about Thomas Jefferson’s fascination with the Bible. Of course, many Christians are critical of his approach, cutting out what he saw as the “irrational” parts of the gospel narratives. I’ve heard all kinds of interesting things said about Jefferson in my lifetime (that he was an atheist, a Deist, a heretic). But, in reality, Jefferson was a guy who loved the Bible. Saw it as a work of art. Beautiful literature. And, who was infinitely interested in Jesus. What Jefferson did is simply what we all do, implicitly. We all pick and choose the parts of the Bible that we agree with, and we either ignore or try to explain away the parts that we don’t. No one is a consistent believer in or adherent of the Bible. No one.

Maybe instead of being afraid of people like Jefferson – or Bart Ehrman – maybe instead of getting defensive and resorting to name calling (which is what we do when we actually don’t have anything substantive to say), we should try to understand why they are so fascinated with the Bible, why they spend so much time and effort with it. Maybe if we did this, we, too, would fall in love with it. Maybe we, too, would actually take responsibility for our relationship with the Bible, instead of just “possessing” it as a trophy.


This is a repost from my personal blog from August, 2012.

  • Kevin Fusher

    Some years back I led a house group bible study, one man made clear points, had correct theology etc. I met him some time after I had left church I met him one day and he said- “you-know I haven’t read my bible for four years!” Good article well stated view point. With regard to your blog about atheists in church, today I read a book review on the following book- Christian Atheist: Belonging without believing Brian Mountford (Ropley:O BookS)
    I Suspect the book is very English Anglican but covers a lot of your ideas. I intend buying it soon.

  • Steve Pinkham

    There’s a few different ways to love sacred texts. I have a lot of respect for many Jews and Muslims who take their holy books seriously to want to read and understand them in their original languages. At the same time, Muslims and some Jews fail at allowing “higher criticism” of their holy book, because they don’t want to know what it really is.

    Probably the largest reason I’m now an atheist/agnostic/igtheist is because as a conservative evangelical I cared enough about the Bible to really study everything I could about it and how it related to science, archeology, and various other fields of knowledge.

    I remain quite fascinated by both the people who refuse to learn things about their holy book and let it remain only a master signifier, and the people who know everything I know and more and remain Christians. I do wonder what if I was acculturated differently, if my wife hadn’t followed me out of the church, etc. I am quite comfortable with people who do their best to square what we know with their lives no matter what label they choose, and nothing frustrates me more than those who refuse to learn out of fear.

  • http://thebridge-cu.com Ron Simkins

    Certainly agree with your experience that many who defend the Bible most read the majority of the materials very seldom – and, often ignore the parts that are bothersome.

    Having said that, I think many who reject the Bible (and sometimes simultaneously God) believe a falsehood that Christians have told them. Unlike many modern Christians, the Biblical writers never believed that God being present, blessing, or even speaking/commanding in a given situation meant that God approved of the situation whether it is patriarchy, polygamy, war, nationalism, divorce, slavery, current understanding of “God” and “gods,” etc. and etc. Certainly the gospels present a Jesus who believed that God had acted and spoken into many of these contexts; yet believed that the contexts themselves were far from good, right, or to be perpetuated. I am not saying that this understanding of the Biblical perspective on the Biblical materials solves all our doubts and dilemmas with God or with the Bible. But, it certainly allows us to have the discussions on a much more “biblical” plain.

  • Nick Gotts

    I’m an atheist, but a couple of years ago, decided to read the Bible, cover to cover. What a chore! What a tedious farrago of nonsense! OK, there are a few good bits, but by and large, what really surprised me was just how poor it is as literature, and how little of it was of the slightest relevance to any of my concerns.


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