Leave the Bible Alone

The Huffington Post recently highlighted some statistics from a Gallup poll about what Americans believe about the Bible (HT Hemant Mehta). Many progressive Christians would feel like the choices between two of the options may be a false dichotomy. Unless one ignores the names of authors sometimes actually given in the text (whether or not they are authentic is another matter), the Bible presents itself as the words of human beings. And so unless one is going to pretend the Bible is something that it is not, then one has no choice but to recognize the presence in it of human writings. But that need not necessarily rule out some involvement of God in the process, just as many Christians see all that happens as not separable from that ultimate reality we call God.

Nevertheless, whether one experiences God speaking to them through the text seems to have primarily to do with something that happens in the process of reading, and not something that can be said with any certainty to happen on the front end. And some are determined to insist not only that God was involved in the production of these texts, but that God was involved in a way that ultimately nullifies their character as human books – and thus this denies that these books are what all the evidence clearly shows them at the very least to be, whatever more some might also wish to say about them.

I have said it before, and said it again recently in a conversation on Facebook. If you have made up your mind in advance that God would provide an inerrant textbook for human beings, then if the Bible doesn't fit those assumptions, instead of crowbarring the Bible into the framework of the assumptions, leave it alone and look elsewhere for a text that meets your criteria. Here is how I put it in the conversation I mentioned:

You are assuming that God wants things clear, even though things are not clear. And you are assuming that God wants us to trust those that you assume to be God's witnesses, even though a more natural understanding of what they wrote is that they are human authors with all the fallibilities and other elements that entails. You are making all kinds of assumptions and then trying to crowbar the Bible into your preconceived stance. Why not leave the Bible as it is and find – or if necessary, write – some other text that actually looks like what you think a divine revelation should look like? Or better yet, why not take the hint that God may not want human beings to have all the answers handed to them on a silver platter – that perhaps reasoning, drawing conclusions, taking responsibility, and remaining humble because we do not have inerrant prepositions at our disposal, might be precisely what God knows is best for us?

Like most progressive Christians, I hesitate to depict God in such human terms, and would normally refrain from insisting that the way things are reflects a providential arrangement for the best. But while some have grown up as progressive Christians, I arrived here by way of a period spent in conservative Evangelicalism. I hope that this poises me well to be a cross-cultural evangelist for progressive Christianity, one who can communicate effectively with the more conservative, and help them take the next step towards a more mature, honest, and better informed view of the Bible, by interacting with them in terms that they can understand and relate to.

 

  • Brian P.

    Ask somehow who says that they believe in the Bible literally questions such as these. 1) What passage or verses of the Bible have spoken to you recently? 2) How has this passage or these verses spoken to you?

    Listen carefully to the responses. Consider the broader passage. Consider the cultural context. Consider what a literal reading of the passage would be. Then silently ask yourself this question: Was this person’s spiritual meaning making of the Bible literal in its treatment of the text?

    Gallup asks, “Which of the following statements come closest to describing your views of the Bible?” No, that’s not what they’re really (literally) assessing. What they’re surveying actually is this question:

    Which of the following statements come closest to describing your views of your views of the Bible?

    There is a significant difference for those paying close attention.

    • MorganGuyton

      “Was this person’s spiritual meaning making of the Bible literal in its treatment of the text?” Usually not. I wrote about this recently. http://morganguyton.us/2014/06/03/when-the-bible-is-perfectly-clear-becomes-the-reason-it-cant-teach-us-anything/

      • Brian P.

        Meh. I can’t really say I’ve ever followed person B promoting their own blog on the blog of person A. That said, if you wanted to promote somebody else’s work, I might follow the link. Who knows though–I might get duped by a sock puppet. I’ve been on the Internet since, what?, 1990-ish? Ol’ fashioned netiquette suggests you might not want to promote your own links. That and skip Godwin’s Law. Wishing you well friend.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          For the record, I have no problem with someone linking to something that they wrote on their blog, if it is relevant. If someone comments here frequently and seems to do so only to promote their blog, then I’ll have a little talk with them. But I will often share a link to something I wrote previously, rather than write it out again, and hope that we can allow such things within the boundaries of netiquette.

  • D Rizdek

    “Why not leave the Bible as it is and find – or if necessary, write – some other text that actually looks like what you think a divine revelation should look like? Or better yet, why not take the hint that God may not want human beings to have all the answers handed to them on a silver platter – that perhaps reasoning, drawing conclusions, taking responsibility, and remaining humble because we do not have inerrant prepositions at our disposal, might be precisely what God knows is best for us?”

    I like that answer. In a way, that IS what I’ve done/am doing. I pretty much know the good parts (IMHO) from the Bible. You know the parts that I think give me useful advice on how to live my life successfully in society. The rest I leave as it is.

    As to “writing” something, as I explain below, that’s what I’d have to do if I was to ever begin believing in a God again.

    As to how the Bible was written, I do confess, I would be one of those who would have expected some of the basic premises of what a God wanted from us to be laid out a little more clearly and not buried amongst ancillary things with no (IMHO) clear way to tell them apart. I don’t find pleasure in mystery when making decisions that could have vast consequences. I know many folks draw strength from different parts of the Bible…the OT stories, the great men of old, the courage, the love, the…any number of important issues the stories in the Bible touch on. That’s good, I guess. But what about simply pleasing a God?

    Even in the NT, from Jesus himself, the message seems so garbled. Just figuring out what it means to be saved and how to accomplish that is rife with confusing parables, platitudes, instructions, examples and confusing statements with, no doubt, hidden and double meanings. Then Paul comes along and confuses the message even more with his, “women should do this but not that,” and in Romans 6:7-8, the apostle Paul declared, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin.” and then “I am doing the very thing I hate” (referring I suppose to sinning when he doesn’t want to). In my linear way of thinking, I’d like a God who, with no fanfare or ritualistic sacrifice, if I earnestly sought his righteousness, I’d only have to do it once and he’d make me righteous. And as long as I maintained that desire, a God should keep me sinless. If that’s what one wants, then, what’s the problem with him doing it? The idea that God wanted us to take responsibility, reason and figure things out from a human-written faulty document and equivocal inspiration seems a risky approach if he cares about the salvation of cynics. And that confusion has led and still leads to some pretty horrible things that I won’t go into now.

    If I was to start believing in a God, I’d first have to decide if it was the kind of God who cared what I do, then I’d have to figure out, from the ground up what to do about it.

    I think of an analogy. What if I, who “knew” I was single, woke up one morning with folks…friends, relatives, folks on the internet{:, telling me I have a wife. I have no recollection of being married, and know no one who I’ve lived with as husband and wife. First, I think I’d be in my right to not believe them. Even if they produced letter supposed written by this wife they go on about, little knick knacks they claim she gave me and even a house that looks clean all the time. I might wonder who might be cleaning my house, but I’d have no real reason to think it was a WIFE or even a woman (so as to not be accused of being sexist). But lets say I do succumb to the many pleas and badgers. I say ok, ok, I must have a wife. They bring some woman I’ve never known and declare here is your wife, live with her intimately. What should I, being a man of character do? IF I believe I actually have a wife and don’t know this woman is her, would I be wise to “shack up” with her. Knowing women as I think I do, IF I have a wife and this woman isn’t it, then the real wife is going to be pissed and if she ever DOES show up, I’ll have to explain…or there’ll be some explaining to do. I know, analogies don’t prove anything, and this might not carry well, but it’s kind of how I feel about the God issue. Even if I was to believe again, I WOULD have to write my own revelation with no regard to any current ideologies of which I’m aware.

    I assume that’s what the Jews who became Christians did, and I suppose that’s what the Mohammad did and it became Islam. I suppose one would say that the people in the East did that as well. Not knowing of Jesus and the Bible and thos guys, they wrote their own revelation and it seems a lot different that Judeo-Christianity.

    I even wonder sometimes (when I hypothesize there is a God) if perhaps the story of the crucifixion as a sacrifice might have been a test by God to see if folks had the moral courage to call it what it is…morally reprehensible instead of finding ways to explain away what to me seems obvious. Maybe he offered a story that seems for all the world like an easy “get out of jail free” card to see who would buy into it. Maybe I, and others of my ilk, are the ones pleasing God by rejecting something that, at least on the surface sounds completely unjust{: I dunno, but I do think.

    • Tony_C

      D… You’re not alone. Sounds like you’re an atheist of the god being sold by most of the western church; the pagan god who loves child sacrifice and blood; the same god who required the blood of Jesus. In the East, they call that god Molech. I’m an atheist too if the Abba of Jesus is a blood thirsty schizophrenic.

      There is a plethora of contemporary books being written by people who have awakened to the lie behind our idea of empire, good people who are exposing that god for what it is.

      • D Rizdek

        That was the problem, of course, years ago as I was awakening to the reality that I no longer had reasons to think there was a god, it was pretty much the God of the Bible. Folks become atheists from the God they “know/knew,” and from my limited observations, often go back to that God if they reconvert. I don’t mean a Catholic mightn’t return to some form of Protestantism or vice versa.

        When things are introduced to children by adults who they respect, grooves begin to form in the mind and even when doubts or reason (depending on the POV) wants to pull them away, it’s easy to fall back into specific grooves of thought.

        BTW, what are the names of some of these books you mentioned? Thanks

        • Tony_C

          A few that come to mind….. A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd, Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God by Frank Schaeffer, The Jesus Driven Life by Michael Hardin, Saints in the Arms of a Happy God by Jeff Turner, Stricken by God edited by Michael Hardin and Brad Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Brad Jersak, The Divine Reversal by Caleb Miller…..

  • Gary

    I’d like to see a poll from 100-300AD.
    % The ancient Jewish texts are the false Gnosis of the Demiurge
    % The ancient Jewish texts are the Gnosis of the Pleroma
    % the ancient Jewish texts are stories, but who cares, I can’t read, and have a hard enough time just finding my next meal. If you institute a ceremony where I get a piece of bread and a sip of wine, I’ll believe anything.

  • Chris Eyre

    I like how you put it, and may be quoting you a lot.

    I arrive at progressive Christianity from the other direction – I was an atheist in my early teens and then explored more or less any faith system other than Christianity for some years when it became imperative that I have some kind of faith system in which I could explain my experience. I’m still about 95% scientific rationalist (some would argue that should be 99%), so there is no way I could ever swallow an inerrant Bible except as a thought experiment.

    I’ve spent a bit of time being a cross-cultural evangelist to atheists in a gentle way. Also trying to persuade those more conservative than me that there can be reasonable exchange with someone who doesn’t share a large section of their preconceptions.

    It is very heartening to see people from an evangelical background (who, it seems to me, bring a depth of commitment and fervour I find it hard to locate in mainstream churches, and which I find essential) moving to a position where I can agree with most of what they say. “Progressive” seems to me to have a lot of promise…

    I very much value your contributions.

  • joriss

    You said:

    “I hope that this poises me well to be a cross-cultural evangelist for progressive Christianity, one who can communicate effectively with the more conservative, and help them take the next step towards a more mature, honest, and better informed view of the Bible, by interacting with them in terms that they can understand and relate to.”

    I am convinced that every christian church has it’s weak points. And in every church you can find people who think of the bible in a simpleminded way. But to say that conservative christians have to take a step towards a more mature, honest and better informed view of the bible gives i.m.o a wrong impression of conservative christians. We all have to take steps to more mature christianity every day. Growing in love, reliability, surrendering one’s life to the Lord more completely.
    But you can’t say conservatives have an immature view of the bible. Many preachers, evangelists, missionaries of conservative churches have spread the gospel throughout the world but didn’t share the liberal point of view. Some of them even resisted it vigorously. People like Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, Watchman Nee, Carey, Billy Graham and many others had but one passion: To serve Christ. I have read books of some of them and they were very well able to defend and to stand for their view of the bible. They were not at all naieve and badly informed about the bible, but they just didn’t share the liberal point of view. Which I don’t either, although I respect it.

  • TommyNIK

    Progressive Christians? Well, OK.

    I believe ALL religion is BS, always have, always will. Having said that, if you “progressive” Christians, moderate Christians, members of the “Christian Left” or whatever you call yourselves these days can get your fundamentalist brethren to stop trying to mess with our Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by trying to influence law with religious dogma and trying to get ID into the public schools then by all means…..DO IT.

  • Wayne Johnson

    I don’t think the Bible itself says that every word from cover to cover is to be taken literally. There is no one author in the Christian Bible that was even aware of the existence of all of the other books in the New Testament to make such a claim. So a claim that the entire Bible is to be taken literally seems to be non-biblical.


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