Several of you wanted to know about how I interpret the Bible if not “literally”.
If the Bible shouldn’t be read literally, then how should it be read? If the literal Bible isn’t the underpinning of the Christian faith, then what is?
And yinyang wanted to know:
If the Bible isn’t the literal word of God, do you believe it was inspired by God? If so, are there any parts you believe weren’t? Which ones, and how can you tell?
And EnoNomi had an even more radical suggestion:
Do you think the Bible could stand to be re-edited to reflect the more humanist and modern beliefs held by many Christians (such as yourself?)
Now, I’ve actually already addressed these questions in some detail in this post on my blog, but I’ll do my best to provide a more concise answer here. The short answer is that I read the Bible narratively and contextually. In other words, I view the Bible not as a static document of timeless truths and absolute, unchanging commands, but as a (yes) divinely inspired (not dictated) yet complex compilation of diverse genres (e.g. history, poetry, mythic narratives, prophecy, etc.) that tell a dynamic, unfolding story of God’s interactions with humanity. Thus to actually read the Bible as the kind of book it was always intended to be, we have to read it with an eye to the symbolisms, the metaphors, the literary genre, the historical/cultural context, and the ways God accommodated his revelation to the limited understandings or peculiar worldview of his original audience – realizing that what God revealed to “them, then” is not necessarily what he would reveal to “us, now”.
So, for example, when I read the creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2, I don’t need to read it as if it was ever intended to be literal scientific account. The poetic structure, the genre similarities with other ancient near eastern creation myths, the symbolic langauge, etc. instead tell me that it is meant to be read as mythic narrative that conveys deeper theological truths.
But don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that I want to read every part of the bible “symbolically” or “metaphorically”. There are other parts (the OT histories or the synoptic gospels for example) that perhaps are meant to be read as “literal” history. Though even here we need to be careful, because “history” as it was written in the ancient world is not the same as what we think of as history in our Modern sense. Even in these histories we need to keep an eye out for symbolisms and narrative editing intended to convey a theological point (for example, the way several gospel accounts are deliberately arranged and edited to parallel Old Testament narratives, so as to convey the theological message that Jesus is a new Moses leading his people out of slavery). However, to identify this kind of editing is not to say that I think the gospels are complete fabrications or myths that grew up around some charismatic Jewish preacher. One of the things that distinguishes me from Modern liberal Christianity is my skepticism of their attempts to extract a pared down “historical Jesus” from the gospel texts. Not that I think historical study of Jesus and his context is a bad thing at all, but I do think some of their redactive methodology and a priori philosophical assumptions are suspect. My own study of the historical context of Jesus is more in line with scholars like NT Wright who, like myself, tends to step on the toes of both liberals and evangelicals.
Now, regarding the moral commands in the Bible, the Levitical Laws for instance, I don’t have to assume that these are God’s unchanging commands for all time. Instead, if the Bible is a dynamically unfolding story of God interacting with humanity at various points in our historical development, then it seems to me that God therefore has to deal with us differently depending on the culture and circumstances we faced at the time in order to move us along to the next step of our moral development. A lot of what he told the Israelites 3500 years ago doesn’t necessarily apply to us today, because frankly, we’re not nomadic pastoralists trying to find land to settle in anymore (at least, most of us aren’t). And we, being much further along (in some ways) in our moral development as a species, shouldn’t be so quick to judge the morality of another era. Parts of it seem barbaric to us, but was actually amazingly progressive for that time period. And perhaps God knew that it was all that they could handle at that point in history. Perhaps we should look not so much for absolute commands, but to the direction of the moral trajectory they are pointing towards (which I believe is towards increasing love and justice in the world).
Anyhow, I hope you can see why, if we read the Bible this way – as an ongoing narrative – it would be misguided to try and rewrite the Bible to fit our Modern sensibilities or to just edit out the parts we don’t like. If the Bible is a story, then to throw out those parts would be like throwing out the first few acts of Hamlet because they’re not as current as the last act! There’s value in the story – in knowing where we’ve been and where the story is headed. Thus my job, as someone who is trying to live my life within this grand drama that God is directing, is to continue the drama as best I can from this point forward, in resonance with what has gone before, but not just slavishly repeating the lines from the first act again either. Rather I have to move the story forward, keep it heading in the direction scripture points us to. If I were to just throw out the first part of the story simply because those people weren’t as far along as we are now, I might lose the sense of moral trajectory and have a harder time figuring out where the story as a whole is headed.
[tags]atheist, atheism, Pastor, Mike Clawson, Bible, Christian, God, Genesis[/tags]