“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (4): Michael Pahl

Today’s “aha” moment is by Michael Pahl (PhD, University of Birmingham). Pahl, as you may recall, was one of the casualties of Cedarville University’s theological purge of 2012. He is now pastor of Morden Mennonite Church (Canada). You can find more about Pahl at his blog. Pahl has written 3 books including The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions and co-edited 2 others including Issues in Luke-Acts: Selected Essays.

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I still remember winning the VBS Sword Drill one summer. I was maybe seven, and I could already pick out Obadiah with the best of them. I could also quote John 3:16, Romans 3:23 and 6:23, and all the other must-have-in-your-back-pocket verses crucial for salvation. Our church had prophecy conferences, where smart men in suits quoted the Bible left and right in building their towers of end-times prophecy, right to the new heavens.

I knew the Bible. I loved the Bible. And with that particular knowledge and love of the Bible came a whole set of expectations about what the Bible is and what it’s all about.

It is God’s word straight from God’s mouth, internally consistent from cover to cover. It is God’s literal, inerrant truth about anything that matters, but what matters most is personal salvation: people being saved from eternal hell, God’s just judgment for their sin, in order to spend eternity with God in heaven.

A lot changed for me over the years following my VBS triumph. We attended a different church through my teen years, not quite so hard-and-fast conservative. I then went through some crises of life and faith that pushed me to explore other denominations, even other religions.

I was hungry for meaning, and this hunger became so intense I did the only thing I could think to do: I read the Bible.

I skipped my university English classes to binge-read the Bible, devouring it not in single sword-drill verses but in large chunks: all of Isaiah in one sitting, all of Paul’s letters in another, then all of Genesis, then all of Luke, and so on.

This Bible binging was just what I needed—I found the meaning for life I was craving—but it was also the beginning of the end for the view of the Bible I had grown up with.

For the first time I saw the Obadiahs and John 3:16s of the Bible as pieces of a much larger narrative, a narrative centered on Jesus and encompassing the entire creation.

I realized God wasn’t concerned so much with personal salvation but with cosmic restoration.

I discovered that this world really mattered, that our bodies really mattered, that this life with all its joys and sorrows really mattered, that God created all things good and longed to return all things to that original goodness—or even better.

For the first time I also read the pieces of the Bible alongside each other: two creation stories in Genesis, two renditions of the Ten Commandments, two accounts of Israel’s kingdoms, four Gospel stories of Jesus.

This raised all sorts of questions for me that I wasn’t yet prepared to answer, but there was no doubt in my mind that these parallel pieces were different from each other.

It wasn’t until later, when I began to explore historical setting and source criticism and literary genre that these questions began to be answered—but in a way that made it impossible for me to hold on to the view of Bible I had inherited.

“I was always taught the Bible says X but now I just don’t see it.”

I could fill in that X with quite a few things.

I was taught that Genesis 1 was all about when and how God created the world—in six literal days a few thousand years ago, directly by a series of divine commands. I was taught that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that Deuteronomy’s account of his death and mysterious burial was an instance of prophetic foresight.

I was taught that Jesus’ words in the Gospels were word-for-word what Jesus said. I was taught that there are no real contradictions among the Gospel accounts, that if you just look hard enough there is always a harmonizing explanation.

I was taught that Paul’s gospel was all about how individual sinners get saved, so that after death we can escape hell and enter heaven. I was taught that Revelation was all about when and how God would wrap it all up—pretty much like Left Behind, only for real.

I was taught a bunch of things “the Bible says” that I no longer believe the Bible says.

But yet I still believe.

I remain a committed Christian, in many ways a deeply conservative Christian (hey, I can recite the Apostles’ Creed without crossing my fingers—just one little asterisk by “he descended into hell”). How can that be, when so many have abandoned their faith after leaving behind their conservative bibliology?

I think the answer to that comes down to two things.

First, early on in my journey I came to the realization that Jesus, not the Bible, is the foundation and center and standard and goal of genuine Christian faith and life.

During those early days of reading the Bible in large swaths, I found Jesus, and that makes all the difference: paradoxically, the Bible matters less even as it matters all the more.

And second, along the way, even in the strictest of conservative environments, I always found people who gave me space to ask hard questions and avoid simplistic answers—because they themselves were in that space. It’s a dangerous place, that risky grace of a humble search for truth.

I’m grateful to those who have created those “dangerous places” for me in my life, even at great risk to themselves—and I’m committed to providing that same space of grace for others.


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