Libby Anne is wondering about a certain atheist trope: reading the Bible makes you an atheist.
First, because while I’m sure there are plenty of Christians who don’t read the Bible, everyone in the evangelical community where I grew up read it on a daily basis, and not just the easier books like the Gospels. Second, because I read the Bible through numerous times before I even graduated from high school, and doing so didn’t shake my fundamentalist/evangelical faith one iota.
I think there’s a difference between reading the Bible and having the Bible explained to you. Let me try to explain it this way:
What The Bible Says vs. What We Say the Bible Says
There’s the Bible, a collection of letters and books produced by different authors over the course of five or six hundred years. But then there’s a field of interpretations surrounding that Bible, a mixture of explanations and stories associated with the Bible that get passed down through tradition.
Well before you ever read the Bible – well before you can read – you have already begun to encounter that field. You are told what the Bible contains, what the Bible means, how it is used, what authority it possesses and so forth. You hear Bible stories and hear snatches of the Bible quoted authoritatively. Even if you were not raised Christian, you most likely encountered that field countless times.
The most obvious example is the nativity story. Before you came to know good from evil, you probably encountered the nativity story a dozen times, either by hearing the story told and preached or by seeing a creche. You heard about the shepherds and the angels and the three wise men. You heard about the trek to Bethlehem and the murderous King Herod.
But of course, there are actually two different stories there that have been mixed together. And there are no “three wise men,” that’s just a traditional guess. But many people have grown up with that story, and so opening the Bible they see that story in Matthew and Luke and do not question the idea that the two stories should be combined. They do not note that the wise men are not numbered.
Such people are not encountering the Bible directly, they are only perceiving it as it is visible through that field of interpretation. And those interpretations come to them through their community.
Let It Challenge You
When I was young, my family was Episcopalian, but most of my friends were Evangelicals. I got fed up with the way Episcopalians would evasively answer questions about what certain passages in the Bible meant. “What do you think it means?” was a typical response. In contrast, most of my Baptist friends could expect clear authoritative answers.
In hindsight, I recognize that my community was very conscious of that field. They were trying to avoid giving me pat answers. Better for me to be challenged by a Biblical passage than to through life anchored to some interpretation simply because of something my Sunday school teacher said.
Most of the Evangelical families living in the semi-rural south with me actually did believe that there were pat answers. They had no problem teaching the answers which they had learned from their families. And in this process the problems of the Bible are papered over, the challenges are swiftly removed and the contradictions are given a gloss that minimizes them. And since this process has been going on for generations, most of these answers are quite good and sound very reasonable.
Of course, this means that these families are not encountering the Bible directly. They were dealing with the field of interpretation that hovers around the Bible, while insisting that it really was the Bible all along. This field distorts the text, highlighting some passages and covering others – picking and choosing.
I write all this, partially to respond to Libby Anne’s questions, but also as a response to people in the recent discussions of Progressive Christianity who were arguing that at least the Fundamentalists don’t cherry pick the Bible. As I’ve pointed out before, they most definately do pick and choose what verses apply to their lives.
Or rather, they let the field do it for them. That allows them to say with a straight face that they accept the authority of the Bible while still ignoring large sections. They’re unaware that they’re still miles away from the Bible, interacting with the field of traditional interpretations that their community has passed on to them.
So the difference between Fundamentalists and Progressives is not that one the first take the Bible literally and the second pick and choose. Both groups interpret the Bible in ways that minimize or remove certain sections and highlight others. The difference is that the Progressives do it consciously.