It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.
A friend recently asked about why people elevate the Bible to such a place of such high regard. Why was it so important that millions of people use it as the basis of their faith? Why not take direction for life from a Shakespeare play or poems by Rumi? He said it just seems like an arbitrary decision.
I thought it was a great question.
The Bible, of course, is a library of individual books and correspondence that span hundreds and hundreds of years. For most of us that have grown up in the church, we have been told to take as given that the Bible is either the inspired word of God or, alternatively, that God literally wrote the Bible verbatim and perfectly – that the men who authored the Bible were not in control of the things that they wrote.
This view can be problematic, though. The first part of the Bible – the Old Testament – is a strange place. It tells us, in two back-to-back creation poems, that everything you see took only seven days to create but the details don’t line up perfectly between the two. If God literally wrote this, what do we do with it? This ideas doesn’t sit well at all with what we know about science, and physics, and evolution. Is God wrong? Is God trying to deceive us?
There are other problems too. A few short chapters after creating everything and thinking it was good, God sends a cataclysmic flood to destroy the world except what could fit on a massive boat. We are told that God is love between the same covers that tell us God would send his people on conquests with orders to destroy anything that breathes. There are separate histories recounting the same events that given very different and conflicting details. Then, there’s a story of a baby who was born to a women who never had sex, who grew up to become a great teacher, who was killed for the sorts of things that he said, but then who, defying all logic in medical science, comes back to life days after being pronounced dead. It is an altogether difficult book.
Perhaps we have made the Bible into something it was never intended to be. No one writing the Bible ever thought it would become a textbook or a manual to tell people rules about how to live. It was never written to be an objective history of anyone. Authors wrote from the time and place that they knew. The Bible contains many varied forms from the beautiful poetry of the creation poem to the Luke’s deeply political depictions of Jesus as a counterpoint to the Caesar. It certainly is not exhaustive; we have written accounts of only a fraction of the timeline represented in the Bible.
It was never meant to be factual. It was never meant to be the foundation for a way of seeing the world. It captures what it was like to be alive – what it was like to be human in a time that often saw people be dehumanized for who they were, where they were from, or what they believed. It was written by real people with real agendas and wanting to convey real messages. The Jewish writers who wrote the Bible were skilled at referencing well-known thought and ideas in Jewish life and lacing their writings with these ideas. Everyone who heard those words would understand them at layers above and beyond the literal words.
Seeing the Bible as written by humans to humans doesn’t make it any less true. I don’t mean factual here. I mean that there is something captured in the pages of the Bible that are true on a fundamental level without being able to be reduced to simple fact. There is a message that compassion is beautiful and sacred. The ideas about who are considered God’s people have given us a trajectory of greater and greater inclusion; those who were once outsiders could be considered a part of the family. We get an idea of what it was like to live in community with other people, relying on them, being vulnerable with them, and banding together for everyone’s benefit: the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the poor, the sick, the marginalized.
Written words conflict with one another and we argue about facts that may not be there. Beyond the words, though, are ongoing themes that have motivated us at a core level for thousands of years. There are deep truths that might only emerge when we are able to get beyond the words and to look for the deeper meaning behind living as people connected by some mysterious and awe-inspiring force we have called God.
So why not Shakespeare? It’s still a great question. What the Bible does for us is to give us a common language to explore on our quest for meaning. It’s a starting point. Wrapped up in its pages are the wrestling, the emotion, the heartbreak, the sacrifice of millions of people. It models for us that many different perspectives on an idea should not be thought of as in conflict with one another, but in addition to. More than Shakespeare, the Bible captures elements of the story of people longing to find a better way to live.
The Bible helps us continue the journey.
My child, listen carefully to everything I say.
Don’t forget a single word, but think about it all.
Knowing these teachings will mean true life and good health for you.
Reflect on these two statements: The Bible is factual versus The Bible is true. How are these different and how would either of them impact how you read and think about faith?
When you are able to embrace the Bible as something greater than simply being factual or accurate, what new ideas open up for you?
Looking for more resources to help you rethink what God is? Check out The Deconstructionist Toolbox.