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Living With the Bible

I’m always curious to observe how people view the Bible, both inside and outside of the church.  There are often very interesting assumptions at work about what it means to “take the Bible seriously” or about how Christians view (or ought to view) the Bible.  Everyone thinks they have a good understanding of what it means to “believe in the Bible” (or, more often to disbelieve in the Bible) whether this understanding comes from inside or outside of the Christian fold.

A few interesting conversations about the Bible have brought this question to the fore.  One came as I was sitting in a coffee shop this morning and the following snippet of a conversation caught my ear (I suppose you could say I was eavesdropping, but these people were talking rather loudly): “When I was ten, I realized that all of the “proofs” of the Bible depended upon the Bible, and I was like “sorry, I’m not buying this if it all depends on one book.”

What proceeded was a very lightly informed excursus on archaeology, text criticism, the superiority of Eastern religions, and a general potpourri of psychological/spiritual sentiments.  A thinly veiled resentment of the Catholic church and all of its supposed abuses pervaded the conversation.  Christians—whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or otherwise—just were “those people” who believed unthinkingly “in the Bible.”

Another conversation I was recently a part of centred around a mutual acquaintance who had reached mid-life and was in the midst of the all the all-too-common collection of relational, spiritual, and vocational breakdowns that attended it.  The person I was speaking with located the bulk of the cause of these problems—at least a full twenty-five years later—with an incorrect “liberal” approach to Scripture that was taught at a particular educational institution that they both attended.  “If only they had been taught that the Bible was God’s word,” this person said.  Many of the problems they were now experiencing could presumably have been avoided if only they had been adopted the “correct” approach to living under the authority of the Bible.

There was a time when hearing these two conversations would have made me an unholy combination of angry and self-righteously defensive.  I would have launched into a (mostly interior) diatribe about the number and variety of the erroneous assumptions about the Bible at work.  I would have stewed about it for a good chunk of my day/week.  I would have galvanized myself to do what I could to correct the faulty and damaging assumptions about Scripture I saw in their comments.  I suppose I would have, in a weird kind of way, taken these comments as a personal attack of some kind—as if my own faith was at stake in their misunderstandings and misconstruals of what “real Christians” thought about the Bible.

But when I think about these conversations today, it mostly makes me sad. I am sad that people reject God based on such inadequate understandings of how the Bible ought to operate in a life of faith.  I am sad that people pronounce judgment on the orthodoxy of others and their understanding of  the Bible in the midst of very real and painful difficulties.  I am sad that the Bible is so frequently used as a weapon to fortify our defenses against what we don’t understand or what causes us pain.

I remain convinced that how we read and follow Scripture and how we teach our children to read and follow Scripture is hugely important and worth thinking and talking about.  I remain convicted that this is one of my central tasks as a pastor.  But to be perfectly frank, the task seems too big sometimes.  There is too much history to fight against.  Too much apathy and interpretive laziness.  Too little willingness to countenance different understandings without calling into question someone’s orthodoxy.  It can be exhausting, living with this book and trying to point toward the hope it contains amidst the tangled web of bitterness and misunderstanding that surrounds it.

Do I “believe” in the Bible?  No, I don’t.  I believe in the God that the Bible points us toward.  I don’t feel compelled to use words like “inerrant,” “perspicacious,” “infallible,” or any of the other words adopted by well-meaning and pious folks to convince others (and themselves) that they believe strongly or rightly enough.  I believe God speaks through the Bible.  I believe the Bible is trustworthy and sufficient to accomplish the purposes God has intended it to accomplish.  I don’t feel compelled to say more (or less) than that.

The Bible is not always an easy book to live with, but it is an important way in which God has chosen to make himself known and is to be honoured as such.  The church must continue to wrestle with how to read it, why to read it, and what reading it ought to lead to.  We must pass on an understanding of how to live with the Bible to the next generation that does not repeat the dead-ends that are such a familiar part of the contemporary landscape.

My hope and prayer is that in twenty or thirty years my kids are not sitting in a coffee shop looking back at their history with the Bible with either a combination of resentment and mild ignorance or an unhealthy and ungenerous dogmatism.  I hope that they can learn how to honour the Bible without commodifying and rigidifying it.  Most of all,  I hope that the redemptive story Scripture tells becomes a part of who they are.  I hope they (and all of us) can learn to live well with the Bible.

40 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil Dueck #

    Very well said. Thanks for this honest and hopeful look at how to live with the Bible.

    I recently read Dominique Lapierre’s “A Rainbow in the Night,” a very short and readable history of South Africa. I was struck by how one of the central figures in the narrative turns out to be the Bible. The first Dutch settlers grounded their “conquest” of South Africa in the narrative of Israel’s conquest of Canaan. But for the blacks laboring under the heavy burden of apartheid, the Bible was a source of strength. Their resistance was fueled, in part, by the conviction that God was on their side because (among other things) he had heard the cries of the Hebrews enslaved by the Egyptians.

    What a bitter irony – that this tragic period of history featured two groups that were reading and revering the same book.

    February 5, 2010
    • Yes, it’s certainly a very grim irony of history that such deep convictions about the correctness of various interpretations of Scripture have led to such wildly different and contradictory applications. If only the South African story was atypical…

      (Sounds like a fascinating book.)

      February 5, 2010
  2. Ken #

    Where did you learn your way? How do you know your way is right or best?

    When I read your words here, it sounds like we regard the Bible in the same way. And yet, as you know, I describe that way as a belief that the Bible is myth. I don’t think you use that word. Do you?

    Is there anything wrong with viewing the Bible as myth?

    February 5, 2010
    • Hi Ken, I don’t think want to speak for Ryan, but personally I think we too often pit myth and history against one another. I came across this video interview with N.T. Wright this week that seems to try and reconcile the two. How well he does this is certainly up for debate, but I think Wright’s argument points towards some of the sentiments Ryan describes here.

      February 5, 2010
      • Ken #

        David, thank you for the interesting video link. I admire the work of N.T. Wright.

        I think he is partly demythologizing Genesis 1-3 here, which means he takes it as myth to some extent. I don’t believe he demythologizes the resurrection, or at least I did not see that attempt in his book about the resurrection. I think he takes that story literally – he considers it history, even while he considers Genesis myth. Do you? Is it important that Jesus literally rose from the dead? Is it important that he literally returns someday?

        The use of the term inerrancy arose partly in connection with the resurrection, more than with Genesis. The term gained its contemporary importance when pastors said the resurrection was a myth, or, even, fiction.

        At the PCUSA seminary I attended, the professors taught that the Bible is fiction that was created for the sake of political propaganda. Is there anything wrong with viewing the Bible that way?

        David Noel Freedman, the Hebrew scholar who was my professor at the university said that what matters, relative to the Bible, is whether or not God really spoke through the prophets. If we say that the Bible is mythological, can we say that God spoke (and speaks) through myth? Something like that is what Wright is saying about Genesis 1-3. Can we say that about the resurrection? Can we say it did not happen, but the story told about it, the myth, yet matters?

        And about Genesis, what if we go farther than Wright does and we say, God did not really create us – that too is myth. Is that okay? Does it matter that creation is not historical?

        I guess I have asked a lot of questions. I would like to know what you think (and Ryan.) What are your boundaries?

        February 5, 2010
      • Thanks for the video clip Dave. Not surprisingly, find myself largely in agreement with the Right Reverend…

        Re: your questions Ken, I’ll try to at least gesture towards how I would approach them. I would say that, at least for me, the historicity of the resurrection is far more important than how we think about the mechanics of creation (although it still matters immensely that we are created by God, however God did it). If Jesus did not really conquer the grave, then the Christian hope is groundless. There is no final defeat of evil, no forgiveness of sin, no eschatological horizon that will validate and consummate the content of our deepest human longings. This is a view that I am quite confident Wright shares.

        Can/does God speak through myth? Absolutely. But if the resurrection is a myth, how is it a hopeful myth? How does it represent a way out of our human predicament. A myth generated for political propaganda seems equally unable (if not even less able) to offer any kind of hope for our deepest existential needs. If that’s all the Bible is, then it’s not of much interest to me.

        February 5, 2010
      • Ken #

        Thank you, Ryan. All you write makes sense.

        You might be interested to know that at the PCUSA seminary I attended, hardly anyone believed the resurrection really happened and they ridiculed people who did and called them fundamentalists. They believed that Jesus was a man who pointed to what is best in humanity, but who just died on the cross. In their view, what is best in humanity is its resistance to oppression, to capitalism and to patriarchy. It is human resistance to these evils that is their basis for hope. God is only a name for what is best in humanity. In this view, it is not important that the resurrection did not happen. The important thing, in this view, is that Jesus resisted the oppression until death and showed us the way to live.

        February 5, 2010
      • I’m familiar with seminaries like the one you attended. Part of me doesn’t understand why these places continue to cling to the language of Christianity. I’ve been reading John Shelby Spong’s Jesus for the Non-Religious this week and the same question occurs to me as I read: why is “Christian” a title he wishes to preserve?” It seems like such a hollow shell of what faith in Christ has historically meant. Even if Jesus gives us a good model to resist evil (capitalism, patriarchy, whatever else), this seems like such a meager source of hope. That hope seems virtually impossible to justify based on the fruit of history. Of course, I think that Jesus does show us how to live, but this doesn’t tell enough of the story for me.

        February 6, 2010
      • Ken #

        re: “why these places continue to cling to the language of Christianity.”

        Although the reasons vary from person to person, my impression is that most of the people there came from a conservative theological background and one in which church was a big part of their lives – too big to give up. For the most part, people like me, who grew up liberal, don’t stay and give up the language. In addition, as you know, when one does not believe in God, then hope in human progress seems the best hope to many, in spite of history, and continued belief in God is even seen as hindrance to goodness (as in the Dawkins case, for example.) Those at seminaries like I attended straddle the fence.

        February 7, 2010
      • James #

        Ken
        Sometimes I get a little lost in a system of replies that should be so helpful 🙂 and came across this a little later.
        Your statement- “my impression is that most of the people there came from a conservative theological background and one in which church was a big part of their lives – too big to give up” rings very truth for many Anabaptist scholars. It is an ironic feature of modern Anabaptism that many grad students gravitated to “liberal” schools. It makes us confusing to ourselves and makes us even harder to explain 🙂

        February 7, 2010
      • Ken #

        It sounds like what is happening among Anabaptists is as interesting as it is confusing. I wonder if it will survive this gravitation.

        February 7, 2010
    • Where did you learn your way? How do you know your way is right or best?

      I’ve never thought of myself as having a “way,” but I suppose whatever I have learned I learned largely the way many people do: through a combination of life experience and formal education. My approach to Scripture was probably defined largely during my time at Regent College reading folks like N.T. Wright (among others). How do I know my way is right or best? I don’t.

      Re: the Bible as myth, there are many problems with how the word is interpreted so I don’t use it. Many people take it to mean “made up” or “untrue,” no matter how the theologians or anthropologists or sociologists of religion might use the word. I’m also not sure how you can speak of any collection of documents as diverse in genre, date of composition, authorship, etc as “the Bible” and refer to the whole thing as “myth.” There are parts of Scripture where the term might be appropriate. But I am not comfortable viewing and do not view “the Bible” as a myth.

      February 5, 2010
      • Ken #

        Here too, all you write makes sense.

        I guess I use the word the word myth the way it is used by anthropologists and sociologists. Indeed, the the genres of the Bible are diverse. I guess that the way the Bible is spoken of as myth in totality has to do with seeing it as being grounded in myth and a belief in an enchanted cosmos, even while the genres vary.

        I suppose I believe, as my Hebrew professor at the university believed, that God did speak, and does speak, through the prophets, through the Bible, myth or not. I find that in my encounter with scripture through lectio divina, or spiritual reading, God and Jesus speak to me now. That must imply, I tell myself, that I believe Jesus rose from the dead, God is real, and our hope is not in vain, even while I yet think of the Bible as grounded in myth. I don’t demythologize. Rather, I suspend disbelief.

        I certainly have no quarrel with your way. If you enjoy greater certainty than me, I envy you. My way is the only way I know. I am grateful to have even this small faith.

        February 5, 2010
      • My response is similar to Ryan’s comment on myth: There are parts of Scripture where the term might be appropriate. But I am not comfortable viewing and do not view “the Bible” as a myth.

        So I don’t think we should be scared to consider how aspects of the biblical account relate to myth and vice versa. Too often it seems myth is an all or nothing category. Christians, especially of Evangelical variety, could do much better in discussing the history-myth relationship as opposed to denying it all together.

        As to the resurrection, I agree with Ryan as well (Wright’s to blame for our similar views:). Even if we believe Gen. 1-3 is myth, we still contend that God created – that’s the main point. So regarding the resurrection, if Jesus didn’t actually conquer death, what’s the point? A self-giving ethic? As Ryan suggests, this fails to address questions pertaining to the “eschatological horizon.”

        February 5, 2010
    • Ken #

      Thank you, David. Wright has provided us a very valuable way of seeing things.

      And yes, a liberal theological view is that if Jesus did not literally conquer death through resurrection that he immortalized (culturally and politically) a self-giving ethic. That is not my own view, but I it is a way of summarizing the beliefs of many people at the seminary I attended and many pastors in the PCUSA and other mainline protestant denominations.

      Interestingly, my own way, involving understanding the Bible as grounded in myth, leads me to theology or faith that is not far from yours even while you do not view the Bible as myth. Perhaps that validates Wright’s assurance that faith need not make too much of the distinction between history and myth.

      February 6, 2010
    • James #

      Hi Ken
      Anabaptists are Biblicists. This means we are very cautious about terminology that the Scriptures don’t provide. Inerrancy and myth are both interesting words and occasionally useful when used in their appropriate contexts. Outside of those a lot of explanations are usually required. In regard to the word “myth” that you use- this is certainly the case.

      February 7, 2010
      • Ken #

        In the video, Wright treats Genesis 1-3 as myth. Would Anabaptists do that?

        February 7, 2010
      • James #

        A lot of Anabaptist influenced by the social sciences seem to like the term. Those from other educational backgrounds are probably less inclined to like it. We have a lot of disciplinary tension in our ranks 🙂
        From my end, I think the term is modern [rather than post modern] and not helpful any more because it has changed its meaning too many times. It also carries a lot of insinuation. I usually associate “myth” language with Joseph Campbell. His use of the term does not work for me in reference to the Bible.
        My critique of Wright, whom I generally admire, is that I don’t think the lines between the genres in Genesis fall as neatly as he proposes.

        February 7, 2010
      • James #

        I should have added that I agree with everything else Wright said- I would just wish he would have followed through more fully on his statement that we need a different word. Then he wouldn’t have to make genre demarkations where they don’t seem to exist. I think he might agree with me on this 🙂

        February 7, 2010
      • Ken #

        Last night I had dinner with a professor of literature. He mentioned Harold Bloom’s discussion of the importance of misreading those we emulate for the sake of ongoing creative imagination and we discussed how literary criticism works today. And in that context we discussed lectio divina, or spiritual reading, religious reading.

        We all wish for that different word that Wright wishes for. It would be such a relief to find it.

        February 7, 2010
  3. Thanks Ryan that is a great hope, which is that “the redemptive story Scripture tells becomes a part of who they [we] are”

    February 5, 2010
  4. I sure hope they don’t take away your pastor card for saying that you don’t ‘believe’ in the Bible. People have been known to lose theirs for less.
    I empathize with your sense of sadness over the public discourse around the Bible. Isn’t it remarkable, in our pluralistic society, that it still is a force (even as uninformed as it is) to be contended with?
    Perhaps opportunity should characterize our ‘approach’ to the problematic discorse we commonly meet in pulic sentiment. Opportunity to engage people in a transformative conversation about these topics.

    February 5, 2010
    • Yes, “transformative conversation” is certainly a worthy goal, Dale. And a hopeful one.

      (I’m not too concerned about losing my card :))

      February 5, 2010
  5. (Some thoughts I had as I read)

    Music existed before someone decided to create a language for it.
    I’ve met and worked with people who are experts- musical notation is easy for them to learn. They read it, write it and use it to communicate with other musicians. But sometimes- well…their music sucks. It lacks authenticity. You can tell they are divorced from it to a degree and because they aren’t connected to what they play- we can’t be either. The result is you can’t experience their music. It works on paper, but it doesn’t have ‘it’.
    And then there are those who can’t tell you what key they’re playing in. They have no training at all. Yet the moment they begin to play their instrument… whoa…they have ‘it’.
    Music existed in them before they expressed it. They’re what we call naturals I guess, and they are the ones who move us. We can experience their music and often identify with it.
    The notes on the sheet music are not the music. The words on the pages of the bible are not GOD. If they were… we’d have to admit we serve as many gods as we have interpretations. We all read it differently- that’s why we might do well to value experiencing God at least as much as we do reading ‘about’ God.
    My 2 cents:)

    February 6, 2010
    • Ken #

      I think your musical analogy fits very well with Wright’s explanation.

      Last night before going to sleep I listened to Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time. I don’t think any theory or notation can explain its extraordinary power, and yet what notes, what notes.

      February 6, 2010
    • Thanks for this Deborah. An excellent analogy. I came across this article in The Economist a few days back that, I think, supports some of what you are saying, particularly the last paragraph:

      Music is completely sui generis. It should not tell a non-musical story; the listener will decode it for himself. Many, perhaps most, people have experienced a sudden rush of emotion on hearing a particular piece of music; a thrill or chill, a sense of excitement or exhilaration, a feeling of being swept away by it. They may even be moved to tears, without being able to tell why. Musical analysts have tried hard to find out how this happens, but with little success. Perhaps some mysteries are best preserved.

      February 6, 2010
  6. Ryan, I appreciate the honesty and passion of your post on this subject.

    February 6, 2010
  7. Ken #

    Re: “Do I “believe” in the Bible? No, I don’t. I believe in the God that the Bible points us toward.”

    I have been thinking about these sentences and also about what James has written here about Anabaptists generally not using the word myth in connection with the Bible. And I started thinking about Hauerwas. My understanding is that he has been influential among Anabaptists and admires them even though he is not part of that tradition.

    Hauerwas has said that he does not believe God is real. He approaches the Bible as myth. What he does believe in is a kind of humanism founded on community. He has said that he has spent his career trying to figure out how one would live if there was a God, and that humanism founded on community is his answer. He approaches the Bible as myth and demythologizes.

    Although I also approach the Bible as myth, I am doing something quite different from what Hauerwas does. I do not demythologize, but instead read the Bible with suspended disbelief, let it give me pause and through that pause connect with God, a living God, a real God.

    Why does Hauerwas work appeal to Anabaptists? And yet my approach may not? My approach seems closer to Ryan’s expression than it is to that of Hauerwas. My approach seems to bring me to the position Ryan articulates, “I believe in the God that the Bible points us toward.”

    February 8, 2010
    • You’re right, Hauerwas has been influential among some Anabaptists (although not this one :)). I’m embarrassed to say I’ve read very little of his work. Having said that, this is the first I’ve ever heard that he “does not believe God is real.” To be honest, I find this very surprising—I’ve never heard anyone who has read him make this comment. If it’s true, then his theology has little to commend itself for me. A humanism founded on community is no more compelling to me than the political propaganda of your seminary.

      Having said all that, I am not very qualified to judge what Hauerwas does or does not believe. Dave, are you still following this thread (Dave wrote on Hauerwas for his thesis at Regent)? A little help?

      February 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        He said that he has never been able to believe in God, but that the thrust of his work has been to figure out how we should live if God were real. He said that in a speech that he gave at Duke. I have not seen him say that in any of his books.

        He may yet have belief in God that he did not acknowledge to the audience at Duke. His theology offers much to the contemporary discussion of God, even if his own faith is a ragged garment, like the faith of the man in your next posting.

        February 8, 2010
      • Yes, I’m still here!

        I’m curious, Ken, where you’ve heard Hauerwas make the case for a humanistic view of community? While I can see how his views on the presence of a concrete community and the role of narrative in forming this community’s identity could be construed as a humanistic approach (there is some language similar to that of myth – e.g. truthfulness vs. truth), I’ve just never seen Hauerwas blatantly state that. I do find it an interesting interpretation of his work though.

        But as he argues in his Gifford Lectures, the church is not a community unto itself (humanism?), but rather operates as a witness to something beyond itself – namely, God.

        “To be a witness does not mean that Christians are in the business of calling attention to ourselves but that we witness to the One who has made our lives possible. Witness, at least the witness to which Christians are called, is, after all, about God and God’s relation to all that is” (With the Grain of the Universe, 207).

        As to Hauerwas’s contribution to Anabaptists, well, it often seems to be him drawing on Mennonite theology more than Mennonites drawing from him, although there definitely is a degree of mutual benefit. Personally, my own Anabaptist views have been greatly enriched by Hauerwas, particularly on this topic of the church’s witness.

        February 8, 2010
      • thanks for the response Ken, I think we were writing at the same time!

        I think your description of Hauerwas – “his own faith is a ragged garment” – suits well his personal wrestling with God and Christianity. He’s definitely not a neat and tidy theologian.

        February 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        The book of his that I like the most is “Naming the Silence.” It is a humanist book, in the best sense of that word. It is a book about kindness in the face of life’s miseries.

        Hauerwas is Christian, even if he has said, as I remember him saying, that he is unable to believe. The work he has done during a lifetime as a theological scholar testifies to his faith.

        I only brought up Hauerwas to ask the question, if Hauerwas is okay with his treatment of the Bible as myth, then what about me? And I think James has answered the question.

        February 8, 2010
      • Thanks again Ken. Don’t worry, I was taking your use of Hauerwas as an attack on his faith (or how I view his faith). One thing that draws people to Hauerwas is he’s more concerned with faithful living with one another than producing an abstracted “faithful” theology with no tangible example for humanity. I think his work on suffering in the context of community illustrates this well.

        February 8, 2010
      • Ahh, I meant to say in my first sentence: I WASN’T taking your use of Hauerwas as an attack on his faith (or how I view his faith).

        Sorry!

        February 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        Thanks, David.

        Actually, I assumed only goodwill. I have noticed that you give everyone the benefit of the doubt. You don’t attempt to redeem us. You console. This too is a humanism, a very fine humanism.

        February 8, 2010
    • James #

      Hi Ken
      Ryan has given you a very good answer re: Anabaptists and Hauerwas. I would only add that when notable people admire you- one can be less inclined to be appropriately critical 🙂
      Re: your comment- “I do not demythologize, but instead read the Bible with suspended disbelief, let it give me pause and through that pause connect with God, a living God, a real God.”
      I will not speak for Anabaptists- but I resonate well with that statement. It is where my journey back to faith goes regularly. If the real, living God does not reveal Himself to us- we have no hope of autonomously discovering Him.

      February 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        Thank you, James. I think if it resonates with you, then I may be okay.

        February 8, 2010
      • James #

        Re: “I think if it resonates with you, then I may be okay”
        Well that might be going a little farther than is warranted 🙂 but I appreciate your spirit in it.
        Blessings

        February 8, 2010

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