339. how do we read this thing we call the Bible?
A friend back in Hawaii sent a pretty impassioned email regarding my last blog post. He shared a bit about his own frustrations with church and said he really wanted to know more about this church thing that I’m hoping to bring back to Hawaii.
And that’s a lot to unpack and to be honest, there are a ton of details and ideas that I still need to work out. The MDiv program at MHGS is a four year program and I just started so I have at least three and a half years before I’m done. I’m planning on working out more of what I want my church to be and say in the years and months ahead, but there are already a few things that I am pretty sure I want to talk about as a pastor. One of these things is the Bible itself and so when my friend asked, that’s what I wrote about.
Most of what follows comes directly from the email I sent him, basically cut and pasted with a little editing (and relevant links). And I’m doing it this way because I kind of like the way a lot of it came out and I’m too lazy to write a similar post from scratch and there’s actually a paper I’m supposed to be writing right now. But I’m also posting it because the question, “how are we to read this thing we call the Bible?” is a vitally important topic for the church right now and I’d love to get comment and feedback – especially if you disagree, because there’s a good chance I’m going to be a pastor some day and if I’ve got damnable theology, I need to be straightened out before that happens.
I didn’t mention it in my last post (although I kinda sorta hinted at it), but the reason I have to go back to Hawaii with my MDiv is because there are just no churches in Hawaii that seem to understand that the world has shifted – that we are no longer a Christian nation (and we really never were). Christianity is not about chasing some ecstatic, spiritual experience as much as it is bringing healing to this world…and I mean large scale healing like freeing people from (or at the very least making people aware of) the capitalistic treadmill and advocating for no-brainers like more sensible ecologic care of the earth. It’s healing a broken world where tons of food gets thrown away on a daily basis while billions starve. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not against praying for physical healing. I do believe miracles happen. I just think we need to be praying for exponentially larger miracles like ending world poverty and corruption and curbing the power of multi-national corporations.
Maybe they exist now, but I know when I left Hawaii more than three years ago, I didn’t know of any churches that were talking about this kind of Christianity and from [my friend’s] email, it doesn’t sound like there’s one there now.
And I talk a big game, talking about fighting global injustices and all, and I hope to get to the big game at some point but first, I just want to create a place where people come and wrestle with God and in wrestling, find a blessing (love) and a new name (a new life). I want to make a place where no question is out of bounds – where the difficult questions are faced and pondered and worked and where we’re okay if we come up with different answers (or no answers at all). And we’re okay with it as long as we’re living better lives as a result.
That bit about being okay with different answers is a HUGE part of the theology I’m finding. We make the Bible out to be this one thing that only says one thing for this one church or denomination and everybody else is wrong to some degree and if everyone would just sign on and live out OUR reading of the Bible then revival will happen and God himself will fix all the problems of the world.
I don’t believe that’s how it works.
Here’s a brief preview of how I’ve been reworking my view of theology.
We really need to rethink this thing we call the Bible.
The Bible is not one thing. I mean, just look at the table of contents. You have books of prophecy and books of law and books of history and poetry and wisdom literature. And that’s just in the Old Testament!
And another thing. We think of the Bible as this thing that fell out of heaven in the form we have it in. We use words like infallible to describe it and say that it doesn’t contradict itself and that there are no errors. But anyone who’s studied theology at a reputable seminary (or a seminary of ill repute like MHGS) will say that this just isn’t the case. The process of canon formation was a messy business done by smart, pious, but fallible human beings like you and I. We maybe have this idea that the people who formed the canon were people free from bias and agenda but they weren’t. I’m not saying it was some kind of anarchic, intellectual cage match, but we also have to acknowledge that it wasn’t exactly choirs of angels singing in unanimous consent either.
But these findings of theological academia never seem to make it down to the church level. It’s like potential pastors go to seminary where they learn about all the “dirty secrets” of the Bible like the fact that most scholars agree that only some of the epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by Paul or the fact that the gospels do not, in fact, tell one coherent story of the life of Jesus. They learn all this messy business about what the Bible is and then they get their degree and then never talk about it in their churches.
I don’t get it…well, I mean, I do get it (sort of). Maybe we’re scared that laypersons don’t want to hear about the messiness of the Bible – that if we speak about the Bible that way then we’re not being reverent or responsible or we’re undermining the authority of the Bible.
I say that’s misguided at best. I think that by ignoring the facts of what the Bible is, we’re making it out to be something it’s not and neglecting to read it as it is. And when you do that, you end up reading it in a way that causes divisions and doctrinal fights and all the stupid things that Christians are known for.
But what if we let the Bible be what it actually is – a complex, odd, messy sort of thing through which God has chosen to reveal himself? What if we stop hiding the fact that the Bible is not the perfect, unaltered document we’ve been told it was? What if God is trying to tell us something about himself in the very nature of what the Bible is – that he defies a single reading and that he is revealed most truly when a variety of different renderings of him come together to praise him?
So much of what’s distasteful about Christianity comes out of doctrinal divides. Each side thinks they have the one right reading of the text and they have the proof and the scholarship to back up their view and when they can’t agree, they split into different camps. And they split because they think the Bible is supposed to be this one thing and that they have the one thing right.
But again, just look at it. Forget scholarship and historical criticism and all the academia. Again, just look at the table of contents. If God wanted the Bible to be just one thing with one message – if there is only one way to read it that truly reveals who God is – then God has a far sicker sense of humor than anyone could have ever imagined. If there’s supposed to be just one message that we’re supposed to take away from it then why did God bury it in this enigmatic collection instead of just spelling it out plainly for us? And some will respond that God did just that in the person of Jesus. And I agree, but why the four gospels and why are only three of them called synoptic? Again, if there is only one “right” meaning then why not just have one gospel – or at least just one kind of gospel?
Well, here’s what I think. What if the fact that the Bible contains all different sorts of literature and the fact that it does contain contradictions and that it does defy a single reading of it is actually all part of God’s design for it? What if all of the “flaws” that the church has been hiding from us are not flaws at all but are actually an integral piece of how God has chosen to reveal himself?
In other words, what if the point of it all is not to find the one magical correct reading and to make everyone else read the same way? What if the point is to read this book together because God is actually found somewhere in the midst of the variety of readings that emerge from it?
And yeah, that sounds scary because what do you do with the crazy, wacked out readings of people like Jim Jones or David Koresh? Well, what you do is, you keep them in community because if you splinter them off, they’ll…well, we already know what happens. But if you can somehow keep them in community, the community will sort things out.
One of my classmates likes to use this idea: You know that optical illusion where there are two faces in profile looking at each other and in the middle there’s what looks like a vase? Well, different people will look at that and some will say they see faces and some will say they see a vase and some will say they see both. But if someone says they see a monkey eating a banana, well, I guess that’s fine but they’re probably not going to convince a lot of people unless they isolate them out in the desert and brainwash them.
Point is, yeah, it does seem dangerous to say that the Bible is not just one thing with one idea and one message because if you say that then maybe you’re saying that it can say anything and everything (and therefore, nothing). But is the illusion showing a vase or faces? Maybe it’s hard to come down on one side or the other, but it’s certainly not a monkey eating a banana. (And what would the painter say about how he/she wants the image to be seen?)
Anyway, I need to stop now, but that’s a lot of what I’ve been thinking about in regards to the Bible.
If you have questions or push back, I’m all ears.
I used to write about theology and stuff under the category, A Laman’s Theology, but now that I’m an MDiv student, I don’t think it’s quite fair to call myself a layman and so I’ve created a new category, An MDiv Student’s Theology.