Thursday, March 3, 2011

Not the Christianity I knew: The Bible

Fred Clark over at Slacktivist has put his finger on something that I've tried to explore before, without much success.

I've talked (at considerable length) about how strange the more fundamentalist, Biblical inerrancy forms of Christianity seem to me. That's not what I grew up in; that's not the Christianity I remember at all. It seems to get so wrapped up in trying to get all the little details correct that it misses the larger point: God's love for us, and the love we need to show our neighbors. Too busy looking at the trees - or the individual leaves - to see the forest.

Bruce Gerencser, who spent most of his life as an Evangelical pastor, doesn't entirely agree. He points out, rightly, that the Bible is the basis of Christianity. He also points out that without the Bible, you essentially don't have Christianity.[1] At some point, you have to either say that the Bible is (in some sense) authoritative, or else you have to ask why you use it at all.

And this was where I ran aground. Because I felt like there was a fundamental difference between the way Bruce treated the Bible as authoritative (back when he was a Christian), and the way I was taught to treat the Bible as authoritative (back when I was a Christian). But I couldn't really put my finger on what that difference was.

And then, some months later, Fred Clark started discussing different approaches to reading the Bible. The two approaches he describes are, roughly, reading the Bible as a story - the way I was taught - versus reading the Bible as an Authority, the way Bruce was taught.

As a story, the lessons of the Bible are more about the character of God, mainly as revealed through the story of Jesus. The specific points of moral instruction are contextual, and sometimes ambiguous. Matthew 22:37-40 becomes paramount: "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." All the other rules and guidelines in the Bible are special cases of the two primary laws (love God, and love your neighbor as yourself); if a specific instruction seems to violate these laws, then you're either reading the instruction wrong, or applying it incorrectly. And, theologically, what you find is this: God loves us; while He does not expect perfection, he wants us to have faith and do our best; God is not an asshole.

When read as an authority, every detail in the Bible is important. If Leviticus says that a man lying with another man is an abomination, then that is an unchanging and incontrovertible truth. If the Matthew speaks of the unrighteous being sent into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels, then that is what will happen - no question about it. The fact that Matthew appears to be talking about the mandate to help the poor, imprisoned, and powerless is irrelevant. That the Bible is largely concerned with social justice and virtually ignores the "evils of homosexuality" is equally irrelevant; Leviticus says it's an abomination. The fact that these readings and others like them make God look like an asshole is beyond irrelevant - to most people who read the Bible this way, it seems to be invisible.

I don't have a religious stake in this. I'm not a Christian, so it isn't my theology or exegesis under discussion, not in any meaningful sense. By the same token, I don't have any real, well, authority to say that the folks who insist on using the Bible as an authority (a "paper pope", to borrow a term) are reading it wrongly, or at least poorly. I think they're missing the point, but they have no reason at all to take my word for it.

I do, however, have a personal stake in this. For one thing, I firmly believe that reading the Bible as a story promotes better religion: a faith with a stronger sense of social justice, a belief that doesn't feel the need to be in opposition to science, a Christianity more concerned with being good neighbors than getting everything exactly right. For another thing... well, let me put it this way: when your idea of "Good News" starts with, "You're a sinner and you're going to burn in Hell for eternity," you have a problem. Even if you're technically correct[2], you're missing the point. As an unbeliever, naturally I don't agree with you, but here's the thing: I would have disagreed with you back when I was a Christian, too. So really, the less of this sort of thing I have to hear, the better. And the same applies to quite a number of other, similarly nit-picky arguments that I hear from would-be evangelists and apologists.

Reading the Bible as a story is difficult. It requires the reader to be comfortable - or to get comfortable - with uncertainty, ambiguity, doubt... what Keats referred to as "Negative Capability". It means considering that the Bible might be less God's instructions for human beings, and more a record of Humanity's attempt to understand God. It means admitting that "I don't know" is a valid answer. It leaves a very great deal up to the conscience of the individual believer - a lot more than the Bible-as-Authority approach does, anyway. Small wonder that "this is How It Is" is so much more appealing as a message.

But it also allows you focus on the important parts - loving God, loving your neighbor - rather than getting distracted by trivia. It lets you relax, and - I hope - really enjoy the comfort and peace that faith is supposed to bring, but so often doesn't. Perhaps most importantly, it dramatically lowers the chance that you'll end up making God look like an asshole.

That was the Christianity I knew.

[1] I don't entirely agree with this; as with a lot of these issues, I find myself thinking that it's a bit more complicated than that, or in this case that that isn't the only way to do it. I think you could have a Christianity based on oral tradition. As it happens, Christianity is based on a written tradition instead... but I think if you look closely, you'll find that a lot of oral tradition gets incorporated as well. How much, and what, depends upon the denomination and the individual church.

[2] Biblical references to Hell are startlingly sparse and ambiguous, especially if you compare them to how much space Hell occupies in Christian oral tradition - and how absolutely certain many Christians seem about its literal existence. For the record, Dante's Inferno is not a book of the Bible. Neither is Paradise Lost.


  1. You know I've never really thought about this much. I was taught that the Bible is the Authority. So as a Christian I assumed I had it right and the others had it wrong. Then I would feel sorry for them because they just didn't "get it" and would end up burning in hell.

    I supposed that's kind of like what my mom is thinking about me right now. She's still not dealing well.

    Christianity would be a lot nicer if it did view the Bible as just a story.

  2. It's a surprisingly subtle (if fundamental) difference in approach, and I'd never been able to really define it. Then Slacktivist comes along and - kapow! - yeah, it's obvious, now...

  3. Michael,

    You are quite right on how the Bible "should" be read. When I read it that's how I read it. It matters not to me if Jesus was even real. (and I have doubts that he was)

    The problem I have, at least here in rural, Midwest America is that if you asked 100 people their view of the Bible most of them would say the Bible is the Word of God and would likely espouse some form of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist view of the Bible.(even though they ignore it in the way they live)

    I am to the place in life if it really doesn't matter then why bother? If the Bible has no authority then why bother believing? If it is just a story then why devote so much time and money in promoting a story?

    I think the Bible is a storybook. Now if the majority religious party in America would embrace this view things..........Nah, won't happen. It is all about the money.


  4. I think you're right that mine is not a majority view - I haven't looked at the population statistics, but I'm increasingly suspicious that liberal Christians are a minority in the faith, and (here in America) getting more outnumbered all the time. You're also right that, for people like us, it doesn't matter - at least not personally.

    But if there's any way to convince the more judgemental, rules-oriented sorts of Christians that they actually can love their neighbors as themselves without offending the God of Love, well... I think it's worth a try.

  5. I have to agree with pretty much everything you said here. Remarkably, it was seminary that allowed me to see the Bible as a story, or more specifically, that to understand the Bible it's important to understand the different genres it is written in.

    Once you understand the difference between history books, poetry books, apocalyptic code type books written when oppressed by a foreign power, or letters, to name a few, the whole things just makes more sense, becomes much more consistent, and it's possible for a person of intelligence to believe it all without any cognitive dissonance. At least, I still think so.

    My husband is working on a book that tries to do what you mentioned in your previous comment. At least, it's trying to point to a much bigger picture than most Christians have and broaden the scope such that little things like rules and judgements are truly seen as petty, small, and missing the point.

  6. "My husband is working on a book that tries to do what you mentioned in your previous comment. At least, it's trying to point to a much bigger picture than most Christians have and broaden the scope such that little things like rules and judgements are truly seen as petty, small, and missing the point."

    That sounds like an interesting and very worthwhile project.

    And yes, I've heard several people mention that seminary was an eye-opening experience. You're definitely not alone in that.


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