Sunday, August 29, 2010

My View of Scripture

This is something that comes up very often amongst my friends and family. My more "fluid" view of the Bible often brings eye-rolling, sighs of pity, or downright anger.

Many people who hold to the name Christian believe in an inerrant/infallible view of Scripture. It is word for word just as God wants it. Beyond that, it often is believed to have supernatural qualities. In many circles it is referenced synonymously with Jesus. Regular readings will empower you and bless your finances. Reading the verses out loud can bring healings.

These Christians tend to approach their thought life in a very digital manner... everything is either/or. For example, when it comes to the bible, they see only two possible views : Either the bible is the infallible word of God, or it is completely useless. My view does not exist at either of those poles. Therefore, I have had some version of the following conversation about a half dozen times in the past year or two:

Christian: We must believe such and so on Topic X.

Me: Well, actually I think people can hold various views on that topic.

Christian: Not if they are a Christian, the bible says so.

Me: The bible says a lot of things, in fact on that topic the bible has a few different views.

Christian: It does not! The bible is very clear on this!

Me: Well, let me show...

Christian: Oh, so now you are just going to show me the scriptures you like? Just cherry-pick the easy ones?!

Me: No, but there are varied ways one can interpret these passages.

Christian: No there is not. The bible is clear, I just do what it says! Why are you trying to weaken my faith in the bible?! What caused you to lose your faith in the bible?

Me: Well, I don't actually think I need to have faith in the bible. That simply isn't the way I see scripture, I see...

Christian: If you don't believe in the bible, you don't believe in Jesus! Why do you bother quoting scripture if you don't believe the bible?

Me: I never said I didn't believe it, maybe we should talk a little bit about what we mean when we say we believe scripture.

Christian: Words, words, words, talk, talk, talk. Why are you trying to tear down my belief in God? I have faith! I don't need anymore of your arguing. I love Jesus, you don't! I am sorry for you, you have fallen away from the faith! I'll pray for you, but I don't want to talk to you anymore."

That is, of course, a Cliff Notes condensed version of those conversations. I do not hold the right view of the bible, so I am outside the faith. It often ends with a cut-off of relationship, or one that forevermore occurs at arm's length.

So what are my heretical views of scripture presently?

First, I believe the books and letters written in the bible are a collection of documents written by men. I do believe that they were written by men who were seeking after and/or had encountered the God of our Universe; but written by men nevertheless.

Does this make it useless for learning about God? Not at all. I once gave this example, using my classroom as a comparison:

As I finish up the school year, I could have my 75 or so students write an account of a year in one of my classes. Those accounts could never give an entirely clear or consistent view of my classroom. In fact, many of the accounts may seem to contradict one another. Whether a student was bored or challenged, male or female, calm or excitable, whether they had me for math, reading, or both would affect their view of me and my class. Some might think I was the greatest teacher ever, others may have felt generally unimpressed. So which account is true? Well, in some ways all and in some ways none. Reading multiple accounts will give you a better sense of what it would be like to be in my class, but as a reader, your view would always be peripheral.

Scripture is not spread over merely a year, but thousands. The authors, unlike my students, had radically different experiences in different time periods in varied cultures. Add to that, as a reader, I bring my own baggage to the table. I am white, married, western, protestant, middle-aged, liberal, educated, middle-class… the list goes on. All of these affect the way that I approach scripture. I cannot get around these things. The best I can do is recognize that I come at this with multiple filters in my head, that the scripture is speaking with many voices, and that if I am going to get a relatively clear view of the scripture, I also have to pay attention to the voices of other readers of scripture … who may not see life the way I do.

So we have Christians who can read the same scripture, believe it is as clear as the nose on one’s face, and yet draw different conclusions as to its intent. I would also point out that it is not always a matter of one interpretation being right and the other wrong. As with my students' accounts, two students can state apparently contradictory views – that are BOTH true from their perspective.

So reading multiple accounts of people's encounters with God can help me develop a view of God, while also being aware that the view I am developing falls short.

Second, holding such a view allows me to be honest about certain passages. Some are just indefensible. Christians will often point to verses in the Koran to demonstrate that Islam is violent; while in reality our scriptures can easily be used to portray a similar view of God. In fact, some scriptures are just plain goofy.

For example: Did you know that if you get in a fight with a man, and your wife comes in to defend you, and she hits your opponent in the balls - according the bible, she is to have her hand cut off. Think that is excessive? Who is cherry-picking now? :)

I do indeed cherry pick. I have NEVER met ONE Christian who doesn't. Christians just throw that argument at people who do not cherry-pick the same scriptures they do.

Third, I believe the Bible is the Christian authoritative text. This does not equate to Sola Scriptura, but it is authoritative for our religion in the same way the Constitution is the authoritative text for America or my HOA by-laws are for our neighborhood. However, like other authoritative texts, the bible must be interpreted and is subject to endless discussions amongst those who want to follow its text.

Fourth, I think in many ways, scripture should be viewed like art. Reading it should stir us, cause us to reflect, ask questions. When Christians come at it like a rule book that will give us the answers if we read it "right"; we mistake our interpretation for orthodoxy and close off other voices.... which is why, I believe, we have over 30,000 different versions of Christianity... most of which believe the other groups don't quite measure up.

In the end, though I believe scripture to be inspired by a living God, I do not believe he was channeling anybody. Paul did not wake up hours later with a sore hand and 16 chapters of Romans. For myself, it is just more apparent the writings are from our spiritual forefathers telling us about their encounters with God.

Also, let me clarify that this is not a new position for me. I questioned the whole notion of the innerancy of scripture very early in my faith (twenty-some years ago). Memorizing whole books of scripture through bible quizzing made it clear to me that Paul had his better and worse moments. That Paul may or may not have argued with James about faith vs works.... depending on the day. That Jesus words were recalled as best as possible, but as any cop who does line-ups can tell you, memories can play tricks on you... glad we got four accounts. The difference is that in the past, I had no confidence to announce my questions... and they probably would not have been well received.

There were many times throughout Christian history when I would have been tortured to death for holding such views. I, for one, am grateful for a separation of Church and State.


Anonymous said...

Bruce puts on raincoat and hat and moves away from fan anticipating shi* hitting the fan. :)

Great post Andrew. Thoughtful, honest and sure to irritate the heaven out of some people.

my view is similar to yours EXCEPT I don't believe the Bible to be supernaturally inspired in any way.

A relative of mine, an evangelist's wife said "That is one of the saddest statements I have ever read. You CAN KNOW...its all in the Bible!"
In her world the Bible is the divine answer book. The harder this position is to sustain the more they seem to fight.

Once again, great post, Andrew.


Don said...

The main difference in our thoughts on this issue is:

1. I'm 64 (almost 65)
2. I came to this realization approximately 5 years ago after being submerged in church life for 59 years.
3. Not counting my fundamentalist son, I have never had the experience you describe here.
4. I'm still working on the issue of the Bible being supernaturally inspired.

That being said, I know if I hold to the path I am on, the experience you describe is bound to happen. The strange thing is....I am looking forward to it.

Chad said...

I love your thoughts and perspective on things. I count you as one of my dearest friends. From an evangelical man in the ministry.

Bryan said...

Right on. As Buddha said, "The finger that points to the moon is not the moon." The bible is a finger that points to God, but is not God. Worship of the bible is idolatry, because it places the bible between us and God.

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