If you’ve been wondering about my relationship status, it’s complicated.
Despite what many streams of Christianity teach, there’s just no such thing as a “pure,” “plain,” or “simple” reading of scripture. Scripture is anything but plain and simple.
Regarding the Reader
In this age of information everywhere and worldwide connectivity, there’s hardly anyone who can come to the Bible with a blank slate–never having heard a thing about it, Jesus, or God. When we crack open the Bible, we bring our biases, assumptions, experiences, beliefs, expectations, and baggage which, along with other aspects of our identity, collectively make up the unique lens through which we read and interpret Scripture.
Regarding the Text
Considering the history of oral transmission (for centuries), eventual recording by scribes (and resulting scribal errors), translation which always requires interpretation, and all of the layers of history, culture, tradition, religion, and other influences throughout the ages up through today that are brought to bear on this ancient, sacred text, it’s easy to see why my (our) relationship with the Bible is justifiably “complicated.”
I believe it’s the inspired word of God. There are timeless truths, archetypal stories of human struggle, failure, and progress. There are specific rules that most of humanity has continued to agree upon to this day (don’t murder, don’t lie, don’t commit adultery, etc.). There are cautionary tales, wise sayings, and wild allegories. And of course there are stories about Jesus.
The issue for me is not so much with the text itself or what it claims to be, but with all that we impose upon it. The history of Christianity along with some biblical writers themselves have said it is the inspired word of God. So far, so good.
Christian tradition throughout the ages has layered on several other claims such as: infallible, inerrant, has self-evident meaning, the complete and last word of God, the only way in which the Holy Spirit speaks/spoke, a rule book, the only guide you’ll need to answer every question of life, among others. These are not things the Bible teaches about itself; these are the claims of biblicism.
And this is where we’ve gone astray.
The sort of biblicism we see nowadays is selective in its literalism, denies inconsistencies, and twists meaning where necessary to support the biblicist reading–and in these ways is not even able to support its own claims.
On most significant issues the Bible is actually quite unclear and provides a plurality of teachings and viewpoints. Moreover, the Bible is replete with problematic texts–those that even the most stringent biblicist would not actually live by–confusing texts, and those that are culturally irrelevant.
But we want clarity and information and guidance!
Consider this: perhaps God is uninterested in giving us rules about church government and practices, detailed information about the end times and the afterlife. Maybe God wants us to figure out, together, how to live.
“Perhaps God wants us to figure out how Christians should think well about things like war, wealth, and sanctification, by thinking christologically about them, more than by simply piecing together this and that verse of scripture into an allegedly coherent puzzle picture” (Smith, 112-113).
We aren’t totally in the dark—among lots of other revelations and teachings, God has revealed that God is love. God is always on the side of truth, kindness, generosity, hospitality, peace, and wholeness. And Jesus told us what was more important than anything—love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
You mean we have to just ask WWJD???
Not exactly. Rather than a trite slogan, interpreting and applying Scripture in light of Jesus, with Jesus as the lens through which we read, is both radically freeing and incredibly demanding. It is not enough to simply follow the letter of some law; rather live by the spirit–not just the spirit of the law, but also God’s Spirit. This calls us to a much higher standard than simply adherence to a set of rules (which is perhaps what we desire in our youth and adolescence).
Although we’ve known this for a long time, the comfortable draw of strictly rules-based living is strong. And things have been a hot mess in Christianity for a while now because of differences of interpretation and disagreements about the nature of the Bible itself (particularly what parts are prescriptive of how things should be, versus descriptive of how things are). We’ll have to get into that some more later.
This is more complicated than I thought…
Yep, sorry about that. Sort of. If this is the first time you’ve heard this stuff and you want to explore it more, check out The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith.
I do hope you’ll continue to rumble with Scripture and engage in healthy dialogue when the Bible doesn’t seem to give clear guidance on a particular issue. That’s certainly going to keep happening. And we need to lean in to discern the way together.