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If you didnt read Newsweek’s lengthy article on the Bible last week you should. Read it and ask yourself, “Does this scholar really know what he’s talking about or is he simply doing what he apparently refutes in the article?”
And after you read the article come back and read this critique by someone who doesn’t seem to have any political agenda for talking about it.
Editor’s Note: Last week, Newsweek magazine published a controversial cover story about the Bible, contemporary Christianity and the role scripture plays in modern society. You can read the original article here. The piece ignited controversy online, opening up new rounds of dialogue about how we talk about the Bible—and what it really means to follow it.
In an interesting (if unorganized) hodgepodge of bad news about the Good Book, Kurt Eichenwald wrote a piece at Newsweek declaring that the Bible is “so misunderstood it’s a sin.”
He brings up so many examples of textual contradictions, variations and hot button proof-texts that it’s impossible to discuss them all here.
Despite juvenile and generalizing rhetoric toward Christians (They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school … They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch.), many of his critiques legitimately challenge the common, literalistic view of the Bible.
He accurately notes that many Christians are unaware of what the Bible actually says, especially when it comes to its formation and contradictions.
Others twist it in order to make it fit their own concept of what the Bible is, then judge those who disagree.
Worse yet, some use it as a weapon for their own political interests.
However, Eichenwald fails to engage with critical scholarship and, instead, often focuses on criticizing the more outlandish, outdated, or ill-informed straw men he sets up. Likewise, he—just as those whom he criticizes—uses the Bible in order to advance his own political interests. In the end, his argument doesn’t take seriously what Christianity or the Bible actually says, which, unfortunately, stifles a much-needed conversation.
One of the biggest and poorest critiques in the piece is of the orthodox view of the Trinity. While Eichenwald rightly condemns the blood spilled by early Christians against those who disagreed, he wrongly states that the Bible does not declare that Jesus is God (cf. Colossians 2:9, Philippians 2:5-8, Hebrews 1:8, the entire Gospel of John, etc.).
He also incorrectly states that the concept of the Trinity did not appear until the Council of Nicaea, held by Constantine (the first politician to use Christianity to gain political support). In reality, the Council reaffirmed Tertullian’s widely accepted formula from the 3rd Century: God is one substance, three persons; Jesus is one person, two natures.
IN SOME PLACES, EICHENWALD DOESN’T REALLY INTERACT WITH THE BIBLE, BUT WITH INTERPRETATIONS THAT ARE FAR FROM CONSENSUS, EVEN AMONG CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS.
In some places, Eichenwald doesn’t really interact with the Bible, but with interpretations that are far from consensus, even among conservative Christians. For example, he claims that, “1 Timothy is one of the most virulently anti-woman books of the New Testament,” because it says that a woman should dress modestly, not braid her hair or wear gold and that she must “stay silent.”
While many throughout history, including influential leaders today, use this passage to subjugate women, he fails to interact with the whole text—which is exactly what he (correctly) criticizes Christians for doing.
The immediate context of the passage regards prayerful reverence for God, not clothing per se. It explains that a woman doesn’t revere God by dressing flashy, as you would find among women in pagan worship festivals; rather, she dresses with good works. We should all agree that acknowledging a woman’s character rather than her outward appearance is a step forward, even in today’s society (take note, you who keep tweeting about your “smoking hot wife”).
Concerning the passage’s apparent restrictions on teaching and authority, Eichenwald is, unfortunately, unaware of the historical and cultural context of this passage, which would be considered “liberal” in that society (and ours, in some circles) since it promotes educating women, not keeping them silent, and does not restrict them from authority (I’ve written about it here).
Yet, it isn’t hard to figure out why Eichenwald ignores the context and scholarship since he immediately uses it as a proof-text to condemn Christians for supporting female politicians, such as Sarah Palin, who attempt to have authority over men and are not silent.
In the end, one cannot help but wonder whether Eichenwald is really concerned with educating people about the Bible. Rather, perhaps he wants to criticize the Church’s obsession with political power and hypocrisy in using that power to treat others’ sins as worse than our own. That’s a fair and important critique, but every legitimate challenge he brings against common conceptions of the Bible ultimately lead to political diatribe.
Regardless of whether he is correct in his critique of American Christianity’s political ambitions and inconsistencies, by landing on politics, he effectively turned away most Christians from engaging with what he says about the Bible … which is the whole point, right?
Let’s Talk About the Bible
While Eichenwald clearly had political motivations for writing, some of his conclusions are right. Many of us are more familiar with what our pastors have said about the Bible than with what the Bible actually says. Many have a major Messiah complex when it comes to national power, and we often twist the Bible to manipulate people. Yet, Eichenwald is no stranger to the game of using religion to pander to political ideologues, either.
But, don’t get sucked into “defending the Bible” from people with whom you disagree. The Bible doesn’t need to be defended; it needs to be understood and discussed—by Eichenwald, by Christians, by non-Christians, by you, by me.
THE BIBLE DOESN’T NEED TO BE DEFENDED; IT NEEDS TO BE UNDERSTOOD AND DISCUSSED.
Actually, Eichenwald puts it best: “It is only through accepting where the Bible comes from—and who put it together—that anyone can comprehend what history’s most important book says and, just as important, what it does not say.”
We would do well to consider how Eichenwald challenges our view of the Bible. We should not be afraid to acknowledge the two conflicting creation stories or the discrepancies in Jesus’ genealogies. However, we should also dig deeper into context and function. We should see that discrepancies don’t change the purpose of the Bible, which is to lead us to the Word of God whose name is Jesus.
The worst thing we can do with the Bible is to use it as a weapon. The time is ripe for real conversations about what it is and what it says. We cannot have that conversation if our intentions are to defeat rather than to understand—to gain power rather than to serve.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn here is that political motives will always destroy meaningful dialog about the Bible.
That leaves us with a very important question: Can we please just talk about the Bible?
Recently, Pope Francis made waves by saying something that many would consider common sense. In reflecting on the difficult relationship between science and religion, Francis is quoted arguing that Christians should not view God as “a magician, with a magic wand.”
There goes Harry Potter’s fleeting chance at the papacy.
As a Protestant with a #PopeCrush, I’m appreciative of Francis’ apparent efforts to pull Roman Catholicism kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I’d like to return the favor with Protestants by suggesting that if God isn’t a magician, and if God doesn’t have a magic wand, then God has no need for a magic book either.
If God doesn’t have a Magic Wand, why do we have a Magic Book?
The way many Christians treat the Bible is a terrible stumbling block for good, sensible people; folks who simply can’t believe that God would ask them to deny so much of what they know and have experienced.
If our goal is to invite people to a mature life of faith, the church needs to adopt a robust understanding of the Bible that isn’t creating unnecessary conflicts with those seeking to harmonize Christian spirituality with a modern understanding of the world.
In that spirit, here are seven spells about Scripture that the church should stop casting.
1. Sola scriptura ad extremum
Our first incantation even sounds like something you might hear at Hogwarts.
The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura submits that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and a proper Christian life. On one level, the doctrine is a great way to provide a stable reference point for an evolving faith tradition. But taken too far, this idea can be co-opted to reinforce insular and extreme interpretations of the Bible which don’t benefit from the critique of thousands of years of Christian practice.
2. You must believe in the Bible.
The Bible is not God. Nowhere in the Bible are Christians asked to believe in the Bible. They are asked to believe in God, in Jesus, and in the Gospel but these things shouldn’t be conflated to, or limited by, the Bible. The Bible, in its current form, didn’t even exist at that point and the story of how we arrived at the collection of books we have today is a strange, and not completely reverent, tale for another time. And while there are numerous verses that are taken to speak to the perfection of God’s word (Psalm 19:7) or inspiration of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), they are taken grossly out of context when used to posit absolute authority for Scripture or to build arguments of biblical inerrancy.
3. The Bible is against __________.
The Bible isn’t against this, that, or any practice. Why? The Bible isn’t a person. Christian people are against this, or that, practice; and typically, only a subset of Christians are. When a person, or a church, states what they believe about something or someone, they are speaking for their community and its interpretation of Scripture.
Referencing the Bible is a good thing. It displays a respect for a rich, shared tradition. But scapegoating the Bible for your exclusion of someone shows a lack of personal, or corporate, integrity. Remember, the Bible is a book, not a person (or God).
4. The Bible is literally true.
Every so often someone comes along and decides to build a life-sized ark, or declares that the Earth will end on a particular date, much to their later chagrin. But these, easy to dismiss, caricatures give cover to masses of folks who tend to read much of the Bible in similar, literalistic, ways.
It is easy for some to say that Creationism isn’t science, and that it isn’t a good way to read the Bible either. But determining what is metaphor, parable, or something approximating our understandings of the word truth, isn’t always clean cut. Thankfully, if we are willing to discipline ourselves against our individualistic inclinations, there is an abundance of good academic and thoughtful devotional resources, to aid in our approach to the Bible.
5. All Scripture is created equal.
I’ve never met someone who spent a lot of time studying the Bible who didn’t also have favorite parts. As people, we are prone to like different types of literature and the Bible contains many. Some books read like history, others offer wisdom, laws, prayers, and even prophecy. And who doesn’t love all those begat lists.
But another difference is simply found in the quality of the writing and/or what it has to say about God. However you might understand the nature of inspiration, some of the writers of Scripture were simply better storytellers than others. And in whatever way you might understand the nature of inspiration, some of our Biblical authors appear to have received a bigger portion.
6. The Bible says this here, chapter, verse…
I get it. The Bible is a long book. It’s hard to to keep all that data in your head so we have to develop a few ‘go to verses’ to help others to know why they are so wrong and we are so right. Such a practice in any single book can lead to tortured, decontextualized results. But when we understand that the Bible is a long collection of distinct books written over centuries, a library if you will, it’s much easier to see how problems might arise.
This practice of taking verses from here and there to build an argument, or support a position you brought to the text, is also known as proof-texting. Christians of all persuasions have been guilty of this one, many, many times.
7. Anyone who challenges the authority of the Bible either hates God or is capitulating to culture.
There are numerous places where Scripture has, should, and will continue to be in conflict with culture. For example, we are prone to misidentify power and wealth with divine blessing (i.e., Ecclesiastes 5:19), even though the careful reading of the Bible would caution us against such conclusions.
For a growing number of people, the serious, and sometimes critical, study of Scripture stems not from a wish to destroy the faith, but instead, from a deep love of a God who always lies beyond our full comprehension. Working to honor the complexity of the Bible makes it less likely that its witness will be written off as a fanciful magic book, or a relic of the past. And it helps the church to avoid assigning to God all of our personal preferences and prejudices.
The Bible is a beautiful collection of writings which hold much wisdom, spiritual insight, and yes, truth. But when we refuse to acknowledge its limitations, and even some of its flaws, we turn this library into a stumbling block. Jesus had something to say about that too.
A couple questions to leave with:
So, do you agree with this list of seven spells that we need to stop casting? What spells would you add or subtract?
What different understandings, or approaches, do you bring to your study of the Bible?
How has your approach to the Bible evolved over the years?
Does your church offer regular classes or studies to help people to read the Bible in healthy ways?
ht: Patrick Scriven, afterchurch.com
“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
-Robert Jastrow, Astrophysicist and Author, God and the Astronomers
Read here about one of the world’s leading underwater archaeologists, Robert Ballard’s search for Noah’s flood.
Michael Frost gives his answer, which resonates with my own experience.