Many Christians are terrified of the scriptures. They won’t admit it, but that’s not their fault because they don’t realize it. They think they love and revere the Bible, but it’s like a relationship with a bi-polar father who requires obsequiousness in exchange for approval, with hellish, halting dinner-time conversation because you never know when he might freak out. These Christians fret about their view of the verses needing to be exactly right, and like nervous children, are quick to throw brothers and sisters who hold different views under the bus, hoping to deflect daddy’s gaze for a moment.
This model might make sense for some religions, but it directly opposes a faith built around the person of Jesus.
Conservative Christianity is filled with faithful who demand that the texts of the Bible are God-breathed, inerrant, and have a strictly defined meaning. But here’s the rub: the meaning varies based on our particular brand of filtration. Here’s one example: Catholic and Orthodox Christians read Jesus words at the last supper and proclaim that they clearly and obviously mean bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Baptists read the same words and proclaim that they clearly and obviously mean we are invited to partake in a purely symbolic meal of communion with Jesus and each other.
These views are diametrically opposed. One view states that the Eucharist is the consumption of God himself. The other is that by eating crackers and juice, we merely show unity. The Bible does not clarify which view is right, despite this being a huge issue. (After all, consuming God is a pretty big deal.)
Faithful Christians read the same passages, the same words, and yet come away with vastly different understandings.
The requirements for salvation are another example. Believers for centuries have argued over what it takes to make it to heaven, all based on the same set of “crystal clear” scripture. The church has fractured over this question, and again, it’s a pretty big deal. The biggest, really. If the Bible was truly intended to function the way many Christians believe—as an easily understood source of truth and guidance—you’d think the instructions for how to stay out of hell would be clearer.
These are just a few examples among hundreds of hotly contested issues. Because of this fact alone we should see that the Bible shouldn’t be used the way fundamentalist-leaning Christians use it. If it’s instructions were truly crystal clear and obvious, there wouldn’t be so many disagreements among well-intentioned faithful, now and from the earliest days of the church.
Here’s another problem. Regardless of where in the mustard tree of Christianity one perches, there is nearly universal agreement that some scriptural injunctions no longer apply in today’s western society. Christians have abandoned biblical rules from Old Testament and New, for issues like the stoning of adulterers, ownership of slaves, polygyny, divorce, and how women can dress and behave in church (and many others.)
Simple observation proves that scripture is not crystal clear with obvious meaning. The same simple observation shows that every verse doesn’t apply perpetually to the lives of the faithful.
So what exactly are we to make of the idea of perpetual application and inerrancy? How do these realities inform our understanding?
Most fundamentalist-leaning Christians can’t face this question. It invokes an intolerable level of discomfort and so the question must be quickly dismissed, often with a “get behind me Satan!” response. The fear of that dinner-table daddy spikes high and hard and shuts down any further ability to process information.
But the fear isn’t necessary. The question is reasonable. God won’t be mad if we try to figure it out. Our Father is not that father. We’ll never know the real answers until we stand before God, face to face, if we even get to know it then. But we can try.
Here’s one potential solution:
Perhaps the Spirit God breathed into the scriptures while they were set down by the original authors was not to create a once-and-forever set of words with precise (and therefore limited) meanings which would never change and would perpetually apply. A Bible like that is a stone monolith etched with cuneiform figures. Cold. Incomprehensible. Immutable. Intimidating.
No wonder so many Christians are afraid of questioning it.
Some people conflate the word of God (the Bible) with the Word of God (Jesus Christ). They revere it that much. But they don’t see the irony of equating the stone monolith they’ve transformed the Bible into with the God of relationship. If the Bible is the same Word, doesn’t it have to be like him; living, breathing, moving among us, loving us, responding to our needs?
Perhaps the reason God breathed into the scriptures wasn't to make them crystal clear, understandable, all applying, never changing, monolithic, and requiring no interaction. Perhaps his inspiration was to do the very opposite. Perhaps his Spirit was used to form them in a way that is puzzling so we would continually ask questions and seek deeper meaning. To perpetually consider how the wisdom they contain is to be applied to the world around us today.
Perhaps they, like Jesus, are about our relationship with a loving teacher/creator rather than with an angry daddy made of stone.
Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of Rumplepimple, a hilarious illustrated story book featuring a misunderstood doggy hero and his two moms. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or check out her website.