03.The Literal, Beautiful Mess we call the Bible. Pt 1

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Editor’s Note: “This is the first in a multi-part article deconstructing the way I approached the Bible.  This first article explains the issues that led to me losing my faith in scripture, the following articles will explain how I regained my love and appreciation for them.  This post should not be taken as an attack on scripture, but rather my journey to an updated appreciation of the scriptures.”

Part 1 – How it fell apart

In earlier articles, I have alluded to the fact that one of the major problems that led to my disbelief was the teaching that the Bible is an inerrant, infallible book which must be taken 100% literally. To read it any other way, I was taught, distorts and corrupts the message of God. While I had heard of other interpretations on scripture, I was taught that their view point was heretical, dangerous, and one that I should avoid at all costs. So for much of my early life I did just that.

This is true for many Christians in America. The most common response, when asked how you should read the Bible, is that you shouldn’t try to interpret any portion of it if at all possible. Instead, you should simply apply a plain reading to the scriptures and take the simplest, most easily observable interpretation to the text. This makes a lot of sense, especially in our culture today. If you were to write a history book, the author would spend ample time exploring all of the full accounts of history, examining archaeological records, and attempting to be certain that every aspect of your accounts was as accurate as possible. However, if you were to attempt to write a how-to book, you wouldn’t use poetry or allegory to explain how to build a house, you would give precise, simple, easy to follow directions.

Unfortunately, that’s not the Bible we were given.

You see, the literal, plain reading approach to scripture works well until you actually sit down to read it. At least it did for me. When I began to actually read the Bible all the way through, attempting to apply a plain reading to the text I found confusing, nonsensical, and often disastrous results. I was left far more confused about the character, the love, and the plan of God. While there were numerous smaller issues that I struggled with from scripture, I’ll highlight the primary three that affected me the most.

1. The God of the Bible Often Seems Schizophrenic, Fickle, and Cruel.

Rather than the omniscient, loving, and unchanging God that we are taught as children; the God of the Bible seems to be often quite different. In the New Testament, we learn that God so loved the world that He sent His son to die for us, making a way for all mankind to find their way to Heaven. The unchanging, perfect God of the Old Testament, however, seems like his alter ego.

  • God is angered, destroying the entire planet as a result, but then feels sorry and promises to never do it again. He doesn’t change the flaws in humanity that led to this disastrous result, but simply allows it to continue through Noah’s bloodline which holds all of the same issues as before and leads to the same, evil in the hearts of men.
  • Later, God commands the Israelites to commit unspeakable horrors and genocide against some nations (including women and children), and then punishes Israel when they’re not thorough enough.
  • Even later, God decrees that all of Israel should be destroyed, but then changes His mind because Moses apparently talks some sense into Him.

God’s mood seems to easily roll from one extreme to another like a hormonal teenager; and for a God who loves the whole world, his anger and vengeance seems awfully cruel. In fact, were a person alive today to attempt to commit even half of the acts God demanded of His followers in the Old Testament, we would lock them in prison and throw away the keys. Those actions don’t seem to be Righteous, they don’t seem to be Holy, and I can find no reasonable teaching to justify that they ever were.

2. The Text Appears Inconsistent

We have to face it, there are a number of inconsistencies in the scriptures, and if you require that the scriptures be read as a literal, inerrant guide, then this leads to problems.

We need not look any further than the first two chapters in the book of Genesis to find the first examples.

  • Genesis 1 tells us that trees and animals were created before man. Genesis 2 tells us the opposite.
  • Genesis 1 tells us that man and woman were created first. Genesis 2 tells us that women were created later.

There are plenty of other examples in the Creation story alone. If that narrative must be taken literally, then in addition to a required belief that the Earth was created in seven 24-hour days, you must also believe that there is a firmament (literally translated as land) that exists above the Earth, separating the Earth below from the waters of the Heavens above. A simple look through a telescope will easily disprove this belief.

Textual inconsistencies are enough to raise doubts about using a literal interpretation of the Bible. A simple web search will return thousands of other examples—names change, events happen at different times in different books, commands come from God in one story and from Satan in another. And then halfway through, the entire story changes, and we’re told to discard what we knew because the unchanging God came up with a better plan.

3. Literal Theology Often Leads to Terrible Theology

I was able to juggle the conflicting ideas discussed above in an uncomfortable, awkward cadence, but in the end, it was the theology that grew out of a literal, inerrant reading that finally did my faith in. The literal interpretations of scripture have, throughout history, led to a number of terrible and hurtful behaviors being held as faithful and true.

We’ve been taught that women were property, slavery was acceptable, and racism approved. Today, the persecution and oppression of homosexuals, atheists, and Muslims is considered the stand of the righteous by many in the Christian community.

None of this fits within the character of Jesus, and none of this fits within the command to love your neighbor as yourself. In the end, it often seems that even the teachings of Jesus cannot stand against the law of literalism.

So where do I stand?

Luckily, I’ve learned that you don’t have to live under the heavy yoke of literalism. I have personally felt the sting of spiritual abuse which grew from a literal interpretation and application of the scripture. I and my family were shunned and discarded from the church we so loved. There is very little abuse more long lasting and damaging than that suffered at the end of the authoritarian, patriarchal church structures that literalism often breeds.

I believe that scripture is, in fact, broken when read through a strictly literal lens. There is a better, more fulfilling, and truthful way to read the scriptures. Over the next few articles, we’ll discuss the methods I’ve learned to redeem scripture; and in doing so, how I’ve found the life changing love of God within. The Holy Scriptures are the most influential, amazing, and powerful books ever assembled. We’ve simply been reading them, too often, with our eyes shut.


Article Notes:

If you’re looking for good books discussing alternative ways to approach the Bible, I highly recommend the following:

Part 2 of this series can be found at the following link:
Real People, Real Times, Real Reasons…

Part 3 of this series can be found at the following link:
The Stories Beneath The Stories

3 thoughts on “03.The Literal, Beautiful Mess we call the Bible. Pt 1”

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