Editor’s Note: “This is the third in a three-part article discussing my approach to the Bible. Previous articles are listed below:”
Part 1 – How it fell apart
Part2 – Real People, Real Times, Real Reasons
Part 3 – The Stories Beneath The Stories
In our previous conversations we have looked into a few different ideas for how we can approach the Bible. In our final article in this series I’d like to take us one step further and ask you to evaluate the scriptures in the context of the thematic method they are being told within. Too often we simply look at the scriptures as a literal, inerrant, retelling of historical events and interactions with God. But this is a problem. Reading the scriptures in this manner strips them down to simple ancient history and removes the much bigger picture that they convey. When read in this manner the Creation story, for example, simply becomes a bullet list detailing exactly how God created the Earth in seven literal days and much of the beauty, the majesty, and the real meaning are stripped from the story.
The scriptures are amazing, life-giving works that have stood the test of time, but there’s so much more to these stories than what appears on the surface. When examining any piece of ancient writing it is important that we consider what thematic style we are reading. Very rarely are we reading a precise historical account. More often we are instead reading poetry, mythical retellings, apocryphal writings, and occasionally some actual history all combined together to tell a much bigger story. Understanding what type of story we are reading is vitally important to understanding the larger story, not to mention that it is also exactly how the Jews of Jesus day would have approached the scriptures.
To many, this teeters on blasphemy, and I completely understand. Those concerns are not invalid, and I know many of them by heart.
“If we cannot believe that everything listed in the scriptures happened exactly as they are written, then we can’t trust anything they contain.”
“If you don’t believe that every word actually happened exactly as it is written, then you are simply picking and choosing which parts of scripture you like and discarding the rest.”
But once I allowed myself to get past this fear and instead approached the scriptures from a different angle, (one that allowed them to feature stories and poems and boastful proclamations, introspective laments, questions, and maybe even incorrect language) I found a beauty, depth, and life-changing message that I had missed for my entire life.
There’s a fear that if we read the scriptures from this perspective that we have stripped God of His power. But I believe just the opposite. For the majority of my life, my understanding and appreciation of God was found entirely through the Word of God. I poured myself into reading, understanding, and defending these stories as literal historical events. I sought out systematic theologies that fit the literal readings into the answers of today and happily checked them off one by one. And then, as I’ve detailed previously and many of you have experienced yourself, it all fell apart. What I came to realize was that my faith was not in God, this majestic, loving, life changing, uncontrollable deity, but instead in only my understanding of this book. I had, and I contend that the American church has, elevated the book over the God it claims to be about.
I’ve read a lot about iconic people from history such as Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and George Washington. I’ve spent a great deal of time reading book after book after book written by their friends, researchers, and sometimes even enemies. I’ve heard conflicting stories, I’ve learned about their character, about what made them different, and I’ve learned how I can emulate them in ways that allow me to become successful. In many cases I’ve read so much about them that if I were to meet them in person today I would feel as if I’ve known them for years.
But I haven’t…
They wouldn’t have a clue who I was…
If I tried to proclaim how much I knew about them, what great friends we were, how much I had done to help them, they might actually tell me to “Depart because they never knew me.” And they would be right to do so.
Likewise, I think it best that we simply understand the scriptures as the stories people told about their interactions with and understanding of their place with God. Rather than infallible, inerrant, or literal, I consider the Bible to be accounts that are inspired by people’s encounters with God, but written down by people who had biases and motives for recording things in certain ways, and who certainly lacked the scientific insight into the creation that most modern humans share¹.
- So reading the Creation story in Genesis as a poem doesn’t weaken God, it expands Him. It takes the story past a place of rote details and pulls us into a larger narrative, understanding God’s love for all mankind from in the earliest days of Creation.
- Reading the conquests of Joshua as a boast that has grown in the retelling doesn’t diminish the strength of God. Instead, we find that the people of their day looked for and expected God to show His approval through violent warfare. But even there, in the blood and violence, God is still pushing, pulling, calling, and pleading with those who follow Him to a bigger, more inclusive, and more expansive story than they ever imagined.
- Reading Job as a myth doesn’t steal the power from the story; it expands the story directly into our world. We understand that we’re simply one small part of the human story. That while we’re raising our fists with the same anger as they did, that God hasn’t failed us, He hasn’t abandoned us, and we’re not being punished for our sins. We’re simply living in the same world of pain and pleasure, life and death, joy and sadness that all humanity share.
So these stories are important, the scriptures are beautiful, and one of the best ways for us to learn about God. But they’re not God. They’re simply stories about God, and that’s OK. It doesn’t diminish their value, it doesn’t rob them of their truth, and it doesn’t destroy your faith in God. It simply means that maybe we have to dig a bit deeper, past the words on the page, and seek to understand the real meaning, purpose, and story that they’re trying to reveal. And unless we approach them through an intimate, personal, knowledge and faith in Jesus, allowing Him to reveal the truth beneath the truth, we’ll never truly know God.
If you’re looking for further discussion regarding today’s article, I recommend the following resources.
¹I’d like to thank my friend Lori Hopkins for the inspiration for this paragraph.