Although I’m a 39-year-old progressive Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor serving a moderate to progressive church in a mostly progressive denomination, I’ve encountered–since I was a middle schooler–church folk (including Presbyterians) who have staunchly believed that the Bible is a infallible rule book that is not to be questioned…ever. And to question the Bible is to question God and to question God is to permanently seal your fate in hell or in the very least incur God’s disappointment and anger. As Peter Enns, religious scholar and author of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, puts it:
Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual–follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problems solved. That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag–fine as long as its kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.
Youth advisers and pastors whom I respected during youth and young adulthood echoed this sentiment in their own teaching, preaching and nurturing of my faith and belief in God, especially when other Christians tried to use the Bible to scare people into believing (which is not what Jesus ever had in mind when he walked the earth), i.e. the popular televangelists preachers of the 1980s in which I grew up or the fundamentalist Christian college students who descended upon my friends and I at our church’s Presbyterian camp at the beach in an effort to convert us.
While I knew this staunch defense of the Bible, God and faith was dangerous, I never felt I had the ability to express exactly why this way of thinking was harmful, bad theology that reduced God to a cruel and judgmental dictator. Other than saying, “God is love,” I lacked the tools to full understand the larger context of the Bible: the ancient Israelites who lived in that ancient world thousands of years ago and their experience of God and of learning to live a life in faith to only one God, the creator of the universe and father of Abraham, Isaac, etc. I couldn’t counter the misconceptions (based on fear and a need to control) with deeper knowledge about the scripture passages, when they were written, why they were written and what they were intended to say to people of the time.
This changed when I entered Columbia Theological Seminary at the age of 27 (way back in 2002). In the classrooms of Walter Brueggemann, Christine Yoder, Beth Johnson, Charlie Cousar, Stan Saunders, Mark Douglas, Shirley Guthrie, George Stroup, Bill Harkins, Chuck Campbell, Anna Carter Florence, Rodger Nishioka, Kathy Dawson and Erskine Clarke (just to name a few) I learned how to articulate what I always instinctively felt and believed about the Bible and God’s role in the text and human history:
The Bible is the messy and incredible story of God and humanity told by an ancient people whose message echoes throughout time and in our lives today. The Bible is the story of God’s love and grace that enters over and over and over again into human mess. God creates. Humans destroy. God calls people to create beautiful things (relationships, communities, lives). Humans reject the call. Contaminate and corrupt God’s gift of creation and misuse the gift to create by wielding hate and violence instead. God loves. Humans try to love and some succeed. But mostly they fail. God loves and loves some more. Humans fail. God keeps on loving and calling and encouraging humanity to trust in the Divine and live as people of the divine in their treatment of one another and the world they inhabit. Humans succeed in long moments and in spurts. God loves so much that God-self becomes flesh to show humanity that creativity, imagination, mercy and compassion is always the better way–better than desires to judge, control, manipulate, horde, and act recklessly with our own lives and the lives of others.
The Bible is inspired by God and written by fallible human beings whom God loves unconditionally. God in Christ remains faithfully involved in people’s lives despite their mistakes, including the discrepancies and errors in their stories, experiences and interpretations of God. It is true for the ancients of the Bible and true for us crazy human beings today.
Like my professors in seminary and my church mentors growing up, Enns’ book helped me once again to shape what I already knew to be true about the Bible but sometimes have difficulty expressing, particularly the violent, strange and contradictory texts.
End reminded me once again that the Bible’s purpose is not to provide safe and simple answers that solve all of life’s problems:
God did not design scripture to be a hushed afternoon in an oak-panel library. Instead, God has invited us to participate in a wrestling match, a forum for us to be stretched and to grow. Those are the kind of disciples God desires…When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. That journey was recorded over a thousand-year span of time, by different writers, with different personalities, at different times, under different circumstances, and for different reasons…
This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. Rather than a rulebook…the Bible is more a land we get to know by hiking through it and exploring its many paths and terrains. This land is both inviting and inspiring, but also unfamiliar, odd, and at points unsettling–even risky and precarious.
I believe God encourages us to explore this land–all of it–patiently, with discipline, in community, and above all with a sense that we , joining the long line of those who have gone before, will come to know ourselves better and God more deeply by accepting the challenge. ..We respect the Bible most when we let it be what it is and learn from it rather than combing out the tangles to make it presentable.
And, I might add, to judge others, to use the Bible to determine who is in and out of the church, who is not allowed in heaven or who is not deserving of God’s love.
Enn delves further into how the Bible can be so much richer for cultivating authentic faith when we allow the Bible to be what it is instead of trying to make its most violent parts behave or adhere to our justifications for God’s wrath and why we think God would be ok with all sorts of violence today. With great knowledge and respect for scriptures and wily sense of humor, Enns tackles the violent and strange and contradictory passages of the Bible head on. Instead of taming the Bible or locking it in a cage, Enns takes readers on an exploration of this wild living thing that breathes and moves across the landscape of the ancient and post-modern.
In their collection of essays, Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, encourage “Bible-loving Christians, agnostics, skeptics, none-of-the-aboves and people who aren’t afraid to dig deep spiritually, ask hard questions and have some fun along the way,” to not shy way from having Disquiet Time with the Bible.
Essays written by the “skeptical, faithful and a few scoundrels” explore difficult, bizarre and (sometimes humorous) texts that stir up questions and cause discomfort and confusion for readers, like grotesque violence, plagues of frogs, the trippy vision of Revelation, the role and treatment of women, sexual innuendo, angelic body parts, and all the poop references.
Whereas Enns takes readers through a process of how to approach the Bible as a sacred object that doesn’t needed to be defended but to be wrestled with, Grant and Falsani offer up voices of those who have stepped into the ring with the weird and formidable stories of the Bible.
Admittedly, I haven’t read the entire collection. Only the first nine essays because I’ve been distracted by other books on my sabbatical reading list. I’m realizing now that Disquiet Time is the type of book that doesn’t need to be read orderly from front to back and is actually better enjoyed when you flip to any essay when your own soul is feeling disquieted by the Bible, faith, God or the world in general. (Take a moment to peruse the global, political and entertainment news and you’ll immediately find some disquieting things).
The essays are exposing me to voices I need to hear and I’m in awe of their vulnerability and honesty as they share how particular texts have befuddled, angered, surprised or given comfort to them. To metaphorically see them struggle with disquieting texts to find meaning gives me courage to grapple with glowering behemoths like Genesis 16, Ruth 3, Ecclesiastes 9, and Deuteronomy 23.
And the most important lesson I’ve learned thus far is that the Bible is full of crap (Deuteronomy 23:12-13; 2 Kings 9:36-37; Exodus 29:12-14, Ezra 6:11, among others) and God is wading in the muck right along with us.