My God is Not a Book

I was talking to a friend this Sunday (you know who you are…), and he was telling me that he reads my blog (hi friend!), but that I often come across as defensive and scared as if there are an army of fundamentalists waiting on the other end of the internet to kill me for my beliefs. I’m sorry if it comes off that way. I don’t intend to live my life focused on my detractors. Life is too short to be afraid of those who would persecute you for your beliefs. Of course, I use “persecute” knowing full well that social ostracism and verbal abuse is hardly persecution in any real way. It’s funny because both my dad (hey dad!) and one of my professors recently said that I don’t seem worried in the least about what people think about me. They appreciate my wanton disregard for the opinions of my detractors and those who would write me off as a heretic (or worse). I’m glad that I come across that way, but I’m not there yet in my mind. Most days I don’t care, but there are times when I’m truly terrified that my friends and family will write me off. Can you relate to that? I hope so.

I find that many of these conversations come down to how one views the Bible. I was raised Baptist and we LOVE the Bible. If something cannot be convincingly supported by scripture, then it should be thrown away. Similarly, the Bible is to be understood literally. It is literally the Word of God, inerrant and infallible in all that it teaches and affirms. My pastor once said that the only reason that one would doubt a literal 6-day creation was if they didn’t believe that God was capable of it.

Yikes.

Among the heresies which I have been accused, the most common is that I ignore, twist, misuse, or abuse scripture. this would be funny if it weren’t so annoying. I hate when people proudly wave their education around as if it gives their opinions instant validity, but I think it’s appropriate here. I spent four years at Wheaton College studying biblical languages and then three years at Palmer Theological Seminary which is a Bible-centered Baptist seminary. The Bible is not a book that I just picked up at the checkout aisle of the grocery store to read at the shore this summer. This is a book that I have poured over, struggled with, and spent years studying in prayer. I don’t think that people realize how insulting it is to accuse someone of that. For example, a friend of a friend read my last post and then accused me of picking and choosing which parts of scripture that I wanted to follow while ignoring others. While she didn’t intend to mean this, she was basically discrediting all the countless hours I have spent studying the Bible not to mention all of the time I spend in prayer. Basically, she is willing to say that I have no relationship with God because our interpretations of a 2,000 – 3,000 year old collection of documents do not match.

Friends! Let us not use the Bible to tear us apart! I will try to be less defensive in later posts, but I feel the need to spend some time here.

First of all, can we please stop pretending like anyone actually follows the Bible literally? It makes me so mad when I am accused of picking and choosing scripture to support my beliefs.

Do you ever wear a cotton/polyester blend? (Leviticus 19:19)
Are you a man with long hair? (1 Corinthians 11:14)
Are you a woman who wears jewelry to church? (1 Timothy 2:9)
Do you believe that abolitionists were sinning and slaves should have just learned to behave? (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18)
If a man raped your daughter, would you force him to marry her? (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
If your child was disrespectful, would you kill him/her? (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Does your garden have different types of vegetables in it? (Leviticus 19:19)
Have you ever eaten fruit from a tree that was less than 5 years old? (Leviticus 19:23)
Have you ever eaten a juicy steak or cheeseburger? (Leviticus 19:26)

If we were being honest, NO ONE follows the Bible 100%. No one even tries to follow every letter of scripture. We all pick and choose what we want to believe and what we can explain away. Do you realize that Abraham married his half-sister and Jacob married a pair of sisters? All of these relationships are specifically outlawed in the Law! If we could just start admitting that we all ignore parts of scripture, we could start having real conversations about it. If not, I fully expect you to marry your brother’s widow, do no work on Saturdays, never eat bacon, and remember your head covering if you are a woman while never shaving the sides of your beard if you are a man.

“Ok, Zack. We know that you don’t take the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God. That’s lovely. What do you believe?”

I’m so glad that you asked!

The Bible is not the Word of God. The Word of God is the truth of God fully expressed in Jesus Christ. Check out John 1. The Word of God is eternal, unflinching truth. The Bible contains the Word, but it is not the Word. The Bible also contains some things that are culturally specific, situational, and inaccurate. I cannot believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old when there are countless proofs to the contrary. I cannot believe that the Earth literally stood still for Joshua, or that there was a global flood. I cannot force myself to believe that Noah had an ark big enough for every species of living creature including polar bears, Galapagos Tortoises, and Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. It’s insulting to my intelligence and to God’s to assume that this literally happened. The Bible may have been inspired and God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), but that does not make it perfect. We were also God-breathed (Genesis 2:6), and look at us! Having studied language for 10 minutes, you learn how imperfect it is as a tool for communication (why are there no languages that have a “to be” verb with normal conjugation?!)

Here’s a completely fictitious example to illustrate the limits of language…

My wife is sitting on the couch looking lovely as usual. She is typing diligently on her computer, presumably writing an email to important people about important things. I get her attention and say, “It’s 6:30”. She looks at me with disdain, rolls her eyes, sighs heavily, and walks out of the room.

The phrase “It’s 6:30” is entirely innocuous by itself. I’m just stating the current time. Now what if I said it in a really frustrated, sarcastic tone? What if I was really trying to convey “It’s 6:30, and you are on your computer? We’re going to be late!”? Ok. I can see why she would be upset at that. What if she was mad at me because she had asked me to tell her when it was 6:00 and I forgot? These things happen.

It would be impossible to convey accurately exactly what was happening in that moment using only the written language. However, Christians do that same sort of thing constantly. How can we expect the Bible to clearly and perfectly communicate truth through language when language is so nuanced and imperfect? Billions of women have been subjugated and repressed in churches because some men read Paul’s mail and assumed that they knew exactly what the words meant for their lives. Perhaps Paul was writing to his friend Timothy in first century Ephesus and maybe some of his church leadership advice isn’t applicable to 21st century American churches. I don’t think that makes me unfaithful to the text. I just think that we have different expectations. I do not expect that every sentence was written directly for me in my situation. I do not think that God wants me to march into Jericho in 2012 to slaughter every man, woman, and child.

The Bible is a splendid collection of documents. It is full of stories, poems, songs, visions, and advice. It even has an entire book about sex! When I read poetry in the Bible, I read it as poetry. When I read visions, I do not take them literally. When I read stories, I take their historicity with a grain of salt. Why should we force every ancient literary genre into our textbook-mentality? Genesis 1 and 2 tell creation stories that are completely different. The order is wrong and the creation of humans is different because they are not trying to give a reasoned account for the creation of the universe. They are trying to give it meaning. The ancient Hebrew people did not have our same obsession with stone cold facts. That’s why the Gospels are different. Jesus says different things, does different miracles, and does them out of order because they are all trying to explain different truths about Jesus’ life. It’s hard to jump into that mindset right away. We have been steeped in a certain understanding of history, myth, and story that will not easily pass away.

I encourage you to sit with the text, struggle with it, and do your very best to learn from it. God will speak through scripture. God does it constantly. It almost feels too easy that we have such a great collection of books at our disposal. If you are interested, I have some great books that will help you to get started learning about the different genres that are in the Bible and basic methods of interpretation so that you can start letting it speak to you in new and genuine ways. I am so glad that I chose the ancient language path. I originally chose it because I wanted to “decode” the Bible and figure out what it really said. What I got instead was a deep respect, love, and admiration of a collection of books that have been meticulously copied, studied, and prayed over by billions of people over thousands of years.

My Bible is not a textbook that was written by God. It is the collected history of idiots like myself who have been striving towards a God who actually strives back. It is a testament to God’s faithfulness and a constant source of wisdom and strength. It is a challenge to those who would claim to fully know God, and an encouragement to those who would like to try anyway. It is a place where God speaks to me, but by no means the only place. I respect the Bible, but I am careful not to treat it like an idol like I used to. I worship the living God that cannot be contained in 66 ancient books. The Holy Spirit cannot be fully articulated by any combination of verbs and nouns. Friends, do not abandon scriptures, but do not make them your god either! Biblical interpretation is an exercise that is done best in community, so I’m ending this entry now and inviting you to do it. I would love to have coffee with you sometime and talk about Jesus, Joshua, Paul, Miriam, Rebecca and the whole crazy crew!

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