Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Wrestling with the Bible
The last time I went to a school that taught me to read the bible as a conservative was in my elementary school, which was run by a conservative baptist church. Between that and growing up deeply rooted in a pentecostal church, I assumed that the bible had to be read strictly and literally. If I ever came across an inconsistency in the bible, it was obviously a problem with our human understandings rather than with the text itself. We assumed the bible was without error, that it was literally dictated by God to the authors of the bible.
But when I turned sixteen, I started taking some classes at a community college and learned about how mainstream biblical scholars read the bible. As it turned out, Genesis wasn't written by Moses, it was stitched together from multiple sources, and Adam and Eve weren't historical individuals. Seeing this 'secular' reading of the bible was rather shocking for me, to say the least. I wasn't really sure what to do with it, so I started reading conservative apologetics like Ravi Zacharias and Josh McDowell to defend my faith from 'liberal attacks.' This didn't work very well. I gave up biblical inerrancy, but remained basically conservative in most ways. But curiosity sent me further down the rabbit hole...
I ended up going to another university a few years later as a religious studies major where we learned about the quest for the historical Jesus, reading works from the Jesus Seminar and other critical scholarship. Between a deeper reading of biblical scholarship and learning about other religions, I lost my confidence in conservative beliefs. I then started engaging philosophical questions like the problem of evil at a whole new level. To make a long story short, this process sent me drifting in and out of faith - never actually leaving church, but rarely sure what 'faith' meant to me anymore. The rug had been pulled out from under my feet and I often felt lost in a sea of relativity.
At some point, I found myself able to embrace faith again, largely due to discovering the rich tradition of progressive Christian thought. While it was always there, I just didn't take it very seriously - after all, conservatives often despise liberal Christians more than non-Christians. But now I'm finishing a master's degree in theology and philosophy of religion at a liberal Protestant seminary where mainstream biblical scholarship is taken for granted. So things have changed a lot for me as a 'biblical' Christian over the past twelve years or so.
What do I think of the bible, twelve years into this slow and sometimes painful journey out of conservative Christianity? While for years I sometimes lost sleep over questions of biblical interpretation to know precisely how to believe and act as a pious evangelical, today that's thankfully no longer as much of dilemma. I love the bible, I read it often and also want to know what the best scholars say about it - but it is not an inerrant or infallible book, in my view. Few things are more obvious to me than that the bible is a human product, filled with a variety of voices that sometimes do not agree. That does not mean it is not inspired as well - indeed I really believe it is as a witness to the Christ event that continues to be of central importance to me.
But sometimes the bible is wrong, not simply on external grounds like modern science, but (as my Hebrew Bible professor at CST often said) on internal grounds of other voices in the text and the approach to such a multi-voiced text should thus be dialogic. Sometimes the very things that one voice in the text criticizes as wicked are upheld as righteous by a competing voice - and this is not about the New Testament vs. the Old Testament! Take for example one famous feminist reading of the bible. It is difficult to deny the patriarchal/androcentric aspects of the text, but as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has pointed out, one also finds alternative, more redemptive and affirming views of the full humanity of women in the text upon critical examination. Rosemary Radford Reuther thus argues for the 'critical principle of feminist theology': "The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive...presumed not to reflect the divine..." (Sexism and God-Talk, 19) Similarly, one can also point to postcolonial readings of the bible that "operate with more troubling ambivalence, tracing decolonizing and colonizing themes within scripture." While they "mine the bible for liberative strands" they also point out that the same bible "contains elements of bondage and disenfranchisement." (Postcolonial Theologies, 10)
All of that goes to say that the diversity of voices in the text refuse to be watered down into an easy, harmonious whole to extract a neat set of logical propositions. And I really thank God for that. Seriously, the idea of having an inerrant book dropped from heaven (so to speak) creates far more problems than it solves. We really don't want that kind of omnipotent God who could arrange such an unquestionably inerrant situation.
Maybe a truly 'biblical' Christianity, then, is one that boldly enters in to a surprisingly dynamic conversation in the text, forfeiting the dogmatic certainties of conservatism for a more lively approach to biblical faith. As Christians, we need not drop our primary commitment in the text to the Christ event to see the bible in this more critical way. In fact, to follow the way of Jesus, taking seriously his prophetic critique of injustice, may actually mean bringing a similar critique against parts of the text.