Why is the Bible so Messy?

The question was recently posed to me why there is not more consistency in reading the Bible. The person who asked this comes out of a scientifically based background and is used to more standardization than there appears within the Church. I’ve thought about the question and several potential answers have developed, but I do have to admit in some ways I’m not sure.

First, I would argue there is simply a complete lack of training within the Church. There is a popular notion that the Bible is easy to read and so anyone can do it with little (or no) training. Such an idea is completely absurd but comes from the fact we teach the Bible to Children, and to do so we water the Biblical stories down to almost nothing. Then when people reach adulthood and re-read the stories they implicitly water-down the stories to the childish versions and filter the extraneous details. The result is a community of people who still only read and recognize the Bible in a simplistic nature. What is worse, with the rise of independent churches fewer pastors are gaining solid theological education and thus even the leadership sometimes lacks the ability to truly read and process the Bible accurately. I struggle with this principle, I want my children to learn Biblical stories in their youth but not at the expense of truly recognizing the Bible when they mature. Also I admit the Bible is a very difficult book to read but often people do not put in the work. Answer 1: because many people think they know the Bible without reading it.

People also misunderstand what the Bible is. Many people think the Bible is a rule-book/chronicle of events, and this simply is not the case. There are several factors which influence this and I don’t have room to trace each one, but it boils down to the idea that we read an English translation of ancient texts and expect them to read like they are 21st century American books (sorry to international readers this is my context). One example people often read the Bible in terms of crime and punishment and laws, meaning God the governor and judge has issued laws we violated those laws now God must dictate a punishment. Why because we read words like law, justice, guilt, transgression, & punishment in the Bible. But the ancient story is not like that, because the cultures which produced the Bible had a different idea, even if they used the language. They saw God as creator and humanity as guilty of trying to live outside the created order and the punishment is the consequence of living outside the order (like the consequence of running a car without oil is the engine blows up) God is trying to correct this and return us to life in the created order. The laws are like the warning lights on the dash that you are going to experience terrible consequences. The result is that not everyone picks up on these cultural distinctions and they come up with wild explanations for the text which may or may not have a basis in the Bible. Along with this we must recognize the Bible is inherently meditation literature and meant to be read over the course of a lifetime (not a series of out-of-context verses meant to be quoted in times of difficulty). There are some things you cannot pick up without years of reading it. I include in this the fact that the Bible is subtle, and with good reason, it is trying to change morality and that doesn’t happen overnight through explicit statements at least not often. Many wonder why the Bible does not make explicit statements about freeing slaves or elevating women, but when we read closely we see statements to treat slaves like brothers (see Philemon) and women as the first teachers in Christianity. Basically, there are many in the Church (and far more outside) who have failed to pick up on the subtly and the implications of the text. Answer 2: Because the Bible was written in a different time and place and is not completely familiar to us.

Those first two are somewhat pet-peeves of mine and so I list them first, I also list them first because they are correctable. But there are reasons why the Bible cannot be as consistent as other documents. (I honestly don’t know if the person who asked the question meant this but I will include this note in brackets just in case someone reading needs it. The Bible is full of different types of literature, some are fairly straightforward and others complex each type of literature must be interpreted on its own and sometimes that is far more difficult than it sounds. Failing to understand or appreciate falls into answers 2-4.)

The Bible is about relationships between God and humanity, and this involves human authors and human readers. Human authors are going to write differently about their encounters with God and different reasons for writing; and human readers are going to read those accounts differently. Biblical authors like Ezekiel write of God very far off and distant, while some like the author of Genesis present God as very near. We understand both are true statements but sometimes these differences can result is confusion in the reader. A clear example of this is the often silly but sometimes profound discussion of humanity’s freewill which has taken place within the Church, which rests on how one interprets various passages throughout the Bible. Likewise I as a 21st century white American male am going to be hit by themes in the Bible which are not striking to my sister in Iran, or even to my brother in 17th century America. This ties to the fact the Bible is multi-layered and deep. Authors can (and often do intend multiple themes) and as we promote or hide these themes we come to different understands, some good others not. For instance I recently was debating with another Christian who justified his support of the US government’s deportation of 100 Iraqi Christians under Romans 13 and (I find) a poor interpretation of Paul’s instruction to promote the government. But to do this he dramatically failed to see the theme of 1 John “love one another”. I find that in this one example all three of my first answers applied, he relied on a childish interpretation of the Bible, a failure to truly read the Bible, and an interpretation based on his own context which in this case was not a positive. Answer 3: The Bible is relational as well as informational and relies on various individual encounters with God.

Along the same lines God is extremely complex and we simply cannot process God; in fact, most, if not all, the language we use of God is metaphorical. Even the word “god” is only a title and barely expresses the personhood of being associated with it. I liken this difficulty to trying to describe a diamond when one is colorblind and is only able to see one facet (or maybe the edges of two). We must recognize we speak in metaphors about God and even though this God has condescended to have relationship with us, we are not then in a fit position to fully describe God. When applied to the Bible this concept means that sometimes we get overconfident about the metaphors we choose to highlight and how we highlight them. All of this does not mean we are incapable of knowing anything about God, but it does lead to some confusion when we try to discuss God with others whose picture is of a different facet. (I am completely aware that this statement borders on the pluralism which is so widespread currently, however, there are some clear distinctions between the God presented in Christianity and the ways other religions would define a/the god(s)). Answer 4: God is extremely complex and will overwhelm any one attempt to be defined.

I know exactly what the person meant when asking me this question but I cannot resist this tangent. Even within science there are times of inconsistency. I look at the current understandings within physics, we understand physics should work on one unified theory but as of yet we do not understand it. the result is conflicting theories about how the world works. This speaks to the complexity of the material we are trying to process and the same can be said for God. The Bible represents communication with God and will therefore represent the complexity inherent in humanity trying to adequately connect with and reflect the message of God. Also just as we still teach Newtonian physics to children though we’ve advanced beyond some of those concepts we do the same with the Bible. But again unlike science there is no uniform and accepted communication style within the Bible nor is the Bible trying to lay out static concepts like science. Humanity is much more messy than all that and especially when one considers relationships. I understand there will be some who find this completely unsatisfying but I find it interesting.

My last answer for today (there could be more) is that we need to view Bible within concentric circles beginning with the most basic teaching in the church the life death and resurrection of Jesus. Each of the circles represents the importance of a specific teaching to the Christian faith. The cross and resurrection are vital, central and we all agree on those. undefinedAnd as I said of the debate above he had failed to set a proper order of importance to the teachings of the Bible. Which, I ask, points toward the reality of new life in Jesus, obeying the rulers who want to perpetuate the old life which is what governments do, or loving those who have accepted the new life in Jesus? I know I can be guilty of this sometimes, I like specific areas of the Bible which are less central and more speculative and I bring those into the foreground. In fact, I find this to be a great temptation in the Church precisely because it makes Christianity easier (I don’t have to worry about denying my “self” as much). This fits in with G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

Answer 5: we fail to properly prioritize the teachings of the Bible.

All of this comes together in we do not seek the right central themes (answer 5) not do we allow for the proper distinctions in belief (see answer4). Often this is because we fail to see the Bible as a relational document and want to make it what it is not (see answer 3). This is vague and somewhat unsettling and many people do not like this so they become dogmatic about things less than central to Christianity, which creates spheres of identity which are very tempting to humans who want to belong. We find ourselves supporting conflict unintentionally because we have a felt need to be right and to fit in and both of these come together in the Church. This leads to a maintenance of poor understandings of the Bible (answer 2) and a desire to pass these along rather than grow and develop during our Christian lives (answer 1). Summation: We major in the minors, and minor in the majors.

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