I wish the Bible came with an introduction called “How To Read The Bible”. I really do. But it doesn’t. So we end up reading it a whole bunch of different ways, ways that we sometimes don’t even realise.
It’s important to remember that every act of reading the Bible is an act of interpretation. If you read a passage and say “God said it, I read it, it’s a science textbook”, you’re interpreting. You might feel like you’re taking the simplest possible approach, but it’s still interpretation.
When you read it, when you interpret it, you bring something to the table. You bring yourself, your worldview, your biases, your baggage, your affiliations, all that stuff. It’s a fish-in-water sort of thing. You don’t really feel it until you’re swimming upstream.
I’ve thought a lot about this. I mean, really thought. If you look at the posts on this blog (few as they are of late), a bunch of them are about scripture, about how to deal with the text.
Because we have to deal with the text. We have to deal with what it says and what our culture says. We have to deal with what is says and what science says. We have to deal with what it says and what our experience says. We have to deal with it because a simple (though I would argue not simple at all) reading of the text brings us up against some really hard stuff. We end up conflicted about reality.
Take the creation narrative.
Let’s touch that third rail for a minute.
The Bible starts with this (to our eyes) recounting of how the world was created. But do keep in mind that word “how”. I’ll come back to that later. Read it literally. God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. It’s not ambiguous. The timeline is a little confusing and some of it seems a bit out of order, but put that to the side for now. 6 days, 6 literal days. This is the simplest possible reading.
This brings us up against some facts about the world. The world is incredibly old. The fossil record, sediment records, rock, ice, all this stuff tells us the world is incredibly old. We see a history full of starts and stops in the story of life, blossomings and extinctions, all over the course of billions of years.
The story that science tells and and the story that Genesis tells us are in direct contradiction.
Here’s where you choose your side. Either you keep your Bible story or you keep your science story. You don’t get to do both. I mean, there have been lots of attempts to synthesise the two sides, but most of them fail the laugh test (a thousand years are like a day, anyone?).
This is an incredibly dangerous place to be. It’s a place of turning away. For many people, if you must–as the fundamentalist would say–accept the word of the Lord over the word of Men, the Bible ends up being the thing that goes. You go to university or simply get curious about the world and you find yourself swamped in evidence that the fundamentalist’s word of the Lord is in fact a bunch of fairy tales.
I’m sure some people can live in this tension. But most people don’t like to. I don’t like to.
For a long time I looked for a way out. I listened to a lot of stuff by hucksters like Ken Ham, people so desperate to reinterpret the world in light of their reading of the Bible, they will literally misrepresent the laws of thermodynamics.
I realise a lot of people will part ways with me here, but I felt that there was an intellectual dishonesty in denying the truth so I could accept the Truth of the Bible. I felt like all truth must be God’s truth.
And I thought about this for a long time.
I’m not in fundamentalist circles anymore. I’m not buffered by a group of like-minded people who can come alongside me and help me, tell me I’m part of the misunderstood minority who know the Truth, that the world is simply out to destroy God with their theories.
One day I started reading up on different approaches to Creation. Specifically the Roman Catholic approach. Now, being open to considering the Roman Catholic approach to anything was enough pretty crazy, considering I’m out of the Reformed church, which has a sort of Luke-Skywalker-in-the-dark-side-cave relationship with the RCC. That aside, it was incredibly refreshing to see an organization affirming (after some waffling, sure) that the truth we see in the world is God’s truth. That the story told in Genesis is not at odds with the story in the soil.
See, I was bringing so much of myself and my capital-M Modern worldview to the text. I wanted it to be true like a textbook should be true, not like a “true because it shows dragons can be beaten” true. I projected that desire onto the Bible.
And just to be very, very clear, this is not something Bible demands. The dichotomy between what I see and what I read is no dichotomy at all. This is a thing of my own making, a thing created by our collective desire to out-world the world, to out-fact the fact-finders. It is a constraint I put on the text, a dangerous and unnecessary constraint, I test of faith that no one should have to pass.
I’ve still got that inside of me, though. You grow up a certain way, you get conditioned a certain way, you can’t just think yourself out of. (I don’t like swearing on tv, but not because I feel some strong objection to it, but because part of me thinks “my mom would hate this”.) Reading the Bible a different way feels like a cheat, sometimes. I know it’s not. Trying to honour the text in what it was meant to be, in the context it was written, for the people it was written to, to take that and read it into my own life is a wonderful gift, a valuable thing.
But somewhere in the back of my head is that little fundamentalist golem who tut tuts while spinning fine guilt out of scriptural hay.
So how do I read the Bible? Well, I try to approach it by asking the text itself what it’s supposed to mean. Not to me. But to the people who it was written to. We’re talking a tribe or nation that didn’t have a scientific method, a group of people with a completely different cosmology–if you can call it that–and worldview, suffused as they were in the creation myths of other people. God chooses to speak into that context.
The word wasn’t written to me. For me, yes. But not to me. That’s a critical difference.
The text doesn’t describe how God created the world, not really. It doesn’t talk about processes. It says God speaks the world into existence, creating a world that he can dwell in, a sort of temple that he can inhabit. It’s not meant to describe process. It’s meant to describe purpose. What is the purpose of the world? As a resting place for the glory of God.
This isn’t an emptying of the text, some kind of liberal scholastic way of pouring out all the good stuff and filling it up with evolutionary nonsense. It’s a way to allow the spirit of God to use the text to move us thousands of years after the text was written, in our own unique context, as fish in our own kind of water. Because we need that; we are immersed in a world that only cares about process, drowning in its own materialism, unable to answer “why”. It’s all there in this magnificent prologue, the creation of a world to be a place inhabited by God.
We see that fulfilment of that in person and work of Jesus Christ, in the promise of reconciling to himself all things, of his victory over death and the grave, of his kingdom victorious.
This isn’t kicking out the bricks from under the rest of the Bible. The opposite: It brings forward a new dimension. It allows us to participate in the original intention of the text. The creation narrative stood in opposition to the creation myths of the surrounding nations at the time–you needed 10 gods to do this stuff, check out Yahweh–and it stands in opposition the spirit of our age as well. Your philosophy is nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die, come watch TV? Have I got news for you!
You’re not doing God any favours by denying that he can use a process like evolution to achieve his purposes. I mean, think about the Bible. It was written and assembled by a bunch of scribes, anonymous authors, redactors, etc. And yet we have no issue saying that scripture is a product of inspiration, because of course God can guide those many people, God can inhabit that process of assembly. Or, more recently, think about how we arrived at the Bible as we know it now: A series of people sat in judgement of the various texts and tried to discern which ones were inspired. We don’t think about that too often, but there’s God again, inhabiting a process (which a sizeable portion of the church disagrees on, I might add).
I’m going to close this out by quoting William J. Webb: I might be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I’m human and I might just be wrong. I think I stand on the side of an emerging consensus seeking to free the Bible from the stranglehold of fundamentalism (and I don’t mean to be antagonistic if you see “fundamentalist” as a badge of honour) in the west. But, you know, I could be wrong.