When I was in Grade Eleven Algebra and we were all a little more interested in our hormones than in the Wonders of Math, my good and kind teacher, Wayne Taylor, was one day driven to the point of distraction. Having asked several questions to which nobody offered an answer, he stood up in front of the class waving his copy of “Using Algebra” over his head. (His copy was the only one in the room that hadn’t had the letters LGE blacked out so it read “Using A Bra”). As loudly as that mild-mannered man ever raised his voice, he said in a voice of terrible doom: “Has anyone here ever actually READ THIS BOOK???!!!!”
Silence descended upon the classroom. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats. Finally Sheldon, one of the class smart-mouths (don’t ask who the others were) spoke up.
“No Sir,” he said. “I’m waiting for the movie.”
That story has afforded me a lot of happy memories over the years. But I also have to confess that there are times in church, say when the adult Bible study is going on in Sabbath School class, when I want to jump up, grab my Bible, wave it above my head and yell, “Has anyone here ever actually READ THIS BOOK?!?!?”
Reactions like this generally arise when people in discussion say things like, “But it’s all in the Bible! It’s so simple! It’s so clear!” When they shake their heads in amazement over the inability of the Jews in Jesus’ time to see that Jesus was the Messiah because “It’s all there in the Scriptures,” or the inability of the person in the next view to agree with their particular doctrinal quirk because “It’s Biblical!”
That’s when I want to jump up on the pew and scream, “Have any of you ever actually READ THIS BOOK? If you have, how did you possibly come away with the perception that it’s SIMPLE and CLEAR?!?! I love the Bible. It’s the single most important book in Western civilization and literature, it’s the foundation of the Christian faith and it’s my personal guide in life — but it is NOT a clear, simple, straightforward book! Can’t you see how ANY bizarre strand of doctrine can be justified by SOME text in this book? Can’t you see that it’s an enormously complicated collection of ancient writings that owes as much to to its human authors as it does to divine inspiration? Can’t you see that different people can read the Bible honestly and come away with completely different conclusions?”
I was raised in an atmosphere of respect for the Bible that, I’ve since learned, some of our less Protestant friends refer to as “Bibliolatry.” I was taught that sola Scriptura was the answer to everything and that you should never lay anything, not another book or a glass or water or a piece of clothing, on top of the Bible. I was taught that Bibles survived intact when houses burned, and that a breast-pocket Bible had saved many a soldier from a fatal bullet-wound to the chest (though I later heard the same miraculous property attributed to a pack of cigarettes in a metal tin). I was raised on “Give me the Bible, holy message shining, Thy light shall guide me in the narrow way.”
I love the Bible. I read the Bible. I have read the whole thing through more than once, and some parts hundreds of times. Someone once anonymously stuck a note in my Bible that said “A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to a person who isn’t.” I guess that was intended as a compliment, because my favourite and most-used Bible (like most good Adventist Bibliolaters, I have several, in different translations) is quite shabby indeed. I’m not sure if it’s kept me from falling apart but it’s certainly provided the context and shape for who I am and what I believe.
But clear? Simple? Straightforward? Not hardly.
The Bible enlightens and inspires me; it also frustrates and puzzles me about as often. I’d sometimes like to do what many great thinkers from Marcion through Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson have done — create my own abridged Bible, cutting out all the bits I don’t like and leaving in only the “good bits.” The Trudy Bible would lose almost all of Joshua and Judges and significant chunks of most other Old Testament books, including the Cursing Psalms. It would retain most of the New Testament, but a few difficult sayings by Jesus and by Paul could be excised, along with the tale of Ananias and Sapphira and some of the bloodthirstier bits of Revelation. I’m pretty sure I could take the Bible and edit it down to a clear, simple statement of doctrines I happen to agree with — but the Bible, as it currently stands, is neither clear nor simple. It’s an ancient, difficult, complex, troublesome collection of documents, and in my better moments I like it like that.
It seems to me that Biblical literalism — which is closely tied to the view that the Bible is simple, clear and straightforward — is only possible if you read very very selectively. If you read certain carefully chosen passages and ignore a lot of others. Or else if you read the whole Bible through the lens of a developed system of theology that you’ve already been taught. If you have your framework already in place, you can make all the texts fit the framework — although some may have to be squeezed harder than others to fit. This is something Seventh-day Adventists often accuse other Christians of doing, but in fact we’re just as guilty as everyone else — the Bible is clear and straightforward if you read it through the lens of Adventist doctrine that tells you which parts are important, which deserve less attention, and how to “explain” the difficult parts.
If you try to drop your framework — and of course none of us can ever fully drop the frameworks we’ve been taught — and just read the text as a text, you find something that’s challenging, difficult, inspiring, and very far from clear and straightforward. What do you do then? Look for a new framework? But every framework has the same problem — some bits don’t fit. Throw out the whole thing? I can’t do that, nor would I want to. So I’m left with just accepting that the Bible is big and complex, that every precept and promise matters somehow but that I have to become friendly with the words “I don’t know” if I’m to interact with the Bible in a meaningful way.
I like the fact that when I have created God in my image, reading the Bible forces me to confront aspects of God’s character, and aspects of human nature, that I’d rather not deal with. I like that the Bible challenges me and make me think and ask questions.
I don’t like the fact that there are parts of the Bible that I cannot understand at all, or that I cannot reconcile with any theology I’d choose to believe in.
I like the fact that the Bible is bigger than my understanding, and that God is bigger than the Bible. Because that reminds me that God is much, much bigger than I am. Thinking that I can understand the Bible, and that thus I can understand God, leads to absolute certainty. And the people who are absolutely certain are, to be quite frank, a little scary.
At this point in life’s journey, my best conclusion about the challenging bits of the Bible and of faith is that I’m OK with a little uncertainty … and that I will try to refrain from jumping up on the pews and yelling at people in church.