Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Bible is a Model, So Use Your Brain

Image source.

Chapter 4 of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (by Peter Enns) is called "Why Doesn't God Make Up His Mind?" and it's about the very different, contradictory messages we can pull out of the bible.

The first example is the book of Proverbs, where different proverbs can give opposite takes on the same topic. Some verses say it's good to work hard and save money. Others say rich people put too much trust in their money. Maybe different proverbs would be relevant to different people in different situations. The overall message is to have wisdom and make good choices, and things will mostly work out for you.

Then flip over to Ecclesiastes, which says everything is meaningless anyway. Wisdom is meaningless. Wealth is meaningless. Uh, okay then.

And then there's Job, which has Job losing all his stuff and his family, and his 3 friends sit around and tell him to repent because this must be a punishment for sin. ("The bible is clear", you know.) Eventually God shows up and tells everyone "shut up, I'm God." [slight paraphrase]

Okay, so, three books of the bible which have very different messages about the benefits of being obedient to God. And each is valid and useful, in certain situations.

It seems that the bible is a record of many people's experiences with God and struggles with understanding God. Not a rulebook or a series of absolute statements about the way things are. Later in the chapter, Enns discusses a few other topics where different parts of the bible have different perspectives, such as laws and the question of how many gods there are anyway (which is not as obvious as one might think).

"The Bible Tells Me So" presents the bible as a model for our own spiritual journeys. We see the characters in the bible trying to connect with God and understand God, and we should do the same. We see them sometimes make mistakes or get something wrong about God. (For example, when they wrote that God totally told them to go kill all the Canaanites. Yeah, I'm sure that's what happened. *eyeroll*) Overall, though, the bible shows people who were trying their best to follow God and understand their place in the world.

The bible does not give us rules but rather shows us how people throughout Israel's history have searched for God.

I really like this view, but it brings up this question: Isn't that what every religion is? Why would the bible be more special than, say, the ancient religious writings of other tribes who lives near the Israelites? All of them were searching for God, right? Is the bible somehow different?

Image source.

Furthermore, if the bible is a model for us rather than a set of straightforward rules, and different parts will be relevant to different points in our lives, then we have to use our own brains to decide that. 

This is huge.

Within evangelical Christianity, it is commonly believed that people are so sinful and our hearts and minds are so twisted and deceptive that we can't be trusted to figure out what's right and wrong. That's why we need clear, black-and-white rules. Any deviation from the rules, any interpretation that makes them not as strict, will be met with "you just want to find a way to twist the Scriptures so you can follow your own sinful desires."

For example, let's say I want to marry my boyfriend, who's not a Christian. *GASP* but the rules say that Christians aren't allowed to marry non-Christians. Remember? "Do not be yoked together--"

Yes I know, but I think that verse actually---

OH DEAR GOODNESS NO! Perfect Number, how could you??? You just want to ignore the CLEAR TEACHING OF SCRIPTURE because you've been dragged away by your emotions, by temptation!

You didn't even hear my reasons. Because the reasons don't matter. It doesn't matter whether I can make an argument and cite the bible to support it. All that matters is that THE BIBLE IS CLEAR and, I mean, look at Perfect Number, she's dating a non-Christian guy, of course her mind is consumed by sin and unable to correctly interpret the bible.

(Yay I referred to myself using both first and third person there. Hope you can follow along.)

Even if I can give an argument that makes sense. Even if everyone who hears it thinks it makes sense and can't find any logical problems. Even then, it's still wrong, because I am so unbelievably sinful, and the rest of y'all are also unbelievably sinful, and all we know is "this is what God said" and we need to follow it even if it makes no sense. Because we can't trust our own brains.

But "The Bible Tells Me So" makes a case that we need to use our own brains to know which parts of the bible would apply or be meaningful to our own situations. (Not to mention the parts that are like "and God said, kill everyone in the city" and we all know that's not a legitimate thing that God would say.) And really, that's something each person has to decide for themselves. No one else knows your situation better than you do.

But this idea that each person is the expert on their own life is so counter to what evangelical Christianity teaches. Evangelicals oppose marriage equality because those gay people think that getting married would be a good thing for them, but evangelicals know it's really not. And they fight to make abortion illegal because if you allow people to have a choice about that, then they might choose abortion, which is of course always the wrong choice.

And the biggest one: It's very common for evangelical Christians to believe that everyone knows, on some level, that Jesus is Lord, but they choose to not follow him because they love to be sinful instead.

You say, "I don't believe in God," but HAHA actually you secretly do!!! Everyone apparently has a God-shaped hole in their heart. And everyone secretly knows it.

(Yeah needless to say, I don't believe that anymore. I realized that "I know your life better than you do, random stranger," is not loving, and is therefore not what Jesus would have me do.)

But if the bible is a model for our lives, then the question of which parts are meaningful for you is totally up to your own interpretation. In this view, rather than seeing the bible as an authority that tells us what to do, we have control over the bible.

Which, I know, is a horrifying (almost blasphemous) concept for a lot of Christians. But really, everyone is already doing that. The bible is not clear. It's not a rulebook. It's not a list of true statements that fell from heaven. Stop pretending it is, and use your brain.


My other posts about The Bible Tells Me So:

The Worst Bible Story
Blaming the Biblical Victim (And More Horrifying Implications of Scripture) 

The Bible's Contradictions Matter, And It's Not a Logic Problem 
The Bible is a Model, So Use Your Brain 
Jesus Takes the Bible Out of Context 
The Old Testament Does Not Predict Jesus 
Peter Enns Makes Me Want to Actually Read the Bible Again


  1. So true. What many evangelicals don't realize is that they're not following the Bible, but the evangelical tradition regarding what the Bible means. And a lot of that comes straight from older Protestant church traditions. Just because we don't have a pope telling us what the Bible means, doesn't mean we aren't getting told what the Bible means.

    As for what makes the Bible different, I think the main thing, for us as Christians, is that it's the book Jesus used and quoted, and the book the Apostles after Him used and quoted when talking about how to follow Jesus. I think Jesus, not the Bible, should be the focus of our religion.

  2. "What many evangelicals don't realize is that they're not following the Bible, but the evangelical tradition regarding what the Bible means."

    Yes, exactly! But people act like it's SO OBVIOUS what the bible means, and it's SO OBVIOUS which parts we should ignore because they don't apply to us.