Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Peter Enns Makes Me Want to Actually Read the Bible Again

Image source.
I just finished reading The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns, and YOU GUYS. YOU GUYS. This book.

I thought I knew everything about the bible. I grew up in evangelical Christianity. I've read the entire bible multiple times. I was totally a master at sword drills. I did bible quizzing and had entire books of the New Testament memorized. I've read commentaries for fun. For years I would read the bible every day and journal about it, and when I came upon some strange things, I would look for commentaries to explain them. In high school I was SO EXCITED when someone gave me a bible concordance- one of those big thick exhaustive concordances. AND I ACTUALLY USED IT. Brought it with me to college and everything. I've read all the apologetics books. I've started and led bible studies.

I know all the little trivia things that you pick up from years and years of church experience. God's real name was Yahweh- that's the small-caps "Lord" in the Old Testament- but they weren't allowed to say it. The Old Testament is not in chronological order at all; for example, Kings and Chronicles cover the same time period. Ancient Hebrew poetry uses parallel structures. New Testament writers often used an ABCBA kind of form in their writing. The bible never says there were 3 magi. The word "God" is never used in the book of Esther. The concept of the Trinity is never explicitly stated in the bible either. Matthew's and Luke's records of Jesus' genealogy are different. And there is a lot of freakish bizarre stuff in the Old Testament.

And on and on and on. I know what the bible says. Oh I totally know what the bible says. And also the cultural background to help understand it. Or so I thought.

Bible quizzing trophies. In a basement somewhere, I have a massive collection like these. Image source.

That was then. And now all of my beliefs have changed.

I don't read the bible every day. (Or much any day, really.) On purpose. No, I'm not doing that Christian thing where you confess to your small group "hey guys... I haven't been reading my bible every day... I feel so bad, can you pray for me?" No. I don't read the bible because I used to believe that being a "real" Christian and being totally devoted to God meant you have to read the bible every day. Doesn't matter if you're getting anything out of it or not. All that matters is you're a failure if you miss a day or two.

That's legalism. And right now, the only way for me to believe that God loves me regardless of whether or not I read the bible is to not read the bible.

It's so strange, in my experience in evangelical culture, people constantly preached against legalism. We loved the stories of Jesus telling the Pharisees how silly they were, with all their meaningless legalistic practices. We made fun of Catholics because they have so many traditions- they think God wants them to follow all these rules, but they're so wrong. (Yeah I was taught a lot of false stereotypes about Catholics...) But we evangelicals also had so many rules, so many things you need to do to be a "real" Christian. We believed it wasn't legalism though- legalism would be if we had rules for no reason. No no no, our rules were all CLEAR and OBVIOUS results of having real belief in Jesus. (Conveniently, this allows us to judge people who don't follow our rules- obviously, they are not real Christians.)

So I don't read the bible now. And I believe God cares about people's mental and emotional health, so God understands and is fine with it.

When I do read the bible, it's so hard for me to interpret it in any way other than the way I used to believe. I read a passage like Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and even though Jesus is explicitly saying that at the judgment, people will be rewarded or punished based on whether they helped others, I know exactly how Real True Christians would interpret it away. "Oh, of course Jesus is not preaching salvation by works here! Of course Jesus knows that it's only by faith that we can get to heaven- it's so obviously understood by his followers that he doesn't even feel the need to mention it in the passage! What he really means is if we're REAL Christians, we will do the things like feed the hungry and stuff. But, you know, the bible is clear that it's the belief part that really matters, not our works. You have to interpret the unclear passages in light of the clearer ones." [Though I can't find anything unclear at all about what Jesus said in Matthew 25.]

(Actually, the parable of the sheep and goats is one of my favorite passages, and I totally don't believe the Real True Christian interpretation I outlined above. So now I just have to come up with a new interpretation for all the other passages too, and I'll be all set.)

My point is, it's so hard to break out of that mindset and realize that the things that "the bible clearly says" are not actually clearly said at all. It's so hard to even notice that possibility that there could be another interpretation. That's why I don't read the bible.

Image source.

Thank God for this book, "The Bible Tells Me So."

Enns paints an entirely new picture of what the bible is. Actually, it's probably not new. It's probably something that bible scholars all know about. How the accounts of taking over the land of Canaan read like typical ancient battle stories, and were really about understanding their identity as a people, not about giving an accurate historical account of what happened. How Jesus interpreted the Old Testament using the same methodology as all the other Jewish people at that time- and which would be totally unacceptable to modern-day American evangelicals. How the New Testament writers reshaped Israel's history around Jesus.

Reading this book feels like reading a new fan theory about the Harry Potter universe. Wow, I had never thought about that before, but suddenly so many parts come together and make sense. And I already have so much knowledge about the story, I can just take the fan theory and run with it, discovering surprising new ways of looking at what has always been so familiar to me.

I find myself asking "how have I never heard about this before?" but unfortunately, I know the answer. I know the answer too well.

I was always encouraged to read the bible and really know the bible, but there were firmly-established constraints on the ways I was allowed to interpret it:

First of all, the bible is true. Which means everything in it actually literally happened. To suggest that Jonah was not really swallowed by a whale is to call into question all of scripture. Only people who hate God would do something like that.

Next, the bible has no mistakes or contradictions. I love logic, so I read all the apologetics books and websites answering the supposed contradictions. Everything was a logic problem, and we had to come up with some kind of twisted explanation that could allow both passage A and passage B to technically be true, even though they seemed to contradict each other. I spent so much time examining these specific, explicitly contradictory verses, that I never thought about whether the big picture made any sense. Sure, I could tell you all about how this or that really is not a contradiction, but had I ever questioned how a loving God could have ordered the Israelites to wipe out entire cities? Nope.

And finally, evangelicals are required to believe that everything God does or says in the bible is right and good. God said to commit genocide? Well, that seems bad, but we know it must be good. We know that's the answer, we just don't understand why. No more of that for me- I now believe it's not okay, and there is no possible explanation you could give that would make it okay.

Evangelical Christianity does not allow people to treat the bible like an actual book, which came from somewhere, which had authors, which was written in a particular time and culture. We have to believe it is a series of absolutely true statements that fell from heaven. We have to believe it's a rulebook- this is the view that Enns challenges in "The Bible Tells Me So."

"Everyone says that they wish their life came with instructions, but it already has instructions, it's called the BIBLE." Yeah, no. Image source.
Anyway, my point in all this is I've realized I have so much more to learn about the bible. I thought I knew everything, but it turns out all I knew was the one narrow interpretation that good Christians are allowed to believe.

"The Bible Tells Me So" makes me want to learn more. If the stories in the Old Testament are part of an ancient genre which should not be understood as literal history, then can we find more examples ofthis genre of writing in other ancient cultures? Why did they use it? How are the stories in the bible different from other ancient writings? Why are certain things included- and why are certain things embellished and exaggerated? What was the purpose of writing each book of the bible, and how would this purpose introduce bias into what was written? How did the Israelites' perception of God change over time? (All of these are questions that you're totally not allowed to ask in church. But so incredibly interesting.)

I'm struck by how totally amazing the bible is. Especially when you stop trying to force it to be something it's not.


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. I read an essay by Enns in a compilation called Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy, and it was the first time I realized I could still be a Christian even if I didn't believe the bible was 100% factual. I'll have to pick up TBTMS.

  2. I just finished "God's Word in Human Words" by Kenton Sparks, and I wish I had bought this book instead! Sparks makes many of the same kinds of points, but then ends his book with an long explanation of how despite what he calls the "clear trajectory towards egalitarianism" between men and women over the course of the Bible, husbands should still be in authority over wives and wives should still submit. I mean-- really, Dr. Sparks? It felt like I was taking a journey with a wise, helpful Christian teacher, and that when we got to where we were going, he then turned around and slapped me in the face.

  3. I read that one and it was really good! Except the section by Al Mohler, which made no sense to me.

  4. Yeah, this is the first time I've read something that actually MADE SENSE about the Canaanite conquest. There's a whole chapter about "here are some reasons people often bring up to justify the Canaanite genocide. Yeah ... none of them really make any sense." It felt so strange to read someone actually being honest about that.

  5. Oh my. Sounds like a case where the writer was giving a good argument that made a lot of sense, and then realized good Christians are not allowed to believe in the obvious conclusion of the argument, so he was like "okay but not really! Wives still need to submit!"

    I see that in articles about purity culture a lot. My favorite (heh) was an article that said "I did everything right, I didn't have sex till I was married, and then there were so many problems/shame/etc, there is something horribly wrong with what we're teaching about purity. Of course, people still shouldn't have sex before marriage though." wut.

  6. I grew up on Al Mohler, and his brand of inerrancy gave me horrific anxiety. In Mohler logic, inerrancy = Christianity, and genocide/etc = totally fine because God is good (but not safe). It didn't make sense to me either.

  7. Yeah, that kind of common sense just isn't allowed in many churches.