Saturday, June 17, 2006
What good is the Bible?
Here's another one of my posts over at the eBay Atheist message boards that I'd thought I'd share here. It was my response to the question quoted below:

I think what you're saying is that the bible has some bad stuff because the world was a bad place when it was written. It still is a bad place in a lot of ways, so I can understand that criticism.

But my larger point is, why tie ourselves to that? If it takes a PH.D. in heart, soul and loving application to read the bible in a way that seperates the wheat from the chaff, then what does the BIBLE itself add to the equation?

If I have a kind and loving heart, I'll be able to read the Bible with the eyes and heart to find the nuggets. If not, then not. What does the bible add then? Isn't it like the saying, the only god on mountaintops is the one you bring with you?

That's a great question. I get your dilemma, I really do. I've asked myself very similar questions. You're basically asking what good is the Bible if it is so open to misreading.

And if the Bible's purpose is primarily as a book of moral commands and guidelines for living then the answer is "not much at all." And of course the Bible does contain moral commands and guidelies as part of its content, but by no means is this the bulk of its matter or even wholly central to its purpose. The Bible, rather, is a story of God at work in and through humanity in order to redeem us and transform us into the kind of people he always intended us to be. It's a long and messy story, but that's because we're a messy race.

To me the messiness portrayed in the Bible is one of its great strengths - because it is authentic to real human experience. I don't know about you, but when I read some of the great spiritual writers, and some of the wisdom from the great sages of the past, a lot of it strikes me as very esoteric and detached from the blood, sweat, laughter and tears of actual human existence. I want a religion that isn't just about vague "spiritual" experiences. I want a religion that speaks into the nitty gritty of every day life - a religion that is as real and as raw and as complicated as my own life often is. So when the Bible portrays a God who is involved with humanity in real, raw, and complicated ways, it strikes me as authentic, as "true".

So the point of the Bible is to tell us about the God who is engaged with his creations in an ongoing process of moral and spiritual transformation. Even the moral commands within it need to be read in that context, i.e. they need to be understood as God’s words to those people at that particular part of the human story – what they needed at the time to keep them on an upward track of moral progression – but not as the final word on those moral issues for all people at all times.

For me it’s helpful to think of this in terms of “trajectory”, in terms of what direction or trajectory the Bible is pointing us towards, rather than as a set of absolute, unchanging moral codes. So, on the violence issue for example, we see God gradually leading people from a violent society of excessive retribution, to the more limited retribution of the OT’s “eye for an eye” to Jesus’ more radical “Love your enemies”. In other words there’s an upward trajectory throughout scripture towards nonviolence and reconciliation. The same is true of the slavery issue that I described in my previous post. We go from the Jubilee concept of the early OT (every 50 years all slaves were to be set free), to the condemnations of the late OT prophets on masters who exploited and abused their slaves, to the socio-economic equality of the NT and treating slaves a full brothers/sisters and co-workers in Christ. I could also describe a similar upward trajectory of how we are to value and treat women in society.

What the Bible “adds”, then, is not the perfect moral code for all time. What it does is reveal the heart and character of God as he works in and through broken, violent, oppressive humanity to gradually bring about better world. It tells us the story of a God who joins us where we are at, despite our imperfections, and gives us what we need at that time and in that situation. I don’t know where else we could get that from. We all have an innate moral sense (that I believe is evidence of God’s Spirit at work within each of us, regardless of our faith) so we don’t necessarily need the Bible for that. But where else would we go to hear that God is actually at work in the world, in real times and real places, to change it for the better? Where else would we hear that story?

But I’m sure you could still say to me “Well that’s fine and good for you to read the Bible that way, but what about all the other Christians who seem to dangerously misunderstand it? Why would God give us a book that is so easily and dangerously misapplied?”

One answer I would give is to say that we shouldn’t be so quick only to see the negative results of Christianity. Yes, some people have used the Bible to justify things like genocide, but the vast majority do not and never would dream of doing so. There are multitudes of people who could tell you of all the good the Bible has done in their life, how its influence has caused them to become better parents, better spouses, better people. How it has helped them overcome addictions or learn to really offer forgiveness, even for deep emotional scars. They could tell you how it has led them back from the brink of suicide or motivated them to sell everything they have and give it to the poor. There are countless stories of people who, because of the Bible’s influence in their lives, have given up their comforts, their security and their homes to go work overseas in hospitals, orphanages, schools and churches serving people because of Christ’s example. And I’m not just talking about the Mother Teresa’s of the world (though she is certainly included). These are ordinary people, my friends, people I went to school with even, who are doing these things because they took seriously the words of the Bible. These people make up the majority of the Christian faith. These are the unsung heroes. These are the people whose lives and examples constantly get overshadowed in our culture by a handful of pedophile priests or by a few dozen whack-jobs with “God hates fags” signs. I will be the first to stand up with you and denounce the evil things done (supposedly) with biblical sanction. But I can’t deny the fact that I have seen (often first hand) the power of the Bible to also change lives for the better. I have seen evidence of this more times than I can remember. My own life in fact is a testimony to the transformative power of Scripture.

The other answer I would give is to ask what else do you want God to do? How else could he communicate to us his character and his will in a way that humanity couldn’t also similarly corrupt and misunderstand? He walked with us as a friend in the Garden, and we ignored his words. He spoke to us in power from the mountain, and we nearly shit our pants and asked him to go away. He sent us prophets and we killed them whenever they said something we didn’t want to hear. Finally he sent us himself, as one of us, and of course we killed him too. And he gave us the story of all these attempts to us in the form of a book, but why would we do any better at handling that messenger than we have at listening to any of the others? If the Bible seems misunderstood and ineffective I think there’s probably good reason to suppose that the problem lies at least much in the recipients of the message as within the messenger itself.

Sorry for the excessively long post. But it was a good question and deserved a full reply.


posted by Mike Clawson at 1:03 AM | Permalink |


At 6/17/2006 10:03:00 AM, Blogger dan

Nice, Mike. Thanks!


At 3/07/2008 12:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Your reply makes absolutely no sense, you realize.

I never understand why Christians have such a petty and limited view of a supposedly omnipotent and loving god.


At 3/18/2008 11:07:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Pete, could you be more specific?