The Bible That Borrows Part 1

In the summer of 2012, I had to face the Bible class I had taught for two years and announce that I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore. In fact, I was basically sure I didn’t. I’ve always tried to be transparent with people, and I wasn’t going to pretend to believe in something I knew I really didn’t.

What it came down to was the Bible.

No book in history has been as consequential or influential, but I could no longer get behind it. Either my view of God was correct or my view of the Bible was correct.

But not both.

It took me three years from that summer to arrive at what I now believe. And once I figured out what I believed (and I did), it took me another year just to figure out how to talk about it. Today, I believe in God more strongly than I ever have in my life, and, in the interest of remaining transparent, I want to spend the next several weeks talking about where I’m at.

Because I really, really like it.

Automatons

I was brought up to think of the Bible’s writers as automatons. Transcribers. Mere copyists.

I agreed that humans wrote the Bible, but only in the sense that a printer might be said to write something. Yes, their pens moved in the correct ways—but the thoughts, the motivations, and the genius behind the words weren’t theirs; they were always God’s. Really, had the Bible’s writers no awareness of what they were writing—had they written the whole thing in their sleep—it would have made little difference to me.

Squeezing out of the Bible every trace of humanity was how I understood reverence for the power and glory of God Almighty, so I grew up uneasy with those smug ivy-league academics who from time to time would write about the Bible authors’ purposes and motivations. Kind of like when someone orders a “pop”, my fine-tuned southern mind instantly identifies them as not from around here (and probably not trustworthy).

I was brought up to understand the Bible through the prism of such unimpeachable labels as “inspired,” “infallible,” and “inerrant,” and the only reason anyone might venture into the dangerous territory of its writers’ so-called biases, politics, and agendas was because they were set out to disprove God.

Or, if such a person claimed to be a believer, it was only because they were one of those new-age liberals who were always just trying to explain away the clear words of scripture. Such people were a lesser form of believer—a kind in name only. They wanted easy, comfortable religion. Not like the real Christians—me included—who were honest and brave enough to read scripture for what it says.

But it went deeper. It’s not like I was happy for those people to just have their space while I had mine. No. They were threatening. Not really to me, but to the souls of millions and billions of other people whom they would deceive and send hurtling down to Hell. Because if we can’t believe every part of the Bible as literal and historic truth, then everyone would be free to do and believe whatever they wanted. And that was unacceptable.

As Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes:

I believe that the affirmation of the Bible’s inerrancy has never been more essential to evangelicalism as a movement and as a living theological and spiritual tradition. Furthermore, I believe that the inerrancy of Scripture is crucial to the project of perpetuating a distinctively evangelical witness into the future. Without inerrancy, the evangelical movement will inevitably become dissolute and indistinct in its faith and doctrines and increasingly confused about the very nature and authority of its message.

Or as J. I. Packer asserts:

The Bible is word for word God-given; its message is an organic unity, the infallible Word of an infallible God, a web of revealed truths centered upon Christ; it must be interpreted in its natural sense, on the assumption of its inner harmony; and its meaning can be grasped only by those who humbly seek and gladly receive the help of the Holy Spirit.”

If you’ve ever been to any of the numerous country churches I’ve been to, you’ve almost surely heard it reduced to the simple maxim:

“The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Right or wrong, inerrancy is a fragile doctrine. It’s an exhausting doctrine. It’s a doctrine constantly on the defense, constantly scanning the horizon for new attackers. And in the last two centuries, it’s only been attacked on increasingly more fronts.

Some Problems With the Bible

Genesis c1 and the subsequent text—if taken literally—demands that the universe was created six thousand years ago in six days, and the Apostle Paul affirms in his gospel to the church of Rome that Adam was the first human. If you—like me—are inclined towards the findings of people who for decades have committed themselves to the rigorous and difficult study of the sciences, this is a major problem.

A problem that in increasing numbers leads people to bitterly leave church and faith.

  • The number of fossils we can estimate is in the quintillions, which means that if the universe is only six thousand years old, the Earth would have been insanely crowded throughout that time.
  • Most of the stars we see in the sky are more than six thousand light years away, which means if the universe is only six thousand years old, their light wouldn’t have had enough time to reach us, and the night sky would be quite darker.
  • Proteins are constantly splitting up the double helix of DNA and making copies of what scientists often call the four “letters” of the DNA “alphabet.” Sometimes one of these proteins makes a molecular “typo,” and a new strand of DNA begins replicating. Most of the time, these changes aren’t terribly consequential, but sometimes they are. And sometimes a change works to the advantage of the plant or animal. Sometimes, the advantage becomes so profound that over a long time a new species is created. Sounds cool, huh?

Well, what I just described is evolution, and we can witness the entire process under a microscope.

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Look at this dog. Seriously, just look at him. Now, any reputable dog scientist looking at this picture would instantly conclude that he likes to sit on peoples’ laps, lick their faces, and chase tennis balls. That he is a delight to all humankind. A joy in a world of pain. A light in a world of darkness.

But the same scientists would also tell you that this dog’s ancestors were ferocious wolves.

Again, look at him.

While this dog and his ancestors benefitted from artificial selection—less aggressive traits and loss of freedom in exchange for a steady food supply from their new human masters—I too benefitted from the same basic evolutionary process, though via natural selection. I didn’t evolve from monkeys—as is commonly said—though with them even the most careful scientists are confident that I share a common ancestor.

The fossil record is more clear on this score than my early theologically trained but not biologically trained religious mentors had me to believe. Inerrancy alienated me and continues to alienate many from people who for decades of their lives personally have carried on the quiet and meticulous investigation of difficult scientific questions. In a desperate effort to cling to what we’ve always known, we fall victim to the pseudo-scientific word salads that evangelical leaders employ to keep us within their orbit.

This often takes the form of folksy soundbites that, to people with no background in these subject matters, make scientists seem out of touch and too big for their britches.

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And that’s just with the sciences.

Inerrancy requires us to worship a God who seems to have been okay for a long time with things that most modern people categorically deem immoral.

With attacking people and making them your slaves.

With wiping out the ethnic groups in the land of Canaan.

Men ruling their wives.

With selling your daughter into slavery.

With beating your slave.

Stoning a rebellious child.

Genocide.

Until Jesus came, and God . . . changed his mind?

These attacks come from many places and many things, so—unsurprisingly—evangelicals avoid many things. Evangelicals protect their children from having to hear smart and persuasive people expound on any of this. When we get backed into a corner, we tell ourselves that the problem isn’t the Bible—it is something WE are missing, for “God moves in mysterious ways,” (a verse not actually found in the Bible).

And then we spend thousands of dollars to protect our children from public schools and cartoonishly militaristic atheist professors.*

*(To be absolutely clear, I have no problem with private, religious schools. I have a big problem with sheltering children from intellectual struggle.)

Our unwillingness to honestly address these issues hurts ourselves, but not just ourselves. I really believe in my faith for the whole world, but our insistence on an inerrant road-map-compass-instruction-manual Bible is an unscalable wall for most people who don’t already share our fear of theological disruption.

It was an unscalable wall for me in 2012, and I grew up with this stuff.

Interestingly, however, there is one thing on which most traditional evangelical Christians and most ardent atheists completely agree. In fact, you could say it is the topic of this whole series. Bill Maher puts it well:

“[T]he Bible says this is 100% true. The Bible says you have to take it like that. If it’s not 100% true, I would say the whole thing falls apart.” – Bill Maher

There’s this mindset among evangelicals that there are those who are faithful and believe every word of the Bible to be true in the modern sense, and there are those who are just “doing some funny dance.”

I’m going to spend the next two months seriously challenging this idea.

Whatever your view of the Bible, inerrancy places a weight on it that I’ve become convinced it never asked to carry. Dr. Peter Enns puts it best:

Supposedly, it is unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific. God is the God of Truth. He would never stoop so low. Uh…actually…yes he would. God is all about stooping low—way low. That’s how God rolls—at least the Christian God.

I’m excited about what’s in store. So excited that I had to divide this topic into eight (eight!) installments to capture it. There’s just so much to talk about. And I’m a madman.

I hope you’ll come back here at 7:00 pm on Mondays for each new installment. We will really get into the meat of the topic next week. I doubt you will completely agree with me at the end, but I also doubt you will completely agree with yourself at the end.

Part 2

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Why I Follow Jesus

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post reflects innumerable things that I now reject. I’ve kept it to show where I come from.

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Let’s get a few things straight.  First, I can’t prove the Bible is true.  Nor can I prove that Jesus is who he said he was.  I can’t even prove there is a god of any faith, let alone mine.  If, after reading, you conclude that I haven’t proven anything, we would be in hearty agreement.

Also, there’s a popular belief that, even if there is no god, one should live according to Biblical principles because, for such an adherent, doing so has everything to gain (salvation in Heaven; a good life on Earth) and nothing to lose.  This idea was first formally articulated in the 17th Century by French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, and is often referred to as “Pascal’s Wager.”  I think it’s important to emphasize that, despite the fact that I cannot prove there is a god, I wholly reject this line of thinking.

First, who’s to say whose faith to follow?  Taken to it’s logical conclusion, one would have to adhere to every faith in order to make sure they are saved.  Of course, this puts Pascal in quite a dilemma: If Faith A rejects Faith B, to which faith should one adhere?  Second, and more importantly, the very Bible that Pascal was defending itself rejects Pascal’s argument.  (See 1 Corinthians 15:19).  The faith and life required by the Bible is, by worldly standards, dangerous and uncomfortable.  Following Jesus will subject one to persecution and sacrifice.  Unfortunately, American Christianity has largely become a health, wealth, and comfort religion—one which it’s earliest adherents would hardly recognize as their own.

What follows is a summary of why I choose to follow Jesus.  The discussion must be considered as a whole: I believe the sum of its parts as a group greatly exceeds the sum of its parts individually.

The Bible

My faith in Jesus is in large part based on the Bible.  There is no body of literature in the history of the world that resembles it even remotely.

The Bible is remarkably coherent, despite its decentralized authorship.  It is made up of at least sixty-six books.  Its authors include kings, soldiers, shepherds, government officials, farmers, a doctor, a tent maker, and fishermen, among others—hardly the kind of group that would sit down and concoct a grand religious conspiracy.  Further, the first book was written in Arabia by Moses around 1,500 B.C.E and the last book was written on a small Greek island by John around 70-90 A.D.  If the Bible was such a disparately authored, man-made conspiracy, it was a millennia and a half in the making.

Impossible?  No.  Highly improbable?  Um, yeah.

Yet, despite such an disparate, motley assemblage, these sixty-six books work together in some of the most fascinating and beautiful ways.  In a nutshell, the Bible begins with the creation and fall of humankind and what follows is the world’s greatest love story.  First, God prepares His originally chosen people (the Jews) for the coming redemption of the world.  The books that make up this story constitute what we now call, “The Old Testament.”  Then God sends his Son to redeem the world from their fall and this offer of redemption is spread throughout the world.  This latter narrative makes up what is popularly called, “The New Testament.”

Interlaced throughout this narrative are inter-testamentory themes, symbols, and prophecies that fascinate literary scholars (believers and non-believers) to this day.  For example, about two-thousand years before Jesus would begin preaching that “the first will be last and the last will be first,” “blessed are the meek,” and many, many other like passages, the Old Testament books in no uncertain terms had already foreshadowed the principle that the weakest and least among people would be considered the greatest.

Consider Jacob, who took Esau’s birthright, despite being the younger and weaker brother.  Consider Jacob’s son, Joseph, who was the youngest of his eleven brothers, was sold him into slavery, and yet would become second in command of all of Egypt and rule over his brothers.  Consider the Hebrews who, following the death of Joseph, would be subject slavery for hundreds of years by the Egyptians before being rescued by Moses, an insecure Hebrew with a speech impediment.  Consider Gideon, whom God allowed to win in battle with only 300 soldiers, despite Gideon’s estimation that 32,000 would be required.  Consider David, who, as a young boy, would kill Goliath, the Philistine giant with a mere sling and a stone.   Consider Josiah, who would become king of Judah at the wise age of eight, yet was one of the greatest kings in the history of the Hebrew people.  Consider Jesus, who was born a carpenter’s son in a barn in a small and obscure town and grew up poor and uneducated.

Again, this theme—essential to the Biblical narrative—spans two-thousand years of history and is consistent despite coming from such a disparate group of writers.

Speaking of Jesus, he was prophesied of not a few times before his birth.  If you are interested, the following link will take you to a chart of notable fulfilled prophecies of Jesus from the Old Testament. Admittedly, some references are vague, but some are quite specific.  In their entirety (over three-hundred Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in the New Testament), ignoring such a sum of fulfilled prophecies seems intellectually dishonest to me.

The Bible is unmistakably unique in literature.  Has any book assigned such a prominent role in any world religion contained so much counterproductive material?  The Bible is crammed with teachings, claims, and stories that make its work harder on itself.  Take off your 21st-century-skeptic hat and put on your fool-everyone-into-following-your-own-made-up-religion hat.  What would you do if you wanted a following that, even if only nominally, would encompass the majority of the world and remain intact throughout history?  For starters, would you write a text that even remotely resembled the Bible?  There is no way!

To begin, unlike most religious texts, much of the text of the Bible is intentionally designed to alienate its readership.  Whether it was violating the social mores of its day (and of the present day), introducing teachings that were difficult for its earliest recipients to understand, introducing teachings that are difficult to follow, and flat out offending the most well-respected personalities of its day, the Bible does not read like a document prepared by a group of conspirators seeking to create a popular following.

To take just one example, the Bible placed women in roles of prominence that were, to say the least, uncommon in its time.  Now, I wish the Bible did more to promote women; had I written it, it would have. But it is a mistake to base your belief in the truth of something on how much you agree with it.  If God really exists, if God really did design the universe, then we can’t challenge his judgment any more than we can design the universe.

That digression aside, one of the most important moments of the Bible involved Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman in John’s account of Jesus.  It is in this passage that Jesus claims that physical things will never fill a person like God will.  For purposes of this discussion, I want you to focus on the weight of Jesus carrying on a conversation with this Samaritan woman.  For one thing, people from Judah harbored a strong prejudice against people from Samaria.  In addition, men at this time were not prone to converse with women generally, let alone women of a despised nation such as Samaria.  Today, this passage has little impact.  To Jesus’ peers, this could not have made it easy to follow Jesus.

In another account, Jesus defended a woman caught in adultery from a crowd ready to stone her to death.  So, this Jesus associated with women (taboo) who were from hated regions (double taboo) and who were considered too immoral to even deserve to live (triple taboo).

To me, these stories that subjected the Bible to greater unpopularity add to it’s credibility.  I get it if you’re thinking to yourself, “So, the Bible’s authors lacked the PR skills for their time.  That does not mean I should believe ?”  And you would be right!  Bear with me further.

The Bible is also notable for large sections that are utterly devoid of sensational qualities.  Some parts of the Bible are truly boring.  However, a unenjoyable as those parts are, they are crucial for at least one reason.  Have you ever listened to a salesperson tell you for hours on end that their product was mediocre?  My guess is no.  Instead, salespeople are trained to keep your attention with short, dramatic language.  The words they use are always superlatives—”this is the BEST car,” “this is the FASTEST computer”—and they do not waste time.

My experience tells me that when someone speaking to me frequently sensationalizes things, a red flag ought to be raised.  It is frequently a symptom of insecurity.  Don’t believe me?  In the most extreme cases, read the propaganda of any dictator.  So when I read parts of the Bible such as 2nd or 3rd John, or passages like Paul’s when he says he avoids using “clever speech” to win people over, it is at least an indication that the writers of the Bible felt that it could stand on its own.

The Human Being, the Universe, and the Rest of Science

I realize the universe is inappreciably large, that we have WAY more to discover.  I admit that I am a sucker for reports of UFOs, extraterrestrial activity, and planets capable of sustaining life.  However, do you, like me, sense the overwhelming uniqueness of the human being on the Earth and in the universe? Scientists and philosophers are prone, with some justification, to dismissing this as homocentric and arrogant.  I get it—the universe is huge and we are really, really small.

And that’s exactly my point.  We are helpless in the universe.  We are utterly dependent on a seemingly never-ending set of circumstances that just happen to exist on our tiny blue ball.  Consider that human life would not be possible on Earth if any of the following circumstances did not exist exactly as they are:

  • the Earth’s distance from the sun
  • the Earth’s tilt
  • the moon and its distance from the Earth
  • the salt composition of the ocean
  • the Earth’s size
  • the percentage of oxygen in our atmosphere
  • the Earth’s magnetic field

These are just a few.  There are many, many more.

It’s almost as if these circumstances were arranged the way they were just for us.  The universe is utterly hostile to human life.  We are not welcome outside our planet.  Do you really believe this is a mere accident?  I can’t.

If you’ve heard Christians claim that science and the Bible are incompatible, allow me to apologize.  I take issue with neither evolution nor the Big Bang.  If God formed the universe through a big bang, great.  If the Earth is billions of years old rather than thousands, a reasonable interpretation of the Bible allows for this.  There is nothing in the Bible that requires species of animals to remain static.  I do believe homo sapiens are a special case, that is to say, our origin came directly from God.  Thus homo neanderthalensis may have evolved from homo erectus.  However, I don’t believe modern homo sapiens evolved from homo neanderthalensis.  This may be a slight departure from the scientific field but I don’t believe it is a radical one.

Experiencing Redemption, Experiencing Jesus

Far more important than the academic world of apologetics, proofs, and arguments (coherent or otherwise), my experience confirms that Jesus is the one person worth following.  When I see injustice, fear, and suffering in the world (and in my backyard, Little Rock, Arkansas), I am convinced that there is an invisible enemy bent on destruction.  The Bible calls him Satan.  When I see the most impossible healing, reconciliation, and rescue, I am convinced that there is a quite visible savior.  And let me impress this: I have seen these things over and over and over.

I have also observed that when people make themselves vulnerable, when they intentionally put themselves in situations in which relying on God is the only option, people become empowered to do things that ordinary people just cannot do.  Before Jesus left the earth, he spoke of the Holy Spirit who would come to take his place.  Though I fully appreciate the skepticism that many have because of innumerable false claims to the Holy Spirit, I have witnessed the Spirit do things in others and in myself that force me to acknowledge God.

This is the most important component of my faith.  It cannot be explained, only experienced.  However, to even remotely appreciate it, one must resolve to accept that there is a world outside our own and that we cannot comprehend that world.  I can’t see the wind, but I see what it causes.  I can’t see God, but I see what he causes.  I have experienced God, but nothing in my vocabulary or comprehension explains my experience even somewhat well.