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"Is the Bible 'real' or 'true?' Should we take it literally?" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on July 28, 2019 by Kathy Miller

“Is the Bible ‘real’ or ‘true?’  Should we take it literally?”

John 18:33-38

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

July 28, 2019

(Summer Sermon Series)

 

I recently listened to a podcast called Against the Rules by journalist and author Michael Lewis.  Lewis is the author of books like Moneyball and The Big Short, which have been made into movies.  Against the Rules looks at the decline of different kinds of referees in America.  The first episode looks at actual sports referees and how while they are likely the most accurate they’ve ever been thanks to cameras, they are more hated and attacked than ever.  There was a time when the referee’s decision was the decision, end of story.  Now, because every fan can look at the film from every angle and a hundred times to develop their own opinion of what happened, the sense of a referees’ authority has drastically changed.  Refs are screamed at, threatened, and vilified – in professional sports, but also all the way down to the folks volunteering their time for little league games.  Later episodes of the podcast look at the decline of referees who go by different names, like those who determine what language is considered grammatically correct, or the people who determine the authenticity of artwork or arguments over who should get to “referee” things like various financial institutions.  Overall, Lewis argues that there has been a steep decline in our willingness to accept the authority of referees in all aspects of life.

I think Lewis has hit on a truth - that our problem as a society with any and all authority seems to be ever increasing, but it is not a new problem.  Humans have always challenged authority to some degree, but starting about 400 years ago as we ushered in the time of the Enlightenment we also started to see a real uptick in the questioning of authority.  The time of Enlightenment brought about the strong preference for reason and scientific proof.  It brought about the prevailing western belief that each individual can and should be allowed to think and decide for themselves.  The past 400 years in the western world have been defined by the individuals quest for truth and individual freedom with the United States serving as perhaps the greatest proponent of the belief that each individual should have a say, rather than allowing a king or an institution like a church to decide for them.

Now, Lewis’ podcast doesn’t get into faith at all, but this questioning of authority has certainly had far reaching consequences in Christianity.  The decline in people in the west who profess a faith is certainly linked to this problem with authority.  Many have left the church out of their dislike of answering to any kind of authority, whether that authority was clergy, church boards, or God. And for those who have left the church as well as those who have stayed, there are many questions about the authority of our sacred texts, Scripture. It is a central belief of the Christian faith that scripture is a primary authority in the Christian life.  But as we are wary and skeptical of any authority, it makes sense we would find ourselves asking questions about Scripture.

Questions like: How did the Bible come to be?  How was it written and by whom?  We’ve all played the children’s game Telephone where a short phrase can’t make it around a circle of ten people without being drastically changed.  Weren’t many of these stories told around campfires for centuries before they were ever written down?  So, is the Bible trustworthy?

Questions like: What do we do with stories and teachings that don’t seem to connect with our lives today? Everything from instructions about not wearing cotton or cutting one’s hair or eating shellfish to verses which have been used as weapons against slaves, women and the LGBT community.  And then there are the parts of the Bible that seem to contradict each other.   So, should we interpret the whole Bible literally? 

And there are a variety of outcomes of people asking these questions.  There are those who have left Christianity because they cannot accept the authority of an ancient writing that seems to them out of date, difficult to understand, or because they are too disturbed by the way the authority of scripture has been used.  “Many people inside and outside the church equate the idea of the authority of the Bible with coercion rather than liberty, with terror rather than joy.  They know all too well how the authority of the Bible has been invoked to suppress free inquiry and to legitimize such practices as slavery and patriarchy.”[1] 

There are others who have continued to call themselves Christian but relegated Scripture to the same place they would fairy tales or perhaps a book that includes some worthwhile wisdom but prefer to toss out whatever doesn’t fit in their life or make sense to them. 

And then there are those who have had the opposite response to scripture –those who claim scripture is the inerrant, infallible, word of God where each word should be read literally regardless of its different contexts or historical understandings.  There are plenty of books written by people in this camp where they bend over backwards to explain anything that may seem like contradiction.  Yet, still it is hard to find anyone, even the most strident Bible literalist, who is actually living by each and every proclamation of the Bible.

And for many people these seem like the only choices available - dismiss scripture altogether as an oppressive authority, relegate it to the same status as a fairy tale or treat it as an unquestionable authority as the literal translation of God’s direct word to humanity.  But perhaps there is still a fourth way.

First, let’s consider the idea of reading the Bible literally.  What do we mean by literal?  In the modern era, literal has come to mean factually accurate.  We associate literal with the outcomes of scientific methods which use hypothesis and proof as the measure for facts.  But the Bible was written in a different time, when there was a different understanding of facts and truth.  Pastor David Lose writes, “Earlier Christians — along with almost everyone else who lived prior to the advent of modernity — simply didn’t imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate... Hence, (for example) four gospels that diverge at different points, (was) far from troubling (for) earlier Christians, (and) was instead seen as a faithful and fitting recognition that God’s truth as revealed in Jesus was too large to be contained by only one perspective.”[2]  The primary intention of the biblical authors was not to record history — in the post-Enlightenment sense we take for granted today — but instead to confess faith.  And to confess faith, the Biblical authors used history sometimes, but also used poetry and allegory, hymns and prayers, letters and proverbs.  They told the timeline of the story in the way that best told about an aspect of who Jesus was that they wanted to emphasize. 

One of my favorite metaphors for the Bible is to compare it to a newspaper – yes, the newspaper is all one document, but if you try to understand the front-page news the same way you do the opinion page or the sports page the same as the comics, you’ll surely end up confused. Similarly, we are meant to read the Bible as lots of different kinds of literature and perspectives on God – a subject for which there are countless perspectives. 

Presbyterians have long understood “the Bible (as) an inspired book, but … also a collection of humanly written documents.  Its purpose is not to present inerrant facts, but to tell the story of salvation and bring us into a right relationship with God.”[3]

But, if accept that we don’t need to read the Bible literally, then does it still have authority in our lives? Is it real and true?

Well, first off, let’s remember that we don’t believe “in” the Bible.  We believe in the living God witnessed in the Bible.  Theologian Karl Barth said “a real witness is not identical with that to which it witnesses, but it sets it before us.”[4]  The Bible is meant to point us to God.  So, if we want to ask “is the Bible real and true,” we have to ask, does it point us to God?  Does it teach us more about who God is and how to be in relationship with God?  We could read the Bible and see it as just a book full of stories about regular people, people who make mistakes, people who are good sometimes and bad others, people who try to love God and others who try to leave God.  And if you read it that way, it can be quite interesting.  But the real story is what God is doing in the lives of all those people.  It is reading again and again throughout the Bible about God being faithful, God loving those people, being in relationship with them, offering them an authority, but a kind of authority rooted in something different than we are used to.    

Perhaps earlier Christians have something more to teach us here about the kind of authority God means to be because prior to the enlightenment, the “sixteenth century Reformers (understood) the authority of Scripture, (as) rooted in its liberating message, in the good news of God’s gracious acceptance of sinners offered in Jesus Christ.  The Bible was experienced not as an arbitrary or despotic authority but as a source of renewal, freedom and joy.” 

Authority as a source of renewal, freedom and joy.  That’s a different kind of authority.  What if we stopped trying to use scripture as a science textbook or a morality checklist or stopped testing it for proof and facts, but instead tried to see it as living words meant to set us free, to give us joy, to point us towards God? What if we thought of scripture as a gift put together by people who have for thousands of years loved these stories, these hymns, these prayers?  What if we understood scripture as meant to speak to us in different ways at different times of our lives; to see it as deep enough to grow with our faith instead of remaining stagnant; to hear its invitation to us to struggle or argue with it?  What if we believed that it was meant to take us by surprise, and constantly reveal new ideas to us?  And what if we decided to treat it differently than other things we read because the language of the Bible is unlike any other language because it is filled with soul words, not everyday words?  Soul words which are meant to be turned around in your mind, in your mouth, for days and weeks and years.  Soul words to sit with - one story, one phrase, one verse - for years thinking one thing, only to have it suddenly click into meaning something new.

So, is it real and true?  Well, does it point you to God?   Author Rachel Held Evans wrote in her book Inspired, “When you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not – static, perspicacious, certain, absolute – then you’re free to reveal in what it is: living, breaking, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic.  The ancient rabbis likened Scripture to a palace, alive and bustling, full of grand halls, banquet rooms, secret passages and locked doors.  ‘The adventure,’ wrote Rabbi Burton L Visotzky, ‘lies in learning the secrets of the palace, unlocking all the doors, and perhaps catching a glimpse of the King in all His splendor.’ … God is still breathing.  The Bible is both inspired and inspiring.  Our job is to ready the sails and gather the embers, to discuss and debate, and like the biblical character Jacob, to wrestle with the mystery until God gives us a blessing.  If you’re curious, you will never leave the text without learning something new.  If you’re persistent, you just might leave inspired.”[5]

 


[1]Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

[2] Lose, David, and David Lose. "4 Good Reasons Not To Read The Bible Literally." HuffPost. October 06, 2011. Accessed July 29, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/4-good-reasons-not-to-read-bible-literally_b_919345.

[3] Parsons, Gradye. YouTube. May 03, 2012. Accessed July 29, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGFx-zWjQGY&feature=youtu.be.

 

[4] Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

[5] Evans, Rachel Held. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2018.

 

 
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