I think one of the most damaging obstacles to the modern Christian understanding of God has come in the form of three innocuous letters. It is not the word they form that is the problem, but where that word has been placed. That word is “the”. Hardly an offensive word, I concede. How on earth, you might wonder, could that word create trouble? It seems inconceivable. I am going to argue that this seemingly benign article has shaped much of the way that contemporary Christians think. And the reason is that we have placed it in front of the word “Bible”.
The problem is this: the word “the” suggests that we ought to see the Bible as one book. It is not. It is a library of books. It is a collection of texts with different authors, from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and in a variety of disparate genres. What they have in common is their theme: the interaction between God and humanity. It is an anthology of sorts, not a cohesive whole.
And it does not, as many Protestant and Evangelical teachers would advocate, have one author: God. It is God-inspired, yes, but not actually written by him. It is God’s word as it has been mediated through the cultural and historical lenses of human authors. As such, the various books are coloured by the prejudices and ideologies of their locations in time and space, but they are no less profound nor truthful for that. The Bible is simply a collection of writings that document the interrelationship between humanity and God over a very long period of time, and in many different contexts. To reduce it to one book robs it, I believe, of its most powerful attribute: the richness that comes from the paradoxical diversity of and consistency of our (human) experience of the Divine.
I have frequently been guilty of this too; so I don’t wish to sound condemnatory when I state that any utterance that begins with “The Bible says…” is fundamentally flawed. We can accurately say “Paul says…” or “Moses says…” or “John records…”; we can even say “Scriptures say…” But if we state: “The Bible says…”, we have conflated these many different experiences and consigned the entire thing to the nonsensical. One would never say, when referring to a particular topic, for example: “The library says…”. We would never say “The Oxford book of Victorian English verse says…”. Terrible academic habits might lead to an inadvertent slip of “Google says…”, but we would easily be made to see why that statement is problematic. No, if we wished to make reference to thoughts around a certain issue, we would refer to specific authors or poets. We understand that although their works might have all been gathered in one convenient place, the different authors offer distinct perspectives, even when they comment on the same topic.
Even when different writers discuss a topical concern, we do not expect them all to adopt the same stance. We accept that complex notions like love or war will elicit a variety of sometimes completely disparate views. We understand that if one writer sees war as justifiable when ‘the greater good’ is at stake and another sees any form of killing as unacceptable, both can occupy a legitimate space. Big questions have no simple answers. Understanding God is a BIG mystery. Why do we demand that the writers of the Scriptures speak with one voice?
The reason, I think, that we implicitly accept these inconsistencies is to do with why we read. In short, I think that on some level – whether consciously or not – we read in order to help us make sense of and construct our worlds. We are never passive readers; we are either consciously or unconsciously active in the meaning-making process. We are drawn to books about love, for example, because the desire to be loved is so central to our sense of self. But we are not sponges: we do not passively soak up philosophies regarding love from our reading material. We evaluate ideas, we assimilate some of them into our own frameworks and we discard others. Sometimes the result is an internally contradictory mess, but we select. It is a default setting. In other words, whenever we speak about what a text is “saying’, we are also talking about what we are saying.
What all this amounts to is that when we make a ridiculous reductionist statement like “The Bible says…”, we are actually saying “I say…”, because we are selecting an idea from a complex and variegated compilation of texts and concluding that this statement would be an adequate and appropriate summation of the thoughts of all of the writers who contributed to the collection of texts called the Bible on the matter at hand. It is presumptuous, to say the least. I think at most we are entitled to say “Paul had the following to say about love…”; or “I see evidence of God’s love in the following interaction with Job…”. But to say “the Bible says…” is to assume that every writer thought the same way on the matter.
One might argue that if the Scriptures were inspired by God, they would say more or less the same thing. And they do, by and large. But the writers sometimes disagree too. That is because even if the Scriptures are God-breathed, there is human agency in the listening, understanding and recording. Peter and Paul, for example, had arguments over doctrine. Who was more God-inspired? Both. There is space for contradiction. We stifle our ability to comprehend Scriptural truth when we insist on seeing the Bible as a cohesive whole.
I think the books of the Bible should be tackled like any other texts. I love teaching modernist poetry – especially Eliot and cummings. And over the years, those have proved to be the poems that learners have connected to the most. But I would never just give a 16 year old a copy of The Wasteland and expect her to enjoy it. I would recommend B.C. Southam’s guide, or something that she could read concurrently that would help her make sense of the dense allusions. And certainly, once one begins to fit together the puzzle pieces of the allusions, one’s understanding of and appreciation for Eliot’s art increases exponentially. In time, we could read more complex literary criticism and discuss our own perspectives on the ideas of the poet and his critics alike. We would grow in our depth of understanding through a negotiation of meaning. I would never presume to suggest that one could fully understand Prufrock by engaging with Hollow Men, although the one would be useful in informing an understanding of the other. Each poem, like each book in the Bible, demands its own reading, necessitates an attempt to grapple with its ideas on its own terms. And as with Eliot’s poetry, a reading of the Bible is a reading of oneself too. Reading is an interpretive process. That is its nature. I think we do the Scriptures and ourselves a disservice when we do not treat them that way, when we refuse to interact because we adopt a lazy reductionist, absolutist stance: “The Bible says it, that settles it” approach.
Maybe then, and I think only then, will Christianity’s critics start to take our stance a little more seriously. As long as our perceptions of what the Bible is are faulty, we will require increasingly illogical arguments to defend its validity, and we will lose credibility. For too many we already have. And I do believe the Bible has authority. It is a powerful and beautiful collection of texts, more so when seen for what it is. It has the capacity to change the world. I just hope that the most influential word(s) doesn’t end up being “The”.