HEADS EXPLODE over this question. I’ve seen it happen.
We’ve talked about this question in my Bible study class. People in the group explored reasons why some Christians don’t believe there was a literal Adam and Eve, or a flood that covered the earth, or a lot of other stuff reported in the Bible as history.
As folks talked, I was watching one of my friends out of the corner of my eye. It was a little like watching a teapot working its way to a boil. When the teapot whistle blew, it commanded the attention of everyone in the room.
My friend didn’t kick, yell, or blow steam out of his ears, which would have been cool, yet spooky. But he did speak with passion about his frustration over the style of biblical interpretation that allows Christians to reject stories and teachings in the Bible because the ideas don’t seem reasonable.
As he spoke, out popped the head of one of our pastors who had been working in his office that adjoins the conference room where we meet.
“I agree with that,” he said, referring to what my steaming teapot friend said.
Without making any judgment calls or offering counterpoints, let me simply report a few of the reasons I have heard Christians give for interpreting Bible stories and teachings in ways that seem more reasonable to them and more in line with what they say Jesus seemed to show God is really like.
We don’t know who wrote most of the Bible. So why, these Christians ask, should we take literally the stories of Creation, for example, when we have no idea where they came from?
We don’t know when the stories and teachings were finally written down. Many scholars seem to agree that the stories and teachings were passed along by word of mouth over campfires from one generation to the next for centuries. Couldn’t the stories and teachings have gotten a little distorted over time? That’s what they say they wonder.
We don’t know how the books got put together into this now-sacred collection. Who’s to say that the editors pulling these stories together thousands of years ago didn’t do what editors do today: edit. Sometimes improving. Sometimes not so much.
Jews did not even begin to compile their Bible until about 1000 years after Moses. Many Bible scholars say Jews started pulling together what Christians call the Old Testament only after they were deported from Israel in 586 BC. That would be like us finally getting around to documenting the Crusades by pulling together family stories and salvaged documents from warriors like Richard the Lionheart and Muslim general Saladin, assuming they left any notes.
Christians didn’t start treating the Bible literally until a couple hundred years ago. Throughout most of Christian history, some argue, Christian scholars treated the Bible as allegory – and they interpreted the stories and teachings as symbols rather than as literal facts. That makes some Christians wonder if we are taking our culture with its penchant for detailed newsgathering and imposing it on an ancient culture in which people for the most part didn’t even know how to read and write.
It seems cruel to embrace the idea that God told Moses to kill all men, women, and children in Canaan. Can you imagine Jesus giving that order? Some Christians can’t. These Christians say they wonder if the anonymous Bible writer simply presumed God was okay with the mass killing since many Jews in ancient times believed God controlled everything. So if the people of Canaan were slaughtered by the Jewish invaders, then it’s because God wanted that. Surely a presumption like that would have been wrong given what Jesus had to say about how we should treat each other, some Christians argue.
Paul didn’t always give good and godly advice. Even Christians who say they believe in a literal six-day Creation don’t buy into his advice about slavery: “Slaves, obey your masters in all things,” (Colossians 3:22). Nor do most buy into Paul’s advice about women: “Women should keep quiet in the church meetings,” (1 Corinthians 14:34). If tradition-minded Christians can cherry-pick these morsels off the Bible tree and pitch them into the compost pile, then why can’t Christians with a different understanding of how to interpret the Bible cherry-pick Paul’s advice about gay people, too?
Head exploded yet?
This list is just a sampling of reasons Christians give for taking more elbow room in their Bible study than many of us were taught we could take.
Pardon me for not adding counterpoints to each of these. If I were writing this for a book, I’d include both sides. There certainly are counterpoints, and I hope we get some in comment boxes below this post. But it would have made for an incredibly long post if I added the counterpoints. And skipping them, for now, is more likely to get you thinking. I can give you counterpoints later, if you’re interested. In the meantime, you might think about them. Maybe even talk about them in a group Bible study session.
I hope the list will give you a feel for why some Christians take a different approach to understanding the Bible and applying it to their life.
By the way, on Mondays I typically tackle a Bible question of the week asked by someone else. Nobody asked this particular question of me. But the discussion erupted in one of my Bible study sessions recently, and I thought the topic might interest some of you.
It sure seemed to generate interest in our class.