What is the Bible? Part 66: You Gotta Meet This Man
Alright friends, time for you to meet Peter Enns. Pete is a biblical scholar who’s written a new book about the Bible that you’re going to love. And he’s funny. The book is called The Bible Tells Me So, it comes out today, and it’s for every one of you who find the Bible fairly maddening and compelling at the same time and you’ve been reading my series thinking I want more of this.
I sent Pete a few questions with you in mind, and then I told him to feel free to make up his own questions and answer them if he wanted to…
So here we go:
Me: What’s the most common question you get asked about the Bible?
Pete: How can a Bible that looks like this be God’s word?
That’s the general question and people fill in the this with all sorts of things.
The problem is that the Bible doesn’t always act like you might expect—or like many were led to expect. The two big issues that are pretty high on most people’s lists are science and morality.
For example, how can the Bible be the word of God and at the same time tell us the entire cosmos was created in six days, that there is a dome over our heads keeping back heavenly waters, the earth is flat, a flood swept over the whole earth, and the first two humans (Adam and Eve) lived a few thousand years ago?
What do we do with a Bible that presents a world that is so different from the one we take for granted every? Can we really be expected to take a book like this seriously, let alone follow what it says on a daily basis? That’s what I hear a lot.
The morality of the Bible takes people for a loop, too. God drowns every living thing, except Noah and the others on the ark—and it only took him until the sixth chapter of the Bible to get there. He orders the Israelites to exterminate the population of Canaan so they can move in. Virgin daughters are spoils of war and property of their fathers. Israelites can hold slaves and beat them to near the point of death with no penalty.
And then, just to make things confusing, Jesus seems to have a different take on these sorts of things. So all parts of the Bible aren’t on the same page.
What do you do with a Bible like this? In a nutshell, that is a very old question and one that I get all the time.
The way forward is to keep before us the ancient setting of the Bible. A big problem is the expectations many have when they approach the Bible—that it is going to answer whatever questions we bring to it.
But the Bible does not ask speak first and foremost in our modern idiom. It poses and answers ancient questions. Only when we first come to terms with what those ancient questions and answers are can we begin to ask,
“OK, now—how does all this relate to my life here and now?”
“Are there parts we can and should leave behind?”
“How do I connect with God through this book?”
OK, so can we focus on one specific issue here that troubles a lot of people? In your book you do a spectacular job of explaining those violent passages in the Old Testament. Can you give my readers a bit on that?
I spend a chapter on in my book on God’s commend to the Israelites to exterminate every Canaanite man, woman, and child and take over their land. This is the go-to example many point to of God acting more like Megatron than a God of love.
This is a huge issue that has bothered people ever since there’s been a Bible. It’s nothing new. It’s hard to find Christians or Jews that don’t have at least some problem with this. When we hear of modern genocides, where perpetrators claim that God is on their side, we just call that ethnic cleansing at the hands of crazy people. So how can Christians say God opposes genocide today when he commanded it yesterday? That’s what we call a real theological problem.
Well, that and the fact that Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and “my kingdom is not of this world” rather than “Let’s kill all the Gentiles [Romans] and take back our land.” So, on top of the moral problem, Jesus doesn’t seem to be on the same page with what God says in the Old Testament.
This issue is involved enough that you can’t Tweet an answer. You really need to walk through the paces of discovering the Bible’s ancient voice. We take a step back and try to understand the Israelites as ancient people with ancient ways of thinking. They weren’t like the “nice Christians” we meet at church picnics and who listen to gospel quartets.
The Israelites lived at a rough time, the Iron Age, when nations fought tooth and nail over land and resources and the gods fought right along side of them, leading the charge.
The nations that won had the mightier gods, and victory (slaughter, pillaging) gave gods honor. Losing meant your god was either a wimp or he was mad at your people for some reason and wanted to teach them a lesson in obedience.
The Israelites were part of this ancient Iron Age world of warring, land acquisition, and destroying the enemy. They fit right in, and to expect their God-talk to be on a totally different page is to start off on the wrong foot.
We shouldn’t cheer the Israelites and emulate them, which is what Christians with a violent streak throughout history have done—Spanish conquerors of the “West Indies” or European settlers of “America” treat the “new world” like it was Canaan and take over. And neither can we sidestep or minimize the violence, which is another strategy Christians have had for handling these passages.
They are what they are, and the Bible looks the way it does because God lets his children tell the story.
Children tell stories of their parents from their point of view as children, which is not the whole story. Think of boys bragging about their dads on the playground. I loved my father and I defended his honor. He was a mighty man who could lift heavy objects, was a sharpshooter, brilliantly smart, and as strong as any man anywhere.
Not everything I said about my dad was fully and objectively true, but this is how I saw my father, a description born of love, from my youthful perspective, that followed the “rules of the playground.”
Eventually, looking back from a later vantage point, I realized how much my dad-talk actually limited my father, but that was how we talked and I wasn’t able, obviously, to take a step back and tell my father’s story some other way.
And even if I could, if I had said things back then like how hard he worked to support us, how he stayed up when I was throwing up at night, and how he never missed my Little League games, I wouldn’t have gotten across to the other guys how awesome my dad was, how much better he was than all the others.
The Israelites described God according to their “rules,” how they and the people around them understood gods in general. And here’s a huge lesson in there for us today.
We always perceive God from our vantage point, according to ways of thinking we aren’t even aware of most of the time. In these stories, the Bible gives us a glimpse of ancient Israelites doing that very same thing.
So, when we read these stories, we don’t read them as absolute rules to live by or the final word about what God is like. Christians believe that in the Gospels, we get a deeper understanding about God from Jesus. The Gospels don’t allow us to remain where the Iron Age Israelites were in their understanding of God.
In other words, the Bible isn’t a rulebook for Christian living. It is a narrative that has movement and a trajectory.
And while we’re at it, archaeologists are about as sure as you can be that the mass extermination of Canaanites that the Bible talks about didn’t happen—which is good news, I think. This helps us see these stories are stories that tell us how the ancient Israelites, at least at some point in their history, understood God.
And that, I realize, is a very long answer, but it’s as short as I can make it.
So, when someone asks you what the Bible is, what do you say?
The Bible is God’s word, but not as a rulebook or Christian owner’s manual. It is a place where come to met God—which can mean struggling with God, wrestling with God, debating God, and also learning of God, being comforted and encouraged by God, and seeking peace and joy.
And we see within the Bible itself all sorts of examples of people long ago meeting God the same way. All we need to do is read the Psalms—about half of them contain some sort of complaint to God or deep sadness about what God is or isn’t doing. Books like Ecclesiastes and Job also convey deep sadness, and even frustration and exasperation with God.
The way I see it (and I have a chapter on this in my book), the Bible is a diverse book with all sorts of emotions, moods, and thoughts. This Bible—the Bible we actually have and not a sanitized and well-behaved Bible we might like to have— does not so much give us “rules to live by,” but models for us our own diverse journeys of faith. When we watch how the Bible works, we have permission to explore, test, discover, converse, and debate—even with God. The Bible doesn’t close off that process, but encourages it.
This isn’t how many Christians are taught to approach the Bible, but it is part of Jewish tradition. The Bible gives answers for life, to be sure, but it also poses questions and conundrums that people of faith debate. In fact, arriving at the one, single, absolute, final answer isn’t the main goal. This is why, for example, Jews have a Talmud, where issues are debated and views held side by side without resolving them.
The process is where you meet God. But for many Christians, you meet God only when the process has come to an end, by arriving at final, correct answers. If Christians were to see the Bible as a diverse book that models for us different stages of our journeys of faith rather than an answer book for whatever question we happen to have, we might have fewer Inquisitions.
And then Pete added a few questions of his own. Which is kind of like Pete interviewing himself. Which is great to listen in on…
You mention a few times in your book how fear is often an obstacle in the Christian life.
In my experience, the most common obstacle to a life of true trust in God is fear—mainly the fear of being wrong about God, which is often equated with being wrong about the Bible. Anger and hatred toward each other over the Bible and God are, deep down once you get past the surface, driven by even deeper fears.
What we believe about God is very important to us, as it should be. Our faith defines who we are and helps us make sense of the world around us and the world that awaits us afterwards. Our faith is the page upon which our personal narratives are written. To feel that our faith is threatened can easily turn to fear, which, as Yoda reminds us, leads anger, hate, and suffering. I get that.
But the fact is we are probably wrong about a lot of what we think about God and the Bible anyway. We can know God, but we need to let go of the idea that we can wrap our arms around God and no longer be surprised and even unsettled and offended by God.
I think often of how large the (expanding!!) universe is—that it contains billions of galaxies each containing millions and billions of stars thousands of light-years apart, and at the other end of the scale are atoms, which are too small to think about (1/10,000,000 of a millimeter). And just to be annoying there are subatomic particles.
The universe is beyond our comprehension, and Christians believe this God—the one responsible for the incomprehensible, in a further incomprehensible move—entered into the human drama and took on human flesh and bones.
So, right off the bat, I’m going with mystery as an operative category for talking about God.
The human habit to control the uncontrollable—to create God in our own image, and thus keep fear at bay—is a constant temptation. The choice that confronts us all daily, whether we are conscious of it or not, is whether we are willing to let go of fear, let go of the narratives we create for God, and trust God enough to rewrite them and heal us in the process.
What do you fear most?
Like everyone else, I’ve got a bunch of fears I work through in my life, but I’ve never thought of sorting them. Maybe I should. But in the meantime, here’s a fear that I think about that connects to being a Christian writer and teacher:
If, in some parallel fantasy universe, I ever got to rule Christianity, would I be as tolerant of other points of view as I like to think I am now while not in power?
We have all seen, first hand or second hand, what often happens when the disenfranchised gain power—whether religious or political: they abuse their power as much or more than those before them. I’ve experienced this myself and I don’t want that to be me.
So my fear is that, at the end of the day, if the opportunity arose, would I be a hypocrite? Jesus has huge problems with hypocrisy, like it’s the worst thing in God’s eyes to be a dis-integrated human: to say that you’re one thing and act like something else, to use your words to manipulate others, to change how you present yourself depending on who is listening.
That’s my fear. I sometimes think that one of God’s continued graces to me is that I’ve never held a position of true power.
What is your next project? Are you working on another book?
Yeah, I’m in the beginning stages of plotting out my next book with HarperOne.
I can’t say too much about it at this point—mainly because if I did I’d have to kill you, but also because the idea is at this point really just a mass of stuff in my head that is only beginning to take shape.
But the gist of the book is looking at the process of moving from “I am certain about what I believe” (which is how many Christians are taught to think about their faith) toward “I may not be certain, and in fact sometimes I have no idea, but I am going to trust God anyway.”
Those two ideas are not an either/or but a both/and. But the “certainty” part tends to get most of the attention for Christians I know. I want to ask what faith looks like when we stress the other end of the spectrum, when we let go of the pressure of needing to be certain about what we believe without thinking God is going to be disappointed in us.
What do we need to learn from not-knowing, from uncertainty, about what the life of faith looks like? How can uncertainty be embraced as an inevitable part of faith, even a gift from God, rather than faith’s enemy?
That’s the gist, and I’ll be speaking out of my own experiences in walking that path as well as looking parts of the Bible that echo that idea.
Did you see why I thought you’d want to hear from Pete Enns?
What is the Bible? started as a blog series on tumblr and is now available in book form. You can order a copy of the book at robbell.com/whatisthebible.