A recent OnFaith piece by an anonymous pastor at a mainstream evangelical church asked, “Who’s Afraid of a (Partly) Fictional Bible?” I understand why the pastor might have wanted anonymity. See, for instance, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, where clergy reveal in confidential interviews how their lives of service are overshadowed by hypocrisy as they contemplate taking a leap from the faith of their congregants.
Although religionists often have heated arguments and even wars over holy book interpretations, our secular government does not condone killing for blasphemy. However, Christians may certainly fire sect leaders and shun family members for “incorrect” interpretations of their Bible. Literalists often disagree on what the Bible literally says, while non-literalists frequently disagree on which parts to take literally. Most Christians I know believe something equivalent to: “The Bible is literally true, except for what I say is allegorical.”
I agree with Pastor Anonymous when he criticizes people for reading “our twenty-first century lives into a book composed in an ancient and wholly different world.” However, we part company when he says that even the made-up stories “tell us the truth about God and his purposes.” Really? How can that be when the Bible mainly tells us the views of scientifically ignorant, misogynistic, and homophobic writers who were a product of their times? I regard the Bible at its best as akin to Aesop’s fables, with some positive moral lessons and universal truths (along with talking animals). I’ve written here about the value I find in the Bible.
But if an all-knowing God really inspired the Bible, why are parts of it so ambiguous or obviously wrong as to inspire people to behave so badly? Some passages should be ignored, and not taken literally or even allegorically. For instance, how does “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” tell us the truth about God and his purposes? That passage alone has been used to justify burning countless women at the stake. Christians in this country ended such persecution in the seventeenth century, but it still takes place in other parts of the world.
Pastor Anonymous might have views similar to Dr. Karl Giberson, whom I debated in 2011 on the topic “Does Science Make Belief in God Harder or Easier?” Dr. Giberson is former President of the BioLogos Foundation, founded by Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and currently directs the National Institutes of Health. The mission of the BioLogos Foundation is to show the compatibility of faith and science. In our debate, Giberson said he didn’t believe that God tinkers much with natural laws — one notable exception being the resurrection of Jesus. Giberson tells Christians to disregard the biblical miracles that science can prove false, but to believe in the resurrection because it is essential to Christianity.
I asked Giberson if God had arranged for an asteroid to hit the earth and wipe out dinosaurs so humans could evolve 55 million years later. He acknowledged that if the universe were again set in motion, humans in our present form might never exist, but opined that the laws would be fine-tuned enough so there would be some form of intelligent creatures. Many Christians in the audience cringed when I pointed out that God’s plan, according to Giberson, could just as easily have led to a chimpanzee Jesus coming to save other chimpanzees from sin.
After the debate, Giberson told me that atheists don’t get angry with him the way fundamentalist Christians do. That’s understandable, because atheists don’t feel threatened by scientific discoveries.
Despite not fearing a somewhat fictional Bible, Pastor Anonymous says he is absolutely thankful for much in our Scriptures that is literal. This includes the story that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose on the third day, and that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. I suppose Pastor Anonymous can take this literally because science can’t disprove it. Nor can science disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
I have a number of liberal Christian friends who not only ignore uncomfortable passages but also agree with me on most progressive issues. One friend who favors gay marriage pointed out that that the Bible has countless passages about social justice and only five that condemn homosexuality. He didn’t have a good answer when I asked how many condemnations of homosexuality it would take to reverse his position. In comparison, the Bible has many passages in support of slavery, with nary a verse that condemns it.
Either the Bible is the inspired word of God, or it’s not. If it is, then it should only take one passage to condemn an action or an entire class of people. If it isn’t, then a reader should choose only what make sense from the Bible or any other book. Fortunately, liberal Christians often focus on passages where God acts like a mensch, and ignore the rest. Perhaps these Christians are on a slippery slope that will lead them to secular humanism, which sounds to me like the real “Good News” — but that’s probably what literalists fear is happening to thoughtful and questioning non-literalists.
Maybe one day Pastor Anonymous will traverse this slope and come out of the closet into the light of reason.