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I still am amazed some days that I actually earned a Masters of Divinity at a theological seminary almost 25 years ago. Those days seem so distant and yet some of it I can remember like it was yesterday. I had an experience during my time in seminary where I was faced with a crisis of belief about the very things I was at seminary to learn about. I remember sitting in my living room on the couch, hands in my face with my Bible open in front of me paralyzed with doubt about all of it: the creation story, the promises of an afterlife for those who believe, the question of whether or not other religions have equal validity, and even the question of whether or not God is actually real. The most weighty of all was the mystery of human suffering (I’ll address this in Part 3), which rattled me to the very foundations of my beliefs.
At that moment in my seminary apartment, I came to a decision that I would choose to believe what I understood the Bible to say and then I would base my beliefs and my life on what’s in that book. So if I had doubts and I could not resolve them, I would simply default to what I understood the Bible to say. However, in the weeks and months following that, I was haunted by a question I could not shake: Why did the Bible deserve that kind of loyalty and trust? It was the one question that I couldn’t answer that still plagued me as I went from one class to the other in seminary learning all manner of theology and doxology.
About 10 years ago, long after I had left full-time Church ministry work, I faced down that question with severe honesty and decided to live with the answer. And the thing that troubled me the most for all those years came to the surface: the only reason the Bible had my trust was because the Bible itself told me that it was to be trusted. So I realized that I was allowing the to Bible validate itself, and that was one of the pivotal moments that changed everything for me.
I was taught by family and mentors in my upbringing that this collection of writings came from God and existed to make me a better disciple of the faith. But as I learned more, I saw how carefully curated the Bible’s message had been. For those who grew up in the church, there is a separate narrative that stands above the actual Bible. It is a collection of passages and ideas from the writings of Scripture that tell a specific story about who God is, who we are, and why we exist. This meta-story is sure to only include verses and passages that support that narrative, while ignoring other passages that may damage certainty among followers. Each religious community has their own unique brand of this narrative, but for the most part, it is quite similar within each denomination and is important to keep the followers from troubling questions about theology that could disrupt the sense of security that their narrative provides.
Obviously it is important to piece together a larger understanding of what a book like the Bible means for a community that relies so heavily on it. But it is the ignored parts of the Bible that I find so troubling in this effort to paint an attractive picture of the Bible’s message. Two glaring examples have stood out to me over the years, among others:
One example is the acceptance of human slavery as a fact of life, not an institution to be overthrown and abolished. I was always taught how noble the message of the New Testament was in its admonishment to be kind to their slaves, but the obvious point here is that the Bible never actually condemns the practice of owning another human being as a slave. For me, it was as if someone turned on the lights in a messy room and I realized the implications here. If this was a divinely-inspired book, why was something like this not addressed? I’ve heard the standard answers to this question, but they all have left me unsatisfied.
A second example is the seeming disregard for certain kinds of suffering and death, as long as it fit the purposes of God or God’s followers. Whether it be the drowning of millions of human beings in the story of the great flood, the eternal torment of unbelievers, or the sanctioned slaughter of enemies, including their children, in the Old Testament. To read those accounts is morally unsettling to say the least. To remain a Christian and to believe those stories only left me with an unmoored understanding of what it means for an act to be “good”. If my definition of good is to come from the divine being described in the Bible, then I am left with a confusing double standard.
Once I stopped viewing the Bible as a deified collection of writings never to be questioned, I was able to see the flaws in it. I also was no longer afraid of the phrase, “the Bible says…” because I knew that the Bible doesn’t “say” anything by itself. Religious leaders interpret it and often use their interpretation as the cattle prod needed to keep the herd in place.
There is so much more in the Bible that left me in a state of theological dissonance, and I had to decide why I was accepting this book as authoritative in my life. My response was to take the Bible down from an exalted place and set it next to other imperfect religious writings that teach many important principles for living life, but also contain a troubling mix of ideas that should not be ignored when determining the value of those writings for human life.