Here is something you should hear more of at church: DON’T read your Bible (at least, not the way you have been reading it).
There is a definite hunger for truth in the world right now. The debate about where to find it, and what processes would be most beneficial, is heating up. Radical atheists are becoming ever more vocal, and raising doubts and concerns in people’s minds about what to believe. Yet, Christianity (and other major religions) are responding. A battle for the hearts – and minds – of people continues. At this time of year, it’s worth reflecting on how best to engage in that interaction.
Christmas is a not a good time for atheists and skeptics these days. “The war on Christmas” has largely failed – we call them Christmas trees, greet each other with “Happy Christmas”, include a baby Jesus in school Nativity plays and say ‘Christmas’ rather than ‘Xmas’ on our greeting cards without too much come back. Once upon a time religion was equated with ignorance and superstition (it still is for many), which would eventually give way for science, fact, evidence and reason. Secular elites and thinkers especially explained that the world would be better off without superstitious belief in God. The last hundred years have not been good for them, though. The last century has been the most anti-Christian and most secular in history, yet it’s hard not to notice that scientific rationalism has not delivered a peaceful world to us. Denouncing God (and Jesus specifically) has not made the world a better place – but it has led to an increased spiritual hunger in the Western world.
But this is no cause for gloating amongst Christians (or other religions). The problem is that people who are going on a spiritual quest do not see traditional Christianity as a viable place to go looking (the same is probably true for other traditional religions as well). One of the major reasons for this is that ordinary Christians seem so happy to believe stuff that is just patently absurd or contradictory. By this, I don’t mean belief in some of the difficult to accept concepts that are integral to the Christian faith (such as the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Christ, or a personal God who both loves and judges us), but rather I am referring to the way many Christians continue to insist that all parts of the Bible are literally true (in a modern scientific sense). And the way that many Christians continue to claim that the way they interpret the Bible must be true in spite of all the scientific evidence to the contrary (the best example of this is the continued insistence by so many Christians that there either were never dinosaurs or that any that did exist were wiped out by a global flood just a few thousand years ago).
Those are bold statements that could easily be misunderstood, so let me quickly explain. Too many readers of the Bible do not take into account some of the key factors that need to be understood when doing proper and detailed Biblical interpretation. This is partly because evangelicals and Protestants have long encouraged everyone to do daily Bible “study” and rely on pithy devotional notes as the basis of their Biblical interpretations. Most of these people do not have the background required to analyse the original language and critique the translation they’re using, or delve into the historical and ancient cultural references and background that colour the story, or dig deeply into the literary context and understanding of the usage and forms of the specific genre of the passage they’re reading, or compare the Biblical text to other ancient extant texts of the day, and so much more that would be required to do a complete Biblical exegesis.
There’s a balance needed here. We certainly want people reading their Bibles and trying to understand it. But we also need them to know that not everything is as it seems at first reading. Ordinary Christians need to be a little more humble in their assertions based on their own private reading of the Bible – a little less certain that they have found ultimate truth without doing all the hard work required to do proper exegesis. Of course, we can also at the same time, improve the teaching in most of our churches, so that people get to go deeper and learn the skills that can help them do decent exegesis.
And those of us who try and spend more time digging deeper would do well to take seriously the hard work being done by skeptics, serious thinkers and seekers after truth who are pointing some of the weaknesses of our existing interpretations and interpretative methods. A site I discovered recently that would make a good starting point is Project Reason‘s “Scripture Project“, which aims to catalogue all of the problems with the Bible. The have even done the most amazing visualisation of contradictions in Scripture (see here).
There are many good, reasonable and reasoned responses to these skeptics, and it would do Christianity no end of good to engage with skeptics – and also to stop the devotional readers of the Bible from positioning themselves as experts in this field.