I Believe The Bible Today More Than Ever, But For Different Reasons


(OPINION) I hear from readers from across the religious and irreligious spectrum. They ask all kinds of questions and voice all manner of opinions.

However, more than anything else, I seem to hear from people who grew up in evangelical Protestant churches, as I did. They were taught a rigid set of doctrines to which they were expected to adhere unquestioningly. 

Often, these folks tell me the faith they were baptized in hasn’t held up for them. They’ve become disillusioned. They’ve quit believing in God.

“I’m trying to find faith again,” a woman wrote the other day. “I’m not sure I necessarily need to believe in Christianity but I do want a relationship with my higher power.”

She’d studied the complicated origins of the Bible. Her faith had been “deconstructed” by what she’d learned.

“I feel it is a man made book with patriarchal messages and probably not from God at all,” she said. “I guess I feel lied to after all these years (39) of believing that the Bible is God’s (inerrant) word and a person has to believe in Christianity in order to go to Heaven.”

She asked for my response.

As I said, hers is a common situation, if my mailbag is any indication. So I’ll answer here, publicly.

There are multiple threads to what she said, such as a loss of faith, questions about how reliable the Bible is and whether or not God inspired the Bible and whether the Scriptures discriminate against women and about who does or doesn’t get into heaven.

I can’t begin to cover all that, so I’ll try to hit a couple of highlights.

It’s been my experience that having our faith deconstructed — or even blown to smithereens — often is the best thing that can happen to us. Until you’re forced to release your past assumptions, it’s really hard to learn anything better.

We Americans hold Westernized ideas about religion, just as we do about politics, education or economics. We want our theology summed up in three short specific points, illustrated with a tidy anecdote, capped with a prayer. Give us the answers, and we’ll memorize them. We value few things as much as certitude and having a list to check.

Fortunately for us, God tends not to play along. Sometimes God creates real discomfort for us, I think, to shake us out of our laziness and complacency.

Christianity and its spiritual predecessor, Judaism, sprang from the ancient Middle East, where the mode of thinking was radically different from ours. And far richer.

There, having faith didn’t mean owning all the right answers but that you’d swear allegiance to your Lord and even embark at his bidding on some long, uncertain, winding journey.

You’d probably get frustrated along the way. You’d get angry. You’d be afraid. You’d feel lost. It was all part of the plan. Faith was about the journey more than the destination.

You can still find this idea in the works of some Catholic mystics.

“Answers are beside the point,” Thomas Merton said.

Read in this light, the Bible — a companion for our journey — isn’t a crisp new geology text or even a Rand-McNally map. Its writers weren’t concerned with compiling journalistic factoids. The Bible is a spiritual anthology to help us survive long bouts of confusion occasionally punctuated by encounters with the sublime. Followed by more confusion.

I once asked a rabbi if he thought the Genesis story of creation was literally true, as many evangelicals insist it is. He told me that to read the creation account literally was to entirely miss the point.

I’ve finally figured out what he meant. In my church’s adult Sunday school class, we’ve been using a podcast in which the host explains in detail the Hebrew-language construction of Genesis.

He shows how the early chapters, at least, are poems employing a literary form called a chiasm, which is a set of verbal brackets. It’s complicated, but in the exact center of each chiasm is buried a treasure, a mystery, for the reader to discover. That’s the story’s key.

The treasure buried in the creation story, he says, is the repeated mention of the Sabbath, the day of rest. The creation story is not a literal primer about how the earth was formed. It’s a poem. It reminds us that from the beginning God meant for us to find rest.

That might sound confusing, but as the host breaks down the text, it’s revelatory. The first time I listened, I got chill bumps at the intricacies of those poetic lines, their patterns inaccessible from our English translations, their treasures hidden from easy discovery even in the ancient Hebrew. If all felt to me like the hand of God.

I’m not sure I would have learned this if I hadn’t at some point been wrenched away from my previous indoctrination, in which we did battle over what got created on each day, and whether those days lasted exactly 24 hours. I’d have been satisfied with what I had, maybe even smug about it. I wouldn’t have gone off looking for other ways of seeing.

And that would be my answer to the lady who wrote me. If your faith has been deconstructed, or even dynamited, throw your hands skyward and shout hallelujah.

God hasn’t left. It might be that you’re being prepared for a glorious new trip. Sometimes you’ve got to get blasted out of your past verities. Sometimes it’s incredibly liberating to not have pat answers, to embrace mystery and unknowing, to just be along for the ride.

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