It is all-but-impossible to come to the Bible fresh and new, unencumbered by prior thoughts and teachings and doctrines, which affect the way we read the words and verses, chapters and books in it.
We all wear different lenses (or use different filters, same analogy, take your pick) when we read the Bible. Anyone who has ever been to an Optometrist knows what happens when the doctor put different lenses in front of you eyes. Some make the font bigger, another, more clear, another smaller yet fuzzy, and so on. Eventually, one finds the lens that makes the proper adjustment for them.
The lenses we wear when we read the Bible are fashioned by every Sunday School teacher we ever listened to, every sermon we sat through, the movies we watch, the books we have read and—probably most importantly—what our parents taught us to believe.
My first reading of the Bible was as a Latter-day Saint (Mormon). Yeah, I had attended church before we became LDS, but as I was 11 when I was baptized LDS, I really didn’t know much (never mind the whole age of accountability thing which, depending on the denomination, happens sometime between age 8 and puberty, or getting your driver’s license).
The LDS church at that time taught that the Bible was the word of God so long as it was translated correctly. Still does. This is a mouthful. On one hand, it does acknowledge that problems happen when things are translated from one language to another.
The translations are even more problematic when cultures are different. And make no mistake; religion is in large part a cultural phenomenon. Just look at the map of world religions. They are not spread around evenly. There are Christian areas, areas of Muslims, Hindu (which basically means those near the Indus River), and Buddhist and so on. The scattering of Christianity across the globe is a product of British and other European colonialism, which is apparent when looking at the map. The one oddity is India, which remained Hindu even after being over-run by Muslims and the colonized by Britain; but this was by design of the British colonizers.
The other thing the LDS prescription does is give a reason for departure from Bible passages when they do not fit the teachings of the LDS church. This is why Joseph Smith was required to do what he did: restore the true church because evil or benign and error-prone translators removed much of the plain and precious things from the original manuscripts to give us an incomplete bible, filled with mistranslations and error, and those actions required that God restore these truths through Joseph Smith, the restoration and the Book of Mormon.
Try reading the Bible wearing this set of lenses and eventually, one will realize that one’s time is better spent getting the complete truth from the Book of Mormon and the church leaders. When leaving that set of beliefs, finding any position to which one can hold fast to is difficult. No matter what I have learned or unlearned or read or been taught since leaving the LDS, it is impossible to completely eradicate the effects of this indoctrination from the way I approach just about everything. While I no longer believe the basic LDS doctrines, there is much that is good and of value in the LDS church that I cannot and should not discard.
A (mostly Southern) Baptist Sojourn
Next was the Southern Baptists, of the once-saved-always-saved, born again variety: except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), where salvation is by grace, the free gift of God.
This is where the problems started. First of all, the gift had to be accepted, which is an act in and of itself, so what is really happening is that the gift is offered, but not effective until once hearing the knocking on the door, we open it (paraphrase of Revelation 3:20). So, it takes at least some effort on our part, and as anyone who has ever answered the door to the JW’s during the last minute of a good football game knows, this can be a supreme effort.
Then there are the backslidden. Were they saved or not? They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us (1 John 2:19)
Ok, so if they are backslidden, then they were never truly saved to begin with, which means that the sinner’s prayer they prayed and the confession of sins and the following baptism was not effective because of some defect at the time all this was done. The only way we know there was an effect is that they backslide. The question I had was this: if the conversion and acceptance was not effective, then how can anyone know they are saved because if at a later point in life, they backslide, then that is evidence that they were not saved and if you die before backsliding and yet you would have back-slidden later (even though this is unknown to you8 at the time), then you were not saved but still damned. Sunday School teachers and preachers alike hated this kind of question.
Then the Sunday School class started a series on Romans, highlighting what Baptists refer to as the Roman Road (see this web page for one listing). The problem I had with this is that a plain reading (if that is possible) of Romans slaps you in the face with predeterminism and election, so much so that many Baptists have been known to wonder “was Paul saved when he wrote chapter seven of Romans?”
This question resolves the issue of free will and grace and election to their liking, but it opens the can of worms of Biblical inerrancy. If the Bible is the unchangeable and inerrant word of God and all of it is perfectly true, then how did the words of an unsaved man, words that are just plain contrary to the belief system, get in there in the first place?
There was just too much curve fitting for my tastes. If it is all true, it should not require gymnastics to understand and conform to a set of beliefs.
A friend has said to me that you don’t need to be a theologian to read and understand the Bible; it’s the Priesthood of the Believer, which goes something like this: Every believer takes part in the New Testament doctrine regarding priesthood. Direct access to God, through Christ, was granted the moment the rebirth took place. Yeah and sure, and I don’t need to study physics to understand the General Theory of Relativity.
Methodism for a time
The curve fitting is not why I left the Baptists and found myself in the United Methodist Church (UMC), but I did find myself there and at the time I joined it, there was a nice mix of fundamentalists and liberals in the local church I attended. It was only after this changed and it became increasingly fundamentalist that I left it.
How I read the Bible
It was during my time in the UMC that I really started to see the Bible for what it is: a compendium of different types of literature and how it should be read.
The first thing I captured was that different people will get something different out of the same passage of the Bible and that is neither right or wrong. While we may argue over these differences, they do not make one or the other a non-Christian and that these arguments and differences will not bother God nearly as much as they do us.
Next thing I saw is what the Bible is and is not. It is not a handbook for life. It contains very important eternal truths but it is not intended to be, nor should it be read as being completely true is all circumstances. Now this statement may seem offensive, but ask yourself: is a song true or false? Poetry? Is it necessary for something to be factual for it to have merit and be good?
Is Jonah a true story or a short morality tale? Does it matter? Is the point not the same? Someone once said to me that since Jesus mentioned Jonah that the story of Jonah had to be true because Jesus wouldn’t lie. If Jesus were here today and mentioned Sherlock Holmes to make a point, that would not make him suddenly a real human.
What about Job? Is it true that God entered into a bar bet with Satan or is it more likely that the writer of Job used this as a literary devise enabling characters to discuss faith and belief and obedience? The point of the story is not made or lost depending on the historical status of the events.
It is not a science book nor a math book nor a book about the history of anything other than a small group of Hebrews who eventually settled in Jerusalem, fought with Rome and waited on a Messiah. In the Bible, the mathematical concept of pi is set at 3.0. Pi, is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter (I found this reading about the building of Solomon’s Temple). There is a geometric shape with the ratio of circumference to diameter equal to three. It is called a hexagon. So this leaves is with a few options: 1) Someone left off the decimals meaning the LDS are correct about transcriptions over time, which muddies up the whole inerrant thing; 2) it was written by someone who didn’t appreciate the finer parts of math and engineering (the Egyptians knew this), which means an all-knowing God did not cause the words to be written; 3) it was not written as a construction manual but for another purpose. Thinking about this kind of stuff really messes with your mind, especially when you have been taught it is the infallible inerrant total and complete Word of God.
The resolution to this problem is to accept it was not written by the finger of God as were the characters of the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Ok, fine, many can accept this, but then I hear that they were inspired by God to write what they did and that inspiration is much the same as God writing it. In what universe? Bach was inspired, and was Chopin, and what we got was incredible music. Was God the one inspiring? Even if we assume this to be so, is the result, their music, true? Shoot, even I on occasion get inspired and have good sentence or two.
The men who wrote were inspired to write down their experience with the divine, much as Annie Dillard did in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, the first essay titled An Expedition to the Pole should be required reading of all ministers. They wrote what they experienced from their experience, their limited human experience. They told stories about creation, about the origins of life and the universe and everything, about language diversity, about Jonah and a Whale and a bar bet between God and Satan. They wrote their family history, about the taking of their homeland, about living in tune with God’s will and flourishing and being punished when they departed from God’s will. They wrote songs and praises and poems and prophets warned everyone of bad things to come if things were not changed. They told us about Jesus and Paul advised all of us what he felt it means to be Christian.
All these men wrote from their own perspective with what knowledge they had, sometimes poetically, they wrote about the four corners of the earth, about the sun standing still and about the firmament above and darkness being on the face of the deep. Beautiful language that can be read and understood by all.
They also wrote about virgin sacrifices and bears being sent to attack children who teased an old man, about killing thousands (if not millions) of innocent people when they came back to the Promised Land, not to mention the infants God killed before they even left Egypt. They wrote this from their own viewpoint for their own purposes. It is like the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Each paragraph serves a purpose and one needs to understand what that is.
To believe every word is literally true, even in the histories, paints a terrible picture of God. If this is the God we are required to worship, then let me off. The only way I can reconcile all is the way I have been talking about.
The Bible is about how humans view God, how they see themselves interacting with the divine, how they see the divine interacting with them and how they interacted with each other.
It is through these methods I can accept the Bible for what it is and be consistent in my life. I could not worship a God as depicted in the Old Testament, but God is not the depiction, he is the vision of imperfect men who saw through a glass darkly.
To me, this is the only way the Bible can be read, but then, I have that special set of filters or lenses on. And it is because of these that I have to read it the way I do.
map of from here