The Bible, The Idol

As it turns out, we don’t even need a golden calf or figurines to set on our mantle tops. All we needed was a collection of some two millennia of writings.

More on that in a while.

For now, it suffices to write that I’ve kept busy with reading and other assignments for classes at the School of Theology. It demands my time so much that it’s difficult to dedicate half-hour blocks for blog entries. While I figured this would happen eventually – especially when thesis-writing becomes prudent – I didn’t suspect that it would happen on the third week! In fact, I’m not even supposed to have time to write right now – I had allotted this time frame to studying for tomorrow morning’s 8 a.m. exam, the first of my graduate career. However, I forgot the books I needed at home in Indianapolis. Great job, Rob.

But alas, such is life. Since I last blogged, I became the lucky owner of a part-time job at a not-for-profit organization near campus. It turns out that I can help the plight of the world – and make a few bucks for the family – while spending a few years in seminary. Who knew?

Back to my original topic. Though I know I wrote at some length about my views on the Bible within my Theology page, this topic continually implodes in my brain throughout everyday life. I need to preface this with the statement that the Bible contains a vast wealth of history, poetry, powerful narratives, characteristics of God, and much, much more – it is an invaluable resource. But consider the fact that just about every Christian organization, not to mention every church, swears up and down that the Bible is without flaw and “divinely inspired” by God. I will not argue the latter point, because I, too, ascribe some level of inspiration to the Biblical authors. However, the inaccuracies, contradictions, and outright errors found in the Bible are too numerous to count. Briefly, did Jesus die on a Thursday (Gospel of John) or a Friday (Synoptic Gospels)? Did Jesus go around mainly proclaiming whom he was (Gospel of John) or whom God was (Synoptics)?

The other day, I saw and retweeted a very apt and accurate tweet on Twitter concerning modern Christians and the Bible. Think about it for a second:

@jasmcfarland “To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click ‘I agree.'”

This ignorance or refusal to care may be the kind of mindset that inspires claims of Biblical infallibility. Let’s look, for example, at the statement of faith of a Christian organization that doesn’t require naming, because it essentially agrees with a multitude of others:

The Bible is the first and final authority because it is the Word of God. We believe all the books in the Bible constitute the Holy Scriptures, inspired and infallibly written, fully inerrant in their original manuscripts…

I add the ellipses because there is more, but there is plenty to chew on here.  Let’s work backwards.

First of all, the concept of “original manuscripts” is really a moot point, as for all 66 books of the common Bible, the “original manuscripts” – those that date back to the original human author or scribe (by mode of dictation) – no longer exist. In fact, they haven’t existed for many centuries, and we have no way of knowing what exactly these “original manuscripts” said. In many cases, textual critics can narrow down the variations in the these manuscripts to the most likely (authentic and original) passages. However, people of faith don’t necessarily like the results that these scholars produce.

With a deep look at the statement of faith above, it seems to stress not that the Bible we have today is inerrant, but that it was written without initial flaw. Not many Christians with orthodox beliefs make this distinction, and in the end, it is a matter of faith. But that brings about the obvious question: why would God go to such great and immaculate lengths to inspire a perfect text if he wouldn’t do the same to preserve it?

And, how can the organization behind this faith statement contend that the books that appear in their Bible are the only ones of inerrant truth? Something tell me they haven’t examined apocryphal texts for their contents and are, again, believing what they’re taught.

One final point on the faith statement. The organization holds that the Bible is the final authority on… life, morality, faith, beliefs? On what exactly, it does not say. But what about difficult modern questions, ones that either the Bible itself never comes close to addressing, or addresses only through an Old Testament frame of mind without the presupposition of Jesus and his message? Does this organization allow room for God to and through speak to today’s believers?

With such a firm grip that some Christians hold on the Bible, it’s a wonder how we, as a body of Christ, are able to effectively minister to the people that need Jesus’ message the most. His message consisted of a lot of things, but it is summed up in his reading from the scroll of Isaiah: sight to the blind, freedom for the captives and loosing of the slaves… not the need to shoulder unnecessary amounts of dogma.

As Jesus sings in Godspell…

Alas, alas, for you
Lawyers and pharisees
Hypocrites that you are
Sure that the kingdom of Heaven awaits you
You will not venture half so far
Other men that might enter the gates you
Keep from passing through!
Drag them down with you!

Consider it the believer’s dilemma. Are we holding onto the Bible so tightly that we drag others down and away from the narrow gates? Is the Bible getting in the way of our personal and professional ministries? Have we made for ourselves an idol that replaces, or at least finds equality with, the living God?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. My words are by no means the last word on the subject. Thanks for reading, friends.

My Mark of Shame

While I have no idea what this means to medical personnel, to me it’s a mark of shame. It announces loudly and proudly my invalidity, or rather that I can’t donate blood without blacking out.

The back story is pretty boring. I’ve tried to give blood twice before today, once in high school. That first time, I found out the hard way that my veins are somewhat difficult to find, and that when poked and prodded for a while, eventually I’ll get all light-headed and black out. The second time wasn’t the best experience in the world, as I was left feeling queasy despite my successful donation.

Today, Anderson University was holding a blood drive at the wellness center, so after working out I decided that the third time would be the proverbial charm. I told Patrick, the lucky man who ended up drawing my blood, about the previous experiences, but to my delight he found my vein rather quickly. The donation was going really well; in fact, I got through 4-5 pages in my Ehrman book Misquoting Jesus before anything went awry. From there, however, things went downhill pretty quickly. I had the surreal thought that I didn’t feel too well, and while losing consciousness I managed to say “Sir…” twice, because the first time I did not get Patrick’s attention.

I came back to life with four people around me, including one nice girl imploring me to have a drink of Coke. “Crap,” I thought, it happened again. (I should have known it was a bad omen when I walked in to the blood-drawing area, however. I watched another girl pass out just before they asked me all kinds of questions about whether I’d had sex with prostitutes or Africans since 1977, and the like.)

Finishing up, Patrick bandaged my arm and sent me on to the snack table. I didn’t see anyone else get the Red X Mark of Shame Bandage™ besides me, however. Patrick’s parting words to me were: “Maybe you should reconsider donating blood.”

Well, okay, thanks. I do understand the sentiment, because I basically wasted their time and resources with what didn’t result in a full bag of blood… but at least I tried, right? Oh well. As of Wednesday, September 8, 2010, I am officially an ex-blood donor. I’ll keep all of my valuable O-positive blood to myself. Take that, American Red Cross!

Differing Graciously

Brian McLaren posted some words of wisdom today about the difficulty of graciously believing thoughts that diverge from the norm and purposefully bashing people over the head and looking for trouble. It has important implications for people who own their heresy (as defined by the orthodox many). I may comment more on this later today, but for now, I’ll let his ideas stand on their own.

Differing Without Dividing, Brian D. McLaren

EDIT – 9/8/2010 @ 12:30 p.m.:

McLaren’s recent book A New Kind of Christianity was excellent on many fronts, especially its 10-12 pages on “the way, the truth and the life,” as I have commented before. But in other areas, I was left asking questions and wanting more. The best example of this relates directly to his “Differing Without Dividing” blog entry posted yesterday; though it’s not very long, it does add to the chapter on how to apply and spread one’s uniquely new kind of Christianity. That chapter basically boiled down to… “Don’t tell people that won’t want to hear it because they won’t accept it anyway.”

Sure, McLaren said a lot more in the chapter, such as to “evangelize” by asking questions with which people could struggle (which provides a roundabout way for them to come back to you looking for guidance or at least your input). But after writing so many important things, the “What Do We Do Now” chapter was a big letdown.

For many people, accepting new thoughts takes time and maturity. The proper degree of maturity may not have occurred when we want it to, and even if it has, it can be hard to invest the kind of time necessary to foster thought that questions everything previously accepted as basic truth. In the end, McLaren is right: you must meet people where they are at, be patient and pick your battles.

Logically, then, the problem is where people are at. And that’s why I’m in seminary.


Just a brief note: I’ve added a small blogroll to my right widget margin, and I may put up a few other nifty things. I know that I have several bloggy-minded friends, and I’d love to add your blog to the list. If you’d do the same for me, I wouldn’t mind that at all! Leave me a note in the comments, or by some other convenient form of communication if you’d like. Thanks for reading, once again!

Dear Neighbor

In early August, my wife Lauren drafted me to help set up her first grade classroom. As part of this, she had to build a class library out of nothing, since her charter school doesn’t have one. So the most realistic option became the Goodwill Outlet store within Indianapolis proper, where we loaded up on over 150 books for less than $50.

After coming home, my next job was to mark each book with a “Property of Mrs. Heaton” tag and flip through them to make sure everything was in order (i.e., readable and free of graffiti). Out of one of the books popped a personal letter, dated August 1973, from “Phyllis Glover” to an unspecified neighbor. The letter seems to have been taped inside a book, though it’s doubtful that it came from any of the first grade-level readers that we bought. The words are very legible, though the paper and especially the tape have yellowed. You can click the image to read a larger version of it, or I have reproduced the words below:

Dear Neighbor,
Today my hands are strong, So let me help you, Tomorrow they may be weak, or old, + sick and you will have to lighten my load, Today my hands are strong, so let me share your burdens, for why do we exist if we cannot care for one another, walk others paths, know their sorrows.
Neighbor, today my hands are strong, let me help you.
Phyllis Glover
Aug. – 1973.

Sad as it may be that this beautiful, touching letter ended up dumped at a Goodwill Outlet store, it fills me with hope for the state of society. Individual people are both the root of the problem and the ultimate solution for that which troubles our world.

Thank you, Phyllis Glover, for your 37-year-old reminder to show compassion to our neighbors. More than any commandment, may this become our duty and our privilege. May we all find the time to “care for one another, walk others paths, know their sorrows.”