Why The Bible Made Impossible is Impossible

There has been a great deal of conversation about Christian Smith's new book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. All the positive reviews are well deserved. I agree, it's a wonderful book.

In fact, I'm in the midst of a short series I'm doing about the book for the bible class I teach at the Highland Church of Christ. The Church of Christ is a biblicist tradition. However, a lot of our people have grown disillusioned with the bible. The bible has become a stumbling block to faith. Which is why I wanted to do a series at my church about The Bible Made Impossible. Smith's book is therapeutic for people struggling with "the Good Book."

There are a lot of good overviews of the book out there. Let me point you to Rachel Held Evan's as a place to start. But let me give a quick overview so I can get to a comment I have about the book and the point of this post.

What is biblicism? Concisely, it is a theory (often unstated) about the nature, purpose, and function of the bible. Its ruling idea is that the meaning of the bible is clear and transparent to open-minded readers. The implication of this idea is that when people sit down to read the bible a broad consensus can be reached about the will of God for any number of issues or topics, from gender roles to the plan of salvation to social ethics to the end times to church organization.

The first part of Smith's book is engaged in blowing up this idea. Empirically speaking, the bible does not produce consensus. Empirically speaking, what we find, to use Smith's phrase, is "pervasive interpretive pluralism." Even among biblicists themselves consensus cannot be reached. For example, Smith points us to books like the Four Views series from InterVarsity Press. Surf over to that link and look at the titles of the series. Four (and sometimes five!) views on just about every topic in Christianity. What does that say when conservative evangelicals, who hold that the bible is both clear and authoritative, can't agree?

Thus, Smith concludes that biblicism is a wrongheaded way of approaching the bible. Biblicism doesn't deliver on what it promises: consensus and clarity about "the will of God."

In the second part of the book Smith turns to describe what he considers to be a better and more faithful evangelical reading of Scripture. This first move he makes is to argue for a Christocentric hermeneutic. The nature, purpose and function of the bible is to point us to Jesus, the Word of God. The "unity" and "consistency" of God's Word isn't to be found among the (at times contradictory) stories and teachings found on the pages of the bible. The bible isn't pointing to itself. Nor is it particularly interesting in issues of "reliability." The prime interest of the bible is the One to whom it is pointing. The bible is a witness not a rulebook, it is a chorus of voices giving testimony to the Word of God. No one has summarized this better than Jesus himself:

John 5:39-40
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
Now you might be wondering, how does this solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism? Aren't there many views of Jesus on offer? Isn't "Jesus" just a container we fill with reflections of ourselves?

Smith talks about this response but he doesn't have a final answer. Not that he could or should. That's a tall order to fill. Smith mainly argues that the benefit of shifting to this Christological conversation--Who is Jesus? Where is Jesus? How is Jesus among us?--is that it makes what is implicit now explicit. That is, rather than pretending we aren't interpreting Scripture, pretending that "God's will" is clearly and transparently written in the bible, we are forced to take up our hermeneutical burden, squarely facing, again and again and again, the question once raised by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.
That might not be much of an improvement. But it does, however, as Smith points out, lift a considerable burden from the bible. No longer do we have to obsess about the bible's inconsistencies and opacity. We can, rather, get on with the business of finding and expressing the Incarnate Word among us.

In all this I'm in 100% agreement. But the demands of this sort of approach are not negligible. Smith follows his chapter on Christological hermeneutics with a chapter entitled "Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity." In this chapter Smith says,
There is no reason whatsoever not to openly acknowledge the sometimes confusing, ambiguous, and seemingly incomplete nature of scripture. We do not need to be able to explain everything all the time. It is fine sometimes simply to say, "I have no idea" and "We really don't know."
Thus, Smith argues that we should "drop the compulsion to harmonize" the bible and that we should live "on a need-to-know basis." We should embrace the mystery and the uncertainty.

Again, in all this, I find myself in complete agreement. But here's my problem:

Only a few people are going to be able to do this.

That is my quibble with The Bible Made Impossible. Specifically, the recommendations of The Bible Made Impossible are, well, impossible, psychologically speaking. Not across the board, mind you. There are a few people who are psychologically able to tolerate ambiguity and the associated existential anxiety. Because these are pretty big stakes we're talking about here. We're not talking about ambiguity in, say, a form you have to fill out at work. We're talking about sin, salvation, heaven, judgment, grace, hell and all that jazz. And with stakes that huge any ambiguity is going to create an enormous burden of anxiety.

In short, I find The Bible Made Impossible to be psychologically naive. That sounds harsh, so let me clarify. I'm not speaking to Smith's scholarship, which is awesome (plus, he's a great writer). I'm speaking to the anthropological and psychological assumptions that need to be in place to pull his vision off. And to clarify some more, I can guarantee you that Smith is aware of these challenges. He's a sociologist after all. The problem I'm pointing out is that these challenges, where I think the rubber meets the road, aren't discussed in any great detail in the book. That's my point. You read the book and say, "Great idea, but golly, the majority of people aren't going to be able to pull this off. Not without something else being said or done."

Here's the deal. People turn to the bible for consolation and guidance. They want to know if they are doing the right thing, if God is pleased with them. And it's at that location--right there--where the real work has to be done. Because the stakes, as I said, are high. If heaven and hell is in play, if there is any anxiety whatsoever about God's approval, then telling people to "embrace ambiguity" isn't going to help. It's just throwing gasoline on the fire.

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89 thoughts on “Why The Bible Made Impossible is Impossible”

  1. This is a great question--what is the sociologically and psychologically credible alternative to biblicism? And does it merely involve a sidelining of Scripture? We know Scripture is not always clear, so we can discount anything the Bible says--like a high school friend of mine, who totally without irony said, "Well, I'm sure the Bible also says the opposite somewhere else."

    I personally think the way forward might lie in the history of the interpretive tradition. Look at the way Jews read Torah. Jews are not psychologically different from us goyim (as far as I know), but they've spent centuries reveling in the "or, according to another rabbi, it might mean" model. It's a game, in the best sense--exhilirating and fun. Why does it work for them? And for some whole traditions (not just personalities) of Christianity?

    I'd like your ideas. My first guess is that these are traditions (Judaism, and to a lesser extent some well-established Christian traditions) for whom there is less at stake. We know we're Jews, no matter how we decide to read this mutivalent text. We're not going to start eating pork just because some rabbi makes us think differently. Similarly, some Christians communities have a healthy sense that the Bible is something God uses to form us more deeply--but that we are who we are, we know the God we know, the rule of faith is the rule of faith, and that Scriptural ambiguity isn't going to challenge that. Maybe it's because Scripture isn't as central to our identity as it should be--but maybe it's because the things that are clear in Scripture (Torah interpretation really isn't very ambiguous on the subject of whether we should worship idols, nor is New Testament interpretation ambiguous on the subject of whom God made Lord and Christ) provide a stable enough identity that we can then feel anxiety-free as we explore the small stuff.

    This is why, by the way, I tend to do my devil's advocate thing toward anyone who wants to propose that their specific interpretation of a debatable issue is "central" or "indispensable" or "necessary" for following Jesus. I understand the impulse of those who don't want us to use words without meaning--conservatives don't want us to claim "sexual purity" while embracing any and every sex act, liberals don't want us to claim "love for neighbor" while embracing war. I get that. But sometimes it comes across, not as "let's get deeper in following Jesus," but "you aren't really a Christian unless you buy my far-from-obvious interpretation of pacifism/ homosexuality/ etc." All of which leads to anxiety--and strife.

    Or maybe you actually put it best--"if there is any anxiety whatsoever about God's approval." Do Christians really need to feel such anxiety, and fuel it in one another, especially on the basis of "who's right about"-- marriage/ singleness, social justice/ private charity, universalism/ annihilationism,  free will/ predestination, etc.?

  2. Having just been pondering the issue of "anxiety" and how the church, on the one hand, lays a guilt trip on us for having anxiety (our favorite "sin"), and on the other hand, serves to increase our anxiety with its doctrine(s) of fear, this post is pure genius.  So much becomes clear to me when I read this blog!  That Bible class of yours sounds wonderful.  I loved that in the acknowledgements to 'Unclean' you mentioned your church group for putting up with your "very odd" Bible classes.  :-)  That is my kind of Bible class!  Thanks for bringing it to the blogosphere, in a fashion.  Many thanks...

  3. Richard, I appreciate your critique here. As to your point about the book being "psychologically naive", I think that is the best reason to use this book in the context of a church class or small group. If there is a way to put it in print, I'm sure you will work at it. But we have inflated expectations of books (thus our problem with the Bible). We need to understand more how Word meets Spirit, not only in our reading of Scripture, but in our meeting with one another.

  4. This was pretty much my assessment of Smith's book as well. I thought his points were valid and the writing, especially in the chapter on developing a christocentric hermeneutic, was positively inspiring. But there were no (for lack of a better word) "practical" suggestions on how to read the Bible this way. What it did do was inspire me to try to figure out on my own how a christocentric hermeneutic might work in practice. 

    I'm not sure now that I will ever find the magic formula that will help other people understand how to read the Bible this way, but all the research and processing and blogging about it along the way is teaching me a lot. Since I'm one of those people who is OK "embracing ambiguity" maybe it will also help someone else work through the process someday.

    Thanks for the insights.

  5. I hesitated to use the word "naive." It's sounds more harsh than what I'm intending. I hope it's clear that 1) I think it's a great book, 2) I agree with it, and 3) I'm teaching a class on it in a church. I'm a fan of the book.

    My post comes from my experience in teaching the book in a church. As I share Smith's recommendation to "embrace ambiguity" I'm looking out at people who aren't always willing or able to do that. So where does that leave them? More, did I just make them feel worse?

    For my part, I'm firmly convinced that everything, ultimately, boils down to our view of God (and the associated anxiety we experience). The issue isn't the bible per se, it's the view of a God who will zap us if we get the bible wrong. It's that view that drives the anxiety behind biblicism. But you can't fix that biblicism until you fix that view of God.

  6. Thanks for pointing out the elephant in the room - I didn't see him there but now he is obvious. If afterlife destination is based on getting the bible right, stakes do seem high indeed. It's thing like this that make your brand of universalism increasingly plausible in my mind!

  7. Great point Richard.

    If Christianity means "beleive this, confess that, pray this prayer and some bit of you will whizz off to heaven when you die, don't do these things or do them imperfectly then its ECT for you" then you absolutely need a Scripture that meets the biblicist requirements. Especially if you only ever refer to three verses from Romans, one from each of Galatians and Ephesians and one from John's Gospel. If that's Christianity then I suppose it would be cruel, dangerous even, to open up a more nuanced way of looking at the world, God and the Bible.

    Perhaps this is why Bell's book last year was so important, both to those who loved it and hated it. If you can loosen the anxiety about a medieval Hell, you can open up the possibility of a life poured out in the love and wonder of following Jesus - wherever He leads.

    On the other hand if you want / need to bolster a strong biblicism (better to control your churches, views on women, political affiliation, money etc) then you will need the power of Hell on your side to keep order.

    Very nice link - one of those things that as soon as its pointed out seems obvious, but duh! I've never quite made the connection. 

  8. Might Kant's statement that the only unqualified good is a good will provide a foothold for our anxiety? We look to scripture to provide an instance--Christ--of what it means to be a person fully committed to good will--aka, "love"--in a very morally ambiguous world.  

  9. "We look to scripture to provide an instance--Christ--of what it means to be a person fully committed to good will--aka, "love"--in a very morally ambiguous world."
    That's awesome. I'm going to use that in my class!

  10. Actually - and of course your use of "naive" is not problematic in the slightest - filling that yawning gap between where we need to go and where we are (in a popular "we" sense) seems to me to be Dr. Wright's overarching project:  redirecting our organizing assumptions and replacing a bible focus with a Jesus focus, and situating the entire thing within an historical arc in which Jesus is not an empty vessel to be filled but an historically concrete person.  My guess is that NTW would agree in principle with Smith's thesis, and perhaps he might even agree that Smith's project is naive; but he would go further to say that, naive or not, we must persist in the project precisely because the stakes are so high, not only for us as anxiety-riddled, psychologically compromised individuals, but for us as a church and for us as a society.  He would remind us, as you often do, that the everlasting objective is also inescapably a contemporary objective, that a better (meaning God-reflecting) world is possible, and that our implicit assumptions about the Bible's role in achieving that objective is to piont us to Jesus, not to argue that salvation consists in assenting to some incredible fantasy about the Bible's doctrinal or interpretive coherence.

    qb

  11. Where is the location where the anthropological and psychological assumptions that are needed are in place for Smith's vision?  I'm thinking the church.

  12. Very interesting. Thanks. My only comment is that what people are psychologically capable of is not a fixed fact. People can and do learn within traditions and institutions over time to be prepared for lots of different challenges. It is amazing what people can accommodate psychologically when they've had the cultural training in it. Evangelicals have not been well prepared psychologically for what I propose, because of the deep biblicism. But that does not mean it is impossible generally.

  13. Hi Chris,
    Totally agreed.

    To clarify a bit, the title of the post is just being playful with the provocative (and wonderfully so) title of your own book. (I was reading your book over the Christmas holidays and my family kept picking up the book and saying, "The Bible Made Impossible!? What's that book about ?") Blog posts, as well books, need those attention-grabbing titles.

    Because, yes, change isn't impossible, only very hard at times. Particularly, as you note, change that might be generational in scope.

    That said, in one sense your book title isn't hyperbole at all. It's not the bible that is impossible but biblicism. That becomes clear in the book. In a similar way, I'd argue that my use of the word impossible is also accurate in a particular sense. Specifically, that if the underlying view of God and the associated anxieties are not addressed then the way of reading Scripture you propose (a way of reading I share) is impossible.

    Reject biblicism and the bible becomes "possible." Reject a certain view of God and the rejection of biblicism becomes "possible."

  14. "Its (biblicism's) ruling idea is that the meaning of the bible is clear and transparent to open-minded readers."

    Biblicism as you have defined it here does indeed seem troublesome.  But, could all of this lack of consensus originate in the truth of  the following passage?

    1 Corinthians 2:14 The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

    Maybe open-minded is not the same as believer?  So, who is it who is actually confused by all the 'contradictions?'  Who are all these people who are having such a hard time following Jesus?  Do spirit led people actually disagree on what the Bible teaches?

  15. That's a good point. Smith does talk about that response--what he calls the "noetically-damaged-reader reply"--as a way to defend biblicism. The trouble with this reply is that you and I have to decide, when we disagree, which of us is the "damaged" one. And, given human nature, the damaged one is always the other guy. More, such a reply implies that there are a select few who understand the bible correctly while the rest of us are left in the dark. Even worse, there's a bunch if these groups, each claiming to be the right group.

    That's problematic because how are the select few going to convince the rest of us of their "rightness" when 1) we're damaged and in the dark, and 2) there are multiple groups claiming to be the select few? How is the damaged person to decide among this babel of "elect" groups? And how are the "elect" groups able to sort themselves out given their disagreements?

    We end up back where we started: pluralism and not consensus.

  16. I concur that interpretive histories should inform our reading of scripture. That guidance is not God but provides guidance (see McKnight's Parakeet) that can help us find our ways in the ambiguities of The Way.

  17. Perhaps you or Chris can share something that explores a practical theology of non-biblicists living among "impossibles".

  18. Being no newcomer to "generational" struggles having to do with church tradition and the nature and function of scripture, I find all this quite stimulating. I find it so interesting that a lot of my formerly hardened convictions have been considerably shaken. I'm beginning to wonder if my old professors at Perkins had it together more than what I then considered my "liberated" conservatism would allow. This is a very exciting time to be alive! It is also proving to be psychologically and emotionally quite challenging for an older student getting the splits trying to straddle two interpretive worlds.

  19. Dr. Smith,

    This also fits well with Brian McLaren's thesis in Naked Spirituality regarding the various stages of spirituality that individuals and churches (sometimes) progress through.  In addition, he says that people often progress from Biblicist stages (he doesn't use this term, but it fits within his first two stages) to stages that accommodate more uncertainty as a result of a crisis (physical, financial, faith, etc.).  So, the lucky ones can reach this stage by the training you refer to, but others will get there the hard way.

  20. I don't know if Chris is coming back. But it was very nice of him to stop by.

    A couple of thoughts. The best thing to do is to find an ecumenical faith community, a group of people who, to some degree, don't believe they are the only one's with the truth. There will be degrees here. But that is what I did. When we moved to Abilene we chose the most ecumenical Church of Christ available.

    Next, within that faith community find a smaller group that is even more ecumenical, and even a little mad, that might support you. In my church it's the Sojourners bible class. It's the most "mad" bible class in the church.

    Next, when possible, try to teach yourself. Kids, teens, adults. And to be clear, you are not using that platform as a bully pulpit. When I teach at my church, or in the bible study at the prison, I don't get into a lot of stuff I talk about here. For example, I know most of my church doesn't share my views about salvation. Being given a teaching role is a trust and I want to honor that trust.

    But when I teach I do get to pick topics and themes that minimize the annoying stuff I might be having to listen to if I were just attending a class.

    Finally, a lot of people say the damnedest things when it comes to religion. But more often than not their hearts are in the right place. There are a lot of people who I've gone to church with who didn't and don't see eye to eye with me on a lot of stuff. But they have hearts of gold. I focus on their hearts, not their theology.

    And finally finally, at the end of the day this has nothing to do, really, with the bible and how we read it. It has to do with people being a**holes. If you have one of those people in your face the issue isn't the bible. Don't let that sort of person get you down about the bible.

  21. So, you're saying that all of the "Four Views" books are written and edited by people who are spiritually deficient?

  22. Thanks Richard - really helpful.
     
    I volunteered to help out at our Church's Sunday School, mainly to give some of the leaders a break so they could spend some time in the main congregation for a change. That's great said our young and enthusiastic Youth Pastor - I'll give you a really easy one, you can teach John 3:1-21. My heart sank for a moment – there was me thinking that was one of the most DIFFICULT passages in the NT to get my head around, and so loaded with contextual meaning as well as historical readings that have gone off to the milky way and back (to borrow a phrase from somewhere). So what was I to do? Do I teach to what most of the kids parents were expecting their kids to learn? Would that be really honest to God and an act of integrity to the journey God had blessed me with? Do I open up some of the hermeneutical and historical stuff and create a sh!tstorm of parents waving pitchforks for upsetting little Johnnies certainties. In the end my anxieties were somewhat unfounded. I asked them lots of questions about what they thought was going on with Jesus and Nicodemus, and why they thought Jesus might use such unusual phrasing and concepts for this aristocratic rabbi character that he didn’t use with the more common folk he usually mixed with and they had a great time exploring and debating their take on it. The real pay off was when one of the kids volunteered – so if Jesus is talking about God birthing us again / from above, does that mean he was saying God is a bit like a mother as well as a father?
    So I suppose I didn’t have to trot out any interpretation that I didn’t believe in, and they didn’t get any thoughts on the text that they hadn’t worked out for themselves, so it all kind of worked out. Much more difficult than teaching adults. Good news is I have been invited back and the YP is letting me do Matt 5:38-41…

  23. Nice point Candeux, but I guess David is saying only 3 out of 4 views are wrong. Reminds me of a Dire Straits lyric (Industrial Disease on Telegraph Road) - "There's two men say they're Jesus... one of them must be wrong..." 
     NT Wright also prefaces some of his talks with the warning that x% of what he is about to say will be wrong, but he just doesn't know which bits yet

  24. I think it goes without saying that 3 out 4 view are wrong (or, more likely, that all of them are wrong and the truth is something that we never considered).  His comment would suggest, then, that 75% of the authors (and all of the editors) don't have spiritual discernment.  I think most people (including the authors themselves) would be a bit surprised by that assessment.

  25. Some reactions:
    1)  We don't have to decide who is damaged since we all are; even, of course, actual believers.  And, this is the reason believers may 'disagree.'
    2)  Nobody (even the members of the 'right' select group) has to convince anybody else of anything; that's God's job.
    3)  Show me an 'elect group' that is actually united in the Spirit and it won't be a problem deciding for them.
    4)  The unbeliever can not understand the Scriptures; the believer may not understand because he/she is noetically damaged (sinful).
    5)  It's not about 'me' figuring it all out; it is about 'me' trusting God.

    In the end we agree, pluralism is the status quo and there is a lot of babel.

  26. You're on fire, Dr. Beck (in a good way)!  This is the best all-around advice I've heard in one place in a long while.  My biggest ongoing issue is the 2nd to the last paragraph...  Working on it :-)

  27. Dear Dr. Beck,
    I am working on my dissertation and really like attachment theory, and your measure of attachment to God. I am hoping to do some program evaluation and research with a 12 month faith based program for women and this is one of the measures I wanted to use. Is there a fee for the measure, or is it for sale somewhere?
    Thank you, and I have enjoyed your blog too!

    Ann Kerlin
    Liberty U. doctoral student
    Adjunct Instructor, LRU

  28. This is a great question--what is the sociologically and psychologically
    credible alternative to biblicism? And does it merely involve a
    sidelining of Scripture?


    Anglicanism has its "three legged stool" of scripture, reason, and tradition; John Wesley added the fourth aspect - experience -  for the Methodist Quadrilateral. The point of both these theologies is that if any of the 'legs' are an inconsistent length due to relying too much on it and not enough on the others, the 'stool' falls over.

  29. That's rather inspiring.  I must have trust issues, because I'm not willing to invest in a  community that might abandon me for eating from the forbidden cookie jar.  I've seen that behavior at every church I've been to.  Of course, I've never been to a church who "don't believe they are the only one's with the truth."  Churches I've been to seem to be places where people mostly share the same truth with each other.  Are you open to those that disagree with you on salvation?  I'm not sure I could do that especially if the church was a central part of my wife and children's lives.

  30. Hi Ann,
    The AGI is a research instrument, no fee. So if you have a copy of Beck & McDonald (2004) just put the directions, rating scale, and items into the format you need for your research. 

  31. Hi, Richard

    Thanks for this post. The book sounds interesting, though I probably won't add it to my "list" (which resides on my Kindle). So many are already in the cue! And I think I already agree with it, based on what you say.

    I think that perhaps the key is in the question -- that is, knowing just who Jesus is. I agree that the bible is primarily a spotlight for the Son of God. HE is the good news and nothing else. Looking at Him, we need never fear because however little we may understand, it's obvious that Jesus is loving and is just and we can trust Him to do what is loving and just. Part of doing that is, frankly, not hurting us in any non-therapeutic or non-restorative way. He is dangerous, but He is the only safe port, and He is the exact image of the Father. As I believe you said in your last post, quoting MacDonald, the only safe place for a child who has misbehaved and is therefore in fear of his father, is in his father's arms.

    But yes, looking back not so very far, I would have needed a bit of explanation on this point. Jesus IS the knowledge of God. That's all we really need to know. If we KNOW Him, we know the Father, and nothing else matters.

  32. Interesting. The sentiment makes sense, but do you realize it's almost a classical statement of the Jesus-as-example model of atonement--which is, historically, theologically opposite to Christus Victor? Do you talk abut this elsewhere? I think of it a classically liberal theory of atonement.

  33. I'm not sure all (or even most) Roman Catholics view the "visible church" as a sort of arbiter-of-truth, remover-of-ambiguity, the way biblicists view the Bible. Many of them view the "visible church" as a necessary and ambiguous witness to truth--the way nonbiblicists view the Bible.

  34. I actually am somewhere between the two of your here. Ambiguity is not resolved (biblicism is not saved) by appealing to the Spirit's guidance; Richard convinces me here. But in the midst of ambiguity, we can probably appeal to the virtue of at least seeking the Spirit's guidance, and even the hope that in so seeking we will be brought to more clarity/ consensus about what Scripture says.

    Sometimes it's not about claiming "the Spirit guides me but not you." Sometimes it's about asking, "Do you even try to be guided by the Spirit? Because if you don't, that may be a problem."

    Then, of course, we get to testing the spirits and are dumped right back into another sort of ambiguity. . . .

  35. Would they really? Have they even thought about whether they have spiritual discernment, and how they might get it? I'm genuinely curious.

  36. Oh, I realize that. In many ways my current interests in Christus Victor are about making bridges to other models like moral influence views.

  37. This is wonderful, Richard. Truly wonderful. A right reading of Scripture is impossible when we have the wrong underlying view of God and associated anxieties. Can I steal that line for my Bible Survey classes?

    Is the converse also true--that a right underlying view of God (and relieving of anxieties) comes to us from rightly reading Scripture? I'm thinking of a non-vicious circle, in which better and better readings lead to better and better views of God, which lead to better and better readings, which lead to better and better views of God. . . .

  38. To make sense of the appelation "Logos," Christ in some sense must be a beacon in an otherwise less-bright world. It seems the gamut of Christian theology would be 'liberal," in that case. 

  39. I can attest that psychologically this is a difficult transition even if you are willing.  I've been going through this theological shift over the last year, and I've had a few minor panic attacks and freak outs.  The problem is that even as I can rationally affirm things, my upbringing keeps popping up in my head causing anxiety.  For example, our church is reading the Bible in 100days, and even though I feel like I should have more "realistic" expectations about the Bible it's not a fun experience for me.  I shift between being disappointed or depressed that God didn't dictate certain passages that I like (wishing for certainty), and then being repulsed by certain passages and glad I don't believe in inerrancy anymore.  I think I've yet to read a page without killing, much of it "God" sanctioned (Devote to God indeed).  Throw on top of that a heathly dose of textual criticism I've read, such as Friedman, and it makes for a very trying experience.  I'm not even sure what to get out of this reading, but at this point Ecclesiastes sounds like an Oasis. 
      
    I guess at this point I'm a transitional between modern and post-modern.  Raised modern, but now with post-modern sympathies.  It's hard to let go of what you were taught when you were young.  Perhaps my children will fare better. 

  40. Few people are able to tolerate that ambiguity -- I don't disagree. But I can't help think that perhaps that learning how to engage in that is a part of faith and that helping shepherd people through that process and guide them is part of what the (ideal) role of religion and spiritual leadership should entail. It's not, by and large, something that the American culture is good at but frankly I think we'd all be better off if we started working on that. (Yes, that's a tall order. I'm one of those annoying idealists who wants to change world. Through sheer willpower if need be.)

  41. As usual, I'm way late getting in on the conversation. A couple of things:

    1. This is a fantastic book - it really, really needed to be written and Chris Smith hit a home run with it.

    2. I may be wading deep into waters that I'm not familiar with here, but it strikes me that a consciousness that transcends factual, emprical certainty is essential to Christian spiritual development anyway, at least past a certain stage.

    (Having said that, I do take your point, Richard).

  42. I never found a way to read or study the Bible without the focus being on me, and inside my own head.  Maddening.  What I believed, what I thought, what my purpose was, my "relationship" to God/Jesus, etc.  Religion is all about the self, and driven by the ego.  How could it be otherwise?  That's true of every church I ever attended, too.  Like a Flower Club.  How fortunate I was the day I realized I was not one of the elect, but rather one of the least of these.

    I suppose that is why I too love my dog so much.  :-)

  43. In my experience, the expansion of the mental capabilities and stretching of ones psyche requires willingness to face pain. If we can recognize that pain is for a good purpose and not run away from it (and call it satan), we can allow ourselves to see things very differently as we grow and progress. This process is slow and very painful. I have found that contemplation and prayer assist me in this psychological development. The more we are allowing God to shift us and change us through being silent before Him, the more our perspective changes into a deeper place allowing the tension of ambiguity and uncertainty to exist without running away into a absolutism. Thomas Keating describes this process in his books as well as Merton, and Henri Nouwen.

  44. Drop all of your books and come follow me...! There are millions of people out there that are poor, broken, lost, addicted, homeless, sick and without a friend or person to show them love compassion or kindness. Let's stop talking, debating, intellectualizing, reading and discussing! Let's stop sitting around trying to find all of the answers to the bible and actually try to live out what Jesus said was MOST important...Love God and other people more than yourself! How many people have actually done it? Jesus....Mother Theresa? Anyone else? Example: What would your life look like if you replaced all of your reading time and church time with volunteering time at a nearby homeless shelter? ....Just my thoughts/convictions!

  45. This argument realy raises my ire (he says stifling less polite language). I was told as a teenager at a Baptist youth group that the reason I had questions about some of the peculiarities of Scripture was because I lacked the faith to accept them. If it hadn't have been for a faithful father who gave me permission to have misgivings about certain Biblical "facts" and introduced me to a God that not only could tolerate my cheek but loved my inquiring mind, I would not be in the church today. The implication of what you suggest is that for many many people, the only path to faith is to suppress their God-given intellect. I'm sorry, but I do not subscribe to your view of God or to your understanding of what is true interpretation of Scripture.

  46. Amen.  The end of the Church as we know it -- along with Sunday School, Prayer Meetings, Sermons, Bible Studies, and all the other ways in which folks mentally wrap themselves in the cocoon of their religion.

    I can imagine some of the things I might be thinking of on my deathbed, but I don't think one of them will be, -- "Gee, I wish I had spent more time in Bible Study".

  47. "This argument really . . ."

    Argument???

    "I was told as a teenager . . ."

    Sorry for that; but, I would suggest you put the words of that idiot (not stifling less polite language) out of your mind.

    "introduced me to a God that not only could tolerate my cheek but loved my inquiring mind,"

    Bravo.  I have the opinion that the different views and questioning are just fine.  The result of this should be (IMHO) that believers should just keep being Bereans and search the Scriptures continually.

    "The implication of what you suggest is that for many many people, the only path to faith is to suppress their God-given intellect."

    Sorry for misleading you.  The only path to faith is God; it has nothing to do with 'my' intellect.  But, I would not tell anybody to stop using their intellect.  Have at it, if that is your cup of tea.

    "I'm sorry, but I do not subscribe to your view of God or to your understanding of what is true interpretation of Scripture."

    No problem.  But, what is it exactly that I said with which you are disagreeing?

  48. I hope you succeed. Jesus is clearly an example, and that's clearly important, and yet somehow this view seems to always diminish the reality of Jesus (he works just as well as an example if he never even existed--but we think he did). Christus Victor is much beefier--Jesus really wins a victory which is really won (although I may still need to follow his example to fully enter into that victory).

  49. I guess you're already a well-formed, moral, very competent person who, in spending time at a homeless shelter, will be a wonderful beacon of good and help to those people. Me, I go to the local homeless shelter and have very little to offer them. But then I move to a circle of people that are just as messed up as I am, but who seek in ancient stories to be formed into something a little better than what we are now. This formation takes us to prisons and homeless shelters--and also into more mundane places, like the kitchens of our homes and our relationships with our own wives and children--with a wisdom that helps us be slightly less likely to crush others' spirits and bury their hopes. The Bible, Richard's blog, and the writings of saints (including Mother Theresa, who bothered making books!!) and scholars are a help to us. If they are not a help to you, I'm very very happy that you are spending your time loving God and people.

  50. I guess you're already a well-formed, moral, very competent person who, in spending time at a homeless shelter, will be a wonderful beacon of good and help to those people. Me, I go to the local homeless shelter and have very little to offer them. But then I move to a circle of people that are just as messed up as I am, but who seek in ancient stories to be formed into something a little better than what we are now. This formation takes us to prisons and homeless shelters--and also into more mundane places, like the kitchens of our homes and our relationships with our own wives and children--with a wisdom that helps us be slightly less likely to crush others' spirits and bury their hopes. The Bible, Richard's blog, and the writings of saints (including Mother Theresa, who bothered making books!!) and scholars are a help to us. If they are not a help to you, I'm very very happy that you are spending your time loving God and people.

  51. It's only because I've finally been persuaded to read "The Denial of Death" that I can see how closely this post fits with Richard's ongoing series.  Our difficulty in living with ambiguity is, at heart, a defence against existential terror.  I find this post really helpful, as I also suffer from psychological naivety.  I always want to challenge people's assumptions - to throw them into a tiny bit of chaos, so they can accommodate more truth when normal service is resumed.  And yes - I can hear how arrogant that sounds.  Except that I also love when people do that for me.  That's why I keep coming back here.

    As Becker says in his introduction, "The problem of man's knowledge is not to oppose and to demolish opposing views, but to include them in a larger theoretical structure."

    I was also struck by this thought, which could be applied to religious moral clarity: "For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost.  The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with the terrible reality, and tried to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear.  It does not worry him that his "ideas" are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality." (Jose Ortega Y Gasset)

  52. I imagine that people struggle with ambiguity because they don't have a method for dealing with it theologically.  I wish more churches had classes on doubt.  I grew up hearing "Speak where the Bible speaks; stay silent where the Bible is silent." But if I needed to dig deeper into an issue I had a walking Hebrew concordance in the form of my father (an old testament scholar). His saying for unanswerable questions: "That's too strange and wonderful for me." It taught me that my limited understanding was nothing to fear, that God's greatness is something I can trust. Even as my beliefs morph in and out of doubt.  The triumph of the printing press was that everyone could read the Bible for themselves (eventually).  However, the result was not unity of belief.  Which is something I've accepted. Or, I'm at least strongly ambivalent. 

  53. I'm not sure if you are aware of some of the origins of bliblicism in the Protestant Reformation.  In particular where it relates to the translation and evolution of the English Bible.  The Vulgate, or Latin Bible, was packed full of marginalia to aid people in interpreting the ambiguities present in scripture.  Of course, all that marginalia justified a thoroughly Catholic worldview, which is the problem Protestants had with it.  There was an all out war of interpretation fought between Catholics, Protestants, and even political powers in the marginalia of various versions of the Bible (at one point the king of England outlawed marginalia because he thought the messages in it were anti-monarchical.)  It was during all these marginalia wars that a strong push to treat the Bible as easily discernible and in need of no marginalia emerged.  I don't know if that is the definitive beginning of biblicism, but I think it definitely had a strong impact on English speaking Protestants understanding of it at least.   

    I point this out because I think it's important to remember that a main point in all this is not actually a fight over whether the Bible is or isn't perfectly clear, but to protest shepherding people towards certain interpretations of the Bible or attempting to provide a single monolithic interpretation that adequately explains everything.  To me bibilicism is mostly about centering the burden of interpretation in the individual, leaving it up to them to seek clarity or guidance from sources they think might be useful.  It's about not pushing a centralized interpretation.

    If anyone is interested in reading more on the history of the English Bible, I was assigned this in a class and found it useful.   
    http://gospelhall.org/bible-teaching/history-of-the-english-bible.html 

  54. I'm not sure if you are aware of some of the origins of bliblicism in the Protestant Reformation.  In particular where it relates to the translation and evolution of the English Bible.  The Vulgate, or Latin Bible, was packed full of marginalia to aid people in interpreting the ambiguities present in scripture.  Of course, all that marginalia justified a thoroughly Catholic worldview, which is the problem Protestants had with it.  There was an all out war of interpretation fought between Catholics, Protestants, and even political powers in the marginalia of various versions of the Bible (at one point the king of England outlawed marginalia because he thought the messages in it were anti-monarchical.)  It was during all these marginalia wars that a strong push to treat the Bible as easily discernible and in need of no marginalia emerged.  I don't know if that is the definitive beginning of biblicism, but I think it definitely had a strong impact on English speaking Protestants understanding of it at least.   

    I point this out because I think it's important to remember that a main point in all this is not actually a fight over whether the Bible is or isn't perfectly clear, but to protest shepherding people towards certain interpretations of the Bible or attempting to provide a single monolithic interpretation that adequately explains everything.  To me bibilicism is mostly about centering the burden of interpretation in the individual, leaving it up to them to seek clarity or guidance from sources they think might be useful.  It's about not pushing a centralized interpretation.

    If anyone is interested in reading more on the history of the English Bible, I was assigned this in a class and found it useful.   
    http://gospelhall.org/bible-teaching/history-of-the-english-bible.html 

  55. The main problem I have is the suggestion that God graces some with the necessary faith to accept Scripture in its plain truth while others flounder to understand because they have not been chosen. I know many people who I and others in the church would call spirit-filled, and yet they can't always make sense of all parts of Scripture. Sometimes because of personal experience, sometimes intellectual difficulty, and sometimes because other parts of Scripture suggest something else. Maybe I have misunderstood your meaning, but in my experience, faithful and spirit-led people disagree on the text all the time. Other times people experience profound cognitive dissonance. It is this last aspect that I believe the Corithians passage is pointing to. The Cross is so surprising, those looking for signs and wisdom do not recognise its power. Maybe this is what you mean by open-mindedness, to be open to something other than signs or wisdom. I would agree that that is necessary, but is not a failsafe for agreement.

  56. The main problem I have is the suggestion that God graces some with the necessary faith to accept Scripture in its plain truth while others flounder to understand because they have not been chosen. I know many people who I and others in the church would call spirit-filled, and yet they can't always make sense of all parts of Scripture. Sometimes because of personal experience, sometimes intellectual difficulty, and sometimes because other parts of Scripture suggest something else. Maybe I have misunderstood your meaning, but in my experience, faithful and spirit-led people disagree on the text all the time. Other times people experience profound cognitive dissonance. It is this last aspect that I believe the Corithians passage is pointing to. The Cross is so surprising, those looking for signs and wisdom do not recognise its power. Maybe this is what you mean by open-mindedness, to be open to something other than signs or wisdom. I would agree that that is necessary, but is not a failsafe for agreement.

  57. "The main problem I have is the suggestion that God graces some with the necessary faith to accept Scripture in its plain truth while others flounder to understand because they have not been chosen."

    Thanks, I think I understand your discomfort with my views.  Yes, I do believe that God is sovereign.  He is the one who chooses who will spend eternity with Him.

    ". . . in my experience, faithful and spirit-led people disagree on the text all the time."

    I don't find any place in Scripture where it promises that a true believer will get the truth of each and every verse.  So, disagreements don't trouble me.  On the other hand, how these 'spirit-led' people disagree is very telling.  Moreover, I don't find anything in Scripture that says to the believer 'get this meaning wrong and you're outta here!'  Understanding Scripture 'correctly' is not a criterion for either receiving or maintaining salvation as far as I can tell.

    As to the Corinthian passage.  First, they are all believers and in possession of the Spirit (although clearly not Spirit-led); Paul didn't write to unbelievers.  The Scriptures are not written to unbelievers.  Sorry if that is offensive; that isn't my intent.  They were mainly gentiles and really didn't have any Scriptures to be in 'cognitive dissonance' about.  They were carnal and immature and had lot's of problems.  But, they were believers; at least the ones to whom Paul was writing.  In chapter 2 Paul is still establishing his credentials and I don't see any indication that he wrote that verse because they didn't understand or were not willing to accept Scripture.

  58. Hi Richard,
    I see there have already been a lot of comments, but I am curious about something.

    This is a topic I've been mulling over for quite some time (so I'm really going to have to read that book).  The conclusion I've come to in my own home-grown kind of way, is that the Bible is, as you said, a witness.  It is a collection of different voices, from different times and cultures, all pointing to the one reality.  It's like a bunch of different people all describing the same phenomenon (say, what the Aurora Borealis looks like).  You can become convinced that it exists, and is beautiful.  But the only way to experience it is to go see it for yourself. 

    I guess that's where the "ambiguity" comes in.  No two people are going to experience God the same way - and I can see how a lot of folks would find this disconcerting.  However isn't that the great challenge of a living faith?  That it can never be reduced to a set of propositions, or a neat explanation.  It must be lived and experienced.  For me, this is both the challenge, and the wonder of following Jesus.  It requires trust in a God who is alive and present, and the leap of faith to let Him be the guide.  The whole thing just falls down if He is not alive and active.  & that's what I love about it!  So, for me, it is not so much about "embracing ambiguity", as it is about moving from propositional truths to actual relationship.  Not that I always do that well, but the challenge then becomes an entirely different one. 

    Is this "psychologically difficult"?  I think in a way, it is - but more in the way of a paradigm shift, than simply tolerating ambiguous propositions... I'm really interested in your perspective on this.

  59. In response to David (as I can't reply to your comment for some reason), I agree that correct understanding of Scripture is not a requisite for salvation. As to the crux of our disconnect, we all priorities certain aspects of the Bible depending on the particular theological emphasis we hold. For me, it comes down to the Bible's assertion that God was in Christ reconciling the whole of creation to God. Not a select few, but all things (cf. Colossians 1). I know there are other parts of Scripture that suggest otherwise, but I do not give them the same priority. Peace.

  60. As I have aged, I have experienced life here thusly:  I once was found, but now I'm lost, could see, but now I'm blind.  But I know it, so I'm just trying to be honest with myself, really.  When I felt the reverse, I was a miserable human being.  Now, finally, I have found peace.  Tomorrow could bring something completely new!

    Go figure.  

  61. Hi Sam

    You have expressed something beautiful beautifully.  Ortega goes on to say:

    'And this is the simple truth - that to live is to feel oneself lost - he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground.  Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he begins to look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.  These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked.  All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.  He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.'

    That has been my experience, too, my friend.  My hope is that this is the heroic journey of love.

  62. Biblicism creates such hard-hearted inflexibility that it's no wonder churches have become, as you've noted before, "jerk factories." With people so informed by their biblicist churches, and their need to fit in to their communities, it's a giant, scary leap (that most won't make) to reject the voice of the group in order to embrace ambiguity. For someone to take this leap, they have to see first that allegiance to Christ is not the same thing as allegiance to church, the church's interpretations of scripture, and the church's required conformities for acceptance.

  63. Thank you!  I treasure your friendship, Andrew.  And I love that quote.  Simple truth perhaps, but eloquently stated.  And so relevant to this discussion.

    If you said it already, I am sorry, but what book are you quoting from (Ortega)?

  64. I have wrestled with the Bible for most of my life.  Born & bred a southern Baptist, lived in Abilene & worked closely with Church of Christers for a decade, biblicism was daily fare.  But the view of God that comes directly from the Bible was so unhealthy for me that I literally had to start over with my spirituality using the 12 Steps of AA as a template, which encourages you to reach out to "a God of your understanding."  The God of biblicism (particularly the OT version, but also the version in Revelation among other NT snapshots) was not a God I could understand. The journey has been long & arduous, but so rewarding.  I read Chris Smith's book a month ago and was so glad to see it.  We church folk, followers of Jesus, need to grow up spiritually, intellectually & emotionally, and releasing our attachment biblicism is part of that process. Yes, it can be a bit tremulous in the beginning.  But we eventually realize that it was our fear-based need for doctrinal certainty that is actually naive.  As I released my attachment to biblicism I have attempted to tune my heart to the inner Spirit that Jesus said would guide us into all truth--illuminating things he was not able at that time to discuss because we "could not bear it." I believe the Spirit of Truth is wooing us away from biblicism and to a faith that looks to Him, the inner Guide who is Love and Truth.  The more I do that, the less specifics I feel the need to be certain of.  Here is my current litmus test:  The Great Commandment.  (Love God with all your heart & soul & mind & strength--and your neighbor as yourself.)  If embracing certain a theological doctrine does not enhance my love for God and my love for my neighbor--then it is something I cannot embrace.  Pretty simple.  And very liberating.

  65. All my quotes here are from "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker - that's the book that Richard keeps quoting in his series on "The Slavery of Death".  I'm about halfway through, and have to admit it's stretching me (even with my two degrees in psychology), but the argument as a whole is a mind-blowing reworking of psychoanalytic theory and, a bit like the book of Job, rewards you with occasional and unexpectedly beautiful vistas.  Feels a bit like a trip to the South Pole with Shackleton: I trust him to get me there, but he's not slowing down for tourists.

    Oh and the Ortega source is: The Revolt of the Masses, Jose Ortega Y Gasset (New York: Norton, 1957)

  66.  I believe we do disagree on some things, even though we are Spirit led. I don't see that as a problem, though.  We see through a glass darkly, as Paul said.  So it is wise to be humble about our opinions.  As Joyce Meyer said not long ago, "We don't need to get on our high horse, we're all going to be wrong about something!"  Best to disagree with a smile and a lot of love.

  67. My version of "testing the spirits" is to see if a certain interpretation enhances my love for God & my desire to be like Him, as well as my love for my neighbor & my desire to serve him/her.  Since love is the one commandment Jesus left us with and what he called The Greatest Commandment when cornered by the Pharisees--I think it's a valid way to measure whether a particular view is spiritually empowering.

  68. Thanks, Coachsusan. You said this so well, and with a lot fewer words than I've tried. 

  69.  >>If it doesn't lead you to love God more, throw it out.<<Begs the question- how do you measure your love for God?  How do you tell if it is more or less today than yesterday?  How do you tell if your are heading in the right direction?

    The pragmatist in me says not to trust feelings, but look for evidence.  And I think that evidence is measured by how much you LOVE OTHERS, and that love is measured by how much you HELP OTHERS.   A faith that makes you feel closer to God but shuts you up away from the world in a holy cloister with fellow believers is toxic.  Wrong way!  Go back!

    The pragmatist Jesus says love is measured (and ultimately rewarded) by what you do or don't do for the widows, fatherless, poor, sick, hungry, destitute, grieving, downtrodden, marginalised 'least of these'.  And there will be many who expect a reward who miss out, and many who don't expect a reward will get one.  From my point of view, I would rather be one of the 'pleasantly surprised'.  And if not, well....I trust I have made someone's life a little more bearable at least for a while.

  70. Something funny went on there....

    Meant to say it begs teh questio how do you measure your love for God? How do you tell if it is more or less today than yesterday?  How do you tell you are headed in the right direction?

  71. To Stuart, (could not reply to your comment)
    "Begs the question - how do you measure your love for God?"If it leads me to want to serve Him in helping others; to want to know Him better; to want to tell others about Him; to want others to know Him and His love for them. I find the "god" of Calvinism, for example, to be completely devoid of any redeeming qualities, much less deserving of my love or admiration. In short, I could never love "him."Sadly, much of traditional "Christian" theology is centered on scriptural interpretations that teach that God HATES us and will only "save" us (let us into heaven) if we fix ourselves. Garbage like that SHOULD be thrown out. Most Christians claim that God will judge us based on how we treat others, but refuse to judge Him by the same standards. Unlike our "love" for others, which is based on our compassion for our fellow man and a commitment to their ultimate healing and restoration, our "love" for God can only be based on what He actually DOES. The creator must earn the love of his creations by how he treats them -- how he uses his power... not by how much power he wields.Loving others has nothing to do with expecting a reward, for the reward is in the loving.

  72. I like Richard's comment that behind the view of the Bible is the view of God and that THIS is the key thing that needs to become more accurate,  to reject less accurate views of God, in order to reject Biblicism.

    I wonder which comes first, but I do suspect he is right. The god of Biblicism, is a lawyer-esque figure: an author the same way the writers of the Encyclopedia Britanica were authors. An exacting Judge and Law giver, perhaps.  Thus any Book such a god would give must therefore be a good encyclopedia, rule book, or legal constitution suitable to understood universally, and obeyed to the letter.

    Smith's book to me was critically important as maybe the final nail in the coffin to me of reading the Bible that way. That a more faithful form of Bible reading is absolutely needed, and that appearances aside, Biblicism IS NOT a faithful form of Bible reading.

    But I think you need not just a new and hopefully more accurate view of God, but you need a new view of WHAT TYPE of book the Bible itslef is. And I think Smith begins that quest in his book, but it is just a few steps. The Jesus-centric method of interpretation is an incredibly valuable one. In McLaren's work he suggests looking at the Scriptures as not a legal document or a Constitution, but as a Cultural Library of the Faithful...akin to how a US Presidential Library is a cultural library of the people and times associated with a Presidency.  And that how one thinks of Scripture as authoritative and inspired "cultural library" could be very different than how one thinks of Scripture if were an authoritative and inspired legal document.

    All of these seem to me as good, needed first steps. But just first steps in understanding a new view of more faithfully reading Scripture and understanding what type of book it is, and what type of God offers it to us.

  73. ... "The sounds and calls we make to know we are not alone"

    Thinking of you today Richard

    "Only love"
    only love
    only love.

  74. I just scrolled through 80 comments looking for something that addressed Smith's conversion to Catholicism, and I'm surprised that this is the only one I found.

    I read Richard's blog because I appreciate the way he interacts with ideas that might be considered "off-limits" in the various traditions that have made up my background. I'm reading all sorts of other blogs as a result, but this one talks about so many things together. I'd really like to see some conversation about biblicism, evangelical tradition, and catholicism here.

    Catholicism was not something I ever seriously considered until fairly recently. Rob Bell's book ended up pushing me further in that direction, and so has Christian Smith's. I've got his 95 Steps book on my reading list, now. Would also like to evesdrop on some conversation about that here ...

  75. Yes, great. Augustine actually said much the same about readings of Scripture. I still would (modestly) suggest that we need some circularity here--we need to measure our understanding of Scripture against our spirituality, we need to measure our spirituality by how it enhances our love, but we also need to measure our conception of love against the Scriptures themselves. ("This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ gave his life for us.")

    Even words like "help others" can slide from being life-giving and pragmatic to a thin gruel of busybody social engineering on behalf of a secular-materialist definition of "help." (The do-gooder begins by feeding the starving; then notices that in doing so he is helping them stay alive along long enough to have more children, who then starve in greater numbers; and finally reaches a point where he is no longer feeding anyone, merely passing out condoms to people who don't want to use them because they would rather have children.)

    That's why I want a healthy synergism of true devotion to the unseen God, true pragmatic service to our neighbors, and true commitment to communities that feed themselves on the Word. And I'm open (I hope!) to being convicted where my conception of any of these three is insufficient.

  76. This is why I like John Howard Yoder on this. In a little footnote in his 'Politics of Jesus' he points out that "to love your neighbour as yourself" is the sum of the Jewish ethic. Whereas Jesus subverts/completes that idea by saying instead, "love others as I have first loved you". Jesus therefore, is how we recognise love and learn to live in that love as we follow him.

  77. When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
    Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

    I couldn't resist. But the inevitable conclusion to this line of thought is that whatever the Spirit does to make the impossible possible - like raising people from the dead - has to be at work in Scripture for it to become a reality.

    It's one of the great ironies of Scripture - of the Kingdom of God in fact - that the "easy things" are often hard and the hard things are often easy. And it's no wonder Jesus' parables were such simple stories to explain this complicated truth. Because in parallel runs our everyday experience: Love comes easy when it comes; love is difficult when it doesn't. Are minds are just too narrow to wrap around something that encompasses so much time and space... and so many other, different minds.

    In part our difficulty is with abstracts and ideals. These do not exist in nature, until we refine our instruments of measurement to allow for an almost infinite amount of variations. 'Which snowflake is perfect?' is an impossible question. But 'Snowflakes are perfect' is an impossible truth. It's a perspective that asks us to simultaneously let go and (be)hold.

    Is it possible to see these impossible problems as keyholes in securely locked gates, impossible to open without they key. When Jesus told his parables, He was given people keys to understanding his kingdom. And they were such deceptively simple keys. How could a missing coin, or sheep, explain the God's Kingdom to the wise and the foolish alike? (Or were they in fact revealed as wise, or foolish, by how they related to his words?)

    When we read the parables one by one, the mystery begins to lift as the theme becomes drilled in: the Kingdom is like a flower blooming in a deserted heart; it's that inexplicable hope that blossoms against all odds and that inspiration that comes from witnessing it happen. Stand back (repent?) and behold (believe?), God's kingdom has come near; He has been handing out the keys to heaven.

  78. Richard, Another late-comer to this great discussion here. Thanks for initiating buzz around this excellent book. However, I would have to soundly disagree with your contention that the book is psychologically naive. I do agree that the stakes are high, but that's precisely  the reason one should take Smith's view. It's an admission that the traditional view doesn't work.

    Yes, people come to the Bible for consolation and guidance and want to know they are doing right. The problem is, even without Smith's new view (not just his, but many progressive believers), the traditional view already makes the Bible confusing and ambiguous! Not all the time (that's why Smith says "sometimes"), but where there are conflicting accounts, mistranslated Greek words, interpretations devoid of historical/cultural context, and probable additions to the original manuscripts, sometimes the Bible is already difficult and causes anxiety! There are problematic passages. Admitting the Bible is not internally consistent, universally applicable, inerrant, etc., doesn't mean we can't come to any conclusions, just that we can no longer blindly claim it is despite the problematic nature of some of it.

    Smith's message will undoubtedly bring anxiety to many but also it brings relief to many who now don't feel forced to believe and/or apply biblical material that goes against their sense of reason or their experience with a loving God.

  79.  From an anthropological and
    psychological standpoint, it's worth mentioning that many religions
    (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, and Scientology) claim their
    own (and usually _only_ their own) set of scriptures as holy (the "scripture" leg). Also each religion
    makes sense to those who grow up in or are converted to it (this would
    be the "reason" leg). Moreover, while people within all sorts of religions
    have had unique emotional (e.g., euphoric) experiences that they claim as evidence of the
    truth of their own particular religion, such experiences occur across many (if not most) of them, including non-theistic ones. Finally, the same sorts of experiences have been had in other ways (e.g., through the arts) and have also been been
    replicated through the use of psychedelic drugs and by
    stimulation of the temporal lobe. So perhaps the sturdiest leg would be
    that of tradition.

  80. So, if there really is no answer, do we just offer an answer anyway? I think living with mystery will be frustrating for a lot of people because it's not faith they want, but absolute certainty, which belies the concept of faith. Faith lives by promises, not explanations. Keep writing Mr. Smith.

  81. Back when I was looking into Catholicism or perhaps was a newly minted Catholic, the priest held up the Bible and said "this is a book. A very good book. But it's still just a book".

    After wrestling the past couple of weeks with some questions pertaining to scripture and clarity and all that entails, I'm ready to go back to "this is a book. A very good book. But it's still just a book".

    Catholicism is not perfect but it does throw out the notion that all we need to know of God can be found in the bible, and that we can find it clearly.

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