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 5:39-40Now 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?
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.
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.