I was reading 2 Kings and came to a passage that made me see the problem with the Bible.
Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground. Then Goldilocks said, “This porridge is too cold.”
I cringe as I read that last sentence. I’m offended by what I just wrote. But if many of us – even those of us who believe the Bible to be true – are honest with ourselves, this is how our minds read Scripture every day. We may not say it out loud or write it or even think it, but subconsciously this is what we do.
The problem with the Bible is that to the modern mind, it reads like a story. A few things come in to play here. For one, the writing style of the ancient world is so different from the way we write today. They wrote about real life events the way we write fiction. Read a modern biography or the news online, and then look at the Bible, and you will understand what I mean. No modern journalist writes, “Then Bob said to them, ‘…'” in an article about an actual person addressing a group of people. We use last names; our style of quoting discussions, conversations, and speeches is very different. When we report real-life events, we modern writers construct our writing differently than ancient writers did. If there was an Elements of Style: 30 A.D. edition, it would be quite different than the one we use today.
I have also noticed that Christians do something that seems innocuous but contributes to this whole problem. We talk about the Bible using the language of fiction. We refer to Bible “stories” and “characters.” We don’t refer to Lincoln’s assassination or the fall of the Berlin Wall as a “story.” We call it an “event” or use some other historical term. If we do use the word story to describe real-life events, we qualify it (true story, news story, etc) so that others know to read it as such; but the term “Bible story” does not carry that same connotation. When I talk about the history of my nation, I don’t refer to George Washington or Harriet Tubman as “characters.” I call them “people” or “individuals,” because that’s how you refer to human beings who actually existed in the real world. Characters exist in plays, novels, movies, and other works of fiction.
So when my modern mind reads the Bible and brings all this to the table with it, it easily drifts into what I will call “fiction mode.” Our minds do this without us being aware of it. There are things that our brains do automatically after we acquire skills and develop habits. When I read a poem, I know that it is a poem from its rhythm, cadence, and sentence structure. When I pick up To Kill a Mockingbird, even if the cover was torn off and I didn’t know what book I was reading, after the first few paragraphs my mind knows to read it as fiction. But when I pick up the Bible, my mind is caught in a tug of war. Though I believe the Bible to be about actual historical events, the style of writing in the Bible lulls me into reading it like a good story. I go to church and listen to “stories” and learn about “characters.” It requires intentionality to read the Bible as being about things that really happened and people who actually once existed.
But this leads to a deeper reason why our minds read the Bible like we read fiction. So much in the Bible seem like the stuff of fantasy fiction to us, doesn’t it? Giant floods, a man staying alive in a fish’s belly for three days, angels appearing and telling people the future, dead people coming back to life. We read the Bible, and then we look around. Our lives are nothing like the lives we read about in the Bible. I don’t know anyone who can part bodies of water like Elijah did, and I am guessing that you don’t either. I have two options when I come to a passage in the Bible like this: I can believe than Elijah was a real person who once existed, and once he struck the Jordan river with his cloak and the waters actually parted; or I can conclude that this never really happened. And my mind makes this decision whether I am consciously aware of it or not. For many of us, particularly in Western nations, we look at our very non-supernatural day-to-day lives, and see the disconnect between them and the life described in the Bible. And this, of course, will shape our conclusions about what we are reading.
When I first began to read the Bible, I got stuck on the book of Jonah. I read the whole getting-swallowed-by-a-fish part, and paused in disbelief. At that point in my life, I liked Jesus, I liked church, and I liked Christians. I considered myself a Christian, but I was having a real hard time believing that all these “stories” in the Bible were actual historical events. So I prayed, “God… you really expect me to believe this?” (Which, by the way, is a totally legitimate thing to pray, even if you do not yet believe in the very God you are praying to.)
Then I read something logical that helped me work through these doubts. Someone made the argument that if you accept the first verse of the Bible as true, then you should have no problem believing that anything else in the Bible could be true. For if God really created everything there is, then of course he can do with it what he wants. If he has made every creature that exists, then of course he can make one that could swallow a person whole. He is God. If he put every star and planet in its place and determined their movements, then of course he could direct a giant fish to where the prophet Jonah was and have it swallow him up. That would be a small potatoes for God. The laws of nature limit us, but they do not limit the God who made those laws. By definition, he is super-natural, or above nature. At that time I did already believe (and still believe) that God is the creator of everything that ever existed, so this made sense to me. I could continue reading the Bible without feeling like I had to check my brain at the door.
The events of the last few years of my life have changed the way I read the Bible now. I believed it to be true before, but it is more real to me now. When I read of how the Holy Spirit communicated instructions to Paul, I think of the time the same Holy Spirit spoke to my praying friends to tell them I would be healed, weeks before that could be confirmed by a CT scan. When I read about people who were healed by Jesus when he was here on earth, I have no problem now believing that it actually happened. When I read of times when Jesus freed people afflicted by evil spirits, I think of people we knew in Nepal who God freed in the same way. (One of these days I may share one of those stories here.) And if I read something in the Bible and my automatic, gut reaction is that it is too far-fetched to have actually happened, because I have no personal experience of anything like it, I remind myself that none of these things are impossible for the God who made the universe out of nothing.
For those of us who follow Christ – we may believe in our hearts in him, and love Jesus, and profess that the Bible is true, but still subconsciously read that same Bible like it isn’t true. The solution? We must, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, demolish our contemporary pretensions and take every thought captive. More often now, I realize when my mind is in fiction mode when reading the Bible. How do I know? It is easy. If I read a passage like the one I quoted above, and I don’t respond with a sense of wonder, or shock, or stop and ask God, “Really?”, but just continue on to the next paragraph – then I have just read the Bible like I read a work of fiction. Then I have to consciously stop myself and reorient my thinking.
I think that this is some of what Paul meant when he wrote, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” in Romans 12. Christians, we must not conform to the pattern of this world when it comes to how we read the Bible – reading it like a story or filtering out the supernatural parts that make us uncomfortable. And for those of you who do not believe that the Bible is true, but are considering it – perhaps some of this resonates with you. Know that you are not alone in your doubts and questions. There are plenty of people (including myself) who now follow Christ who have been there or perhaps still are.
What are your thoughts? Please share your comments below.
6 thoughts on “The problem with the Bible”
When I took a sociology class at Bethel (Sociology of Religion) years ago, I was concerned that my faith might be weakened (like learning the chemistry the governs the body might destroy one’s sense of wonder). Fortunately I was wrong. I had the same concern when reading a Jewish author’s “How to Understand the Bible” (James L. Kugel), but I was riveted to his historical discussion and my heart was pounding as he wrapped up the final chapter of the book like a trial lawyer making his case — I highly recommend the audio version of the book! One of the things that I don’t think we are taught to appreciate is that the Bible wasn’t simply assembled from independent texts. It was edited. And the editors left evidence of their work like an artist might leave his mark through artistic rendering which are obvious even in absence of a name.
I was taught to do a two-step when trying to understand the Bible: what did it mean then, what does it mean now in our context? I think the first step should include the consideration of the editor as far as possible, much like we might want to view a “documentary” not as a recording of an event, but a telling of the event from a particular perspective — one can never escape the formation of the story by the hands of the editor. One need only consider telling of events today by our media to see the demonstration of that.
Thank you for sounding this alarm. How would our churches by viewed by our communities if our actions were consistent with our confessions? Why, if God does not change, do you not see anyone whose life resembles the real people who lived in the days the Bible was written? The problem with the Bible for me, is that if it is true, I can’t live a life of comfort and convenience for myself. I like to claim God’s promises and bask in His love. But do I really have to sell my possessions and share with the poor or is that just out of context so I can ignore it? Are we safe trusting something we can’t understand or control such as God’s desire to heal someone through us today? I am thankful that I have taken some risks in actually activating the promise of Jesus that we would do even greater things in His Name. I have risked praying for the sick and celebrating healing. Let’s help each other live the radical lives that would be lived if we moved God’s Word to the non-fiction shelf in our mental library. Let’s learn and unlearn together
brilliantly written. Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂 Bless you!!!
“Miracles are the retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”
A newly believing friend agrees with you, Ruth, despite a large gap in your educations. She went from being an angry atheist, to a listening atheist, to an agnostic, to a theist, to a believer in the historical Jesus and then in a Creator God. We wondered how long it would take her to accept Christ as God, then resurrected and all the miracles of the Old and New Testaments. Like you, though, once she saw the intricacy and beauty of creation calling for God as Maker of Heaven and Earth, she said, “The rest is a piece of cake!” I guess that’s not so different from “small potatoes.” May other seekers see the truth in what you wrote and follow your example.
In the future I will try to speak of Scripture as factual history, not fictional story, and the people as real persons, of whom many are alive in Heaven. Thank you for sharing your honest processing of thoughts and experiences, which helps us all every time you write.
Thank you, Evy, for sharing about your friend’s journey and also your thoughts. Like your friend, apologetics was huge for me in coming to faith in Christ. Even with that, though, I have realized that my understanding of the world and reality has been built on a foundation that was established during my childhood and educational years – in other words, largely shaped by modern thought and naturalism – and that foundation doesn’t just go away once you decide to believe in and follow Christ. It still operates silently in the background as you process life and react to it, and needs to be held up to the light and examined. Thanks for your encouragement!