Is The Bible a Divine Revelation or Human Book—or Both?

by Kendra Weddle Irons
(with responses from Melanie Springer Mock and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)

Letha recently posted a Link of the Day ( August 9, 2012) about the humanity of the Bible. In his article, “Embracing the Humanity of the Bible,” Kurt Willems suggests taking the humanity of the Bible seriously in no way undercuts it message, nor should it result in fear that the Bible will lose its power or meaning if we recognize that people wrote it in specific times and places with specific points of view. Of course.

But, this has been and continues to be the dividing line among contemporary Christians.

Part of the reason for such divergent understandings of divine writ seems to be, ironically, ignorance. In churches purporting to teach the Bible, there seems to be an astonishing lack of biblical knowledge: when it was written, what genres it includes, what cultures it represents, which ones it does not (as in, current American society).

This ignorance, as difficult as it is to overcome, is not just a problem confined to conservative churches. Most Christians have little biblical knowledge, as Stephen Prothero demonstrated a few years ago when he found Americans to be woefully lacking of basic biblical knowledge that fifty or a hundred years ago was simply taken for granted. Most people could recite at least some of the ten commandments, for instance, while today people can’t tell you what they are, even though some groups will fight to keep them in various government buildings.

This lack of biblical knowledge, though, is not reflected in the Bible’s popularity— thanks to the marketing genius of Zondervan and other presses. Christians may not read the Bible, but they buy it—a lot. I saw a recent Facebook post by a former student who reported her recent purchase so that she can have her Bible on her portable iPad. Publishers are obviously embracing new marketing gimmicks—say a Princess Bible covered in pink glitter for that young girl in your life or one promising to help you find your true identity, something women apparently need to discover in their twenties or thirties, according to its inside cover.

For all of the purchasing of divine revelation, the truth is, Christians are simply not reading their Bibles. The gimmicks may be compelling enough to persuade them to make a purchase, but the text itself is as dull as ever. I mean, have you ever seriously tried to read Leviticus?

Having taught Introductory Bible courses for years, I have some experience supporting this claim. Ten years ago I could mention Abraham and Sarah and students would nod their heads, letting me know they knew the characters. I could randomly call on a student and she or he could easily provide the general plot. Today, when I ask the same question, I’m met with blank stares. I cannot assume students know the plot, because they have no idea.

And yet if I ask the same students what they think about the Bible, they will tell me it is the word of God, and they believe it. Having sporadically sat through a church service here and there, they know one thing: the Bible is what God has said—verbatim. To be a Christian means to believe this. Period.

Several factors contribute to the problem. Church leaders have done a very poor job of teaching the Bible. Study after study demonstrates that part of what has happened is that pastors learn about context and linguistics and culture in their seminary training—and then they refuse to share what they know with their parishioners, producing an entire generation of illiterate Bible-readers. Sunday schools used to be where children learned Bible stories, but more and more entertainment has replaced learning.  And in many cases Sunday school no longer occurs, having been replaced by children’s church or some other programming scheme designed to make Sunday mornings more interesting than staying at home.

Even though these trends contribute to our biblical illiteracy, there is a larger problem that most people simply will not address, including Kurt Willems, who otherwise provides a very helpful perspective on Bible reading.

The Bible is not always the good book we’ve been led to believe.

As a compilation of human writings based upon various divine experiences, it can be inspiring. It can point to God’s work in the world. It can encourage faithful living. It isn’t, though, without serious problems. As such the Bible also is deeply misogynistic; it is racist at points; and it often appears to endorse violence. And when we fail to admit these problems, we are consequently dismissing them as unimportant.

As a human document written by people who had experiences of the divine, I expect it to reflect the cultures in which it was written. Because of this I can also give myself permission to read other material more life-giving to me than Bible often is. I think this is especially true for women who find so few women in the Bible’s pages, and when they do, the women usually are portrayed as flat characters, the authors giving them little attention or thought. And why not? It was a man’s world!

But, can we be honest about this particular problem? For women the Bible is potentially a hurdle to knowing God and to embracing self. There is no way around the challenge that our primary document of faith is written by men and for men.

Until we are more honest about the Bible, I don’t blame people (especially women) for refusing to read it.

Response from Melanie:  Sorting out Feelings about the Bible

Guilty as charged.

Those were my first thoughts on reading Kendra’s blog post:  that I am guilty as charged about being biblically ignorant, even though I am a professor at a Christian college, a life-long church member, an elder for my congregation. Growing up, studying the Bible was never part of my family’s tradition, even though my dad was a Mennonite pastor, and I never developed a discipline of daily Bible reading. When my colleagues—and now and then my students—talk about biblical passages, I often have to feign familiarity, then study the scripture later, to understand what they are saying (sometimes, to be honest, I read Wikipedia, rather than the biblical text).

But I also thought of another kind of guilt while reading Kendra’s post—that is, the guilt that I have often felt for not wanting to read the Bible. I began sensing this guilt when I went to a Christian college, and discovered my roommate was keeping track of how often my Bible was removed from the shelf. She chastised me once when I asked her if she’d seen my Bible anywhere, because it had gone missing; she told me that she knew where my Bible was, and what kind of Christian was I for losing track of something I should have so near and dear to my heart?

After that, and for many years, I would embark on reading-my-entire-Bible disciplines that fizzled after I’d gotten through the excitement of Genesis, leading to even more feelings of guilt. Yes indeed: what kind of Christian was I if I was so easily bored by the kings and judges? Even now, I still feel those pangs of guilt, especially when I hear other Christians talk about “getting into the word” every morning.

And I fear I’m passing my lack of biblical passion on to my kids. When they receive Jesus-y gifts from relatives, kids’ Bibles and the like, I inwardly sneer, thinking how much more they’d probably enjoy the latest Tin-Tin cartoon book. (Thank goodness, they haven’t received a Princess Bible—or, Prince Bible, I suppose.) My cynicism about white-washing the biblical message for kids, through the array of targeted-audience, special edition Bibles about which Kendra writes, also makes me feel guilty: shouldn’t I want my kids to know about Bible stories, even if those stories are bowdlerized?

This summer, my sons learned about Brendan Powell Smith’s The Brick Bible at camp, and my cynicism dissipated somewhat. Ben, my eldest and a Lego nut, was especially intrigued by Smith’s retelling of the biblical stories through Lego, and Ben devoured the Old Testament volume in no time. Unlike other Bible versions, Smith doesn’t mince scripture, so all the dicey stories are there: Noah in his drunken nakedness, and the slaughter of the firstborn in Egypt, and David’s seduction of Bathsheba. This has raised some interesting questions for Ben— about a violent God, about the crappy choices biblical characters make, and about the strange worlds they inhabit. And I’m thrilled, to be honest, that through Lego, Ben is getting to know how messy and complicated scripture can be.

Other Christians have been far less thrilled about The Brick Bible, and about Smith, an atheist who spent ten years making his Lego dioramas. Last fall, Sam’s Club decided not to sell the book in its stores, believing it contains “mature content.” Other Christians complained The Brick Bible was too violent, or had too much sexual material, and that it “makes a pretty good case against faith.” See The Friendly Atheist’s excellent blog post on this at Patheos; he writes, in part, “Can’t have anyone sharing *all* the stories in the Bible . . . that would make people not want anything to do with it!” Which is exactly to Kendra’s point: Christians don’t know their Bibles, but will go to great lengths to defend scripture as God’s holy word.

What I love about Kendra’s post (and about Kendra, too, among other things) is that she gives us freedom to see the Bible differently, and to consider that other texts might also speak God’s truth to us. As someone who loves to read, and who often finds evidence of God—of grace, of beauty, of redemption, of love—in places other than the Bible, I need to hear this message again and again: that “the Bible is not always the good book we’ve been lead to believe.” The Bible sometimes seems to endorse violence, and sexism, and racism, something my son is learning at a much younger age than did I. For the knowledge he is gaining I am oddly grateful, and also for this: that Kendra, Letha, and others continue to teach me, so that the more I know about the Bible and about why I often struggle to read and relate to it, I do not feel so guilty.

Response from Letha :  I Believe People Want to Learn More about the Bible

This morning I took a taxi to a medical appointment. I don’t have a car, and it was raining too heavily to wait for a bus or walk the two miles to the doctor’s office as I usually do. As I entered the cab, the driver, whom I’d never seen before, was listening to a boisterous comedy segment on an AM radio station that had some off-color humor, which he repeated.

Getting no response from me, he turned off the radio. And, without any context, suddenly blurted out, “Did you know there were other gospels written besides Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?” He didn’t wait for my answer but just went on excitedly, “Thomas wrote one and even Judas wrote one! And even Mary Magdalene!” He was quite excited at relating this news. I said yes, I was  aware of that, and that they aren’t included in the Bible as we know it. I decided not to say anything about the gnostic writings in general or questions of authorship; I just wanted to listen to him.

He said, “If those books were in the Bible, Christianity would be really different!” He tried to tell me how it would be different, but his explanations showed he was unclear about how or what was in these books, nor did he have knowledge of how the canon was formed.

He then said, “And guess what! God even had different names!” He shook his head showing not disagreement, but a sense of wonder. “People used to call him Yahweh,” he continued, “And El.” I mentioned related terms like “Elohim” and “El Shaddai.”

This was a man whose demeanor and overall grammar and vocabulary indicated he had not had many educational advantages, yet he was thrilled to have discovered new knowledge. By then we had reached my destination, so as I paid him, I said, “It’s amazing all we can learn from listening to the radio.” (He had earlier said he has the radio turned on all day long, so I thought perhaps he listened to NPR sometimes, as did the taxi driver I rode with last week who was tuned in to The Diane Rehm Show as we rode along)

“Oh, I didn’t learn this stuff from the radio, “ he said. “I heard it on TV.”

As I thought back over the conversation, I thought about this FemFaith post that the three of us are writing for this week —and how totally surprised I would have been if he had said, “I learned it in my church.”

But of course, that would not be a likelihood in all too many churches. As Kendra reminded us, what happens is that “pastors learn about context and linguistics and culture in their seminary training—and then they refuse to share what they know with their parishioners, producing an entire generation of illiterate Bible-readers.” Or biblically illiterate non-readers of the Bible?

Why does this so often happen? My guess is that there are at least two main reasons: (1) Many pastors underestimate the intelligence and curiosity of members of their congregation and are not aware of parishioners’ eagerness to learn more about the Bible and would be open to in-depth study.  And (2), there is an element of fear among some pastors that sharing some of what they learned in seminary would shake the faith of members of their flocks or offend those who are afraid of questions and don’t wish to be challenged by new ideas and interpretations.

Pastors may tend to think of people’s faith as fragile rather than realizing that the more that young people and adults learn about the Bible as being both divine and human, the more robust their faith can become—because they will be approaching the topic honestly. And the better equipped they will be to deal with questions that inevitably confront them in daily life.

It’s true of children, too. It was fascinating to hear about The Brick Bible that Melanie mentioned and her son’s reaction to it, providing good opportunities and “teachable moments” for discussing what he has been learning. Ben is learning to think for himself. (In one of my Links of the Day recently, I referred to Julie Clawson’s blog post about the difficulties of finding good Bible study materials for children. A lot of people resonated with what she wrote, as the comments with her blog show.)

For adults, a very helpful book is And God Said What?: An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms by a Roman Catholic scholar, Margaret Nutting Ralph. You can use the “look inside” feature at Amazon to get a preview. It’s written in a style that is easy to understand without ever being condescending, and it introduces concepts such as historical and cultural context, various genres in the Bible, and so on, in a nonthreatening way that respects the intelligence of even those readers who never realized that the Bible is actually a collection of writings from over a long period of time. She also provides excellent charts for further illumination.

Another worthwhile book, though in a more academic style, is Peter Enns’s book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament Enns says, “Once we confess that the Bible is God’s Word, we can look at how it is God’s Word. That investigation will not come to an end in this life. There is always a freshness and inscrutability about the Bible” (p. 108). This is the book that cost Enns his job at a theological seminary! You can listen to the mp3 podcast of an interview with him about it here.

Actually, my own experience with the Bible has been and is very positive. That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of problems with various things in it; and if I had more space, I’d mention some of the passages that have especially troubled me. But even so, I love to read the Bible, and not as some dutiful exercise.  (I’m terrible about set-apart spiritual disciplines, strictly scheduled for a certain time of day, and don’t even try anymore; I feel that I’m in an ongoing conversation with God all day long. That just works best for me.)

It’s just that I enjoy finding new things every time I read the Bible— maybe it’s that I’m at a different place in life on a particular day and a familiar passage takes on fresh meaning, or I read a passage that I had never noticed before and gain new insight into some aspect of today’s political ideologies and climate. It’s much like Jesus said about the person going through a treasure chest and finding old and new things. Those “aha” moments are wonderful! I have Bibles lying around (or properly shelved) in numerous translations and paraphrases all over my apartment. The next one I want to get is the one co-edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament The Bible is a very important part of my life, and I just can’t imagine my life and my writings without it.

That said, I believe at the same time that God speaks to us in other ways as well. Peter Enns had some good things to say about that on his blog recently. Check out “Is the Bible Really Enough for Christian Theology? No (and the Bible Says So)” Maybe we can continue this discussion some other time.

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FemFaith Authors
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches religion at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. Her first book, "Preaching on the Plains: Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956," was published in 2007 by University Press of America. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. In 2003, Cascadia Publishing House published her book, "Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors." And in 2011, Barclay Press published "Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World," a collection that Melanie co-edited with Rebekah D. Schneiter. Kendra and Melanie co-wrote "If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be," published in 2015 by Chalice Press. Letha Dawson Scanzoni has authored or coauthored nine books, including "All We’re Meant to Be" (in 1974, with Nancy Hardesty), which many scholars consider to have played a major part in the launching and spread of biblical feminism. She served as the content editor for Christian Feminism Today from 1994 to 2014.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I remember in seminary being taught not to “belabor” the nuts & bolts of how we studied the passage; rather work to hear the message God was speaking, and preach/present that. Sometimes I “break” that teaching, and refer to the context, the overall themes of the letter, the culture of the time and so on. And I’ve already used the role-playing we did at the conference with Reta and 1 Corinthians! There’s one parishioner who always tells me she likes those “teaching sermons,” as she calls them. Certainly back in my fundy days I heard lots of teaching sermons with talk of Greek grammar and all, so maybe I’ve been over- avoiding sounding like that!

  2. Thank you, Kendra, Melanie, and Letha for another outstanding FemFaith conversation! I appreciated your thorough research combined with personal experiences with the Bible. I think this should be required reading for all Christians.

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