A reader asks if he is off base reading the Bible in a non-literal way.
|The following is an answer to a question sent to my blog at http://spaces.msn.com/members/AskPastor.
The Bible is a book of faith written to people of faith. That is one reason why unbelievers can read it and get nothing from it but perhaps a few moral points, or why they attack the Bible for supposed errors in science and geography, in which the Bible has really no interest in teaching. For that matter, there are misguided Christians who think the Bible is God's dictation book, and that it does teach science and history and all kinds of matters for which the biblical writers had no concern. Genesis, for example, is not a recipe book for making people. Even if it did explain in detail how God created the world, it wouldn't fit in our heads and would need concepts for which we have no words. But how would God communicate with human beings in a book without words? So the words used cannot be precise because there are no precise words to use for such things.
Especially in the Old Testament, the people to whom it was originally written didn't think in the same ways we do. They thought in concrete ways, in pictures rather than in abstract philosophical ways such as one learns in college. In order to make a point, the writers painted a word picture - they told a story. Each story has a meaning; but its focus has to do with faith, with God's relationship with His people and human response to God. It simply isn't in the least interested in teaching us math or science or history or geography or any of the myriad things people have tried to force the Bible to do. And though it is claimed to be divinely inspired, inspiration is not the same as dictation. Inspiration, literally, means to be filled with the (Holy) Spirit. God spoke to human beings of faith - inspired them - and they in turn shared to the best of their abilities what they knew about God from their relationship with God. God loved his people then, too, so He spoke in ways they could grasp, otherwise why speak at all? He used concepts they could wrap their minds around. Ideas like quantum physics or biological cell production or evolution or psychiatry or even most of today's engineering would have been gibberish to them. And even if not, a God Who could fit into our heads would be a pretty small god, wouldn't he?
So when we read, it's important to ask what God was saying to those people back then so we can figure out what God might be saying to us through the text today. Trying to treat the Bible as if it were a 21st Century newspaper account, whether of the beginning of creation in Genesis or the end in Revelation or most of the places in between is simply proof of misapprehension of what kind of Book the Word of God is and can be. Naturally, in such false terms, the Bible makes little sense and can be seen as full of contradictions of what we know today. Such errors in thinking confuse believers' own minds. They then cannot either communicate the faith clearly, or avoid expressing their faith without adding dozens of other irrelevant matters as if they too were important to faith. The result is that they at best confuse those to whom they are witnessing, often actually turning away those who might otherwise hear and respond to God's Word with faith. People who are doubtful turn us off when the baby of God's message is hidden - sometimes virtually drowned! - by the bathwater of human insistence on its including hundreds of messages the Bible really doesn't care about - things like how long in today's hours did the creation take, and was Eve taken from a literal rib; could a fish really swallow Jonah whole; did the Flood really cover up Mount Everest, and so forth. These are distractions from the message God wants to offer us through his Word. We are not saved by believing in the Bible or any of its words, the Bible teaches, but by faith in Christ, Who is REALLY the Word of God, made flesh. Faith is not in words or books, but in the Being God is.
I'm glad you are thinking about these things and actually reading your Bible, something too many people think is unnecessary. Keep it up!
+ + + + + +
I received a reply to this message from a concerned fundamentalist Christian who thought I must be an atheist not to support state-sanctioned prayer in schools and thought this was all because I didn't believe the Bible. This was my reply:
Dear xxxx, thank you for your letter.
You entirely misread my message in this article. I am not only a Christian, but a Christian pastor, and the son, grandson, nephew, and in-law of NINE pastors, and a former missionary and teacher of pastors as well. I do know what I am talking about. I still do not want people who are not Christians, or those "Christians" whose variety of Christianity I believe to be substandard, teaching my children how to pray.
You are also wrong in thinking that Christians by definition do not believe in evolution. In fact, most Christians have no problem with scientific theories of evolution at all! The only objectors are fundamentalists whose theology rests on the fringes of the historical Christian faith. There are many of these in America, but worldwide they are much less than ten percent of the total number of Christians. But American fundamentalists are indeed very loud, so that even unbelievers in the USA think this minority actually represents the Christian faith, and as a result want nothing to do with Christ.
Evolution is not something a Christian "believes" or disbelieves in! A Christian believes in Jesus Christ as savior. A Christian does not believe in the Bible - it did not die on the Cross for our sins. The Bible, the written Word of God, points to Jesus, the true Word of God made flesh (John 1), and nowhere else! You cannot be saved by thinking right thoughts about evolution.
Consider: The Devil believes the truth of the Bible - he knows it all word for word! - but he doesn't believe in Jesus as his savior--doesn't want Jesus to be his savior, and so is lost anyway.
It is a sad and unnecessary misunderstanding and a serious misuse of the Bible to treat it as if it were a science or geography or history book in the first place. Christians who do not understand this have actually driven countless peplple away from the true faith by telling them they cannot believe things that scientific study and plain reason tell them must be true. They unfortunately accept these false ideas - this bathwater that hides the baby Jesus - and think that the bathwater is what religion is about! They completely miss the baby, throwing Him out with the many bathwater teachings about scientific or historical issues in which the biblical writers themselves had no interest in teaching in the first place. To help you understand this further, I recommend this article to you: (printed above) to learn what kind of book the Bible actually is - the inspired book of God, which speaks from faith to faith; not a recipe book for making people!
The big lie that everyone who disagrees with fundamentalist teachings must be an atheist has never been true. What's more, most of those who say it, knowthey are telling falsehoods, but they are afraid they will lose naive followers if they actually tell the truth - that most Christians disagree with their literalistic interpretations. They think they are defending God, Who needs no defense, least of all from those who lie or cannot understand what the Bible actually teaches.
Seriously--do you as a Christian want a Muslim teaching your kids they have to face the east to pray? Or a Mormon teaching them to pray so that one day they too can be gods? Or a Jew or Jehovah's Witness telling them to pray to God only, and not in the name of Christ because Jesus is not truly God the Son? Or an atheist, agnostic, or Unitarian who says you don't really have to believe in God at all, but it feels good to pretend like you do? Children learn more from how people model than from what they say, so leaders of prayer do not have actually to SAY those things in words; all they have to do is model that kind of prayer for kids to learn it. I think you know that is true.
I am aware that certain churches teach that the failure to have teacher-led or at least student-led (who are likely to be worse teachers of prayer than the teachers themselves) prayer is a sign of the deterioration of America's moral fiber. To some degree, I may even agree that may be partially true! It WAS nice fifty or a hundred years ago when we were almost all Christians, and even the non-Christians didn't mind pretending to pray. But today, many people are not Christians at all, and many Christians think prayer is supposed to be like magic words that make God do what you want Him to do instead of submission to God's will so that you do what He wants you to do. (And then they get mad at God for not "answering" their prayers, by which they mean do what they told Him to do; No is not an acceptable answer to those people!) I do not want these people leading wrong-headed prayers for my kids. They don't know how!
Finally, consider this: my wife teaches public school. She thinks as I do. If there were prayer led by teachers allowed in public schools, she would be the prayer leader for over 200 kids. Now you know how we think, if you disagree with us, do you want her teaching your kids to pray in ways you don't believe in?
You see, whether you like the understanding of the Bible I express or not, either way, you have to understand that you really don't want anyone but you and your church teaching your kids what prayer - their all-important relationship with God! - is about.
God bless you, I know you are struggling with how best to be a faithful Christian - I can tell by your writing. God loves you, I know, and even forgives your and my misunderstandings for the sake of Christ. Jesus died "while we were yet sinners;" now "nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God." But keep your eyes on Christ as your guide. Even though the Bible faithfully points to Him, people can misunderstand the Bible and actually be led astray. As the hymn goes, "Keep Your Eyes upon Jesus!"
The following is a reply to a message from a non-fundamentalist Christian, who nevertheless is concerned for the direction of our country which appears to him to be directly attacking and devaluing religion.
I refuse to take offense where none is offered, and even when it is done so deliberately, I tend to take the attitude that, when someone gives me the wrong end of the stick, I reply "Not my stick. You keep it."
Resistance to beginning a school day with a moment of silence I believe is the direct result of fundamentalists trying to shove their version of religion down everyone else's throats. It is certainly not unconstitutional, the way the establishment of official religion would be; but since everyone knows that such a silent moment is "supposed" to be for prayer, (or "meditation" for those who don't want to pray) and because some will look down their noses on those who do not pray, (or sometimes vice versa), the resistance to "silent moments" is almost as high as it would be for outright state-sponsored prayer.
Children need to be taught by their parents and Sunday schools and pastors that prayer is the way to start any task. If the kids know this, no one will have to tell them, or lead them, or give them an official moment of silence in which to do it. They will simply do it. This is an act of faith. Standing still and saying nothing for a minute because everyone is required to do so, breeds resentment, not prayer. Where such a moment is required, hardly anyhone actually prays, Christians included. Most kids just want it over quickly, so what is done is not the act of faith prayer is supposed to be (can one really be commanded?) nor a meditation, either. That is why in my article I said there is no way to stop prayer in schools - it happens among the faithful all the time, not just at a set moment. And just try to tell a kid not to pray before exams!
I do believe it is better that the state simply have nothing to say about religion at all. It cannot say anything without offending someone - absolutely anything it could possibly say would be in opposition to someone's deeply held convictions, government simply has no place in religious matters. What government talks about, it thinks it has the right to control. We do not want state control of churches anymore than we want any one church to control the state.
In the United States, nominal Christians do control the state anyway - through their votes. No Christian can possibly go to the polls and leave behind all his or her moral and spiritual feelings and convictions, nor should adherents of any religion do so if they could. Most of our laws have some basis in Christian religious conviction - albeit some of them appear to be based on poor biblical understanding rather than biblical faith. (That is natural, since many "Christians" are so in name only.) Not only were the nation's fathers mostly Christians, but even those who were Deists (Jefferson, for example) strongly supported biblical teachings. They would have been horrified by today's culture to a man. But they knew that government sponsorship of peculiarly religious practices or tenets would ultimately result either in oppression of conscientious dissidents or rebellion or both. What is necessary is the same thing as always has been necessary: for Christians themselves actually to behave like Christians, to act and speak in a Christ-like manner, to model the faith. If you read the Bible stem to stern, you will never find either Jesus or His disciples demanding that the heathen Romans accept their religious beliefs. People of true faith call people to faith. They point out their sin. But they never try to force faith on others. Even self-defense under active persecution was forbidden by Jesus (who lives by the sword will die by the sword). Disciples were told to call, to preach, to reveal Christ - how can they believe who have never heard? - but not to impose a semblance of faith on others, as the Church has wrong-headedly tried to do in other times and places. The results of such escapades have rarely been faithful people or churches, but doctrinaire churches, bodies that teach salvation comes as if by being bought by agreeing to their particular tenets, practices, and interpretations. What the Bible actually teaches, is that salvation is a gift of God by His grace, that Christ died for all of us, while we were still sinners, that salvation is offered freely even to sinners and those who can't understand God's plan fully (who on earth can?), and that salvation is received by those who have faith in God and in Jesus, God's Son, not faith in doctrines of any level of truth and purity, or even the Bible.
When Christians learn that it is their lives that witness to Christ, and their characters as faithful people that produce works of love and sensitivity even toward unbelievers, then they will discover that others, including unbelievers, will want to know more about their God and will come to Him.
I, too, mourn days when it was easier to assume that a neighbor was Christian, or at least respected the Bible. It seems like the "good old days" were filled with faith; but really they were not. The way to God's Kingdom has always been narrow. There have always been more people interested in their own welfare and comfort than were interested in others, let alone in God. American church goers are not and have never been great tithers, for example; but tithing is a pretty good indicator of deep Chrsitian commitment in our overwhelmingly Mammon-worshiping land. (There are exceptions, primarily in denominations which teach that tithing is a religious duty and that without it one goes most likely to hell. The "gifts" of such churches are not true tithes, but are dues paid to buy salvation, which was never for sale in the first place.)
I agree. We do carry some things too far. To forbid, for example, a Bible on a teacher's desk is absurd. No teacher, not even a Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist, can well understand, let alone teach, any of Western literature without a good understanding at least of the Bible's literary contents. As a reference work, it is a sine qua non of adequate literary scholarship. The trouble comes when the government tries to teach the Bible in some official way. Either it is taught as literature, which removes its soul and it is no longer God's living Word, but a mere collection of ancient writings, or else teachers lead discussion from some religious perspective, most of them unacceptable not only to most other churches, but often to the horror of their own!
I would like to see a course such as you suggest offered in public schools, where perhaps community religious leaders were invited to teach for one day about their own perspectives, provided it could be done in a fair and balanced way. Even that much would have some parents screaming they didn't want their kids there to hear all those "heretical" ideas. That is short-sighted of them, perhaps, but real and very heart-felt nevertheless. The political practicalities would hardly allow it.
Best of all, I think, is what we used to do when I was a kid in New York City. Wednesday afternoons, those kids who had a church would be released from school for what I recall being termed "release-time school," where they went to their own churches for religious instruction. Those with no churches to go to sometimes found one just to get out of school; others just had study hall. That might be a satisfactory alternative. I think economics (what about school busing?) put an end to that in most communties. (In NYC, the bus and train system was so extensive, public school children mostly used them.)
I agree, there is an assault on religion in this country. Some of it comes from religious people who want to cram their versions down other's protesting throats. The way to stop the assault of unbelievers and God-haters on religion is not - indeed can not possibly be! - by waging war on protestors, but to love them into seeing that they have nothing to fear. Militant, argumentative, demanding, judgemental Christians have done more damage to the Church and to the message of Christ than all the atheists the world has ever known, because they have destroyed the faith of those who had, and still should, be able to trust in their God simply by preaching legalism intead of Gospel, dead letter instead of living Word, conformity with rules, rather than faith in the God of love. We who go by the name of Christian are, by far and with no real contest, our own worst enemy.