"If you still say the bible is not true, I will say that no book is more honest."
My latest literary diet has consisted of an obscure historical novel entitled Honor's Kingdom. Written by Owen Parry, it is a nineteenth century tale surrounding espionage in London between Confederate and Union agents and their attempts to secure European support during the Civil War.
In one chapter the lead character is bemoaning the decline in respect for the bible brought on by the Age of Reason and the scientific explosion of that generation. Wrestling with the tenants of Darwinism, he brings to light the doubt that many have for biblical authority. In frustration the character shares his personal credo on the matter: "If you still say the bible is not true, I will say that no book is more honest."
Indeed, there is no more honest writing to, as Parry declares, "Show us who we truly are." But I wonder in this age of enlightenment, super computer technology and instant communication, if this honest book is really authoritative to most people's lives?
Do you know what I mean by "authoritative?" To me that means seeing the bible as the guide, the source, and the inspiration for my life. In other words, through the writings in the bible I find the directions for how I choose to live. Through the bible I am introduced to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit and the expectations for how to model my existence.
But there is a challenge here that is at the heart of what defines the Christian community in particular and human relations in general. And at the sake of being called a heretic, I think many folks are confused about what to do with the bible.
For instance, there are many who insist on taking the bible literally in every aspect. They refer to it as the "literal word of God." They then suggest if you or I do not believe it, accept it literally, then somehow we are wrong. And if you are wrong about that, then you probably better get it right or suffer eternal consequences.
When I was ordained back in 1980 the first church I served was in a town of about 350 people. I preached my first sermon that morning and then that evening I led the bible study. I will never forget standing up to read the scripture from the bible my bishop had given me when a member of the church stood up and shouted at me: "That's what's wrong with you seminary boys. You don't read from the real bible!" He got up and left in an angry huff. Of course, the "real" bible was the King James bible.
There is both the implied and literal assumption that if the bible is not literally true in every aspect, every KJV "jot and tittle", then it is somehow flawed and not to be trusted. I've heard it called "the perfect word of God." (Isn't that designation reserved for Jesus as The Word made flesh? John 1 for reference.) I have always struggled with that kind of belief. Is my faith to be in the bible? Or is my faith to be in the One the bible reveals? I choose the latter, regardless of the translation. For me, it is just more honest.
Of course, folks who think the bible has to be taken literally are threatened when someone who does not believe like they do are still confident about going to Heaven and serving God. Gives 'em the willies!
Take the bible literally? Here is what that would look like. We would stone homosexuals to death ... along with adulterers and misbehaving children. Sorry, but we would never, under any circumstance, allow women to preach the word of God. (But they can teach it to children in Sunday School?) And don't forget, you must tithe 10 percent of your income. Before taxes! Then there is that whole business about handling snakes.
We preachers are notorious about moving in and out of scripture like it is some worn out back door, ever struggling with the temptation to use it to prove a point or leverage a position. I am guilty, I confess. But, if you will pardon the biblical quote, Jesus said we are to use our hearts, souls and minds in this faith adventure. Do you suppose he was saying there should be a logical dimension to our faith? I do.
Of course, the biblical belief pendulum swings the other direction, too. There are many who see nothing absolute, nothing "true" about the bible. It is fiction, it is myth to them. Like reading of Greek gods and Roman mythology, it is just fable and literary meanderings that have defined a culture's pre-occupation with mortality and immortality.
A few years ago I participated in an archaeological dig with the University of Oklahoma. The site was a 10,000 year old bison kill with artifacts from Clovis man. One day about a dozen professors and professionals from across the nation drove in to view the excavation. I chatted up a number of them and when I announced I was a volunteer there for the experience, they asked me what I did for a living. "Me? I'm the pastor of a church in Texas." It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. One of those learned men turned on me with a challenging tone. "How do you reconcile what you are seeing here with what it teaches you about creation in your bible?" I told him that if I believed the bible was a science book, I might have some problems to explain. But in that it is a book of theology, I saw no conflict. His wife drug him off, huffing.
Literal? Nope, not for me. Authoritative? Absolutely! Important to my life and faith? Without it, I would be lost.
But, I must always remember, it is not through the bible that I am found. No, that is more about the one God I understand the bible to be revealing. And in that sense, it is more about honesty than anything else. God is the author of grace, not the bible. The bible reveals that grace, but can never dispense it. And as one reads the very real, very human struggles of biblical characters that, in all honesty, have the same failures and hang ups as the rest of us, we actually begin to see ourselves. Honestly.
It was, I believe, Robert Schuler who warned Christians to beware of "bibliolatry". That is, worshipping the bible to the same degree that we worship the God the bible reveals. To be consistent, that means remembering the Trinity only has three sides, not four.
Maybe we should stop buying those fancy versions bound in Moroccan leather with gold tipped pages and red letters for the words of Jesus. Maybe the bible should be made like a laminated auto mechanics manual or a good, serviceable travel atlas. You know, something we can handle and not be afraid of, something that is viewed as the honest tool we can trust as we negotiate the repairs we need to make and navigate through life. Ultimately, I think our engines of faith will run better and we will arrive at that final destination just fine.