07/16/2011 01:35 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2011

Does the Truth of the Bible Matter?

Earlier this year, I ran a little thought experiment. The results left me wondering whether the combatants in the Bible wars are addressing the wrong question.

I've found myself on both sides of this conflict. As an extreme literalist in high school, I took every word of Holy Writ to be literally true, for all time. Today I see the Bible as the writings of people about God -- people of limited viewpoints and cultural biases and histories -- with vital strands of God's truth and wisdom contained therein.

Granted, these two approaches are more points on a spectrum than polar opposites. In the American public square, however, the opposing sides of the Bible wars -- especially some in the conservative camp -- talk as if there were only two choices. Fact or fiction? Is the Bible factual in every respect, true for all time, or is it not? The conflict has raged for many decades, and it seems irreconcilable.

So let's ask a different question. How much does it matter?

It matters to some extent. If we cannot use the Bible as a guide to truth in some way -- even, for instance, as a validation that God is love -- then it has precious little relevance for us. On the other hand, if true-or-not is the ultimate test of the Christian faith, it leaves the opposing sides with little room for dialogue -- and plenty of room for hostility. That mindset bears little resemblance to the central call of the Christian faith: to love.

Hence my thought experiment: weigh key ideas from the Bible and see what does matter. Here are just a few results.

The sayings of Jesus. The oft-debated question here is, did he actually say them? Taken as the words of Christ, these sayings describe God's unfolding way of inner transformation and conformity to the principles of the "kingdom of God." But even if Jesus never uttered any of them, they convey the same message.

"Jesus died for our sins." Taken literally, this doctrine asserts that God sent Jesus -- God's own child; indeed, God's own self -- as a blood sacrifice to forgive, once and for all, the sins and follies of people everywhere. Gruesome as this sounds to postmodern ears, it speaks compellingly of God's ardent, extravagant, unconditional love for the human race. Hearing it as metaphor, however, we get the same message: how much love must it take for someone to give up the life of her child -- very nearly her own life -- for another?

The Last Judgment. As the Apostles' Creed puts it, God "will come again to judge the living and the dead." Taken literally, it provides a powerful (though fear-based) motivator to get one's soul in order and live for God. Taken metaphorically -- for instance, as a symbol that God comes to us every day, helping us to find the best path for our lives -- it encourages us to get our souls in order and live for God.

The does-it-matter question has its limitations. It's not useful for addressing the whole Bible in one fell swoop, as though we could settle the true-or-not question once and for all. Rather, its most valuable use is at each specific point of conflict. Do our ideas about the Bible matter, for instance, when it comes to same-sex marriage? Do they matter when it comes to the Virgin Birth?

When we ask in this way, we come to see a key reason for the whole question: do my ideas about the Bible matter in the way I live out my life with God? Accordingly, my views on scripture will affect what I think of same-sex marriage because the Bible contains a few (possibly) pertinent references, same-sex marriage is a current cultural issue, I encounter LGBT people in my everyday life, and my church is wrestling with the controversy. As to the Virgin Birth, my best understanding is that I can let go of its historicity because it does not directly affect the way I live for God.

If we approach individual points of conflict in this way, perhaps we can dispense with some of the nasty conflicts of the Bible wars. Perhaps we can stop focusing so intently on what we believe and start focusing on how we live.

And maybe, just maybe, asking the does-it-matter question will allow us to reach across divides. The very act of asking can relax our grip on our preconceived notions. We may never agree, but we can at least entertain the notion that we could be wrong, or that we can set aside our conflict over x doctrine or y belief for the sake of living the life to which Christ calls us. That in itself may open us to treat our "Bible enemies" with more respect and compassion -- something of which the Jesus of the gospels would heartily approve.