It has been five months since I last posted anything here. Last fall, the last few times I posted, I apologized for the scarcity of posts. This time I won’t, because I’m not sorry at all. I quite simply had nothing to say.
You see, for most of the last five months I’ve been going through what I’ve referred to in conversations with my wife as a bout of “low grade depression.” What exactly that means, I’m not sure, but I had to give it a name in order to talk about it. Mostly it has manifested itself in an inability, much of the time, to access the deep places of my heart in any expressible way.
Much of this feeling I’ve been talking about relates to what God has been doing in my heart over the last few years – moving me away from convention and “normalcy,” out into the fringes of His body. Some would say I have left it all together, but that is not the case.
This is not, however, going to be another post where I talk of the disappointment and hurt I have felt at the hands of the “normal” church. This crisis has been of a related, but different nature.
In figuring out where I stand in my relationship with Christ, one thing that has come to consume my thoughts of late is the question of where I stand in relationship with Scripture.
I named this post long before I wrote it – long before, in fact, I had any idea what exactly it would say. You see, we often refer to these moments where we are questioning much of what we believe . . . much of what we have believed all our lives . . . as a “Crisis of Faith.”
My faith, though, is not something that is in crisis. This is a crisis of a different sort. It is a crisis of fact.
. . . as in, I am constantly wanting more of them. More facts, more knowledge, more information.
In this case, I want more information about this thing, this book – or collection of books, to be more accurate – that we call “The Bible.”
You see, there are some things about it that just have not made sense to me. I grew up believing something very close to the story that God planted the exact words in the heads of those who penned the original Scriptures, that they wrote them down infallibly, and that those words have been passed on to us completely untarnished.
I do not believe that anymore. My first step away from that belief came with the realization that Scripture itself may claim to be inspired, but its myriad of scribes, copyists and translators do not. Thus I came to believe that Scripture is infallible in its original form, but that minor errors have been introduced in its copying and translation.
Then I began to wonder about that word “inspired.” Scripture claims to be “inspired,” but what does that really mean? Does that truly mean that every word – even in its original form – was absolutely infallible? The word, in Greek, literally means, “God-breathed.” The meaning of that term, in turn, is somewhat of a mystery.
Then I began to study more about what has become one of my passions – one that I have written about here before, as well as on my wife’s blog – the historical context of Scripture. I began to realize that there are little things that just don’t seem to fit. One minor example is found in the story surrounding the birth of Christ. Luke relates that the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was undertaken when Cyreneus was governor of the Roman province of Syria. Then, Luke says, after Jesus was born, King Herod – fearing for his throne – killed all children in Bethlehem below the age of two.
The only problem with this is that other contemporary historical sources reveal that Cyreneus did not become governor of Syria until after Herod’s death. Furthermore, the entire purpose of a census such as the one recorded here (and mentioned in those same historical writings) was to survey the population of a province like Judea as it transitioned from a semi-autonomous kingship to direct Roman rule . . . something that happened not only after, but because of Herod’s death. Furthermore, there is no chance that the mistake was in the other historical sources, for history has carried down to us exactly when Cyreneus was governor, as well as the names and dates of his predecessors and successors in that position.
In other words, Luke – writing roughly eighty years after the death of Christ, got some of his facts wrong.
In any other historical book, this would be no big deal . . . but discovering this about Scripture left me in somewhat of a quandry. After all, if mistakes exist in little things, why not in bigger ones? And if they exist in bigger ones, then how can we be sure that we have a true picture of what God wanted for us when He gave us the Scripture in the first place?
It makes perfect sense to me that Scripture might not mean everything we think it means. After all, my whole life I have had scriptures spouted at me to justify things like male headship, the duty of tithing, the primacy of the local church fellowship, even the biblical basis of the Republican party . . . all positions I no longer believe.
It is a big step, though, to realize that Scripture might not even necessarily mean everything it was meant to mean.
There has always, in my moving away from the various positions mentioned above, been a small kernel of doubt in my mind about certain things. After all, it says “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Taken completely separate from the surrounding historical context, and even the surrounding verses, that seems to be a pretty straight-forward command. However, it never sat well with what I know to be true of my Savior – the fact that He looks on all of His chosen equally . . . and that He promises, among other things, to be the sole mediator and spiritual authority in their lives.
Whenever I raised these issues to those who still believed as I once did, the question was always the same: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?”
This question has always presented a challenge to me. I felt trapped by it. On the one hand I could answer “yes,” and admit that my admittedly more “nuanced” reading of Scripture – together with the belief that God doesn’t necessarily have the same message for all people at all times – is wrong. On the other hand, I could say “no,” and deny the sovereignty of God to manipulate the laws of science and nature to miraculously preserve his written will.
I am willing to do neither. To do the latter would be to deny that God is who He is. To do the former would be to call Him a living contradiction.
This morning, I realized that there is a third option to this struggle I have been waging in my mind for the last several months.
You see, the question itself: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?” makes an incredibly deep-seated assumption . . . it assumes that’s what He intended for Scripture in the first place.
I have struggled for so long wondering how I can believe God incapable of miraculously preserving some sort of guideline for his people . . . I’ve never considered that the flawed, incomplete, sometimes incomprehensible story we have of God’s interaction with mankind may be exactly what He intended us to have.
After all, God’s language has been that of riddles for as long as He has interacted with humanity. From his claims on the life of Isaac to his curse of a fruitless fig tree, the simple fact is that God sometimes just does not do what is expected of him. We expect Him to give us a rulebook to live by, so when He gives us something else, we see it as a rulebook anyway. We expect Him to tell us what He wants us to do . . . so when He tells us how He wants us to love, we try to turn THAT into something we’re supposed to “do” as well . . .
He spoke in riddles, even to his closest friends and followers. They rarely made sense of what he meant – and he usually did his best to keep it that way.
What if that’s exactly what He continues to do, to this day?
What if the book we call “Bible” is another grand riddle? What if He’s being deliberately vague, and throwing in a couple seeming contradictions just to make us engage in some introspective head-scratching? Isn’t that just like him? Isn’t it just like a loving Father, when his child asks a question to which he might very easily give a straightforward answer, to instead say, “Why don’t you go do some reading, thinking, or research on that and figure that one out on your own?”
I know my own father did that many times – and I know that I’m better off for having learned how to think for myself.
Maybe Scripture is intended not to tell us what to do or think, but to teach us to think for ourselves, and to live in the shadow of our God as best we can. Maybe we are all suffering from a crisis of fact . . . and are trying to compensate by creating new “facts” – new religious commandments, traditions and “to-do lists” where none existed before.
But aren’t the folks who perverted the Jewish faith in the same way the very ones that He whipped out of the temple courtyard? Aren’t they the same ones he called “beautiful tombs, full of dead men’s bones?” Didn’t he roundly criticize and condemn the people who tried to turn the Scriptures into more than they were intended to be?
. . . and didn’t they kill Him for it?
I don’t want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to try to invent some new set of commandments because I can’t accept that the words He left us just aren’t enough to tell me what to do with myself at each and every fork in the road.
I want to think for myself . . . to take what He’s given me and use it to continue onward as I believe He would have me do.
And honestly, I don’t think He ever intended otherwise.