Sunday thoughts #6: Good news for evangelicals!

Posted: December 29, 2012 in believing, my personal journey, sunday thoughts, the "true-ish" series
Tags: , ,

contradictions

(Note:  This is a sort of epilogue to a series…see links at the end of this article.)

For a limited time only, if you act now, you can have the best of two worlds! You can retain your intellect and your capacity for logical analysis AND hold on to the truths and the beauty and the blueprint for living that is the Bible. Millions have done it, and you can too!

I know what you’re thinking. “Why in the hell is he writing about this again?” Good question. My three-part article on “truth” addresses this, so why get in the ring again? Live and let live, right? If someone wants to believe that the Bible is a supernatural book that gets absolutely everything right, then what’s that to me?

I wish I felt that way. But here’s why it matters. Maybe for most evangelicals who hold to the “Magic Book” view of the Bible, there is no downside to the “Incredible Supernatural One Stop Book Of 100% Accurate and Infallible Facts That Are Always And In Every Situation And Time Absolutely True” belief system. It is a comforting way to organize their lives and an easier, more black and white way to view the world around them, and it does little to no harm to themselves or others.

Unfortunately, however, this is not always the case. As I’ve previously written (see links below), I believe there is actually some danger in the belief that the Bible (a collection of writings from thousands of years ago, based on bronze-age morality, ethics, and scientific understandings) is 100% right, accurate and true. This sort of belief-ism is not always a neutral and harmless approach to theology. True Believers, from any religion, can do and have done damage to others in the name of Truth. Much pain has been inflicted, many relationships have been destroyed, lives have been lost, stunted and/or limited, all in the service of “Biblical truth.” And to a lesser degree, I think we can miss out on much beauty and adventure when we choose certainty over mystery. Furthermore, when we put all our eggs in a proscribed belief system basket, we risk losing everything when that basket turns out to be less-than-sturdy.

The problem: The inability to differentiate between the various “degrees of truth” found in scripture.

The main roadblock: The “slippery slope” argument. I understand this argument all too well – it’s why I spent so many years doing intellectual gymnastics trying to make the obvious inaccuracies of the Bible disappear through creative interpretation. The thinking goes like this: “If just one sentence in the Bible turns out to be wrong or untrue, then the whole thing becomes invalid, every statement becomes suspect, the foundation on which I’ve built my life crumbles to dust, and I’m left with nothing solid to believe in.” Stepping away from Bible-worship was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It was like jumping off a solid and safe ledge into the unknown…and trusting that I’d fly rather than be smashed to bits on the rocks below.

The solution:  I discovered something wonderful. You can follow Jesus without having to give up your ability to reason and think and differentiate. You can gain wisdom and direction from scripture, you can discover ways to live a life of peace and joy, you can even join with others in a “religion” if you so choose (or not, as I’ve chosen) – and NOT be obligated to believe in a 6,000 year-old earth or that women should shut up in church or that homosexuals are going to hell or that the “Left Behind” series is even remotely prophetic or any number of other moral/ethical/logical sticking points. In fact, the Bible becomes more alive, more relevant, more life-giving when approached without absolutism…not less.

I’m not trying to tear down anyone’s faith. Faith can be beautiful and life-giving and brings much good to this world and to individual lives.   What I do hope is that people might loosen their grip on certainty, even slightly, and learn to read the Bible with more of an open mind, and find the joy that comes with embracing more mystery. That was really difficult for me at first. My long-held and sacred assumption was that “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” So everything else was measured against this “Truth,” and when “facts” contradicted the Bible, those “facts” were just wrong.

Faith in the “Magic Book” version of the Bible is a powerful insulation against seeing the world for what it is. The Bible contradicts an established scientific fact? No problem: the scientists are wrong (about cosmology, evolution, embryology, neurophysiology, climate change, etc.), and the Bible is right; or Jesus (or Paul, or whomever) didn’t really mean it (for example, regarding the mustard seed being the smallest seed). The Bible contradicts modern understandings of ethics and morals? No worries: we’ve misinterpreted the Bible (examples: slavery, women not being allowed to speak on church); or today’s ethics are wrong (example: homosexuality). A command we don’t especially love? No big deal: it was symbolism or analogy or poetic hyperbole or whatever (i.e., Jesus’ requirement that we sell everything we own and donate the proceeds to the poor). Or if we find it impossible to re-interpret using one of these methods, we can do what we want to anyway, then live with guilt (for example, in the case of the millions of divorced Christians who have chosen to remarry despite Jesus’ prohibition on such).

See how slippery it is? You can’t really demonstrate that anything in the Bible is untrue, because the standard of measurement is a moving target.

Maybe the only way to get a foot in the door is to discuss just a few of the hundreds of examples in which the Bible contradicts itself – where two things, both proclaimed as true, can’t both be true. Frivolous stuff, actually. But it might be enough to pry lose the death grip some have on inerrancy and infallibility. images-7

On how many donkeys did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? Mark, Luke and John all describe him riding a single animal. However, Matthew, attempting to fulfill Old Testament prophecy, has Jesus riding two donkeys. (By the way, this is a common theme in Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus. More than two dozen times he provides “proof” of Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy by adding in creative and usually contradictory “facts” about Jesus’ life.) Zechariah 9:9 says that the king would come “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The repetition here is typical of Hebrew poesy, with the donkey being described twice in different words. Matthew, though, appears not to have understood this. He seems to have thought that the prophecy described Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt and so awkwardly introduces a second donkey into the triumphal entry: “When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their clothes on them, and he sat on them. (Matthew 21:1-7) Mark, Luke and John apparently understood the Hebrew stylistic method, and were content to limit Jesus choice of transportation to something less bizarre.

How did Judas die? Did he hang himself (Matthew 27:3-8), or did he fall down and crack his head open (Acts 1:16-19)? It verges on the comedic to hear some evangelicals go through gyrations trying to have it both ways. A quite common solution to this apparent contradiction in scripture is, no kidding, Judas hung himself, but the rope broke, and he fell down and cracked his head open.

How many demon-possessed men were in the graveyard? There are three passages that describe this event (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39.) The Matthew account mentions two demon-possessed men, while Mark and Luke only mention one. What gives? I looked this up this morning on a “Bible Answer” web site. I want to quote it here directly, because I think it’s so silly:

Is there a discrepancy in these accounts, and do the Gospel writers contradict one another? 

The first thing to determine is whether the three writers are describing the same event. The timing of the event in all three accounts—immediately following the calming of the storm on the sea of Galilee—as well as other similarities all give credence to Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describing the same event. The question remains, then, whether there was one demoniac or two. 

Matthew tells us there were two demoniacs, while Mark and Luke only mention one of the two. It is unclear why they chose to mention only one, but that does not negate the possibility of a second demoniac being present. Mark and Luke do not say there was “only one” demon-possessed man. For whatever reason, Matthew simply gives us more information than Mark and Luke. 

In any case, no contradiction exists. A contradiction occurs only if one statement makes the other impossible and there is absolutely no way for them to be reconciled. For example, let’s say we put two apples on a table. Statement 1: There are two apples on the table. Statement 2: There is only one apple on the table. These two statements contradict each other. Now read these two statements: Statement 1: There are two apples on the table. Statement 2: There is an apple on the table. These two statements do not contradict each other. In the same way, the biblical accounts do not represent a contradiction. All three affirm that there was at least one man who was plagued by demons.

Seriously? If I were holding two apples in my hand, and said to you, “I am holding an apple in my hand,” you wouldn’t think I was an idiot?

All this to say: Do you see how hard you have to work in order to believe that every word of the Bible is “Truth?” And the good news, again, is that it’s not necessary! In fact, Jesus himself engaged in a fair amount of picking and choosing in what to pay attention to Biblically and what to ignore, and often got in trouble with the religious folks because of it. He reserved his harshest words for the religious people of his day who “upheld the letter of the law over the spirit of the law,” and who chose strict adherence to the written word over what he called “the weightier matters of the law: mercy, justice and faithfulness.” He told them that they “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24). Let’s not make that mistake.

And now my New Year’s Resolution: No more articles on “truth!” We’ll make this the epilogue to the series referenced below, and call it good. Back to other “stuff that matters” soon!    Happy New Year!

Prequel (in which I come clean about my faith) CLICK HERE
dictionary-series-philosophy-truth

Part 1 (true? Truth? not true? just true-ish?) CLICK HERE

Part 2 CLICK HERE

Part 3 CLICK HERE

Comments
  1. Bruce Baker-Rooks says:

    Kevin was telling me about a special he watched last night with Christianne Amapour (I don’t know if this is how her name is spelled, but you know who I’m talking about, correct?). This special was tracing the beginnings of the Abrahamic faiths. There were several things talked about in the Bible that cannot be proven, such as, there seems to be no archeological evidence that 600,000 men, not including the women and children, which would put the total number of people at around 2 million, were on the move from Egypt at around the time Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land. Another one would be that there doesn’t seem to have been a wall around Jericho at the time that the wall was said to be destroyed. So, like you asked Mike, what is up with this? We all know that for centuries and centuries the semitic tribes passed down their information orally. The exact details of every story was not the point. There were various points being made is all of these stories – God’s faithfulness to humanity; humanities constant unfaithfulness to God, despite their best intentions; the consequences of disobeying God; how to live together in harmony; what happens when we don’t live in harmony; and so, so much more. The points of the stories are not the exact amount of people, or detailing the exact battles precisely. Remember, there were centuries between the events described and when these stories were written down. Anyone who thinks there were not exaggerations, or who thinks everything happened just as it was written down isn’t using the brain God gave them.

    Unfortunately, the “literalists” (and I use the ” ” intentionally), are so busy trying to convince everyone, including themselves, that the entirety of the Bible is meant to be taken literally that they miss the intended point of the scriptures and they completely dismiss the beauty of the Bible. Honestly, the fact is, no-one does in fact take the Bible literally and I have found the ones that say they do, have no idea what they are talking about.

    The scary things is, in most of the modern non-denominational churches, very few of the ministers have a seminary education and have little to no Biblical education. When I look at the websites of these churches and I read the bio’s of the pastors, most of them have degrees in business, or some other area, but not in Biblical training. This is why we have many preachers teaching horribly ignorant theology, deceiving themselves and their congregants, and trying to pass their teaching off as intelligent Biblical truth. The very sad consequences of this, is when people actually begin to think and find they cannot reconcile the theology that has been taught to them with the experiences of their life and what they know to be right, true, and factual, they lose their entire faith, because they have been taught there is only one way to be Christian. I know too many people who found they no longer believed what they were taught and because of the teachings that told them “it is all or nothing” they decided they must be atheists. I’m very glad Mike, that you are deeply exploring what your faith means to you. Hopefully this exploration will be a life-long journey filled with wonder, mystery, self discovery, and a deeper connection with God.

    • Anonymous says:

      Wow – thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bruce. Great points – especially about the actual meaning of scripture (faithfulness, love, etc.) versus whether or not each story actually happened. And I absolutely love your last two sentences. Thanks.

  2. […] Check out the follow up articles: Part 1 (true?  Truth?  not true?   just true-ish?)    CLICK HERE Part 2   CLICK HERE Part 3   CLICK HERE Epilogue  CLICK HERE […]

  3. […] Find Part 1 HERE;  Find Part 2 HERE;  Find prequel HERE  (in which I come clean about my faith); Find epilogue HERE […]

  4. Ahmad says:

    i saw this on tv today thank you for this network it besesld my family and my family is a family of brokeness and today yo besesld my family i am the only follower of christ in my family and today was a huge step for my family to seek god my mom really enjoyed it and so did i so thank you very much. i was choking up at the end when you were talking about his forgiveness in the blood of jesus god bless you all so much!!!

  5. […] Epilogue (Good news for evangelicals!)    CLICK HERE […]

  6. […] Check out the follow up articles: Part 1 (true? Truth? not true? just true-ish?) CLICK HERE Part 2 CLICK HERE Part 3 CLICK HERE Epilogue CLICK HERE […]

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