How Newsweek got the Bible right… and still got it wrong


This year I’m planning to write more regularly for Onfaith, mostly about the Bible and how we use it. (I’ll still be writing other posts here.) My first piece is a somewhat belated response to Newsweek cover story on the Bible last month. (Thanks to Dan Chappell for encouraging me to share these reflections.)

Where are all the moderate Christian voices?

That’s what a friend wanted to know in the wake of Newsweek’s recent, much-discussed look at the Bible and the way many Christians believe in it. Conservatives were quick to respond to what they saw as a hit piece, offering plenty of robust, detailed argument – and occasionally stooping to their own hit-piece level with titles like “Newsweek’s tirade against the Bible” and “News Weak.”

But what about moderate Christian voices? Or what about Christian “progressives” like me who still hold to a high view of Scripture and its authority?

Some of what Kurt Eichenwald wrote was greeted with a yawn. Yes, there are two creation stories in Genesis. Yes, the gospels offer different (and sometimes conflicting) accounts of Jesus’ story. Yes, scribes added things to the Bible. For many of us, this is old news.

However, in other cases, Newsweek got some things wrong — rather, it got some things right, but in a wrong way. Here is how…

Read the rest at Onfaith > 

Note: While I wish they had chosen different titles for their responses, Dan Wallace and Ben Witherington offer some very useful critique from a conservative point of view, for those who want to engage with the particulars of Eichenwald’s piece. And Rachel Held Evans has an excellent editorial on defending evangelicals against some of the worst caricatures that Eichenwald drew. 

Will reading the Bible turn you into a liberal?


Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, believes reading the Bible is the best cure for fundamentalism. As he writes in this piece for the Huffington Post from 2012 (which has been making the rounds again this week):

The best way for conservative churches to produce “liberal” biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.

I think he’s being a bit tongue-in-cheek with his use of the word “liberal.” This is not really a “liberal” vs. “conservative” issue—at least not if the insinuation is that all liberals are angry, ivory tower types set on undermining Scripture. More on that later.

While we should be careful to avoid overgeneralizing about either side (conservatives can and do read the Bible without significantly altering their core beliefs), I resonated with Carey’s story on a personal level. Like him, reading Scripture has led me to question many assumptions which I previously took for granted. Absorbing whole books—not just settling for a daily verse ripped from its original context—has made me wary of any statement that begins with, “The Bible clearly says…” Like Carey, I’ve come to realize the Bible is vastly more intricate—and a good deal more human—than I once thought.

For Carey, it started with the realization that the gospels are not (with the possible exception of John) eyewitness accounts of Jesus.

For me, it started with hell.

The year was 2011. That was when Rob Bell published his book Love Wins. “Farewell” became a thing neo-reformed leaders say to those they deem heretical. Friends were lining up on either side of the “is there a hell or not?” divide.

I had decided to read the New Testament for Lent that year. It’s sad to say—especially for a kid who grew up going to churches with the word “Bible” in their names—but it was the first time I’d read the whole thing from start to finish.

Given all the fuss about Love Wins, I decided to keep an eye out for hell as I made my way through the New Testament. I wanted to see if a clear picture emerged, if things really were as straightforward as Rob’s most vocal critics said they were.

Sightings of hell were few and far between—and not all that consistent. Hell is mentioned just 23 times in the entire New Testament. And even that’s misleading, because the New Testament uses three different terms, which translators have unhelpfully collapsed into the all-homogenizing English word “hell.”

The Bible has plenty to say about judgment—it’s hard to escape that as you read—but most of what it says bears little resemblance to the dominant evangelical portrait of hell as a place of never-ending, fiery torment. Judgment is more commonly depicted as the end of something—“everlasting destruction,” “second death,” etc. The “eternal conscious torment” view is supported by maybe two passages in the whole New Testament.

In short, painting a “biblical” picture of hell is no easy task. The Bible doesn’t lay out a uniform theology of judgment. It’s not as though God gathered all the human authors of Scripture for a preproduction meeting and said, “Let’s get on the same page here. Make sure each of you include the following three key points about hell…”

That’s because the Bible is a human book—or rather, a collection of human books. I happen to think it’s also inspired. But we have a tendency to talk about divine inspiration at the expense of the Bible’s humanity. And it’s time we restored the balance.

This, I think, is the real issue. This is why reading the Bible—really reading it—for the first time messes with your head. It’s not so much a “liberal” vs. “conservative” thing. It’s a “turning the Bible into something it’s not” thing.

I grew up thinking of the Bible as more or less something that fell from the sky—neatly packaged, never contradicting itself, containing all the answers. And it just isn’t that kind of book.

Instead, it’s exactly what you’d expect a collection of books compiled over several centuries to be. It’s messy. It’s diverse. Sometimes it’s poetry. Sometimes it’s narrative. Sometimes it’s a literary genre for which we don’t have a modern-day comparison. It’s dialogical. It’s not a monologue from God. It’s a two-way (and in some cases multidirectional) conversation.

Sometimes, that makes coming up with clear-cut answers, well… difficult.

We try to make the Bible give us a straightforward picture of hell, and instead it gives us three different terms—each with a distinct meaning.

We try to draw a clear-cut sexual ethic from Scripture—and we get David, the man who took at least seven wives and plenty more concubines and STILL managed to be called a man after God’s own heart.

We try to create a neatly harmonized account of Jesus, but the Gospels stubbornly resist our efforts to collapse four stories into one.

None of which is to dismiss or diminish the Bible. None of which is to reduce this discussion to the same tired old “liberal” vs. “conservative” polarization. I left fundamentalism a long time ago, but like Greg Carey, I still love Jesus and the church. I’ve devoted a good chunk of my career to sharing with others what he calls “the love and wonder we experience with the Bible.” I believe the Bible is a complicated book, but for me it’s a sacredly complicated book.

Reading the Bible holistically won’t necessarily turn you into a liberal. And that’s OK. But liberal or conservative, you might grow to appreciate that it’s not always a simple matter of “doing what the Bible says.” Like Carey concludes in his post, reading the Bible requires responsible interpretation.

And maybe a good dose of humility.

Related post: 6 observations on salvation, judgment, & hell after reading the New Testament

Photo by khrawlings on Flickr

Are vanity Bibles like this one ruining the Bible?

Guess what’s coming this fall?

Duck Dynasty Bible

The Robertson family is publishing their own specialty Bible, The Duck Commander Faith and Family Bible. It features ancillary notes on faith, family, freedom, and other traditional values. (Let’s hope this doesn’t include the “value” of pretending the whole Jim Crow era never happened.*)

Last week, I wrote for OnFaith about four modern versions of the Bible that I believe are ruining the Bible—four ways in which the proliferation of Bibles is having the opposite of its desired effect. Commoditizing Scripture is causing us to read and value it less, not more.

But I seem to have neglected one version: the vanity Bible.


To be fair, vanity Bibles are nothing new. Joyce Meyer has one. John MacArthur has one. Charles Swindoll has one. Max Lucado has three. Even Thomas Kinkade has his own Bible. (No word on whether it includes anything as awesome as this.)

Some of these so-called vanity Bibles are better than others. At least most of the people listed above can lay claim to being Bible teachers of one kind or another. And not all of them opted to have their name put in the title.

But a Duck Dynasty Bible?

The product description notes that one of the contributing family members is a pastor with 22 years of experience. That’s good. But that’s not why anyone is going to buy this Bible. People are buying it for the guys who make popular duck calls and star in a reality TV show of dubious authenticity. (I guess I could’ve just said “star in a reality TV show.”)

I don’t doubt the Robertson family loves the Bible. I don’t doubt they’re serious about their faith. But it’s hard to see this as something more than an attempt to extend the lucrative Duck Dynasty franchise.

Here’s the question: Should we be using holy writ to grow our own empires?

And can the notion of vanity Bibles be reconciled with Paul’s rebuke against those who rallied around the first-century equivalent of celebrity pastors?

“I follow Paul.”

“I follow Apollos.”

You can almost hear the modern-day version.

“I follow MacArthur.”

“I follow Driscoll.”

“I follow… the Duck Dynasty guys.”

If we want people to take the Bible seriously, maybe we should stop cheapening it with gimmicky novelty editions. No wonder Bible reading fell 20% in a single generation.

Related post: The real difference between Phil Robertson and Pope Francis

*In fairness to the publisher, I know from personal experience that the lead times on projects like this can be considerable. So it’s possible they signed this deal before Phil Robertson’s controversial comments about gays and African Americans last December. That still leaves larger question about the legitimacy of vanity Bibles unresolved, in my opinion.


4 unintended consequences of turning the Bible into a consumer product

Stack of Bibles

This is my latest piece for OnFaith. In an era when we have more Bibles than ever, Bible reading is in serious decline. Maybe all those Bibles are part of the problem.


I was standing in the ruins of one of the world’s oldest synagogues when I realized I didn’t want to be a Bible publisher anymore.

The epiphany came at a rather inconvenient moment, since the whole reason I was there was to convince our guide, a respected Bible teacher, that he should do a study Bible. Or, as they like to say in the publishing business, I was trying to “acquire” him.

I’d been working for an evangelical publisher for almost five years. I loved my job. I loved publishing Bibles — and I published a lot of them. Study Bibles. Youth Bibles. Audio Bibles. We had a Bible for everyone…or at least we aspired to.

We wanted more people to read the Bible. And for a time, I thought publishing more Bibles was the best way to make that happen.

But standing in that synagogue — hearing about the role scripture played in the lives of those who had gathered there — I started to question that assumption.

At synagogues in and around Galilee, young Jewish children would memorize large chunks of scripture. We’re not talking about your average memory verse; we’re talking whole books. In truly exceptional cases, a student might memorize the entire Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Each Sabbath, the community would gather for worship. They would celebrate as whatever scroll they had in their possession was carefully unfurled to show everyone that the words were still on the page. God was still speaking to them.

They had nothing like our access to the Bible. No one dreamed of owning his own personal copy of the scriptures. Most rural synagogues were lucky to have one or two scrolls, and whatever they did have was likely shared on a rotating basis with other nearby synagogues.

Yet they loved the text. They couldn’t get enough of it — literally.

Standing in that synagogue, it occurred to me that we have the opposite problem today. We have more Bibles than ever. I had never stopped to ask whether this was a good thing. I just assumed more was better. Yet for all the Bibles out there, one thing we don’t have is more Bible reading.

What if that’s not just coincidence?

What if the proliferation of Bibles is part of the reason we’re reading scripture less?

What if familiarity and abundance breed indifference?

Read the rest at OnFaith.

Image by Bright Adventures on Flickr

Five Bible verses you need to stop misusing

open bible

Image by Ryk Neethling on Flicker (

Last week, OnFaith published my post about five of the most commonly abused verses in the Bible. The day it went live, my wife and I welcomed our son into the world. While we were busy changing diapers and pushing his bassinet up and down the hospital corridor, the article went a bit viral-ish, being shared more than 18,000 times on Facebook. 

If I could change one thing about my piece, it would be the title. I wish I’d called it “Five Bible Verses We Need to Stop Misusing,” because the truth is, we all do it. We all twist and selectively quote Scripture to suit our preferences. I believe one of the best antidotes is to stop reading the Bible in fragments. It didn’t come to us as a collection of verses; it wasn’t meant to be chopped into soundbites and plastered on t-shirts and coffee mugs. 


The other day, someone gave me a note with Nahum 1:7 printed at the top: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.”For some reason, they neglected to include the next line, which continues the thought from verse 7: “But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of Nineveh.”

Okay, so maybe the fuller version doesn’t deliver quite the same Hallmark moment. And maybe that’s the problem with how many Christians use the Bible.

Christians read (and quote) Scripture in tiny, artificial fragments all the time. And by doing so, do we alter the meaning without even realizing it.

Digital Bible apps make it easier than ever to Twitterize holy writ. But we’ve been doing it for ages. Here are some of the most commonly misused Bible verses.

Read the rest at OnFaith

How “the days are evil” is a lousy excuse

The other day, Joel J. Miller offered some helpful insight into what he calls the “most highlighted verse” in the Bible, Philippians 4:6.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

The problem, he observed, is that highlighting and reading this verse in isolation yields a rather different meaning than the one Paul intended. Arbitrarily placed verse divisions, none of which were original to Paul or the other biblical authors, have conditioned us to ignore the surrounding context. In this case, the immediately preceding statement: “The Lord is near.”

Which, it turns out, was Paul’s whole reason for not being anxious in the first place.

Severed from its original context, Philippians 4:6 sounds more like a self-help guide to stress management than what it truly is: an affirmation that God is presently at work doing away with all cause for anxiety.

But this isn’t the only example of how reading one verse at a time can cause us to hear something different from what Scripture is really trying to say.


We do not experience God in ways that take us out of this world, but we experience him in ways that root us even more deeply in this world.

I came across this quote the other day while reading The Compassion Quest, a great new book by a friend named Trystan Owain Hughes.

This idea, that our relationship with God is rooted in this world, flies in the face of how some of us — especially those of us who grew up in the evangelical subculture — are accustomed to thinking.

This world is not for experiencing God. This world is for “just passing through” on the way to God. This world is overdue for judgment, burning, destruction.

We don’t wait for God to meet us here. We wait for him to evacuate us from here.


After all, “the days are evil.” Just like Paul said in Ephesians 5:16.

I hear this verse (half a verse, actually) quoted a lot. Often with an air of resignation. As a rationale for why the world doesn’t turn the way some Christians wish it did, for why it doesn’t always cater to their expectations.

The days are evil.

So what’s the point in bothering with this world?

None, right?

As it happens, that’s the precise opposite of what Paul argues in the passage we now know as Ephesians 5. Here’s the fuller quote:

Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

“Making the most of every opportunity” can also be translated as “redeeming the time.”

Redeem. As in, buy back. Reclaim. Make good again.

Time. As in, this present age. Otherwise known as “the days.” Yes… the same days that are “evil.”

The days are evil is not an excuse for resignation, abandonment, or escapism. It’s not an invitation to retreat into some religious bubble… or to check out, sit back, and wait for the apocalypse to commence. It’s an invitation to engage, connect, restore, rebuild. The days are evil is why Paul admonished his readers to make themselves useful.

“Sure, the days are evil. So do something about it. Redeem them. Make them good again.”


Near the end of Genesis, there’s a story about a man named Joseph who was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Through a series of unlikely events, Joseph wound up in Egypt, where he was elevated to the rank of second-in-command, just as famine struck the entire region.

Everyone turned to Egypt for food, including Joseph’s brothers. After a somewhat tense reunion, the brothers worried that Joseph would seek his revenge. But Joseph assured them there would be no reprisal. What his brothers meant for evil, Joseph explained, God had used for good.

I think Genesis 50 is a picture of what Paul describes in Ephesians 5. But notice how bringing good from evil isn’t God’s responsibility alone. It’s ours. We have a part to play in the story. We’re meant to be God’s agents for bringing good into this world. We are his best plan for “redeeming the time.”

The days of Joseph’s brothers were evil. They were marked by jealousy, betrayal, oppression, and violence. But with God’s help, Joseph redeemed them, “making the most of every opportunity.” In the end, Joseph redeemed not just “the time” but his own family, rescuing them from starvation and slavery.

We too are called to redeem the time. Checking out early isn’t an option. Writing off this world as a lost cause isn’t an option. To do so is to read only half the verse and miss the whole point.

How this is about context (and not botching the Bible)

Rep Conaway debates SNAP reduction

So…the debate on Capitol Hill turned biblical the other day.

Democrats and Republicans took turns quoting Scripture during a debate over a proposed $4 billion cut to the welfare program formerly known as food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

Kicking things off, Representative Juan Vargas (D-California):

There are starving children in the United States… but for me, it’s more basic. Many of us who follow Jesus — who say that openly, and I certainly do — often times read the Bible, and Jesus kind of fools around and gives you parables. He doesn’t often times say exactly what he means. But in Matthew 25, he’s very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says that how you treat the least among us — the least of our brothers — that’s how you treat him. And interestingly, the very first thing he says is, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me [something] to eat.’

If Republicans were caught off guard by Democrats unabashedly using the J-word, they hid it well. But they had their work cut out if they were going to regain the upper hand in the Capitol Hill Bible Challenge.

Not missing a beat, Mike Conaway (R-Texas) took to the pulpit to respond:

I read Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual; I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. So I will take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things, but not our government.

And then came Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) with a prooftext of his own, quoting the apostle Paul as an early supporter of cutting government food assistance:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Rep. Fincher’s mishandling of Paul’s statement has to be one of the more egregious abuses of Scripture I’ve seen. Others have already pointed out how the context of 2 Thessalonians undermines Fincher’s interpretation. Paul was addressing a community of early Christians who thought the end of days was upon them, that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. Therefore, they decided there was no point in working any longer. They were content to just sit back and wait for Jesus to reappear.

Paul wanted Christians to be active and engaged in the world around them — earning a living, contributing to society — not pressing the “check out” button early. That’s why he said, “Hey, if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to eat, either.” It had nothing to do with poverty, government assistance for the hungry, or anything like that.

Nor is it remotely fair to equate food stamp beneficiaries with the supposedly lazy recipients of Paul’s letter. The reality is that most people living in poverty work harder, longer, and earn much less than I make while I sit in a comfortable office each day.

All of which is to say: context matters.

By quoting an isolated verse with complete disregard for its context, Rep. Fincher shamefully misused the Bible to advance his own political agenda.

I would really like it if the story ended there. I’d also really like it if Matthew 25 meant what Rep. Vargas said it means.

But it doesn’t.

Social justice organizations — many of which I support — have gotten a lot of mileage out of Jesus’ “least of these” statement in Matthew 25. It’s quoted repeatedly as a general call to help the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable. Heck, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used it that way.

But what Jesus actually said was, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine…”

“Brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) is a term Jesus used of his disciples. The word “least” is actually a form of the Greek word for “little ones” — which he also used in reference to his disciples.

If you back up a few pages, you’ll find that Matthew 25 is part of an extended discourse which began after Jesus and his 12 disciples left the temple. As they sat on the Mount of Olives, Jesus started preparing them for a coming period of upheaval — one so intense that not even the temple would survive.

Jesus told his disciples to anticipate hardship in the years to come. The blessings (and curses) in Matthew 25 were for those who showed (or withheld) some form of mercy to Jesus’ suffering followers. It was not a blanket statement about poverty and injustice.

Now, as it happens, there ARE plenty of broad statements about poverty and injustice to be found in the Bible.

Isaiah 58, for example.

Or Isaiah 61 which, though originally addressed to Jewish exiles in Babylon, was picked up by Jesus and was expanded to include Gentiles (much to the chagrin of his synagogue audience in Nazareth).

The fact that Matthew 25 may not be a blanket statement about poverty does nothing diminish to Scripture’s unrelenting focus on the poor and the vulnerable.

So why do we keep using Matthew 25 out of context?

The thing is, if we insist on using our favorite verses like this, then we have no right to challenge others when they misuse the Bible. I happen to think Rep. Vargas is more in tune with the overall trajectory of Scripture than either Rep. Conaway or Fincher. But all three were examples of Christians quoting the Bible badly the other day.

Not that such examples are hard to come by. The truth is, we’ve all given in to the habit of quoting Scripture selectively.

We might not have this problem if we didn’t insist on dicing Scripture into artificial nuggets and calling them verses. Or if we would get into the habit of reading what comes immediately before and after a given passage of Scripture. Discerning the context of Matthew 25 or 2 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t take a theological degree.

All it takes is a willingness to read attentively. To read the Bible on its terms, not ours.

And to maybe read more than a verse at a time.

If we read the Scriptures more holistically, we might not make Mike Conaway’s mistake either — claiming the Bible addresses individuals only and not societies whenever it says something that doesn’t line up well with our political leanings.

“Clearly you and I are charged to do those kinds of things [e.g. feeding the hungry],” Rep. Conaway reasoned, “but not our government.”

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has read the prophet Amos, who yearned for justice — by which he meant economic justice — to “roll on like a river.”

And just who, according to Amos, was partly responsible for maintaining economic justice?

Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has ever read Psalm 72, where the writer prays that the king (Solomon in this case, according to tradition) will maintain justice and righteousness:

May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway is aware that his brand of individualism — the lens through which he reads and then discards those parts of the Bible that make him squirm — would have been an utterly foreign concept to the original writers and recipients of Scripture? Theirs was a world shaped by community, one in which an “I built that” mentality was simply incongruous.

The idea that some portions of Scripture could be read individually and not corporately?

It would have been unthinkable to those first recipients of the Bible.

Context matters when reading the Bible.

Which means that, no, Matthew 25 isn’t a blanket statement on helping the poor — though there are plenty other such statements in the Bible.

And no, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 isn’t a biblical endorsement of libertarian economic policy. (It’s a denunciation of end-times escapism.)

And no, Rep. Conaway, you can’t read the Bible’s injunctions on poverty and injustice as if they were statements to you as an individual and not to the society you’re a part of. The biblical writers simply didn’t make that kind of distinction. And as for the prophets, well, they spent a good chunk of their time addressing people like you — that is, rulers and authorities with the power to do something about injustice.

So may we all learn to do better by the Bible so that, together, we can embody the kind of justice it expects of us and our society.

Is Story all there is?

Leslie Leyland Fields’ latest feature on Christianity Today, The Gospel Is More Than a Story,” starts by expressing ambivalence for an unnamed but “much-hyped” story version of the Bible.

I’m pretty sure she’s talking about one of my old projects.

I helped create The Story in 2005, intending it to be an easy way for non-Bible readers to get a handle on the scriptural narrative, so that when they opened a real Bible, they could see how the various pieces fit together.

To our surprise, some of the strongest response to The Story came from churches that wanted to use it for their own congregations. Randy Frazee, then a teaching pastor at Willow Creek, began developing a curriculum to take churches through The Story. When he moved to Oak Hills (pastored by Max Lucado), Randy took his idea for The Story with him.

To date, hundreds of churches have used The Story. It became a #1 bestselling Bible. There have been all manner of product spinoffs: companion books, kids versions, CDs, even a concert tour.

Field’s chief concern with The Story — assuming I’ve guessed right on which “story version” she was reading — seems to be its tendency to discard everything in the Bible that isn’t story. (Though to be fair, The Story does include a sampling of other biblical genres. But yes, the overriding focus is on the narrative.)

Fields argues that much of what makes “narrative theology” so compelling gets lost whenever it’s translated into a commercial product like The Story:

Though the larger narrative theology movement revives a deep respect for the Bible’s language and literature, many of the commercial products show little respect for Story. Story, as all high-school English students know, relies not simply on what happened but also on the language and literary devices used to tell it: metaphor, description, analogy, repetition, parable, image. Nor does this larger narrative movement pay heed to the other literary genres God chose to speak his words through — poetry, lament, epistle, proclamation, prophecy.

She’s got a point.

We often think of the Bible as a story, and indeed story is one of the dominant motifs in Scripture. My own “gospel sketched for kids” is yet another attempt to present the core message of the Bible in story form.

But Scripture is not simply one big story. It is a collection of books, representing a wide array of literary genres: poetry, correspondence, prophetic oracle, song lyrics, laments, legal codes, genealogies, apocalypses — and yes, narrative. Each has to be read in light of its particular form. You wouldn’t read a poem the same way you’d read a legal text. Nor should we read an apocalypse the same way we read a more straightforward piece of narrative — not if we want to understand it properly, that is.

In the past, many Christians insisted we read everything (or almost everything) in the Bible literally. This tended to flatten Scripture, obscuring its many genres and literary devices. Fields seems to think the modern-day obsession with narrative carries the same risk, and again… she may be onto something.

All this points to an even bigger series of questions being asked by a growing chorus of people:

What is the Bible? What do we do with it?

Simplistic, reductionist answers will not do. If you’re interested in the growing conversation about the Bible, I encourage you to start following blogs by people like Scot McKnight, Rachel Held Evans, and Peter Enns. Pick up a copy of The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith, while you’re at it.

And if you’re one of many who’ve read The Story, great. As one of its creators, I’m thrilled to see the impact it’s having. (I’d be even more thrilled if I’d gotten a royalty out of it!)

But don’t stop there. The Bible is so much more than narrative, just like it is more than a series of propositional statements or a list of do’s and don’ts. The Bible represents the collective effort of God’s people to tell God’s story through all manner of genres and literary devices. When read with this in mind, I can’t promise the Bible will always be easy or enjoyable, but it can be deeply rewarding.

Slavery and the folly of biblical literalism

The next few words might come as a bit of a surprise, especially if you’ve followed the Jared-Wilson-quotes-Doug-Wilson-who-likes-slavery controversy of the last week or so.

Anyway, Doug Wilson is right about something.

The Bible never explicitly condemns slavery.

Now, before you grab your pitchforks (which you’d be right to do if I left it there), just bear with me for a bit.

Scripture never says, “You shall not own slaves.” The Mosaic law included a number of stipulations regulating slavery, many of which tilted the scales in a slightly more humane direction; and the apostle Paul certainly took a dim view of the slave trade. But nowhere does the Bible flat-out say it’s a sin to own another human being. In the New Testament, slaves are instructed to obey their masters, even the abusive ones.

So how did Christians come to view slavery as a moral evil? It’s because they intuitively understood the folly of a literalist approach to the Bible. They understood that Scripture doesn’t try to give us the last word on absolutely everything. The kingdom of God is not a static entity; it is a living, breathing, moving reality.

Pentecostals might call this the leading of the Holy Spirit. Progressives might call it the redemptive movement hermeneutic.

Whatever you call it, the seeds of this movement can be found in Scripture itself. On slavery, for example, Paul encourages slaves to seek their freedom (though by legal means). Elsewhere, he urges one of his wealthy patrons to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but… as a dear brother.”

Seeds of abolition can even be found in the Old Testament — in the very first story, where God created humanity to be his eikons or divine image-bearers. How can one eikon claim ownership of another?

Most importantly, we have Jesus’ inaugural sermon, in which he declares that his mission was to “set the oppressed free,” among other things. And it was not just “spiritual” oppression he was talking about, as his subsequent years of ministry would attest.

And yet, these were just seeds. It would be years before the church caught up to the Holy Spirit. True, there were some who caught the movement before others. St. Patrick, himself a former slave, was one of the first to speak out against slavery. Gregory of Nazianzus was another. In more recent history, the cause of abolition was taken up by Christian luminaries across the theological spectrum, from John Wesley to Charles Spurgeon.

Whether they knew it or not, they were implicitly rejecting a literalist, absolutist approach to the Bible.

To those who say the only way to read the Bible is to read it literally — or to those who say we dare not go beyond the words of Scripture: do you oppose slavery? Because if you do, you’ve already gone beyond the Bible.

No one — except maybe Doug Wilson — follows a literal interpretation 100% of the time. And he doesn’t even practice what he preaches, judging by the fact that women in his church aren’t required to wear head-coverings.

Jesus anticipated that his followers would wrestle with matters not definitively settled by the Bible. Twice he told Peter (and the other disciples), “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:18).

“Bind” and “loose” were rabbinic terms meaning to “forbid” and “permit.” Jesus invested the apostles with authority to discern difficult matters. He didn’t tell them to just stick with whatever the Bible says and leave it at that. He told them to “bind” and “loose” on behalf of the church.

Today, the church still has this responsibility to bind and loose. We still have to discern the Spirit’s trajectory on matters not definitively settled by the Bible (or where the Bible doesn’t necessarily speak with one voice) — from the role of women to homosexuality.

So how do we do this without going off the rails? Where do we ground this trajectory, so it doesn’t just lead us wherever we want it to go?

I believe the answer is in Christ himself. In The Bible Made Impossible, Christian Smith calls this the “christocentric hermeneutical key.” Everything in Scripture has to be read in light of the “centrally defining reality of Jesus Christ.”

“In the beginning was the Word,” wrote the apostle John. But he wasn’t talking about the Bible. He was talking about Jesus. And if we really believe in the resurrection, then this Word is a living, breathing entity — not a static object frozen in time.

This changes how we read the Bible. To quote Christian Smith:

Truly believing that Jesus is the real purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture causes one to read the Bible in a way that is very different than believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it addresses.

The trajectory we encounter in Jesus is radical indeed. It’s worth hearing his inaugural manifesto in its entirety, which he borrowed from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good new to the poor.
 He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
 and recovery of sight for the blind,
 to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Of all the Old Testament texts Jesus could have used to define his mission, he chose this one. The reality is, the Bible contains a mix of both radical ideas (“liberate the oppressed”) and not-so-radical ideas (“it’s OK to beat your slaves as long as they recover within in a day or two”).

When Jesus taught, he didn’t just gravitate toward the more radical texts; he superseded the less radical ones, too. “You have heard that it was said,” Jesus was fond of saying, “but I tell you something else.” For example, where the Old Testament law tolerated an “eye for an eye” mentality up to a point, Jesus said that wasn’t good enough anymore. Instead, he forbade his followers from using force: “Do not resist an evil person.”

Jesus shines a great big spotlight on the most radical parts of Scripture. Then he goes even further. So this is where we must start in our quest to discern just how to embody this thing we call Christianity in the 21st century. To quote blogger and Episcopal priest Nate Bostian:

It might be that this “radical” trajectory is inspired by God in such a way that it subsumes and transforms less radical Scriptures, because “less radical” Scriptures represent a divine accommodation to ancient culture, whereas the “more radical” Scriptures more fully represent God’s vision. This could be argued on the basis of the Incarnation: God’s word is present in a preparatory, incomplete way prior to Jesus Christ. But when Christ comes, he is the full embodiment of God’s Word which the earlier words pointed to. So also, the radical trajectory of the Bible is hinted at haltingly in less radical Scriptures, but they subtlety point us to the more radical Scriptures as their fulfillment.

A literalist approach to the Bible represents a lower view of inspiration, because we end up trying to make the Bible something God didn’t want it to be. The higher (and harder) path is to try to find and follow the trajectory of Scripture, while staying rooted in the incarnational reality of Jesus Christ. To do otherwise is to be stuck with a pre-Jesus point of view.