Dishwashers in the Revolution

Actively bringing about much needed change in our communities and hope to the broken and disheartened.

Fitting God into a Bible-Sized Box

Let’s talk about the Bible. Previously I’ve spent the majority of my time discussing God and his role in my life – but lately I’ve taken a step back and began analyzing the Bible and thinking about its origins and the claims that Christians make regarding it. I hope to be able to express my thoughts on it well, but I think ultimately people won’t like what I’ve been thinking about.

I listen to NPR everyday. Recently they’ve had a guest author come on and talk about a book he wrote on Scientology. First, a little history lesson: L. Ron Hubbard is the founder of Scientology. He was previously a science fiction writer who also dabbled in some basic psychoanalytics which led him to create a process he called dianetics – a machine thats supposed to help clear your mind and stablize your life…or something along those lines. Well anyways this guy, L. Ron, practiced his dianetics in the clincal realm for quite some time but was shut down by the government for “practicing medicine without a license.” After this happened, he took his practice and formulated a religion in which dianetics became a central foundation. He then began to write “scripture” about things like the origin of the universe and right religious practice and other such things. He gathered quite a following but also became a fugitive at some point along the road too, living mostly secluded and hidden away from the public eye. The secret scripture of Scientology, that only the most committed members of scientology are allowed to read, give the history of a guy named “Lord Xenu” who was overlord of the universe and it talks about how Xenu froze a bunch of people and then killed them because overpopulation was threatening the universe. And this is the foundation of their belief system in a giant nutshell. I’m sure if a Scientologist were to read this, they would say I’ve done a terrible job of representing their religion. For that I apologize.

If you’re a Christian or frankly any religion other than Scientology – you probably would look at that and think to yourself that it’s so obvious that their religion is a hoax. I mean, this American author who used to write science fiction basically turned his story writing into a religion and got people to believe him. We think that’s silly – especially because L. Ron Hubbard lived in our day and age…like, he died in 1986. How could an American guy from the 80’s be expected to have divine insight into the history of the world…especially a guy known to have been kind of shady in the way he dealt with things?

It’s easy to look at a religion that was formed 50 years ago and poke holes in it. It’s easy to find flaws in the character of the individual responsible for starting said religion because we document so much these days too. We can bash Scientology or Mormonism or whatever all we want and talk about how untrue they are without ever looking at our own Bible and the formation of Christianity with the same lens. But I’m about to do that.

So what do we know about the Bible? There are a LOT of factors that went into the formation and creation of the Bible over the course of thousands of years. It’s comprised of both the Old and New Testaments – essentially two radically different perceptions of who God is. You might disagree with that, and that’s ok – but I think a basic reading of the entire Bible will show that the God of the OT is full of wrath and judgement and the God of the NT is full of mercy and grace. But that’s not the kind of thing I want to focus on. I’d like to look more into the authors behind the books.

If I were to ask MOST Christians (maybe not all) what they believed about WHO wrote the Torah (the first five books of the OT) they would say…Moses. Was that who you thought of when you read the question? I bet it was. But I’ve been doing some research into this question and according to scholars, though Moses is often credited with writing the Torah, he in fact did not. The reasons behind this are simple things like the mentioning of people who would have come after Moses had died and the difference in writing style such as the uses of different terms for God such as (english translation) Jehovah vs Elohim. Scholars believe that there were as many as 4 different sources to have contributed to the writing of the Torah, with one editor who combined the 4 sources.

That’s fine. No big deal. For Christians it doesn’t mean that the Torah is wrong or no longer divinely inspired by God just because maybe Moses didn’t write it. God is perfectly capable of inspiring 4 separate authors and one editor to create the message he is trying to get accross to the universe for all time, right? But is it possible to see that these 4 authors coming from 4 different places and periods in time may or may not have had agendas that they were trying to bring to light that they wrote what they did? I mean, when I write I usually write for a reason – not because I’ve been divinely inspired to shed God’s new insight into the world, but because I’m trying to communicate something to a broader group of people. And most of the time it’s with some kind of agenda in mind. Persuasion or challenge or whatever…it’s usually not just some objective truth that I write about. Even with history books – these supposedly objective stories about history only ever are written from the very subjective point of view of the historian and therefore usually paint history in a certain light.

The authors of the Old Testament were very much not immune to this in my opinion. When I look at the stories of the OT, specifically ones about the nation of Israel overcoming enormous obstacles and conquering huge armies I don’t doubt that there is some truth to it, but I often wonder how much is embellished to communicate a point. If you think about it, Israel’s history is an unfortunate one. They occupied a stretch of land that was often used as a pathway between world powers constantly at war, whether it was Egypt or Persian or Assyria or Rome, Israel was constantly being crushed by these powers around them. They write stories of great successes in battle and tell stories about how God gave them victory over there enemies and what not because the authors are usually writing from a place and time of captivity and persecution to a people group who are worn out and battered, tired of worshipping a God who keeps failing them in these times of hardship. They recount stories where God came through and helped them win and prophesy of a time when God will do it all again.

I find it ironic that the OT tells stories of a God who will avenge his people, a God who will smite the wicked for their misdeeds, a God who instructs his people to enter into a city and kill and destroy and pillage – not sparing even women or children. And then you look to the NT where God has mercy on sinners, he eats and dines with them, he has grace on those who least deserve it, and he tells his followers not to lift a hand against those who oppose them, but rather to turn the other cheek and humble yourself before others.

At the same time that the Old Testament was being written, a book full of stories where God tells Israel to totally wipe out entire groups of people from the face of the earth in epic battles and wars, The Buddha is telling his followers to love others unconditionally, to make peace with your enemies, and to empathize with the needy. Literally it’s like the same time period – the Buddha lived and taught around 800 BC – the same time as many of the OT stories.

I say those things to argue the fact that maybe, just maybe, the authors of the stories in the OT were writing with an agenda. That they were using God to bring a people group together. That they made God who they wanted him to be – a bloodthirsty, vengeful, angry God, because that’s who they needed God to be for them. It wouldn’t be the first time that people took liberties with their theology to make God into someone they needed him to be. It has happened throughout the history of the world. I’m not saying there isn’t some truth to be learned about who God is in the OT – but to say that the stories of the OT are all true and objective at face value I think may be a fallacy.

Moving on to the NT.

I’ll just jump right in. When we look at the teachings of Jesus, we often see the things he said written in red letters, because it signifies something that Jesus said. I’d like to argue a point regarding that very thing. We often look at these words as the exact words that came out of Jesus’ mouth – but we also know that Jesus never actually wrote any of his own teachings down. The 4 gospels we have were all written well after the death of Jesus. Mark’s gospel came over 20 years after the death of Jesus, and John’s gospel well over 60 years after his death. The authors are writing the teachings of Jesus but they are having to recall it from memory years and years later. Now don’t get me wrong – I think they are more than capable of writing dialogue that captures the essence of what Jesus said, but to claim that what they wrote were the exact words of Jesus as he spoke them I think is a hard sell. That being said – it was not unusual to have pupils of a renown teacher write down their teacher’s teaching through dialogue. Look at Plato for instance – he wrote 4 books on the teachings of Socrates, a philosopher who never wrote any of his own teachings down. Plato was able to write down the teachings of Socrates and all of his writings are dialogue between Socrates and someone else. It was a style of writing and I don’t think that people believe that Plato remembered every word from every conversation that Socrates had, but that he was able to capture the essence of the teaching and relay that through a rough outline of the dialogue being had. The same thing I believe happened with the gospels. There is no evidence showing us that the disciples had written the teachings of Jesus down as he spoke them word for word, but they studied under him for 3 years and came to understand the essence of his teaching. They remembered conversations to a point and attempted to recreate the message Jesus taught.

I don’t have a problem with this at all. I think it’s reasonable to think that men who spent 3 years devoting themselves to a man and his teaching would have authority to communicate the essence of that man’s teaching. But so often we look at Scripture and point out that it’s infallible and without contradiction. I feel like that’s just not true. When you have human authors recounting stories or teachings or driving agendas or whatever, you are bound to have human error.

People always argue that Scripture is divinely inspired. And we say that about books that were written thousands of years ago because we have a harder time poking holes in the theology or analyzing the character of the author because we don’t have information like we do today. But I find it hard to think that when these authors wrote what they wrote they were being whispered to by the Holy Spirit exactly what to write. Or however you want to say it. I think that they were trying to communicate to each other – to build doctrine around fundamental truths that they believed and to encourage each other in a new faith. Epistles written by men to other men that are full of truth and good things have been elevated to divine status somehow…but someone made that decision. Someone said – this book here is divinely inspired, and that book there is not. So what do we know about that?

In 325 the Council of Nicea was formed. Constantine was the emporer of the Roman Empire and had recently taken a liking to the Christian faith, which had up to that point suffered severe persecution under Roman law. Because of his new found liking for the church, Constantine saw fit to unify this faith. Leading up to this council there were house churches all over the place, small groups communicating with each other and formulating doctrines and practices. There came a debate between two theologies, one from Arius and another from Athanasius, in which the two disagreed over the origin of Christ. Arius believe Jesus was created by God and then elevated to divine status along with God – while Athanasius believed that creation was ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and therefore Christ could not have been created but must have been present with God for all of eternity, because to have been created alongside of the rest of existence would challenge the divinity of Christ and his connection to God. So these two men taught their theologies to their respective followers but it created a schism in the church that threatened to break the already scattered church up even more. So Constantine calls in all of these church leaders (1800 bishops were invited to this council, a reported 318 bishops actually came to participate) and they decide together what the correct theology should be for this religion. Obviously the argument was won by Athanasius and a doctrinal statement was created, what we now know as the Nicean Creed. Also at this council a book was formed – what we now know as the Bible. 66 books were included into it, both Old Testament books and New Testament books. It was at this council that these epistles were analyzed and then cannonized to form a cohesive book, and then the book was declared divinely inspired and infallible.

All of this was in an effort to unify the church, and the efforts to unify the church were made by Constantine so that he might declare this religion an official religion of Rome. And you can’t have multiple teachers teaching multiple things to multiple people about a range of different things and call it a religion. So to stick the tag of divine inspiration onto this book and call it infallible basically shuts down any opposing view to the one created by a group of 318 bishops in 325 AD. So for what it’s worth, it appears to me like the writing of the Bible, the formation of the canon, and the doctrine we all ascribe to as Christians was essentially the work of men who basically realized if Christianity was going to grow up, they needed cohesive and uniform beliefs.

So what is my point in all of this? I guess it’s that I don’t think that the Bible is the end-all-be-all of truth for this world. I think it has some contradictions and some skewed thoughts about who God is. I think it’s a book written by human authors with human intentions and human agendas.

But all of that being said – none of those conclusions are deal breakers for me. I think there is truth about God in the Bible. I think the teachings of Jesus are spot on in capturing the essence of who God is. I think that the stories told in the Bible do communicate fundamental truths about how we should live and how we should treat others. I don’t need the Bible to be perfect or flawless to believe in God or to know that my life has meaning and value. The Bible is a tool, a history of insight given by men and women who devoted their lives to knowing and understanding God and/or the teachings of Jesus. But I think there are other tools out there that give me insight into the love and beauty of who God is. I think God has shown up in more places than what we give him credit for – so I refuse to put God into a Bible-sized box.

I think it’s time we take a step back from our own biases, as best we can, and try to see the world the way I think God sees it. To bring Christianity to the religious round-table and open up a dialogue with others to discover what God is doing in and through other people, other cultures, and yes – maybe even other religions. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m far off my rocker…but it’s worth some thought if you ask me.

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2 comments on “Fitting God into a Bible-Sized Box

  1. J
    February 13, 2013

    Ryan, I too have been struggling with the validity of the Bible. I have begun to question it as a source of supreme Truth. I do believe it contains very significant Truth, in the words of many prophets, including Jesus himself, but I believe that their words can only begin to paint the picture of who God is. Like you say, God doesn’t fit in a Bible size box. I believe, as humans, we cannot fully understand, or give words to explain, exactly who God is. He is much larger than our understanding.

    I liked how you wrapped up your writing by saying, “I think that the stories told in the Bible do communicate fundamental truths… The Bible is a tool, a history of insight given by men and women who devoted their lives to knowing and understanding God and/or the teachings of Jesus.”

    Rightly so! Let the Bible be your base, your guide, in discovering God. Stand firmly on the shoulders of those who came long before us and know that they also sought God and the teachings of Jesus.

    That’s all for now,
    ~J

  2. vnyrdwrshp
    February 13, 2013

    Anything is worth some thought, but let’s do some real thinking about it… Especially, when we consider using the word bias to quickly dismiss something like the Bible.
    —-
    Reading is not writing. Reading the Old Testament, and relating it here as if it were nothing more than the propaganda of an oppressed people is like reading the back of a Cheerios box, and deciding that the point that the writer was trying to make is that most Americans want to cure heart disease by eating breakfast cereal. If all you can make out of the Old Testament is that a tribal people was anxious to worship a vengeful God, who would bring retribution on their enemies, you might take another look.

    You’ve left out one of the most prominent messages of the history recorded in the Old Testament: the people who try to follow God constantly screw up. They have the wrong motives, live the wrong way, and need God to intervene. You’ve left out too much of what the writers of the Old Testament said, to think that your representation is in any way fair. The way we read is biased – the very way in which you’ve characterized that collection of books is terribly limited and reveals a bias of your own.

    Just for clarification. As I read your description of the canonization process, you make it seem as if achieving the goal of unity-of-thought is misplaced, or self-centered, or somehow wrong. You could just as equally say that anyone wishing to compile an excellent and trustworthy collection of the complete works of Shakespeare was wrong. The council didn’t edit or select to unify, as much as it did so to clarify. What written works they held in low esteem, no honest person could consider to be reliable. To decry their work as careless, wrongly motivated, or political is a pretty biased view. There is more archaeological and literary evidence for the accuracy of their selection, than we have for any other body of written work in human history – even many much more recent ones, like Shakespeare. It seems that to establish a carefully selected body of authentic works, you would need to eliminate the spurious, the inconsistent, and the works that outright fabrications that misrepresent themselves as testimony. On another note, that collection of works is not terribly “unified”, unless you read the whole body of work, and observe a consistent flow and development of thought throughout.

    What sized box? One of the #humanproblems we encounter, when we turn to face the infinite, and the transcendent, is what size and shape our thoughts will take. If we choose the human point of view as the launching pad from which to frame our perspective, then we must, in my estimation, begin humbly. While Humanity is indeed generous, grows, seeks what is higher, builds, and achieves, it is also is small, frail, weak, flawed, broken, and incapable.

    If we make it our aim to reach higher, to see the eternal, to draw near to God, then we must admit that our thoughts are unable to attain that perfectly. If we know God, we will know Him partially. My point is simply this: We all have a box. The size and shape of it do matter – and our human limitations mean that some boxes will be more accurate – more true to life, than others; but we all have one. The question is not, whether we will have a limited view of God. The question is, rather, how patient can we be with our own limitations? How honest can we be about them? What is our level of awareness concerning our own biases? What is our tolerance for the bias of others?

    The Bible’s bias. What if God wanted to show Himself to all generations? What if His mercy and love were insatiable, and unrelenting? What if – despite being rejected, and loss of relationship and a widening gap – what if He were trying to make sure that the whole of humanity could find Him, when they wanted to?

    If I may challenge you: To set the Bible aside, because you feel, “it has some contradictions and some skewed thoughts about who God is;” because you think “it’s a book written by human authors with human intentions and human agendas,” may be to set it aside because you have treated it too casually.

    I should think that the God who so passionately loves humanity, would make sure that we could hear His story! If I had to guess at His motivation, I’d say that He would be active in directing human history. I’d say that He would intervene in that history to show Himself. I’d say, that He would work to actively preserve and present that history. If I were Him, I’d make sure that it were written down – knowing that some would choose not to tell the story. I’d make sure it were written down over generations, from many different perspectives, knowing that the biases of any single group would certainly misrepresent Him. I’d make sure that the cultures and biases of those whom I chose to write would remain visible – contained within the texts – so that the reader might observe these things and know, in fact, how to read.

    I think the Bible is biased – if read it honestly. It is biased toward a representation of the Holy, infinite, loving God. It is biased toward exposing humanity’s brute reality, though we would otherwise think too much of ourselves. It is biased toward revealing humanity’s mysterious spiritual destiny, since it might otherwise remain opaque. It is biased toward creating an invitation to eternity with God Himself. It is full of humanity. It is biased, but not flawed because of that bias.

    If you want to argue the value of using words like “infallible”, “complete”, “perfect” or “flawless” etc. to describe the Bible, well that’s fine. I might argue that those are not the most useful descriptors. However, a bias against the Bible makes the journey toward God Himself a pretty human one. Saying “I refuse to put God into a Bible-sized box,” seems to say that you hold your own personal biases in higher esteem than that which God has worked so hard to say about Himself. Saying “I refuse,” feels like plugging your ears at the concert.

    Listen to the music. I do love your suggestion, that we “open up a dialogue with others to discover what God is doing in and through other people, other cultures, and yes – maybe even other religions.” This is, of course, what the Bible models for us. It is a wholly Biblical idea. The Bible presents God working through a flawed family and tribe, then a nation; to establish a world stage for the savior, whose loving self-sacrifice offers redemption to everyone everywhere. The writers of the New Testament explain this expanding development whenever they talk about the “good news” reaching “all nations” and “all the world”.

    That suggestion of opening the dialogue is also why I am engaging with you by responding to your blog. That’s why I’m writing. The dialogue is helpful. And it helps us to uncover what God is doing. But your phrase “step back from our biases,” is a phrase too deeply laden with meaning to let stand on it’s own.

    If we seek relationship with God, I think it best to seek Him on His own terms. Our faith journey ought not to be an amalgamation of our own preferences. They are, simply put, our pet-biases, which we are able justify to ourselves. Our journey ought not be simply critical – this is a possible starting place, but cannot be the end of the dialogue. A revolution against God, the church, or the Bible can hardly be though of as primary in a healthy pursuit of God (dishwashers or no). It sets a poor tone for dialogue. Finally, our journey ought not be simply the dialogue itself. This is too self-serving for the intellectual, too lazy for the artistic, and too weak to sustain any of us for very long.

    As counter-point, I suggest listening to the music of God. It is we, after all, who should approach humbly. I suggest that each of us strain to listen for Him. We may, indeed, find His voice in unexpected places. Perhaps even scripture.

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This entry was posted on February 13, 2013 by in Ryan's Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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