Friday, November 04, 2011

The Bible Made Impossible - A Review

“God said it, I believe it, that settles it!’
“BIBLE—Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth”
“Vote responsibly—Vote the Bible!”
“Confused?  Read the directions [picture of the Bible].
“Have you read my #1 best seller [picture of the Bible]?  There is going to be a test.—God
“Have truth decay?  Brush up on your Bible!
“Got scripture?”

You have likely seen one of the above slogans on a billboard or church sign at some point in your life.  While these sayings are no doubt a little cheesy, author Christian Smith sees them as symptoms of a problem that has become entrenched in the modern evangelical church—biblicalism.  Smith defines biblicalism as a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity (clearly expressed and easily understood), self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.  As Smith sees it, this approach to the Bible makes the Bible impossible to understand or apply and many times makes an idol of the very book that would point us to the God.  Smith takes on this subject as well as what, in my opinion, is a much better way to approach the scriptures in his new book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicalism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

When I first became Christian I was taught (both by the words and actions of the Christians of whom I was around) that the Bible is the highest authority, that it is infallible, and that anyone can read it and hear from God with little outside help.  So… I jumped right in to reading what I could, which was usually a few verses here, and a few verses there.  Sometimes I even tried the method of asking God to show me something and then seeing what random page I would land on when I opened my Bible.  This worked particularly well one time when the Bible fell open to a passage from Isaiah 55:12 that said, “You shall go out with joy…”  Well, I did my best as a single college guy to follow the prompting of scripture by asking a girl named Joy out on a date.   

While this approach to reading the Bible seems kind of silly now, it was actually quite normal at that point in my journey.  Heck, I was just doing what I saw others do on a regular basis.  It was quite a regular occurrence to bump into people who had a real gift of taking obscure passages from the prophetic books of the Bible and turning them into personal prophecies of success, prosperity and healing.  I even have cassette tapes with many such words that were given to me personally. 

In my years as a Christian I have been around folks who have used the Bible to make a case that God intends that we all be vegetarians and others who say that God doesn’t want us to eat wheat (I guess we have to modify that part in the Lord’s Prayer about “gives us our daily bread”).  I have heard scriptural justifications for why we need to pay taxes as well as scriptural reasons as to why we don’t need to pay taxes.  I have heard those who use the Bible to say that America is the New Israel and others using the same Bible to make the case that America is the Whore of Babylon.  I have heard messages, again based on scriptures, on why dating is wrong as well as messages on why dating is perfectly acceptable.  These are just a few things that I have encountered personally but let’s not forget world history. 

Not to long back in our history some folks in the United States who owned slaves had very scriptural reasons for doing so (and not just from the Old Testament mind you) while others found a basis for freeing slaves in the same holy book.  There have been folks who have found reasons to take up arms and go to war as those who see passivism as the only scriptural option.  I could go on but the point I am making, which is made quite well by Christian Smith, is that Biblical authority isn’t nearly as cut and dry or black and white as many assume. 

Smith points to all of the division in the church over scripture to make the case that biblicalism is not only an erroneous way to approach the scriptures but also causing the fragmentation of the church.  In other words, if the scriptures were as easy to understand and as universally applicable as we have assumed then there should be less fragmentation and much more unity throughout the church.  And yet the biggest champions of Biblicalism seem to be the ones causing the most division.  Perhaps the problem has to do with the basic assumptions that people bring to the scriptures that don’t come from either the scriptures or from the authors from which they were written. 

Smith argues for a much more Christ centered and Trinitarian reading of scripture that grounds everything from the Old and New Testaments in the person of Jesus.  In other words, everything in the Old Testament is pointing to and finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus.  This certainly seemed to be what Jesus was getting at in John 5:39 “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (NLT)  In fact, as Scot Mcknight points out in The King Jesus Gospel, this is exactly how the early disciples learned to view the story of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament.  Though Peter, James, John, and Paul had all grown up with certain ideas about God from Judaism they ended up viewing them through the lens of Jesus Christ and his work.  For the early disciples this meant that everything from Passover to the Exodus, from the Law to the Temple was fulfilled in Jesus.  Sure this didn’t solve all the problems for how to read the scriptures but gave them a new framework on how to begin asking questions of what it meant to live as followers of King Jesus.  This helped the early disciples particularly when it came to matters of whether believers needed to be circumcised, keep Sabbath and issues of table fellowship (as presented in Galatians).  Christian Smith makes the case that far from being a “liberal” approach to scripture this approach is actually much more faithful to the intent of scriptures and much more evangelical (at its best).  

It was quite helpful reading this book on the heals of finishing Scot McKnight’s latest work, The King Jesus Gospel, and while in the middle of reading Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright (I would highly recommend reading all three together).  Reading these three books simultaneously is almost like sitting at a round table discussion with each author sharing their unique perspectives which are all united by both a highly Christological and narrative reading of scriptures. 

While this book was very insightful, I wished it had been a bit more concise and to the point (Smith certainly included a lot of research which made it thorough but a little too dense of a read for my taste).  Looking back on my own journey I really wished that someone would have given me a few of the simple tips mentioned in this book for how to approach the scriptures.  It would have saved me a lot of silliness and would have maybe gave me more clarity when I encountered Biblical abuse in the church as well.  It is refreshing to read the words of someone who, while believing in scriptural authority, also understands that the ultimate authority resides in JESUS THE MESSIAH.   


Penny Murray said...

Great review! Can't wait to read!

Stacy and Scott said...

hey Crispin, it's Scott and Stacy Birney. Thought we should let you know how timely your post on this book is. We've been discussing and praying through how to go deeper in our study of Scripture (i.e.- past opening to a random passage and hoping God will "reveal" His wisdom to us with no effort or study on our part!). So thank you for your thoughts. Have you ever read any of the books by Fee & Stuart (How to read the Bible for all its worth is one of them)? Just curious if their writing lines up with Smith and McKnight.

We miss you and your family. Hope you are doing well. Oh and tell your son that we named our second son Ezra. You can tell him he was our inspiration! :)

Crispin Schroeder said...

Hey Scott and Stacey. Ezra is honored! Sounds like your little family is growing! I love the How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Fee has some great stuff about reading the Bible in context (both historically and within the Bible as well. We are actually going to be running a class on that book in January.

greenturtle said...

During my 12 years as an evangelical christian (which included my 2 year stint in the catholic church), I was told all of the same things you were.

And I really, really wish it were true. I wish that all you had to do was read the bible, and you would have all the answers, and your life would be fine. I wish all you had to do was open a random page in the bible and it would tell you exactly the right choice to make, and exactly what was going to happen next.

And like you, I was also subject to many debates regarding what the bible says vs what it means.

Frankly, the bible tends to mean what the individual person wants it to mean, based on what they're trying to justify at that particular time. You give me an argument based on a scripture, and I can just as easily counter your argument based on another.

It got to where some discussions I just would not participate in, because it wasn't even worth arguing about. I'm sure you know what I mean.

And it can become dangerous when people start using scripture to push their own agenda, and others blindly follow it, because since it's based on scripture, it MUST be right and just.

I really, really wish that were true. I wish that people who read and followed scripture, were always honest and always did the right thing.

Unfortunately I don't have an answer. I wish I did.