Deconstructing Conceptions of the Bible
In the last couple articles, I discussed some popular conceptions of the word "deconstruction" in Christian culture and my own conception of it. As I've thought about it more, I've realized I'll probably have plenty who disagree with my definition.
Some of us want deconstruction to be only a good thing, and others want to only speak of it as a bad thing. If deconstruction is a spectrum, with good and bad, and varying levels of emotion, it should be both encouraged and, at times, challenged. Isn't this closer to the truth and people's experiences of deconstruction?
As I go into some of my own deconstruction, I'll discuss deconstruction that wasn't really that big of a deal for me, and deconstruction that has kept me up at night. The things that didn't bother me all that much might actually be huge deals to someone else. My issues may not even be the same issues you've felt the need to deconstruct faith over. You may even disagree with the conclusions I've come to in my deconstruction. That's okay. I'm hoping I can just be one model of many who are trying to faithfully deconstruct and reconstruct their faith.
In this article, I plan to get more into the specifics of deconstruction starting with the Bible. If you haven't yet, please go back and read my first two articles on deconstruction before you delve into this one. In these first two articles, I lay the groundwork for my own approach to deconstruction so there is little room for misunderstanding. With that said, I'm open to having holes in my "construction" of deconstruction. The comments people have made so far to me have helped me improve these articles. If you have questions or concerns feel free to message me through the "Ask a Question" tab on my website, email me at email@example.com, or message me on Facebook messenger.
Deconstructing Concepts of God's Revelation Through Scripture
When it comes to deconstructing my conceptions of the Bible, I did not experience a great amount of angst over rethinking the nature of scripture as God's revelation. The fact that some parts of scripture come from a specific cultural and literary context that is specific to their time is not in the least a blow to their inspiration. God can communicate in whatever way he wants and is not limited by our modern Western preconceptions. This, to me, has made scripture more exciting, not less.
Even though I grew up in a church environment that had a high view of scripture and perhaps bordered on fundamentalist at times, I don’t know if realizing the Bible is not literal all the time was a big revelation to me. Taking the Bible hyper literally all the time becomes less tenable from reading more of the Bible, not less of it. The more one reads the Bible, the more certain tensions and ambiguities pop up. In the future, I'll get into the aspect of biblical ambiguity more in-depth to show how ambiguity in scripture can sometimes help us have more clarity on a subject and avoid extremes in interpretation.
Deconstructing the Bible as Non-Literary
Literature has always excited me. I went to school for creative writing and English literature. I love literature. So when I found out the Bible is very literary, it didn't cause me to go through some severe deconstruction of my faith. For the most part, I got excited!
I don’t mind all that much if the Bible has literature in it! I don’t even mind if the historical parts of the Bible have a literary spin at some points and did not always happen exactly how it reports. For me, this would not detract from the Bible's inspiration. By the way, this would situate it in the ancient world and how ancients wrote history. For example, the exaggeration or rounding off of numbers in the Torah and Joshua actually situates them in the ancient Near East and contributes to their historicity. This is how those in the aNE wrote history.
When I found out that the Bible had more literary artistry than I previously knew about, I started looking for metaphors, flat and round characters, and literary devices everywhere. Treating the Bible as literature and not just history, or a boring list of doctrines, has made Bible study so much more exciting for me.
One book that helped me think through a literary approach to the Bible better was a book called Inconsistency in the Torah by Joshua Berman. This book helps explain the ways ancient history is different than modern history. This isn’t just true of the Bible but of all ancient history. The fact that biblical history is also literature and uses plenty of literary license is to be expected in the ancient world. In later posts, I’ll give more of an overview of this book.
Now that I know there is some flexibility to how ancient people recorded history, when I read a gospel and I see that one gospel said something a little differently than another gospel, I usually don’t jump to questioning it’s historicity. Instead, I think, “Why did this gospel writer make that choice and the other one didn’t? What theme or focus were they trying to zero in on?”
I don’t mean to say that I don’t struggle with parts of the Bible being literature, especially if they are totally literature. For example, if Esther and Jonah are short stories that have no actual historical reality, that would be a tough pill to swallow, and there is a possibility that this is the case. The book of Job, on the other hand, might more easily be suspected as a work of poetry or wisdom literature.
If God decides to communicate or inspire a short story or work of fiction in order to communicate his will, why should we see this as problematic, unless we have already been conditioned to think God only communicates or only inspires real history?
On the other hand I would not so quickly, like a Pete Enns, suggest that the Exodus did not happen or did not happen through supernatural means. For me, this pill would be too big, and I wouldn’t swallow it unless the evidence was overwhelming and obvious, and even then I would give kickback.
To me, it seems clear that the Exodus and the miracles surrounding it are an essential part of Jewish history, and thus Christian faith. Jews have always looked back on this time as evidence for God’s saving power throughout history. Without its historical reality, this saving power would appear to be a lie. I would fight tooth and nail before I would submit to a narrative that takes the Exodus or miracles out of the Bible. This is just one example of a hill I'd be willing to die on, or at least be seriously injured.
The Bible can be both literature and real history. It does not have to be one or the other. However, we ought to think twice before we assume that the recording of ancient history will live up to the standards of modern history. (Not that modern history doesn't have its own problems; namely, the illusion of objectivity. Ancient history is different because it, for the most part, doesn't seek objectivity.) This will become apparent when I give an overview of Inconsistency in the Torah in future articles.
My point in all this is that God’s inspiration of scripture does not have to fit our rules, and it may not. God can choose to communicate his messages and his will however he wants. Understanding this has made the Bible more exciting and interesting for me, not less.
Moral Issues in the Bible
You might have gotten the sense that I never really went through a significant deconstruction when it comes to viewing the Bible as literature. It never really bothered me very much and simply reinvigorated my faith.
On the other hand, the moral issues present in scripture are what have kept me up at night, and even at times presented a crisis of faith. I have not looked for a crisis. Trust me. I’m the last person to go looking for a crisis of faith. The issues that the Bible presents have rather just shown up on my doorstep.
My commitment to truth (which comes from my faith by the way), and my commitment to biblical inspiration have come into real tension over some of the moral issues presented by some biblical texts. I still struggle with these to this day.
The issue of extreme violence, even genocide, presented in some Old Testament texts is deeply disturbing. I’ve realized over time that I cannot act as if these texts are not problematic, or that they do not present some real issues or obstacles to my faith. The issues of historicity, in my opinion, pale in comparison to the real moral problems present in some biblical passages.
I don’t have the time in this article to expound my own apologetic when it comes to these passages. Even though I have learned more since I wrote these articles on renew.org, I think they may be helpful to you if you are struggling with moral questions over troubling and violent Old Testament passages:
My more recent article on Ruth might help you see a moral trajectory that I believe is in the Old Testament where God brings his people forward into a greater reality:
When it comes to my own processing of morally problematic passages, I’ve realized that my hermeneutic has, over time, become more postmodern. Yep, that evil bad word that you might as well interchange with “Devil worship” in some conservative circles. A postmodern approach to some parts of scripture has helped me keep my faith, or at least not be in a perpetual faith crisis. To give a brief overview of how some aspects of post-modernism have been helpful, I’ll give a brief overview of what post-modernism is. This is not comprehensive and, yes it is from wikipedia, and I am merely fixating on aspects of post-modern thought that are helpful to me in my faith journey:
Post-modernism is a reaction to modernism, which focused on truth as “absolute.”
Postmodern thinkers frequently describe knowledge claims and value systems as contingent or socially-conditioned, framing them as products of political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies.
This means “truth” is flexible depending on your value system, social conditioning, and structures in your society. To some extent, I resonate with this when I read parts of the Old Testament.
If we are going to claim truth as absolute, some of God’s expectations and commands in the Old Testament can’t be reconciled with what we see in the New Testament. If truth, even moral truth, has some flexibility to it depending on your value systems, social conditioning, and situation in history, we have some room to see some of the more difficult places of the Old Testament as God entering into a very different time and culture in order to bring it forward.
In order to do this without imposing on free will, God had to get involved in some very flawed human systems in order to push things further down field to an end goal. To borrow from Webb and Oeste’s sports analogy in their book Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?, God is pushing the football down the field to get to the end goal of Christ. What we see in the Old Testament is the ball being pushed down the moral field in order to actualize God’s end goal.
I could be wrong about this assessment, and I'm not expecting my readers to agree. Only to consider it as a viable way of interpreting some very difficult passages. To be honest, every other way of rationalizing the horrible violence of the Old Testament has been found wanting for me. I end up sounding like I am justifying something horrific, being dishonest about what the text actually says, or I could end up letting go of parts of my faith that I see as essential. This way of approaching problematic texts in the Old Testament is most liberating for me, even if it is held with some tension.
But What About the New Testament?
Once you get to the New Testament, it appears things get a lot better and there are far less moral issues to contend with. You'd be right in this assessment. The total allegiance to Jesus pulls God’s people out of corrupt power systems and structures. The general attitude of nonviolence Christ puts forward is the end goal God was pushing his people toward.
But…we still encounter problems in the New Testament. When I say problems, I'm still talking about moral problems.
For one, while Jesus seems to liberate women more than ever before, Paul’s letters seems to suggest some attitudes and actions towards women that appear silencing, and even oppressive. Even “soft complementarians” don’t feel they can interpret Paul too literally in some passages, especially 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
If you want to learn more about the debate between egalitarian and complementarian views of women, read John Mark Hick’s Women Serving God or Scott McKnight’s Blue Parakeet for the egalitarian perspective, and renew.org's many articles on the subject for the “soft complementarian” position.
On the other hand, there is also the moral question of honesty for the interpreter of these passages. If one feels we must be take Paul’s admonitions literally on the point of women and leadership, shouldn’t we take him totally literally and be sure women are silent in church? What about 1 Corinthians 14 and head coverings? Ought we enforce that as well? Ought we also make sure women do not wear any expensive clothing as it says in 1 Timothy 2:9? Ought we sell all our possessions and give it all to the poor (Luke 12:33)? Shouldn’t we allow people to prophecy and not quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)? I could go on, but you get the point.
Whatever our hermeneutic is of scripture, it needs to be honest and consistent, or we are just introducing another moral problem of our own into the equation: The problem of dishonesty.
My point in asking these questions is not so people can throw up their hands and just say, "Well, we shouldn't do anything. This is impossible!" My point is to do your homework. Don't assume a position is right if you haven't really interacted with positions different from your own, and if you've never considered any difficulties in your position that can be found in scripture.
For some this may mean changing your position even if you'd prefer to keep it. For others perhaps you will keep your position even though you are uncomfortable with it. If we are striving to do God's will and not just whatever we please, there is a chance it may push us into places we aren't totally comfortable with.
Might the uncomfortable place also be learning to coexist with, and treat as family, the people we disagree with on a tough biblical issue? Maybe we can do more for God's kingdom if we stay unified, loving one another despite our differences, even if it means we don't always worship in the same location. Our differences on some important issues do not make us any less family. Just a thought.
This article has been long and, at the same time, way too short. It is a brief overview of my own continuing deconstruction of faulty perceptions of scripture. For me, the moral problems presented in scripture have led to more of a deconstruction than problems of historicity, though these have not been insignificant.
Wrestling with these things has led me to a more honest and authentic faith. I know I will still be wrestling with God, deconstructing and reconstructing faith, the rest of my life just like many throughout the narrative of scripture. Even though I have faced these tensions and this wrestling, I have found the Bible holds up in pushing me towards a relationship with God and providing truth and purpose in my life.