Just recently, I found myself in the midst of a fascinating conversation, driving down a slippery, snow-packed road in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington. Ryan, a former student from my church, just returned from his first semester at a private, Christian, liberal arts college, and joined me that morning for a little snowshoeing expedition in the beautiful “Blues,” as locals endearingly call them.
We spent the first hour of the day driving up the mountain and talking about his new girlfriend, his dorm mates, and how much he enjoyed his first semester, despite already being sick of the food. On the drive home we picked up where we left off, and I asked him how he liked his first few religion courses, and he gave me a rather uninteresting assessment of the two courses he had taken. Ryan shared that the religion courses sparked some theological conversations between him and some of his friends. Using that window to inquire into what I was really curious about, I asked if his theology had changed during his first semester. His response was not shocking.
He said, “Yeah, I’m not sure if I can believe the Bible anymore.” The words kind of spilled out, the way words spill out when you’ve bottled up a resolution far too long and are unsure how to begin expressing yourself but know nonetheless that you are where you are. He shared that he learned in his Introduction to the Bible course that many of the 13 New Testament letters attributed to Paul were very likely not penned by the apostle but were written pseudonymously (by someone else, in Paul’s name).
The second reason he gave was a reference to Paul’s initial words to the churches in Galatia, “Paul an apostle — sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father…” (Gal 1:1 NRSV). Ryan expressed that he had a hard time believing one man could make such a daring claim and carry such authority. And certainly, anyone familiar with the great world religions would agree that it is no hard thing to claim divine authority.
Ultimately, Ryan was disillusioned by his discovery that the Bible is much more complex than he had been taught. The question follows: Does this complexity of scripture add to its beauty, or does it strip it of its voice in a scientific age where knowing what is around every corner is championed? Many of the greatest biblical scholars find this three-dimensional complexity of the Bible captivating, only adding to the charisma of these sacred texts that shake the foundations of our ego-centric claims to our place in the world.
Knowing that Ryan was spending a semester studying religion (particularly the Christian faith) from reputable and competent professors, I was not surprised by his initial statement, though I was taken aback by his reasons. That these seemingly rudimentary facts would pull the rug out from under his feet to the degree that he would question the authority of the biblical witness seemed quizzical to me in that moment. I remember thinking, “That’s it? That’s what rocked your boat? What about the textual discrepancies, like the fact that there are somewhere around 3,000 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, some partial, some complete, that have been preserved, and that no two of these copies are identical?” What is more, as Raymond Brown concisely states:
No autograph or original [manuscript] of a NT[New Testament] book has been preserved; the differences came in the course of copying the original. Not all the differences stemmed from mistakes by copyists; some arose from deliberate changes. Copyists, at times, felt impelled to improve the Greek of what they received, to modernize the spelling, to supplement with explanatory phrases, to harmonize Gospels, and even to omit something that seemed dubious.
Ryan did not even breach these issues in his explanation for questioning the authority of the biblical witness. Consequently, I was surprised that the discovery Paul was (probably) not the author of every letter attributed to him compounded with the fact that Paul, yes, was a human being, and that the Bible, yes, is a collection of writings penned by different human beings throughout time, were reasons enough to jeopardize Ryan’s trust in the Bible. But maybe I should not have been so surprised. Which brings us to the question, “Has the Bible betrayed us?”
What do we do when the context within which we understand the Bible changes in a way that brings the Bible into conflict with our particular religious beliefs and self-understandings, when we zoom the lens in closely and notice the seeming discrepancies and nuances both implicit within and surrounding the biblical witness? What do we do when our understanding of the Bible appears to betray our faith?
One popular option is to bury our head in the sand, ignore the discrepancies, and chalk them up as the byproduct of liberal-progressive academia that long ago lost its reverence and respect for scripture and has championed historical-scientific methods over a faith-filled reading of the text. This often leads to a stilted fundamentalism, egocentric in nature, where one decides both what the Bible is and what the Bible means. The rules of the game have been set, and we faithfully refuse to consider anything outside those rules.
Another option is to walk away, forfeit our faith in the Bible, and, quite often, our belief in that to which the Bible claims to bear witness.
The problem with these two possibilities is that both play the very same game, and have agreed to the very same rules: the “head-in-the-sand” approach is merely gritting its teeth and refusing to consider revising the rules of the game in the fear that what is essential will be lost, while the “walk-away” approach is merely taking one’s king off the board and setting it in front of the opponent, saying, “I give up.”
Is there any possibility of understanding the Bible and asking the question, “Does respecting what we have learned of the Bible and its textual and historical context nullify the sacred claim of the text?”
Does the complexity of scripture strip it of its divine nature and invalidate its authority in the life of those who seek to understand it?
In other words, has the Bible betrayed us?
There is an old Zen proverb that says, at first, the mountain is just a mountain and the river is just a river. Then, the mountain is no longer a mountain and the river is no longer a river. And then once more, the mountain becomes a mountain, and the river becomes a river.
I do not think Ryan’s personal crisis with the Bible is destructive; it is deconstructive. His previously held notions and predispositions in his approach to the Bible are being deconstructed, as the building blocks of his faith are being reorganized, and restacked, and some, by necessity, absolved. I recognize in Ryan the beginning of a deconstruction that will be painful, violent, and lead to greater uncertainty. But to say that this conflict is bad or unnecessary is to lay claim to the boundaries of truth and thoughtfulness. We do not get to set those boundaries. We should not be so egocentric as to assume that our worldviews and self-understandings are sufficient enough, that we have learned enough to place ourselves at the epicenter of theological thought and orthodoxy. But if I am wrong, we should just be honest about it and all get t-shirts that say, “More orthodox than you.”
The mountain is no longer a mountain and the river is no longer a river for Ryan. And he will be faced with the existential question of where to go forth, of whether to go forth at all. He is walking through the painstaking experience of realizing that the Bible is not what it was taught to be, that it is not what he thought it to be. The script he was handed no longer works for him, and no one should belittle the courage of one who is willing to wade through that existential crisis to see what waits on the other side. The mountain is no longer a mountain, and the river is no longer a river, but the sun has not set on Ryan’s existential journey. Perhaps the most authentic and sincere commission we have to offer those like Ryan is, “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12 KJV)
And if Ryan is willing to wade through this journey without receding into the stilted illusion of certainty and without removing his king from the table and handing it in―if he is able to find a faith community that is willing to sit with him in the dust and ash of his disillusionment, with what he has been taught about God, the Bible, and life, and not merely attempt to console him with hard and fast explanations that mock the gravity of his questions―he may just find this collection of writings, written by humankind, laying claim to God, to be divinely inspired beyond what he previously imagined. Then, God willing, the mountain might once again be a mountain, and the river a river.