by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole
Thirty years ago, I sat in a high school Algebra class, only vaguely understanding about the concepts our dedicated teacher was trying to impress upon us. As he asked us question after question only to be met by blank stares, his frustration level rose. Holding his copy of Using Advanced Algebra above his head, he ranted, “Have any of you ever actually read this book?!?!”
Silence followed this uncharacteristic outburst, till one class clown broke the stillness by saying, “No sir, I’m waiting for the movie.”
In the years since I’ve been a teacher myself (though never of Algebra!) and have occasionally wanted to ask a class the same question. But the urge to stand up waving a book over my head and shouting, “Has anyone here ever actually read this book?!?!” is never stronger than when I sit in adult Sabbath School class or prayer meeting and hear people talk about the Bible.
People say things like, “The Bible makes it all so clear and simple!” Or, “I don’t understand how anyone can fail to understand [insert doctrine here] – it’s all laid out so clearly in the Bible.”
Anytime anyone applies the word “clear” to the Bible I fight down the urge to jump up on a pew waving the Bible above my head, replaying my Math teacher’s scene from Algebra class. Have you really sat down and read the Book?
At a tiny Adventist church I used to visit, there was a very elderly man who loved the Bible. In the midst of virtually any Sabbath School discussion, no matter the issue, this old man would interject, in his dry cracked voice and a Newfoundland accent almost unintelligible to outsiders:
What says the Bible, the blessed, blessed Bible?
What says the Bible to me?
Teachings of men oft may mislead,
What says the Bible to me?
For this old man, that simple ditty answered every question. What says the Bible? Ignore the confusing, cluttered teachings of “men,” and go straight to God’s Word, the Bible.
I’m not knocking that simple faith. I even envy it, I think. If anyone reads and engages with the Bible and truly finds it simple and clear, I don’t want to challenge that faith. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But for me, it often is broke. I read the Bible and I see nothing simple or clear. I open its pages to find out what the blessed, blessed Bible says to me, and I emerge with more questions than answers. And I suspect that the people who say the Bible is simple and clear are often carefully selecting which bits to read, and reading it through filters that tell them how to interpret it.
I’ve done it myself, for many years. I’ve read the Bible through filters of Adventist teaching that tell me how to find the right proof texts for our doctrines, and how to explain away texts that don’t fit. I’ve selected Bible readings for myself that focus on the Gospels and ignore the messy bloodshed of the Old Testament, grasping at theories that explain away the awkward scenes.
Last spring, for the first time since I was a teenager, I decided to read through the whole Bible – partly because I had a new smartphone and, like everything else, “there’s an app for that.” I’m nearing the end of my Bible-in-a-year reading program, and I can honestly say it’s troubled my faith more than any other book I’ve ever read. I’ve read the works of atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the works of liberal Biblical scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Nothing has ever posed as much of a challenge to my faith as simply sitting down and reading the whole Bible.
There’s the doctrinal challenge, for one. Beloved proof texts, read in context, don’t always say what I thought they said. Contrary-minded texts are harder to ignore. And it’s jarring to stumble across long passages of prophecy about which Adventist commentators can’t say much more than, “Well, we don’t really know what this is talking about,” while at the same time they insist that everything depends on having an absolutely correct interpretation of the very next chapter.
Mostly, it’s my views on Biblical inspiration and on the character of God that have taken a beating. Those two things are almost starting to appear as an either/or. Either the Bible is inspired and telling the truth about God, or God is loving and worthy of worship. Many days I feel like it can’t be both, because the God revealed in much of the Bible is, frankly, not anyone I would want to worship.
I realize it’s more nuanced than that. But the nuances are easier to appreciate when you view the Bible from a distance. It’s harder when you’re right there on the ground amidst the nitty and the gritty, when the Hebrews worship the golden calf and Moses tells the faithful ones to go with a sword and kill their neighbors and brothers, sparing no-one. When Uzzah touches the Ark, meaning to steady it, and gets zapped for his efforts. When Elisha calls on God to send in the bears and maul forty-two youths whose heinous crime was making fun of a prophet’s bald head. (Makes me wonder what I’d get under that system for all the hours I spent with my friends in church, quietly mocking the conference president with the horrific comb-over who sat two seats in front of us). And when King Jehu gets presented with a gift of seventy human heads in the baskets, we are told that “The LORD has done what he announced through his servant Elijah” (2 Kings 10:10, NIV).
This God who kills arbitrarily without giving people time to repent or reconsider, who encourages people to kill each other and applauds when they do so – I don’t recognize Him my Sabbath School flannel graph. I don’t recognize him from the Jesus of the gospels, who was certainly stern at times but definitely nixed the calling-down-fire-on-your-opponents style of evangelism (Luke 9:54-55).
This God makes no sense to me, and I not only don’t love him, I don’t want to love him.
But in a serious attempt to read the Bible, he can’t be avoided.
I get that the ancient world was a bloody and violent place, and that none of the violence recorded in the Bible was out of place for the world in which these stories took place. Such violent power struggles were common for many centuries afterwards, and still are in much of the world today. I actually like stories of violence and bloodshed, of kings battling it out for thrones in ancient or imagined worlds. I read George R. R. Martin for fun.
It’s a big leap, though, from reading about and accepting human foibles in human fables, to believing that those same acts were approved, ordered, and in some cases carried out by a God whom I’m supposed to believe loves and values all His creatures. God is brutal, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Or else, Biblical inspiration means something quite different from what I’ve been told it means.
None of these stories is new to me. I already knew my Bible well before embarking on this experiment. I’ve heard every disturbing tale of Biblical bloodshed discussed, analyzed, sometimes preached on, always explained in a soothing way that makes it fit with what we presume God’s character to be. It’s the cumulative effect of all those stories one after another that makes the soothing explanation less convincing.
Only a month and a few minor prophets left to go in my Bible reading year, and I have no answers. I have more questions than when I started.
I don’t want the Bible to be easy. I’d have fewer problems with a sacred Book that was harmonious and agreed with all my preconceptions, but I’d be suspicious of it. If the Bible is in any way a revelation of God’s self, then it ought to be hard for me to understand.
I read Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. He quotes a Jewish professor of his who told him: “For Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved. For Christians, it is a message to be proclaimed.”
For Adventists, definitely, the Bible is a message to be proclaimed. A simple, clear, unified message that, like those “Magic Eye” pictures that were popular in the 90s, rises out of the chaotic background if you stare long enough and especially if someone tells you what to look for.
For the old man in that church I used to visit, the Bible is, simply, The Answer. The end of all human-driven discussion. The Solution.
For me, right now, the Bible is more The Problem than The Solution, and if that means I’ll have to adopt a more rabbinic approach to deal with it, so be it. Maybe it just means I’ll keep on reading and wrestling and struggling with it, asking the hard questions it raises even if answers aren’t forthcoming.
I’m in my mid-forties now, presumably about half-way through a life of exposure to the Bible. If I make it to my eighties, I’m pretty certain I won’t be the sweet little old lady inserting “What says the Bible, the blessed, blessed Bible?” into every discussion.
But I hope I’ll still be there, engaging in the discussion, reading the Bible, struggling with it. It will never be clear or simple to me until Jesus appears to explain it personally (I expect him to book out some time to do that for me) but it will continue being the most important book in my life: an inspiration, a problem, a thorn in my side.
Which, after all, is more than I can say for Using Advanced Algebra.