Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns

Source of book: I own this.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Peter Enns saved my faith. Literally.

Although I haven’t spelled it out in the pages of this blog, my blogging career has coincided with a series of crises of faith, triggered by a series of events which have made it impossible to continue as I had been. At the heart of these crises (they are separate enough to divide into three categories) has been the Bible: what it is, what it means, and how it is used. 

The events and the results essentially break down into three categories. The first in time was a crisis over Fundamentalism. (I define what I mean by that in this post.) This issue had been brewing literally since I was a kid. I never fully bought into a lot of the Fundie baggage I was raised on, although I sure tried. I protested our family’s involvement with Bill Gothard’s cult. I breathed a big sigh of relief when I moved out because I could at least make my own decisions on cultural/religious matters. Things unfortunately came to a head in my mid-30s when my parents decided to attempt to impose certain Fundie values on my wife. The two results of that were that my wife essentially has no relationship with them, and I had to work through a significant crisis of faith over that. Central to that crisis was the issue of biblical interpretation. Specifically, the problem of imposing ancient views of gender roles on modern times, and use of scripture to enforce certain cultural preferences. My discovery of Enns at that time was a big positive, because he demonstrated a better way of approaching the bible, one that acknowledged that it wasn’t God’s Little Instruction Book™, but a human record of our forebearers’ quest to understand God, and live the godly life in the cultural times and places they inhabited.

The second category was triggered by the election of Il Toupee. Or, more accurately, the overwhelming support of my former religious tribe for a white supremacist and wholehearted embrace of his racist policies. This one was huge, to be honest. I had to ask myself the difficult question of whether I could remain a Christian and still retain my compassion and basic human decency. It was clear that we could not continue to participate in Evangelicalism, and that doing so was a moral hazard to our family. Fortunately, I had enough knowledge of the Bible and the teachings of Christ from my youth to recognize that this was actually completely contrary to the teachings and example of Christ Himself. And that, thus, white Evangelicalism was actually Antichristianity. But here too, Enns was a huge help. In his articles and podcasts (with some amazing guests too) during this time, he pointed out the root issues: proof texting, lack of context, belief that white Americans are the new Israel - justifying ethnic cleansing of non-whites among other evils. 

The third category also has been a long time coming. From my youth, I knew instinctively that certain “truths” held by Evangelicals to be self-evident were actually bullshit on a stick. They did not match experienced reality at all, and thus required a ton of cognitive dissonance to sustain. The first of these was Young Earth Creationism (which, to be fair, my dad didn’t believe, so I grew up with some alternative views.) But there were others, too. The teachings about gender pretty much fell apart whenever I was out of the Fundie bubble and experienced amazing female leaders. The “history” I was taught from a Fundie source turned out to be what might charitably be called “whitewashed” - but we got the same shit from the pulpit too. Oh, and working with victims of domestic violence pretty much made it clear that the theology was a huge problem. And then there was the issue of human sexuality, where reality and doctrine didn’t match up at all, and the serious historical inaccuracies (and propaganda) in the Bible, the theological contradictions, the serious errors when it came to science, math, and medicine...and...well, it was pretty clear that I was either going to have to find a different way to approach faith and scripture, or I was going to have to leave the faith altogether.

Again, it was Enns who eloquently expressed a better way. One that fit reality better. One that tended toward compassion and humility, rather than hate and self-righteousness. It wasn’t just Enns, though. I should definitely give credit to a couple of individuals who sadly passed away this year: Tim Chastain and Rachel Held Evans. Without the example of people like them, who demonstrated a Christianity that looked a lot more like Christ, and a lot less like the KKK, I would have been gone by now. 

All this is a preamble to my discussion of the book itself. I believe my own experiences mirror those of many of Enns’ fans - and we are the group to which he directs his ongoing podcast series, The Bible for Normal People

In essence, the book is a summary of an ongoing discussion that Enns has been having on his blog and podcast - and in his classroom - for the last few decades. None of this is new, of course: as Enns points out, the discussion and argument over the nature and meaning of scripture has been going on literally for thousands of years. It is the modern, Enlightenment-influenced, reactionary Fundamentalist approach to the Bible that pretends that we have all the answers, and that our beliefs are the same as they have always been, pure and unchanging. 


If I were to characterize the way Evangelicals handle scripture, I would say that they at best misuse it, and at worst abuse it, making it into a weapon directed at women, gays, and racial minorities. (And of course, anyone who doesn’t share their exact beliefs.) 

By misuse, I mean that they use the Bible in a way that it doesn’t work, as an instruction book or guide to systematic theology. They try to cram it into a box, where it can speak with a single voice, and give clear answers to difficult questions. And then they claim that their interpretations are the only true, objective, clearly correct interpretations. This is a view of the Bible that cannot withstand even a casual experience of reality, which is one reason so many former Evangelicals have decided to leave the faith altogether. If your faith depends on denialism, it won’t survive contact with reality. 

By abuse, I mean the use of scripture to do evil. To harm people. To justify atrocity. Which is, well, pretty much white Evangelical politics right now. I won’t get into that too much in this post, as I have done that previously.

Enns does a good job of tracing these problems to a fundamental problem:

Evangelicals/Fundamentalists have a theological need for the Bible to be something that it is not. 

Specifically, they need the Bible to be the literally dictated Word of God™, completely infallible, inerrant. It needs to function as an instruction book, telling them what to do in every situation. It needs to be the final word about the nature of God, and how we relate to Him. (And in their view, God is definitely male…) 

As I discovered - by reading the Bible! - the problem is that the Bible is most certainly NOT what Evangelical theology needs it to be. And that is the problem that needs to be faced before we even get to such doctrines as Inerrancy. 

Here is the problem: if the Bible were in fact literally dictated by God, then that God would be in fact morally repugnant, horribly inconsistent, and wrong about science, math, medicine, and history. That God couldn’t even make his mind up about fundamental theological issues. Even such things as whether polygamy was good or bad, whether keeping Torah was important or not, and many other major issues. This is a problem when it comes to treating the Bible as a rulebook: what rules do you pick? As Enns puts it:

Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual - follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.
If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to “defend the Bible” against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved.
That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag - fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from certain curious and probing eyes. 

Once you do look closely at it, you can tell it isn’t what it is claimed to be. But the problem isn’t with the Bible. 

And now for some good news: I believe God wants us to take the Bible seriously, but I don’t believe he wants us to suppress our questions about it.
I don’t believe he wants us to be in constant crisis, in a stress-reduction mode of having to smooth over mass floods, talking animals, or genocide. 
I don’t believe God wants us to live our lives wringing our hands over how to make the Bible behave itself, expending energy 24/7 to make the Bible into something it’s not, and calling that “serving God.”
The problem isn’t the Bible.
The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.

So what happens when the Bible doesn’t behave? Well, one approach is to exert ever-increasing levels of pressure on believers to ignore the issues, and hew to the company line. As Enns tells the story of his own journey, he observes that the “system...apparently couldn’t hold it together without exercising some serious information control.” 

Enns eventually came to the conclusion (as did I), that the Bible is something altogether different from an instruction book or summary of systematic theology. 

When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. That journey was recorded over a thousand-year span of time, by different writers, with different personalities, at different times, under different circumstances, and for different reasons.
In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. But they were also ancient - and that explains why the Bible behaves as it does. 
This kind of Bible - the Bible we have - just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith.
But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.

And this is why we have, just to name a few examples that Enns uses in this book, two contradictory creation accounts, two contradictory histories of the kingdom of Judah and life of King David, and four inconsistent accounts of the genealogy, birth, and life of Jesus Christ. 

Enns also points out something that should be obvious: we humans love stories. We communicate our truth best, not through dry facts, but through narrative. That’s why a God who communicates with humans would be well advised to do so through stories. And the point with stories is not that they are “factual,” but that they are, on a certain level, “true.” For just one example of this, think of Shakespeare’s greatest works. For the most part, they are not “factually true.” Hamlet didn’t exist - or at least wasn’t the Hamlet of Hamlet, speaking those immortal lines. But Hamlet is true in a deep, spiritual and emotional, way. It resonates with our own knowledge and experience of ourselves. Much of the Bible works this way too. A lot of Genesis is myth - and that is fine. It doesn’t cease to be “true” just because it isn’t non-fiction as we understand it. Rather, the stories spoke to the present day of when they were written down in their present form (during the exile or afterward, depending on the book), and can resonate today in a related, but different, way. 

For me, this understanding came early and easily: I read other ancient books like The Iliad and The Odyssey as a teen, and saw striking similarities. Ditto for various mythologies and origin stories. These were both exotic (because the past is, so to speak, a foreign country), but also, deeply true, because humans are humans at a certain level, and our psychology retains links to the past. As Enns puts it, longing for the past brings dysfunction: to be relevant, we need to bring the past forward into the present, finding ways that the experiences of the past can inform and enlighten the present. 

Fretting over how the Bible presents the past, which is so unlike our way, and then smoothing over the differences to make the Bible behave, betrays a deeply held, likely unconscious, false expectation that the Bible should act according to our alien expectations.
Cramming the stories of Israel into a modern mold of history writing not only makes the Bible look like utter nonsense; it also obscures what the Bible models for us about our own spiritual journey.
We are “products” of our past, no doubt, but not forever so, as if our past has written our life script in cement. We choose - as did writers of the Gospels and of the stories of Israel - how to read the past, what we wish to accept now; we adapt and transform the past into who we are and what we wish to become in our relationship with God.
The past informs the present, but it also serves the present. When the present serves the past, we are stuck in nostalgia, longing for the good old days - a sure recipe for emotional and spiritual dysfunction. 

Woo boy, that last line is a doozy. This is (in my view) at the heart of how Evangelicalism turned to evil. They are stuck in nostalgia, and therefore see “godliness” as a return to the past. But recreating the past means in practice returning to the injustices of the past. And right now that means ethnic cleansing of Hispanics, putting African Americans back in their place, and pushing LGBTQ people back in the closet. And putting women back in their place too, it appears. This is also why “Make America Great Again” appeals so much to Evangelicals - and why the racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny inherent in that appeal is a feature, not a bug.

Another fantastic point that Enns makes is that forcing the Bible to be what it is not, so that it becomes what we want it to be is actually idolatry. 

As a person of faith, journeying onward along the Christian path, I want to do my best to take the Bible for what it is. I want to try, as best as I can, to watch how the Bible behaves and then try to understand what sorts of things the Bible is prepared to deliver. I want to align my expectations with the Bible as an ancient text and accept the challenge of faith: letting go of how I think things should be and submitting to God. 
There’s an irony: the passionate defense of the Bible as a “history book” among the more conservative wings of Christianity, despite intentions, isn’t really an act of submission to God; it is making God submit to us.
In its most extreme forms, making God look like us is what the Bible calls idolatry.

I am reminded of another Enns quote (from a blog post) that clarifies this thought:

We honor tradition best when we take seriously the sacred responsibility for shaping it for our time and place rather than preserving it in past iterations out of nostalgia or fear.

There is another chapter in the book that strongly resonated with me. It is entitled “Raising Kids by the Book. FYI, It Doesn’t Work.”

Just that title alone is awesome. As is the chapter. It begins with Enns recounting some conversations with his kids, which change as they grow up. So, from “that soda isn’t good for you” through “just one sip of my wine” to “I recommend the White Russian, but tell the bartender not to be skimpy on the vodka.” There is no one formula for parenting, despite the trillions of dollars spent telling you otherwise. The Ezzos don’t have the formula. Bill Gothard doesn’t have the formula. James Dobson doesn’t have the formula (and he turns out to be nastily racist too.) As children grow and mature, a parent’s approach has to change as well, or the relationship will be damaged. (I have far too much personal experience with this one…) And no two children are the same. An approach that works for one won’t work for another. 

Being “consistent” with your children day after day and year after year, and treating each child and each situation “the same” sounds nice on paper, but in real life it flops more than the Brazilian soccer team in the penalty area. Life mocks our puny attempts to nail down a sure set of parenting rules.

Enns relates this to the Bible as well. 

Likewise, spiritual maturity won’t happen by looking to the Bible as a one-size-fits-all-how-to-grow-up-Christian instructional manual. We can’t “go to the Bible” for ironed-out answers, or even principles, to many - or most - of the specific and important decisions we make every second of the day, on the fly. 
Waiting for the Bible to “tell me what to do” means we’ll either be waiting forever, in silence, paralyzed about making any decisions, or we’ll wind up baptizing our bad decisions with a Bible verse that, let’s face it, has about as much to do with what we’re dealing with at the moment as a Shakespearean sonnet has for guiding roof repair. 

This is so. Very. Much. True. My experience has been less characterized by paralysis than by the “make a terrible decision and baptize it using the Bible” error. Looking back, every single source of religious conflict I experienced derived from this problem. That includes the decision to become involved with Gothard’s cult, and also the decisions during my adulthood that severed relationships. It was parenting and relationship decisions based on misused and abused scripture, rather than on kindness, empathy, or respect. I am reminded of a fantastic quote from T. David Gordon (in The Insufficiency of Scripture):

“Theonomy, therefore, is not merely an error, though it has manifestly been regarded as erroneous by the Reformed tradition.  It is the error du jour, the characteristic error of an unwise generation.  It is the error of a generation that has abandoned the biblically-mandated quest for wisdom on the assumption that the Bible itself contains all that we need to know about life’s various enterprises.  It is the proof-textual, Bible-thumping, literalist, error par excellence.  It is not merely the view of the unwise, but the view of the never-to-be-wise, because it is the view of those who wrongly believe that scripture sufficiently governs this arena, and who, for this reason, will never discover in the natural constitution of the human nature or the particular circumstances of given peoples what must be discovered to govern well and wisely.”

Enns fleshes this out a bit in his chapter on Proverbs. Which is a great book of the Bible. But it is not a book of answers. Rather, it is a book of wisdom, containing obvious contradictions (or paradoxes), which admonishes the reader to seek wisdom. 

Proverbs doesn’t tell its readers what to do, because Proverbs teaches wisdom.
Wisdom isn’t about finding a quick answer key to life - like turning to the index, finding your problem, and turning to the right page so it all works out. Wisdom is about learning how to work through the unpredictable, uncontrollable messiness of life so you can figure out on your own in real time.

This relates back to that T. David Gordon quote. Learning wisdom isn’t learning formulae or reading the Bible more literally. It is learning to make good decisions in the circumstances you find yourself. And that takes practice. And also empathy and compassion, which are the two things that have most been beaten out of white Evangelicals by decades of weaponizing scripture. But a formula is SO attractive! It eliminates the need to think. It creates a false promise of a guarantee. But it doesn’t work, and just leaves a trail of destruction behind as increasingly unwise decisions are made to protect the formula. 

The book itself is divided into sections representing specific problems that end up being flash points about the Bible. Thus, it starts with the one which the New Atheists have harped on constantly: the Canaanite Genocide and what it says about the character of God. It then moves on to the problems of history (lots of stuff in the early pages of the Bible didn’t actually happen), then the theological inconsistancies and other contradictions. It also spends a great deal of time on Jesus and Paul, who, shall we say, didn’t interpret the Bible AT ALL like Evangelicals do. Rather, they worked in the Jewish interpretive tradition, and made creative leaps to completely new understandings of the text. This too was something that bothered me about the Bible. Jesus and Paul took things out of context all the time - every bit as egregiously as Fundies. The difference was the conclusions, clearly. 

Again, this difference boils down to the view of what scripture is. If scripture is an instruction book, then we can - and maybe should - use it as a weapon against those who hold different beliefs. If scripture is something else, then maybe it isn’t a weapon. Enns discusses this in his final chapter. 

The Bible is not, never has been, and never will be the center of the Christian faith. Even though the Bible (at least in some form) has been ever present since the beginning of Christianity, it’s not the central focus of the Christian faith. That position belongs to God, specifically, what God has done in and through Jesus. The Bible is the church’s nonnegotiable partner, but it is not God’s final word: Jesus is.

The Bible leads us to Jesus. Not the other way around. Enns also addresses the misuse of the passage in Hebrews which refers to the word of God as a sword. 

The Bible isn’t a lightsaber for lopping off the heads of people we disagree with. For one thing, “word of God” here in Hebrews doesn’t mean “the Bible” but God speaking in fresh ways by what he was doing through Jesus. If you look just before this passage, the author of Hebrews goes through a lengthy creative interpretation of Psalm 95, giving it new meaning in light of the new thing God is doing among them centered on Jesus. 
More important, the word of God as a two-edged sword is supposed to be turned inward, piercing us, not everyone around us. You don’t wield the sword. God does. God doesn’t call his people to do that, and thinking that he does is a sign of our own insecurities.
The Bible is not a weapon, a sword to be wielded against modern-day Canaanites or Babylonians. It is a book where we meet God. It brings hope, encouragement, knowledge, and deep truth for those willing to risk, and to “die” to themselves, as Jesus puts it, to accept the challenge of scripture, knowing they will be undone in the process. 

And this leads to a final thought. Enns notes that the deconstruction of theonomic and literalist views often leads to conflict with one’s religious community. He, after all, lost his job at an Evangelical university over his views. So many of his words in this passage could be my story. 

All this to say, if your present community sees your spiritual journey as a problem because you are wandering off their beach blanket, it may be time to find another community. One should never do that impulsively. But if after a time you are sensing that you do not belong, that you are a problem to be corrected rather than a valued member of the community, maybe God is calling you elsewhere and to find for yourself that “they” aren’t so bad after all. 
That decision is very personal (sometimes involving whole families) and can take some courage to make, but it is worth the risk. One thing is certain: if you stay where you are without any change at all, the pressure to either conform on keep quiet will work in you like a slow-acting poison. 
And if you go too far down that road, it can be a tough haul coming back from bitterness and resentment - especially for children. 

Just wow. This was absolutely the case for me with Evangelicalism in general, and my longtime church in particular. 

Despite devoting the first 40 years of my life to the church, and 18 to a particular church - and I wasn’t just a pew-sitter, I was heavily involved in serving in music and other jobs - it is clear in retrospect that I NEVER was a valued member of the community. I was a resource to be exploited. I was welcome as long as I gave freely of my time and passion - and kept my mouth fucking shut. As soon as I pushed back against the toxic politics or damaging teachings, well, I was a problem to be solved. And eventually evicted. I never really mattered. Not really. I was thrown under the bus as soon as I stopped parroting the party line.

And people wonder why I haven’t returned to church. 

Sadly, Enns is right about the last bit too. I believe he has a child who has struggled a lot over the years, and that the rejection by the church was a factor. On the one hand, I am so glad that we got out when we did. Subsequent events have shown that staying would have caused significant trauma for the kids (and one in particular, for reasons.) But leaving was traumatic for them too. It was better to leave, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have been best had we never taken them to church. (Just like, looking back on my own traumatic church experiences, if I might not have been a mentally healthier person had I left Evangelicalism before having kids. It’s hard to know. But, of course, that intersects with my family experience, and the toxic effects of religion over generations. It’s...messy at best.) 

So I find myself here, where I am. I still am a Christian (but definitely NOT an Evangelical.) I still am drawn to Christ, and the revolutionary teachings he gave us. And I am inspired by the hope of a more positive true Christianity

Peter Enns has been a huge part of that journey for me, giving me permission (so to speak) to reject a literalist and theonomic approach to our sacred book. Ironically perhaps, it was when I felt free to see the Bible as literature, poetry, experience, a journey, and as a source of wisdom, not rules, that I found my love for the book re-kindled. While there are still spots that are associated with Gothard or Fundamentalism that give me a bit of PTSD, I find that I am able to read scripture again - and love it. 

The Bible Tells Me So is a good entry point to Enns’ ideas. There wasn’t that much in there that I hadn’t heard or read elsewhere - I have, after all, been following his podcast during lunch at work for the past two and a half years. And I have read pretty nearly every blog post he has written. But the book is concise, and has a number of pithy lines, as you can tell. Enns writes with wit and self-deprecating humor, which helps lighten the topic a bit - a good thing for those of us recovering from religious trauma. More than anything else, Enns provides an alternative approach to scripture, one which doesn’t run away from reality, seek to recreate the injustices of the past, or paper over the genuine issues the Bible raises. 


Several things I want to recommend in connection with this book:

First, the blog and podcast that Enns (and Jared Byas - can’t forget his excellent contributions) runs. 

Second, Professor Christine Hayes of Yale has a video course on the Old Testament that is an order of magnitude more helpful than any sermon I have ever heard. I really wish I had seen this as a teen - it might have saved a lot of struggle. 
Third is Mark Noll’s outstanding book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It helped clarify that I wasn’t imagining things, that Evangelicalism really was deeply anti-intellectual, expecting dogma to trump reality, and making catastrophically bad decisions as a result.

1 comment:

  1. I was an avid reader of various mythologies (especially Greek) when I was very young, so my experience with the Bible was colored by that. It occurred to me from a young age that the Bible, like the various stories of mythology, were mostly meant to be taken as metaphorical; events didn't happen exactly as the writing said, but specific details aren't important because the important thing is the moral and logical understanding behind the stories. And that becomes absolutely obvious when you learn about the history of how the Bible came to be written down in the first place (specifically the New Testament), where the tales of Paul came FIRST, and the Gospels written down years later, and centuries after the events had happened. Considering the human penchant for exaggeration, I guarantee that a story handed down for at least 400 years is going to come out of the end VERY different from when it started...