Over-reading The Bible

Whenever I criticize certain Christian practices I always get some blowback and it’s often more severe than the response from Atheists when they are my target.  What I have been thinking about is — I believe — common to church-led Bible studies and pastors who preach expositorily.  It is the practice of meticulous consideration and study of a book of the Bible a few verses at a time; detailed word-studies and dozens of cross-reference comparisons.  These sermon series and Bible studies can take up to a year or more to get through just a single book of the Bible.  Before delving into my thoughts I think it is necessary to mention that I am not finding fault with the zeal for a depth of theological knowledge.  Nor am I suggesting that careful study of the Bible isn’t necessary or beneficial.  I just question whether this was the intended method of trying to understand the Biblical documents or are we opening ourselves up to seeing things which aren’t there?

The books of the Old Testament, save for the Psalms and Proverbs, were narrative histories of the ancient Israelites.  And the New Testament with the exception of Revelation, is a collection of letters to local Christian churches and biographies of Jesus.  Did the authors of these works intend their works to be so minutely scrutinized?  I don’t think they did.  The letters of Paul, for example, were likely read in a single sitting, possibly two and his words taken at face value and they weren’t written with chapter and verse numbers (See: Fortune Cookie Bible).

My position is that the vast majority of the Bible is not difficult to understand and pretty straight-forward.  I don’t think reducing the text to sound-bite sized portions is effective in discovering the author’s intent.  Did Paul intend his readers in Corinth to use his letters to Galatia and Ephesus to understand his message to them?  I just don’t think so.  Did he write his epistles with the expectation each word and sentence would be micro-analyzed?  I seriously doubt it.  I suggest that if you need to justify the meaning of one text only by linking it to others, you might be straining.

Lastly, these kinds of sermons and Bible studies which take months or years to complete make themselves highly prone to over-interpretation.  Yes, I do think it’s possible to look too deeply into a passage whereby getting the wrong, or even opposite meaning of the text.  In other words, by reducing an overall passage — which could reasonably considered a few paragraphs on the short side, to an entire chapter on the safe side — to bite-sized bits; then analyze the word order; then the scope of word-definitions; then compare the same words in multiple other books in the Bible, you’re reading beyond the intended fashion.

Epistles were just that: single correspondence to particular Christian churches for particular purposes.  The Gospels were written accounts of the life of Jesus spanning His ministry, execution, and resurrection.  There is much to learn theologically from the Bible, there’s no question about that.  But when we strain at the text and micro-analyze it in a way which likely wasn’t intended, we may find some theology which isn’t really there.  My opinion is that expository sermons and Bible studies ought to be carried out in a similar fashion as the original recipients of the documents: as a single body of work with its meaning found usually on its surface. It doesn’t need to be deciphered.

Comments

  1. I like it.
    There are two obvious conclusions to be drawn from a plain-text reading of the Bible.
    The first is that the Bible doesn’t cover every single aspect of life, especially in the modern context. It’s just unrealistic (and dangerous) to try to extrapolate rules for daily living from ancient writings.
    The second is that it’s necessary to go outside the Bible to learn about the world. Whether through various areas of social, medical, and physical sciences or philosophical ideas, extra-Biblical sources and methods are essential to find truth.
    The Bible says so is an interesting anecdote but can’t be relied upon for ultimate truth. It’s neither big enough nor originally intended to provide a detailed and comprehensive explanation of history, the world, or ethics.

    • I agree it doesn’t cover every ethical situation specifically, but I would argue that for every ethical position, the bible has a principle covering it. So in this respect it is sufficient for morality.

      As for medicine, geography, history, it isn’t the bibles intention to exhaustively cover these.

  2. FYI, a picture of a bloody rock was making the rounds referencing Exodus 4:25:
    Alternatively translated as:
    But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched [Moses’] feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said.
    Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.”

    The interesting point is “naga regel” in Hebrew. Naga might be cast, touched, or rubbed. Regel might be feet or genitals. The atheists opined that the proper translation might be “rubbed it on his genitals”. Who’s to say?
    I did admonish them for having chosen the most damning possible translation of many options, especially when it’s a positively ghoulish story even in the most charitable of translations.

  3. I agree with your sentiments here, John. Over analyzing the Bible has led to some very curious beliefs that a plain reading wouldn’t provoke. Look at how certain sexual practices are believed to be allowed these days by certain segments of the church.

    On the other hand, other practices require a bit more study to find the common accusations leveled against Scripture (as to what it condones, sanctions or mandates) are untrue. I recently read a piece regarding slavery that, could I ever find it (I really need to save and file some of this stuff), would show how the Bible in no way mandates or condones slavery.

    @Jason,

    “It’s just unrealistic (and dangerous) to try to extrapolate rules for daily living from ancient writings.”

    It depends on which ancient writings one is referencing. There is a tendency to believe that what we know now changes things as regards human nature. This is not the case. I don’t see anything in Scripture that suggests we are in any way different in nature from the people of the OT, other than our knowledge and the toys we have. But we still struggle with the same temptations. Where we are different is in having more at hand to justify our indulgence in those temptation. Following the teachings of Scripture would result in a more virtuous people that does not seek to justify acting on every urge.

  4. I agree that people often dig, compare and analyze far more from ancient texts than actually exist just so they can support their favorite opinions.

    But I don’t agree that:

    …the vast majority of the Bible is not difficult to understand and pretty straight-forward.

    This is a common position of many protestants — especially those who have not really read much of the Bible. [So I was surprised to hear it from John who is very well read, I am sure.] Many Catholics, on the other hand buy the line that the Bible is too hard to understand without the help of Priests to whom they trust the selections, readings and interpretations through the wisdom of the church.

    Over the years I have found that any text is very difficult to meaningfully understand without background in the historical period of the text, the genre of the text, the allusions of the text, the intended purpose and audience of the text and so much more. Jumping between languages is another huge obstacle to deep understanding because of a reliance on someone’s translation. And this is obviously hugely compounded in ancient texts.

    Instead, many who read the Bible without any significant background in the above items, tend to read in terms of their own time, own issues, and their own preferred interpretations.

    So, the pitfalls lie on both sides — (1)pretending to reveal “real” understand with complicated analysis [agreeing with the OP] and thinking a text is “straight-forward” when the reader is not the intended audience (of a different time, place and situation) and little idea of all the historical and philosophical issues addressed — yet alone all the controversies. [perhaps disagreeing with the OP]

  5. John,
    I agree with you somewhat – but I certainly think that there is a place for in-depth study. For one, when you say that you don’t need to read Ephesians to understand Galatians, I’m not sure that is entirely correct. In order to really gain an understanding of what Paul means by particular phrases or particular words, I suspect it would be very helpful to see how he uses those same phrases or same words in other books. Words always have multiple meanings, especially as the words are translated – so cross checking things in various books seems like a pretty good idea to me. The idea Paul was trying to convey may have been perfectly clear in a quick reading by the original readers – but we probably need a bit more study before getting the same message.

    Also, I find it hard to believe that Romans was written in one or two sittings. Some of the others books, sure. The gospels and Acts also were probably written over a significant period of time, given the level of attention to detail.

    Also, as I’ve studied some of the gospels, it is interesting that there are multiple layers of meanings. A quick reading probably would miss this. For instance, I was always confused by the story in Mark 8 about the blind man who was “partially” healed, and then later fully healed. Did Jesus screw up? Then, when I was in a Bible study of Mark recently the teacher pointed out that Jesus had just fed 5000. Then, a chapter later, he wanted to feed 4000 and his disciples seemed to have no clue how to feed them. (they obviously hadn’t gotten the message yet) Vrs 21 says “Do you still not understand?” THEN comes the “partial” healing of the blind man: Mark (or Jesus) was illustrating that the disciples only partially understood who Jesus was. They weren’t quite getting the message. Then, only a few verses later is Peter’s confession of Christ. There was quite a significance to the order of the events. There’s a lot of other examples of this throughout the gospels.

    • Tumeyn

      Do you think that Paul wrote his epistles to the different churches but expected them to be taken as a collective work? I do think it is true that if there is something in one letter that isn’t entirely clear to the present day reader that it might be cleared up in another. But as far as intention, I do not believe the Bible was written with the intent that it was a spider’s web of theology which requires a scavenger hunt-like decoding — and I think that’s how many Christians read it.

      Sabio

      Do you have some examples of difficult to understand passages (except for Revelation, since admittedly that particular book is practically a prophetic cipher)?

  6. @ John,
    Really? I didn’t think you’d disagree.
    So for one NT example, without understanding “gnosticism” to some degree, it would be hard to understand why the author of John put his spin on his story of Jesus.

  7. John, do you agree that knowing about gnosticism helps immensely in understanding John?

    You know what, now that I think about it, my example is probably a bad example since you think John was just telling the truth and was not spinning his story merely to fight a Christian sect of his time. You probably see all the gospels as telling essentially the same story.

    So you probably wouldn’t want to agree that such knowledge is as helpful as I would. So we’d get down to arguing percentages which I have not desire to do.

    I guess I’ll have to come back with more example if I find time or inclination. You’re sound-bite, simple exaggerations aren’t too inviting for real dialog — it just sounds like you want to quibble.

    • You were the one who initially said there are many parts of the bible that are difficult to understand, Then when pressed for an example you offered the entire book of John. I’m not trying to quibble, just trying to narrow down your vague generalizations is all.

  8. As I thought, you wish to quibble over the word “many”. I want to say, give anyone a Bible and have them read it cover to cover without further instruction in Jewish history, some comparative religion, some linguistic knowledge, some Roman history and such and you will get a person who puts it down and gives up or walks away understanding very little of what they read.

    I know very few Christians who would disagree with this.
    I will not indulge you in distracting, argumentative, percent quibbling or verse counting.

    The Bible ain’t magic — it won’t speak to a reader’s heart and the holy spirit won’t open their eyes to magically see the truth like Joseph Smith did or many others like him. To deeply understand ancient texts, some background is incredibly helpful.

  9. Sabio writes: “The Bible ain’t magic — it won’t speak to a reader’s heart and the holy spirit won’t open their eyes to magically see the truth…”

    Actually, I disagree with you completely. Christians largely believe (and experience) just the opposite. We believe that the Bible is the WORD OF GOD – not just some academically interesting historical document. Certainly there is great historical information and great knowledge that can be gained by studying it – but it that is all you do, then you miss the point.

    In case you didn’t get the message, most Christians don’t claim to have a audibly communicate with God. We pray. How does God answer? A variety of ways, I suppose. But one primary way is through scripture. I’ll give you an example. Just this morning I was rather discouraged about my faith. (arguing with atheists has a way of making me second-guess nearly everything that I believe!) I was thinking back about how my family first came to Christianity. It was largely through my grandfather. He was an atheist/agnostic but he was interested in Christianity because his wife (my grandmother) had started attending a church. He refused to go, but he did begin reading the Bible a bit. He came across a verse in Luke when Mary came to the tomb and the angle said “Why to you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”. This verse changed his life.
    Anyway, back to my story: I was doubting my faith. I was asking God “Is it all true? Why don’t you show yourself?” I decided to spend a few minutes reading the Bible. I just opened up to where my church bulletin happened to be stuck from last Sunday. Guess what verse I immediately came across? Luke 24 – the chapter that my caused my grandfather to believe and trust God. (“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”) It was as if God were saying to me “Trust me – I’m alive. I’m not dead, I really do have a plan.”

    I’m sure you can disregard this story as just a coincidence. But I’ve had too many of these “coincidences” to just write them off. I’ve really grown to believe over the years that the Bible really is one major vehicle by which God communicates with mankind. It *IS* a “magical” book, in that sense. I most certainly believe that the Holy Spirit DOES us the Bible to open up our eyes to the truth when we sincerely read it with an open heart and open mind.

  10. Sabio,

    Based on your last comment, you don’t give people much credit and it seems unlikely you know many Christians. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover for my own edification on more than one occasion. There is very little that is difficult to understand. They idea that one needs some doctorate in theological studies to decipher the intention of most of Scripture is no more than a weak attempt to inject doubt in the minds of any who try to read it on their own, or an attempt to make Scripture appear to be indecipherable. Are there nuances that might lend some insights to various passages? Of course. But to say the lack of such renders the rest impregnable is an incredible stretch. Indeed, to have never even heard of the term “gnosticism” would make no difference to understanding John’s Gospels or Epistles, unless you can provide some example to suggest otherwise.

  11. @ tumeyn,
    Again, you comments are refreshingly honest, open and personal. You don’t exaggerate my statements but actually seem to understand what I am saying.

    Indeed, I know many Christians believe the Bible is “magic” — that is why I wrote that. I wanted to bring the unspoken out front. You see, it has many difficult aspects to understand without some historical, cultural, linguistic or religious information. Christians would probably admit that about many ancient Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist texts — or should. But many Protestants believe the Bible is enough. After all, it is magic. Though not all Christians believe this–many liberal Christians don’t view the scripture as “magic”, though they view them as valuable.

    But here is a problem to consider:

    Having lived in several countries, I have heard stories of how the scriptures have opened many people’s hearts. But these were with Buddhists’, Hindus’, and Muslims’ scripture. The phenomena you describe happens, unsurprisingly, across many religions. And they all have touching, life-transforming conversion stories. So now the task is to explain how this happens in all these other faiths, with other books that apparently don’t have the right god and certainly don’t have his ‘magic’ Word.

    Good thing you and your Grandfather did not open to Leviticus. Or that the Hindu did not open to a repetitive chant or the Muslim to a boring diatribe. Open the Bible to just the right spot is the same technique used by Taoists when they read the I-Ching. This sort of magical thinking is common among people. (see my post on The I-Ching if you are interested.)

    So are they all just deceived or tricked by Satan and though you are doing the exact same sort of thing, you got real magic on your side? Really?

    • Sabio

      Please excuse me, but I have serious doubts you know Christians who believe the Bible is magic. I do however believe you know Christians who you characterize their opinion of the bible as magic though.

      But I am still waiting for an example of a difficult passage, or have you abandoned your accusation that many passages are difficult? I only harp on this because of your persistance with someone who has made a statement you find dubious, or feel they are avoiding your calling them out. So can I have an example or two of difficult passages please? I believe this is the third or fourth time I have asked you to substantiate your claim.

  12. Sabio, I can’t speak about other people’s experiences. I can only answer to my own experiences. I’m telling you that I believe that God communicates with me in a variety of ways, including through the Bible. If the relationship were a 1-way street (people talking to God and hearing no response), then I think that the Christian faith would have died out long ago. But, I can’t speak for other Christians, and I certainly can’t speak for people from other faiths and somehow “evaluate” their experiences.

    The core question you are asking is about the diversity of beliefs: If God is real and He wants himself to be discovered then surely he would have made himself understood in a way where people would be more “aligned” on our fundamental beliefs, right?

    That’s certainly a question I struggle with and that I don’t have a good answer for. But I don’t think that it is a good reason to reject faith altogether. Not all Christians will agree with me on this (in fact, most would probably disagree), but I believe that we are held responsible only in-so-far as the truth is revealed to us. Each of us are responsible to respond to the message of truth that God has put in front of us. For some, only a small amount of truth has been revealed. For some, a great deal of truth has been revealed. Remember the verse “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

    • Tumeyn and Sabio

      The answer isn’t a secret. Sin, rebellion, and pride. As creatures with a degree of freedom, we don’t always use that freedom to do the right things. For example, a friend of mine and I were driving from my house once going to one of our favorite bar/restaraunts and he was going (in my opinion) the wrong way. I asked why he chose this route and he answered that it was shorter. Well, me being stubborn (and knowing otherwise) showed him it was longer both in mileage and time than our usual route. But even after seeing it for himself still called the longer way the short way.

      Likewise we see times in the OT and NT where God himself intervened and made himself known through miraculous events yet there were still some who rejected. Some people no matter their demand for proof will never believe.

  13. @ John Barron,
    You are excused ! :-)
    Of course it depends on how we define “Magic”. Tumeyn understood my use and chose not to nitpick as you classically do.

    You know, John, it is typically my role on your threads to tell you how you continually ignore comments. Ignoring is your MO. I have told you why I was probably not going into your game. You, like Marshall, have exaggerated my point. If you want to continue this dialogue, you must answer my question below.

    Do you agree that:

    If you have a someone read the Bible cover to cover who has no knowledge of Jewish history, some comparative religion, some linguistic knowledge, some Roman history and some ancient cultural stuff and that person will probably not understanding much of what they read.

    If you can say “I agree” to that, we partial agree. Then we have to decide if we want to pursue percentages. We can argue about “much”, “majority”, “some” and all that. But I have met many Christians who say they really can’t understand much of the Bible — especially the OT and so they don’t really bother with those parts. And I often see them misunderstanding some of the NT stuff that they read. After all, we have Christian sects that demand Saturday should be kept holy, Alcohol is forbidden, Women should keep their hair covered, Belief can be proved by handling deadly snakes, They can predict Jesus’ coming, Instruments should not be used in services.

    I think all those, with some further understanding, could be improved.

    So I have mentioned OT confusions and NT confusions where more than just reading the text in front of you is helpful.

    So, answer the question above and we will see if we can make progress. Or don’t.

    • Sabio

      Speaking only for myself, the first time I read the Bible I read it from Gen to Rev straight through without having been a church goer or a religious person. I didnt have much problem understanding it. The questions I had were eventually answered if I kept reading, or didn’t isolate a particular passage but rather read a large swath of verses surrounding it. So maybe it’s just me, but people who have the problems you describe are victims of their own ideology.

      But I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in my request. You objected to my post by saying many passages in the bible are difficult to understand without understanding other things like language, history, other religions. I am asking yoiu for some substantiation of your objection. I am asking you to clarify through examples of the claim you made. I am not saying there are no difficulties, my point was that the vast majority of the Bible wasn’t difficult. In fact anything which is essential to know is crystal clear.

      So will you please provide an example or two of difficult passages?

  14. @ tumyn,
    You may not be able to speak for other people’s experiences, but you should not ignore them when theorizing about what is happening in your own head. Judging reality on only your own experience is not a wise approach when there is so much more data to be had.

    Buddhism, Islam, Shintoism, Hinduism and many more did not “die long ago” due to attrition because they have not God returning their voice. So you must either believe it has continued because Satan is talking to them, or they are talking to themselves. And then you must assume you are different and special compared to them, or bury your head in the sand and ignore all that.

    I am not asking why your god did not make himself known to everyone the way he is know to you. I am pointing out that millions of non-Christians think like you. They just don’t put the same theological coating over their mental activities.

    As for salvation for nonbelievers: Yes, Christians vary hugely on what they think happens to nonbelievers. Many agree with you, and many don’t. But that is not what I am discussing. I suggesting that you look at the shared mental phenomena of people of other faiths and see what it means to you.

    Again, I must say, it is good chatting with you. Refreshing indeed.

  15. @ John Barron,

    Wow, this is like Church. It is Sunday morning. Are you guys attending? This is probably as close as I will get today to church. In 20 minutes my son and I will go on a bike ride for our communion with the divine.

    We have stories in other scriptures and hundreds of oral traditions of supposed “miraculous events” yet you still reject them. “Some people no matter their demand for proof will never believe.” Indeed, and that is your position towards the miracles of others.

    Funny, ain’t it?

    Thanx for my Sunday sermon, though. Now we are off to ride. Enjoy dressing up in hot clothes, the hard pews, the old hymns and be sure to put your 10% in the collection plate. Oh yeah, and enjoy communing with your god.

    • As a matter of fact it isnt my position toward other miracle claims. But you as well as nearly every other Atheist I talk to think it is. Funny ain’t it?

      Any way I think it is safe to assume you made an over generalization you are not willing to defend or backstep from. Either you can’t think of any difficult passages because you are not as familiar with the Bible as you claim to be, so none come to mind and your quick flip to a page attempt didn’t yield anything for you. Or you didn’t expect to be challenged on this point and don’t want to be confronted with the fact that not as many difficult verses exist as you wish there were.

      Regardless, it’s obvious you overstepped yourself on this one.

  16. Indeed. Sabio assumes a position of victory while refusing to engage. What’s more, he assumes he has authority to dictate what is discussed and how.

    The issue of miracles of other religions has been covered before, I believe, and our rejection of them is based on the same evidence that justifies our faith in Christianity and the lack of same for other beliefs. Naturally we would reject the stories of other faiths that are not corroborated by some outside sources. An example is that we acknowledge that Muhammed lived, because their is indeed proof of it. There is none that supports his claims of revelation, so we do not acknowledge that.

    How people of other faiths can make the same claims regarding being touched by their holy books is really irrelevant. We can speculate in many ways about that, but so what? Tumeyn speaks of the Bible. Rather than believing a point has been made by suggesting similarities in other faith traditions, note that it happens in all of them. The question then is why and what difference there is between them, not that its occurrence elsewhere somehow negates that it happens to Christians.

    Sabio also presents the tired angle of the variations within the Christian denominations as some kind of evidence that Scripture cannot be understood. Most differences are matters of polity or preference of observance. Few differences have to do with any essentials that would suggest confusion between the sects. If one wishes to worship on Saturday, let them. That is there choice based on their preference for how they wish to worship more than anything taken as a mandate, the rejection of which puts their salvation in jeopardy. That is to say, I’m not aware of too many denominations that insist how they worship is an absolute.

    But again, Sabio runs from his own fight, claiming WE (or John, since he finds me difficult) nitpick his words. If that’s all it is, then clarify your meaning without the tail-between-the-legs retreat from the original statement. Of what are you afraid?

    Both John and myself have stated we’ve done cover-to-cover readings of the entire Bible and found it is easy to understand, with only a few areas that required deeper investigation. For myself, such investigations were not necessary to know the essentials and most of the less essential issues. The “tricky” parts need not have been resolved at all, for that matter, to still come away with a solid understanding of the Message revealed within.

    But I, too, have known many who do not take the time to read and understand the entire Bible. It has far less to do with it being difficult to understand than it does with the individual’s resolve to do it. It ain’t “Harry Potter”. It does not read like the average dime novel. And some parts are simply tedious. Most are too impatient to put in the time. Others might be afraid of not understanding so they don’t risk it. But the Bible isn’t an Enigma code.

  17. Ah, back after a great day of biking and swimming with my family. And just dying to get back together with you warm, agape-filled Christian boys.

    @ John:
    You nailed it right in this quote: “Speaking only for myself” and indeed that is what you did when you said:

    the vast majority of the Bible is not difficult to understand and pretty straight-forward.

    For I know you have not data to back up that gross generalization.

    The Old Testament tells us we shall not kill and yet orders his people to kill with pregnant women. That is pretty confusing without explanation [rationalization]

    Luke has Jesus say, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” (Luke 17:6 NIV)

    Matthew has Jesus say, “”Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father in Heaven. For where two or three come together in My Name, there am I with them.” (Matt 18:19-20 NIV)

    These are hard to understand if you look around the Christian world with all sorts of Christians gathering and praying for requests that don’t happen.

    That doesn’t seem to be true, yet a bunch of Christians seem to believe it. So that is not straightforward.

    Talk of Sadducees and Pharisees don’t make sense unless you know who they are?

    The list goes on and on. It seems silly to bring these up — they are so obvious. You boys know what I am talking about.

    Time for your next post.

  18. Sabio,
    I think I understand you now. That’s a great question, but of course not one with an easy answer. Do religious experiences from other faiths give me a clue that my own experience with the Christian God may be just imaginary or “wishful thinking”? Is that the question you are asking? I’ll answer this in a few different ways:

    1) Well,I could actually reverse the question and ask you: Since people from almost all walks of life and all cultures have experienced “God” (in some sense), does that make you at all concerned that your doubt (or disbelief) may be mistaken? Perhaps God is really speaking all the time – but you aren’t listening very well.

    2) That, in fact, is exactly what the Bible teaches. (Romans 1:20; Psalms 19; Romans 2:14-15; Hebrews 1:1-2; John 1:4) God is revealing Himself to all peoples of all cultures. Can God speak to people of other faiths? I certainly think so – and I think that the passages above support this. Are some people deluded and mistaken about the “message” they are receiving from God? Certainly! I’m sure that happens to me sometimes. But so what? Every human relationship is fraught with miscommunication at times – how much more so a relationship with a Being so far beyond our plain of existance that we have trouble even understanding his character and existence?

    3) I think it is a misconception to think that somehow faith should be simple in order to be true. Real life, actually, is quite complicated. Why should we expect faith to be simple? Christianity teaches something called “Progressive Revelation”. That is, God has been gradually revealing more and more about himself through time. He partially revealed his character to Abraham. He revealed more of his character through the prophets and Psalmists. And the fullness of his character was revealed in Jesus. So, I’m going to take that analogy a bit further than most Christians are comfortable with. I also believe that God has revealed aspects of His truth within other faiths. I’m not suggesting that all faiths are equal (not by any stretch), just simply that Christianity does not have a monopoly on communication with God. I think about it a bit like science. People originally thought of atoms as indivisible particles. Along come Bohr, and suddenly he shows that atoms contain protons, neutrons, and electrons. Then along comes quantum mechanics and blows away the old atomic theory. Does this mean that the previous atomic models were complete fantasies? No! There is still some truth in the Bohr model of atoms – but it is an incomplete truth. The same analogy could be made using gravity. Newtonian physics does a decent job at explaining the “truth” – but everyone agrees that Einstein’s theory of relativity does a far better job at explaining gravity. I view people’s experiences with God (other faiths) in a similar way. Some faiths, certainly, are completely and utterly wrong. But some faiths get a partial (or “fuzzy”) picture of the Truth. I believe that Christianity has the BEST grasp of truth – but not the ONLY grasp of truth. People of other faiths almost certainly have genuine experiences of God. Christianity does not have a monopoly on God – but is the truest picture of God’s revealed truth.

    4) Another way to think about it is as a relationship (which it certainly is). Imagine having relationship with the President of the United States (I’m assuming you are American). Imagine that the president really wanted a personal relationship with you. In the process of building that relationship, he would reveal certain aspects of himself to you. But due to his rather important role in national security, he would not be somewhat limited in what he could tell you. Now, imagine the President began a friendship with a family who lived in the slums of New Deli. Would he reveal exactly the same things to them that he revealed to you? Would they view him the same way as you view him? Imagine that you stumbled upon the family from New Deli and began asking them questions about thier interactions with the President. Would you have the same experiences? Of course not. You might even question whether you really had a relationship with the same man. Due to security issues, language barriers, and cultural differences, the relationship would “look” totally different. This, of course, is a crude analogy and, again, (for John and Marshal) I am not saying that all religions are equal paths to God. Just that Christianity does not have a monopoly on God’s communication.

    Again, I think it should give you pause to consider that the experience of faith in a Higher Being (and personal experience of this faith) is nearly universal. I sometimes think (or get asked) what I would do if I found out that the New Testament was a hoax or a fiction made up by early church leaders. I believe that Theism (in a broad sense) is so compelling that I would sooner switch to another faith (Islam, Judeaism, etc) than become an atheist. I don’t have enough “faith” to be an atheist.

  19. Sorry, I may not have been clear in the first part of the above comment.

    The Bible may be pretty straight forward to John — but it is not to huge numbers of people. End of story.

  20. Sabio, I don’t think that anyone would disagree that there is certain background info that is helpful in understanding the Bible. That’s true for any book.

    As for the Bible being hard to understand, well yes and no. The Bible is hard to understand if you read it literally. Jesus says “I am the door”. No one really thinks he is a wooden board with hinges. Likewise, when he says “ask for this tree to be thrown into the sea and it will be done”, there is some verbal hyperbole going on. The Bible isn’t a child’s book. If you read it like a child’s book, then YES, it will be terribly hard to understand. But if you read it with the same intensity that you read Shakespeare or Hawthorne, then most of it really makes sense and is “easy” to understand. No one is suggesting (I think) that a 3rd grader could understand the Bible easily. But someone with a solid high-school education who has read some of the great classics of literature should do just fine.

  21. @ tumeyn,
    Wow, long response.

    (1) Do you realize that Buddhism, which is huge, does not experience “God”? Buddhism is an atheistic religion. But most non-Western Buddhist are very superstition.
    But also, all around the world are many “natural atheists” — though born into religious cultures, they never buy into it.
    I think the illusion of dualism and essentialism as well as the illusion of self are unescapable to a large extent. Thus we have myriads of beliefs.

    (2) It sounds like your soteriology is that of an inclusivist (not an exclusivist type of some others on this blog). Inclusivists are my favorite sort of Christians. See my posts on that if you are interested:
    a) “<a href="http://triangulations.wordpress.com/2009/08/04/soteriological-scope/"Soteriological Scope"

    b) “ My favorite type of Christians

    Yeah, it does not sound like being an Atheist is a good idea for you. Perhaps the best you is the type of liberal Christian you are moving toward being. Or maybe you are perfect right now. I can’t guess. I don’t care if people convert — I just don’t want them harming others.

  22. Oops, I messed up the HTML, let’s try again
    (a) ““Soteriological Scope”

    b) “My favorite type of Christians”

  23. @ John
    Great, I am glad you understood my point. You asked and I gave you what you requested. Looking forward to your next post.

  24. @ @ tumeyn,
    I am glad you agree with my point. Huge numbers of people don’t have a High School education in this world. And High School really doesn’t begin to address the issues I mention above. I have studied ancient texts of several cultures over the years — they are tough. And it is self-deceptive to think otherwise.

    Now, if someone is raise in a Christian culture and a lot of Christian stuff has seeped into their heads over the years, it will help them in their readings. But I can tell you, ask an Asian with no Christian Cultural trapping to start into the Bible from the beginning and many will put down the book in no time flat.

    It seems like you agree for the most part.

  25. @ Sabio,

    If they put it down, the reason may have nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible being hard to understand. Many parts are plain boring. Others are poetry that use language that can be difficult, but not impossible, especially with the rest of the Bible to help out. I would say that one needs to have a definite interest in learning what it has to say and without it, who would spend the time? So if you ask an Asian of the type you suggest to start into the Bible, what benefit would there be in doing so that you have explained to him that would compel him to do it at all, much less from beginning to end? And how mentally challenged are the people of whom you speak that would struggle as you suggest is common? The Bible is more than straightforward to anyone with a true interest in learning what it has to say. More than the gist is easily divined by a simple reading, and enough to understand the central message and so much more. The real struggle is your attempts to color the Bible as some form of undecipherable code that the common man lacks the wit to unravel. Nonsense.

  26. John,

    I thought you mind find this interesting,

    Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.” Colossians 4:16

    and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.2 Peter 3:15-16

    I believe it is fairly easy to show that the writers of the Bible expected their letters to be shared and followed among other congregations other than to whom they were originally intended. In the first century before man created denominations the church stood, worshipped, and followed God as one collective body regardless of where the congregation was located.

    The verses quoted above show that Paul expected his letters to read elsewhere, that the Christians who read Peter’s letters had read Paul’s and that Peter considered Paul’s wirtings inspired of God and useful for understanding God’s will. Also notice Peter said the “rest of the scriptures.” This shows there were several letters already circulating among the brethren; not to mention Paul’s letters.

    The truth is that the Bible can be confusing to someone who does not take all scripture into account on any given subject (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

    • Eugine

      I hope I didn’t come across as the letters weren’t intended to be read by everyone, more so that they weren’t meant to be interpreted by each other. So Pauls letter to the Ephesians want intended to shed light onto his letters to the Corinthians.

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