Why I still study the Bible

April 15, 2008 at 3:04 am 27 comments

For my birthday I gave myself a HarperCollins Study Bible. It’s quite a tome of scholarly commentary running alongside the text of the Old and New Testaments. Yet I don’t actually enjoy reading the Bible; after about 16 years of intense grappling, I found the whole thing to be tiring, disjointed, and just downright difficult to grasp. Despite this, I’ve bought this thing, a book that is either highly revered or detested, considered to be either the Word of God or just another ancient religious text. So why am I choosing to torture myself in the confusing and sublime text of Christian scripture?

For me, the purpose is to unravel the text in the light of contemporary Christian and religious experience. I do this from a critical and skeptical viewpoint, taking nothing for granted. Doubt is probably the most beneficial tool here, for it seeks not merely an alternative understanding, but rather an understanding that is shaped by how I perceive and experience the world. This really puts me at odds with many Christians, who perceive that we must approach the Bible from a viewpoint of faith. It is only by faith, they say, that we can truly understand the words of scripture. By faith, we can hear the voice of God speaking through the words and directly to our heart.

It is that notion of faith that we must apply doubt first of all. For if God truly did speak through the words of the Bible to his faithful, why then do we have such multiplicity of interpretation? So many ideas have arisen from individuals who claimed that God gave them a ‘revelation’, and in many cases these ideas are in conflict. Either God is actually the centre of the conflict, or those who claim inspiration really just imagined the experience. It’s pretty obvious that a conflicting God would not be terribly popular, so that notion falls flat. So how do we then explain the multitude of individuals who truly believe that the Holy Spirit illuminates scripture, so that they receive ‘aha!’ and ‘I get it!’ moments?

I get the same ‘aha!’ experiences from all sorts of texts. It’s really just a paradigm shift, a different way of seeing. It’s like the demonstration in my psychology lecture of ambiguous images – you know the type, where a picture looks like a face, but if you look at it from another perspective, it becomes a head. It’s simply a matter of perception rather than any kind of spiritual revelation. I don’t mean to put a damper on anyone’s experience, but really we’ve got to understand human experience in a very logical way.

Now I could go on forever about faith and doubt, but I’m supposed to be explaining why I still study the Bible. It’s now come down to a real picking-apart of the belief system that I once took for granted. I’ve become a critic of my own experience, as well as the experience of others. In this sense, my Bible study is far more interesting, since I no longer have to try to discern certain things or worry about how different parts fit into my experience. Instead, from a critical perspective, I can read the text with an eye to the cultural and historical forces shaping the message. I mean, what makes this text so much more authoritative than all other ancient texts describing a people and their god/s?

What does make it important comes back to the influence of Christianity on our culture. What also makes it important to me is asking how it informs my experience now. What can I make of Jesus now? Is he really as important as Christians believe, or am I misinformed? I’m more concerned with existential truth than with arguments to the existence of God, and this shapes my questions and inquiry.

Just as an aside, I wonder if any of us here went through this very phase of biblical inquiry that I am describing, and if so what was your inevitable conclusion?

- Gary

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God and the IRS (part II) My Abstinence Education

27 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Heathen Dan  |  April 15, 2008 at 6:50 am

    I can relate with your experience. Even after my deconversion, I still enjoy reading and studying the bible. A few months ago I bought the New Oxford Annotated Bible (which I chose over the HarperCollins version) and have used it to complement my independent study of christian scripture.

    The bible may be an important document of what people believed thousands of years ago, but it is still the work of men with no divine guidance.

  • 2. Rob  |  April 15, 2008 at 10:31 am

    I suggest picking up God: A Biography by Jack Miles for a fascinating literary take on the Hebrew Bible.

  • 3. LeoPardus  |  April 15, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Gary:

    For my part, once I realized that the whole of religious faith is based on a gigantic falsehood, I saw no point is wasting valuable time reading an old collection of texts by primitive, superstitious people.
    BUT I can understand your approach. There is much to be learned in what you are doing I think.
    Of course I’ve read the Bible numerous times, and studied it extensively. I’ve also studied church history and looked at modern cultures in light of how they are shaped by their religious past. So maybe I’ve already been through what you’re talking about.

    Happy studying.

  • 4. Dave Bennett  |  April 15, 2008 at 11:53 am

    It’s funny, because I agree with most of what you said, but still am a Christian (I don’t say that with pride or condesendance either).

    I grew up going to Church with my parents as a kid, and when I graduated high school, came to college to study Bible and Religion. It wasn’t until I got here, that I was exposed to critical methods of exegesis, philosophy, or much else other than the fundamentalist teachings I had been raised with.

    Ironically, I’ve asked the same question about culture and Biblical authority, and decided that the Bible isn’t any more authoritative than other ancient texts, but that it is a part of my tradition and the world view I inherited from my parents, and it is most clearly one of the largest formative factors in my existence.

    I think this is why I view it differently than you, because it’s hugely interesting to me how similar our viewpoints are. Even that bit about doubt being at the base of faith.

    Also, I too am more concerned with existential truths than the arguments proving God’s existence. I guess, you could call me a fideist, I don’t care if it’s used pejoratively or not.

    Best wishes in your endeavor.

    –Dave

  • 5. Dave Bennett  |  April 15, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Oh and a side-note, have you ever read David Hume “On Natural Religion” or part of his natural dialogues, he has some great arguments that really blow Intelligent Design out of the water, if you can get past his utter hegemonic tyrannism and oppresionistic mind set against indigenous peoples.

    Some other interesting reads that I’ve been onto lately: Charles Hartshorne’s “Omnipotence and other theological mistakes.” DZ Phillips, “The Concept of Prayer” <– these are philosophy of religion books right here.

    Good stuff thought, let me know what you think about them if you do get around to them.

  • [...] 15, 2008 · No Comments I enjoyed reading this post regarding personal study of the Bible over at De-conversion.com. Although the site’s writers [...]

  • 7. ED  |  April 15, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    As someone from bible belt, USA I still study scripture. It is, for better or worse, a cultural centerpiece which is needed to communicate without being perceived an alien.

    The problem with most christians is they only look at scripture through the lens on their denominational dogma and never deal with the contradictions and inconsistencies.

    When talking with southern christians, It is always rewarding to introduce into a discussion, scripture that they have never considered and that forces them to wrap their brain around the evolution of doctrine; it is a christian in the headlights moment.

  • 8. Mr. D Paul  |  April 15, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Please, show this southern Christian a scripture he has not considered…something to “wrap his brain around”.

    And btw…If any tell you it takes faith before you can hear the word or read it…that is incorrect according to the bible. It says faith comes by hearing the word. Not that is takes faith to hear the word. So I would say the Christians you talked to haven’t read much to start with.

  • 9. LeoPardus  |  April 15, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    ED:

    The problem with most christians is they only look at scripture through the lens on their denominational dogma and never deal with the contradictions and inconsistencies.

    Righto. When I got into the EOC I often found myself thinking, “I know I read that verse before, but I feel like I haven’t now.” You get a very different perspective in the EOC.

    D Paul:

    You’ve probably read the Bible through more than once. I sure have. And likely you’ve tried to think through what you read and grasp its meaning.

    What I found when I joined the EOC (Eastern Orthodox Church) was that my understanding of parts of the Bible was challenged and changed. I also found myself reading verses and, for the first time in my life, seeing literal meaning that I had either missed or ignored before.

    I’ll give you a couple examples of what I’m talking about. (ED may have very different verses for what he’s talking about.)

    -James 2:24 “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” … This is quite a shock to anyone who wants to believe Luther’s ‘sola fide’.
    -I Tim 3:15 “if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” … The ‘church’ is the foundation of truth? Another shock for a Protestant
    -I Cor 11:29 “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” … If you’ve been taught it’s not really His body, this verse is jarring. And as if it wasn’t enough for Paul to say it, you’ve got Jesus himself in John 6:55 “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”

    If you’re of the literalist crowd, the EOC interprets the Bible even more literally. That’s jarring too.

  • 10. David McHaley  |  April 15, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Gary,
    Having been raised a protestant, I was living my life by what a minister said rather than finding my own way to God. I didn’t have a testimony of my own, so I really didn’t have faith in God.
    It wasn’t until after fifteen years of drug addiction, and numerous visits to doctors and so-called counselors, without any results, that I turned to God and askd for help. I am one of those “few”, who actually had an experience with divine interdiction. I gave up drug abuse the very next day, and started reading the bible. I have learned in the past 10 or so years that the bible is very hard to understand, but when read without the influence of mans religion, or pre-concieved religious notions, it makes a lot more sense, and I can actually feel Gods spirit lead me toward the truth of it’s words.
    I think the problem that people have with the bible is that they expect some kind of “religious experience” when they read. But that’s not how it works. The divine interdiction comes with leading a life of love toward God and our fellow man and through hours of thoughtful prayer. Then we will recieve the grace of God to help us understand his word.
    Pastor Dave

  • 11. LeoPardus  |  April 15, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    And what do you do Dave, when someone else says they are doing just what you say you are doing, but they come to diametrically, irreconcilably, opposing interpretations from yours?

  • 12. Luke  |  April 15, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    dude, you rawk! keep struggle’n. we christians are after all the children of Israel which means “To wrestle with God, to struggle, God struggles, God rules, and embattled with God” there’s a lot to that… and those that do seem to be better people than those who don’t. consider everything.

    there is biblical support for this… thomas comes and doubts the testamony of the other disciples. ppl usually take this as a bad thing to do. i don’t think so! as jesus comes and shows thomas what he needs to see to believe. he will do the same for us.

  • 13. Dave Bennett  |  April 15, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    Like fundamentalists? I imagine that they are in a different place in life, I lament over the fact that they aren’t very understanding people, and I go on doing that which I am doing at the moment.

    I don’t assume that everyone who claims to follow Christ, follows Christ, but I don’t claim to have an objective standard for what that looks like either. From a human perspective (as in not founded on the things that I read in the Bible) I sometimes lament that people let their reading of the BIble limit what it means to be human.

    Like, for example, a Christian who thinks homosexuals cannot also be Christians. It seems to me that we all have sinned in some way, why should I hate someone who’s sin is more visible.

    I see following Christ to be a process, not a resolution. And with that in mind, it’s ok for someone to be diametrically opposed to me. When things can’t be reconciled, maybe we should just stop trying to reconcile them and go have a picnic or something. In the end, the existential world differs from the logical abstract structure of the world that we meditate on.

    So I may smile at them, and ask them if they want to go for ice cream. Get the picture? There is a sense in which I don’t ask other to reconcile their lives with the INNER-consistency with which I am seeking to reconcile mine.

    Also, it seems to me that someone with an irreconcilable interpretation opposing mine (through recent lessons) has taught me that debating over an issue is a moot point.

    You can’t present yourself for understanding to a person who quite simply doesn’t want to understand–and then not be disappointed or hurt.

  • 14. Dave Bennett  |  April 15, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    Oh, you were referring to the other dave, my bad.

  • 15. Gary  |  April 16, 2008 at 7:30 am

    Thank you for the comments and suggestions, I particularly love being pointed to further resources.

    D Paul, I understand what you are saying about faith, and it’s always a tricky thing when you talk about faith and doubt. Jesus said in effect, ‘Have faith in God, do not doubt’, and as such many people would take offense to me saying that you should approach the Bible with doubt. I would agree that faith is a product of the impression that the Bible makes on you; however, it requires faith to say that the Bible is the Word of God. Since I no longer believe that to be the case, I apply a critical approach to the text. It’s entirely possible that I could be stirred towards faith through my study, but I don’t start with the assumption that I will.

  • 16. ED  |  April 16, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Paul: “Please, show this southern Christian a scripture he has not considered…something to “wrap his brain around”.”

    Leo gave some excellent examples; let me say as one who taught the distinctions between semi-Pelagian and Augustinian systems of theology that there are, just on those issues, multiple scriptures that, if you are a semi-Pelagian (Arminian) most within that system avoid, and if you are Augustinian, (Calvinist) there are many scriptures that you tend to shy away from. Let me give you the example of John 3:16, perhaps the most recognizable scripture for an Arminian christian. It is the one that most Arminian apologist use to convey God’s desire to save everyone.
    “For God so loved the world, that he gave…” and you know the rest. Hardly a class went by without someone pointing out to me that scripture, and the word, “world”; “see” they would say. “God wants all people to be saved.”
    The word “world” is the greek word “cosmos”. It is used at least six different ways in the new testament. Such as: “And there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Were the Chinese Taxed? How about those living in the America’s? No, obviously he is referring to the Roman world. There are times when “Cosmos” is used, and can only be referring to the the Jewish world, there are times when it can only be referring to the pagan / gentile world. There are times when logically he can only be referring to those who are the “called, chosen or elect of God”, so you simply cannot read into the text what you want the text to say.

    I had a southern christian the other day cite a text from leviticus about the abomination of homosexuality. It never crossed his mind that one page over we are instructed to stone our children for disobedience and our newlywed brides if we discover that they are not a virgin on our honeymoon.

    There are over 33,000 denominations in the Christian faith today, many that hold contradictory and conflicting views concerning doctrines that are considered necessary conditions for salvation. That means you can consider yourself a christian, and to another christian, you are considered lost due to your heretical views. So much for Pascal’s wager.
    Very few christians ever study doctrine, outside of the context of their own adopted belief system.
    Today as an agnostic, there are many scriptures that jump out at me that I never considered as a theist.

  • 17. Anonymous  |  April 16, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    I wonder, if God is within you, how can God punish you? Wouldn’t he punish himself? Before any christian tells me that we are separate from god, answer this: If God breathed life into man, what was that breath made of? It certainly wasn’t “air.” What I’m saying is we don’t need anything to go to heaven. How can there be a hell, especially when there is so much hell here on Earth? That’s like God spitting in your face when you are already beaten to a pulp. That kind of God is false, perpetuated by the false and corrupted teachings of the Bible.

  • 18. Gary  |  April 16, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Bible contains false and corrupted teachings. It’s imperfect precisely because it’s the work of many ancient authors each with their own unique perspectives.

  • 19. HeIsSailing  |  April 17, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Gary asks:
    “Just as an aside, I wonder if any of us here went through this very phase of biblical inquiry that I am describing, and if so what was your inevitable conclusion?”

    Thanks for asking, Gary. I am no longer a Christian, and I wanted to start moving away from reading apolgetic and critical stuff. I really wanted to, but I decided to read the bible again this summer. I picked up my wife’s catholic study bible and started reading – I intend to read 39 Old Testament books, 27 New Testament books and 18 Apocryphal books, not necessarly in order. I have quite a bit finished – I am wrapping up Isaiah later today.

    It is really interesting to read when you don’t have to believe. I told the asst pastor of my old church, and member of my home bible study that I intended to read it again. His reaction? He said, “Why do you want to read the bible if you are not going to believe? It is utterly stupid! Don’t read it if you are going to trivialize it. It is blasphemous to read it as ‘literature'”

    How dare he!! The bible must belong only to him and his fellow Fundies!! I am so sick of that exclusivity that rejects us unwashed heathen even *touching* his precious holy book!! GAG!!!

    Here are my reasons for re-reading the Bible:

    1) I want to do what most Christians never do – read and understand their own basis for faith. All of it.

    2) I am genuinely open to accepting any part of the Faith that I may have missed – is there any particular reason that I missed that would make me think this particular book is divinely inspired?

    3) I am interested to read all the favorite verses/stories/prophecies/promises, etc in thier proper context.

    4) Some of it is genuinely great reading – I loved 1, 2 Samuel..!! 1 Chronicles in contrast was pretty dry, but I am doing my best to understand the culture and climate that would produce such works.

    5) The *main* reason: I picked up two books that I think have really influenced my post-Christian thinking. “The Masks of God”, by Joseph Campbell and “Man and his Symbols”, cy Carl Jung. I now understand the power of mythology, why I am drawn to it, why humanity resonates so deeply with it. The bible is filled to the brim with such symbols – the vengeful god who will protect us, who sustains us, who ultimately redeems us. I have not only read the Bible, but am halfway through the Quran, finished off Homer, and also a couple of books on the mythologies of the Philippine Islands. To me it is all the same – mankind trying to reach to the heavens, to understand who we are and where we come from, and trying to resonate with the unknowable – the divine. Reading the bible with that mindset is so far a very rewarding experience. It reflects, ultimately, where we all came from, and how humanity used to try to discern truth.

  • 20. Gary  |  April 17, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    HeIsSailing, that is an impressively open position you are holding to the Bible, which very much resonates with me. As for Joseph Campbell, after hearing numerous references to him both here and elsewhere, I started watching The Power of Myth DVD, and finding it a breath of fresh air, totally fitting where I am at right now.

  • 21. LeoPardus  |  April 17, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    1) I want to do what most Christians never do – read and understand their own basis for faith. All of it.

    At a Bible study class I was attending years ago, one Sunday the instructor asked, “How many of you have read the Bible all the way through at least once?” He raised his hand; my wife and I did; the wife of the assistant pastor did. That was all. Four people in a class of over 20. All were adults. All had been believers for at least 10 years (many for a lifetime). And this was in a “Bible-based, Bible-believing” fundy church.

  • 22. airtightnoodle  |  April 17, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Don’t ignore the context of the James passage. Notice it starts out with James using the example of someone who SAYS he has faith. He then gives examples of true and false faiths. James is simply comparing two kinds of faiths: true faith, which will naturally lead to good works, and faith without works, which is dead (or false).

    It is possible for one to believe, or have faith in God, and yet their faith be useless. Notice James’ reference to demons. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.”

    In my opinion, James is simply talking about people who claim to be Christian but aren’t producing any “fruit”.

  • 23. Gary  |  April 17, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    airtightnoodle said: In my opinion, James is simply talking about people who claim to be Christian but aren’t producing any “fruit”.

    I wonder, wouldn’t this eliminate most Christians? At the very least, I wouldn’t exactly call the Christians I’ve known over the years ‘fruity’, by the standards set by James. As I understand it, his ‘works’ come down to two essential things – social justice (care for the widows and orphans), and moral purity (keep oneself from being polluted by the world). If those are to be the hallmark of Christianity, then it certainly is in a sorry state.

  • 24. airtightnoodle  |  April 17, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    I’m sure the standard reply would go something like this…

    Don’t forget that we are all born sinful. Just because a Christian sins doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t also fruitful and have a living faith.

    In any case…I do think many parts of Christianity ARE in a sorry state…but then again, I’ll admit I always have been a “glass half-empty” sort of person. :)

  • 25. Cthulhu  |  April 18, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    HeIsSailing/Gary,

    Joseph Campbell was central to my de-conversion. The world lost a marvelous intellect when he passed away. One thing I see here is that almost all of the contributors to this site have managed to find transcendence without god…a recurring theme in his books. And I still read the bible on occasion…there are still many things you can glean from it without regarding it as ‘Holy Writ’.

  • 26. Hugo  |  May 11, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Let’s see if there’s any chance of getting a response this late in the game:

    I want to read some Joseph Campbell. Which of his books would you recommend I start with?

  • 27. Dave Bennett  |  June 21, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Hero of A thousand faces is a good place to start.

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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