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?…
Taking a cultural perspective to belief is a useful exercise. For me, it means that I am no longer bound to particulars. What matters now is the context in which experience arises.
Not too long ago, I would read the Bible as if it were God’s Word to me now, as if God were speaking to me through the text. In fact, that was the primary way I could know God and maintain the sense of relationship. I came to speak of and relate to God as one would a person, obviously through the creative use of imagination. This God-sense began at a youth concert, where I was so emotionally moved by the sermon that I experienced a shift in my focus. It was that ‘born again’ conversion experience that so many talk about. Thus began many years of my life as a devoted follower of Christ.
Fast-forward many years into the future, and I am listening to an interview with Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren discussing the metaphorical nature of hell. It was my first exposure to the idea of universal salvation. Suddenly, an entirely different paradigm came rushing in to shatter the foundation of my faith. If the message of the gospel as proclaimed within evangelical churches is that Christ saved me from hell, and hell is not real, what is left of the gospel? I felt disillusioned and immediately stopped attending church, whilst beginning to explore the alternative approaches to scripture. Over time, a lack of exposure to evangelical Christian church services and a range of books and podcasts would blast away any remaining hope that I had in a literal view of the Bible…