The Bible Tells Me… What?

So here I am, again, writing about The Bible Tells Me So — which I already reviewed here. I’ve continued mulling over the book, bothered by various things. I wanted to return and complete my earlier representation of my experience with it here.

Basically, I think it reflects some degree of scholarly hubris on the part of its author, Peter Enns. I have a lot of respect for him, and I believe his intentions with the book are good and God-honoring. But the overall result is to make the Bible into a book that’s not so much a human-divine hybrid as a human recasting of the divine. It never really deals with the resulting elephant in the room, which is: why bother to read it? There are plenty of other ancient stories regarded as fairy tales. Why read this one as anything more? Somehow, the recommendation to defer to tradition and read in faith rings hollow (quoted in my review) after all that’s gone before.

For instance, after a discussion of how troubling it is that God would order genocide, it suggests that God simply didn’t tell the Israelites to attack and destroy the Canaanites; they just thought he did. Archaeology hasn’t confirmed the story either. Same with the story of the dramatic exodus from Egypt. No archaeological evidence unearthed of Pharoah’s army, and no extra-biblical accounts of the tale. Just stories, then, says Mr. Enns. But that’s okay, because God likes stories. He likes for his children to make stories about him, even when they are filled not with occasional factual errors based on the knowledge limitations of the time, but with grand misconstruals of God’s character and communication with human beings.

It takes the point too far. One wonders how the author feels so confident making a pronouncement of this scale after so many centuries.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that it has been wrongly read — and defended — as a literal historical or scientific “manual for living.” We should not project modern questions and concerns on to an ancient text written by people with a tribal mentality. True enough. It doesn’t reward efforts to wring geology and biology and physics and astronomy out of it. Still, it claims to be “inspired by God.” In the passages about Israel’s history — tales that are not offered as mythical — we can expect to see a flat earth as the conceptual framework, different concepts of time, imprecise numbers, some exaggeration. But assertions of things that never happened? That’s a little different.

I wonder if the author is committing the very error he warns against: bringing a modern sensibility to an ancient text and saying, “This can’t be true. God can’t be like this.”

I’m not saying I don’t struggle with the Bible. There’s plenty there to stop us in our tracks and make us struggle and question and pray and seek answers. I struggle with the violence too, and the many supernatural events recounted matter-of-factly in the Old Testament.

But the fact that I struggle with it doesn’t mean I can make it disappear. In the end I am much more comfortable concluding that somehow, the ancient writers didn’t get it totally wrong. They did capture some aspects of God, however mystifying to me. And even if they exaggerated, the didn’t make up historical accounts out of thin air.

My faith can accept the uncertainty of this. But the seeming certainty of The Bible Tells Me So — a certainty that doesn’t even stop short of proposing that the Son of God “creatively interpreted” the Scriptures he himself inspired — seems to overreach. I was listening for a humility that should accompany study of the Bible, but I had a hard time hearing it in The Bible Tells Me So.

John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)
John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)

Lessons from a Sheepdog

17654_w185Phillip Keller’s Lessons from a Sheepdog was a read-aloud over the summer. All of us — my daughters, husband, and I — loved it. For me, it was a second reading of this classic by the author who’s perhaps more well-known for A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. More recently, I’ve been working my way through the latter on my own, but Lessons from a Sheepdog remains my hands-down favorite. It recounts the tale of Keller’s border collie Lass, which he rescued as a young man just starting a sheep farm in Vancouver.

When he first came upon Lass, she belonged to a city-dweller, and she was reduced to a life of being hobbled on a short chain because of her chasing habits and general unfitness to be a house pet. The very qualities that made her a poor house dog had the potential to make her a fabulous sheep dog — the vocation for which border collies are bred. But there was no guarantee at the beginning that she would work out. She was three years old, untrained, snarling, and fearful when Keller brought her home. The tale of the relationship that developed between her and her master, and the transformation brought about by a life of purpose, brought tears more than once as we read it.

Maybe it’s because we have always had border collies. Currently we have Lucy, who’s just a few weeks shy of a year old now. We recognized her in Lass.

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But more likely it’s a combination of this enthusiasm for the breed, our memories of our own dogs, and the deep spiritual insight Keller brings to his story. He learned a lot about God through his relationship with Lass, and each chapter explores a different facet of his discovery. The illustrations are vivid and memorable, seasoned with Keller’s knowledge of farming and appreciation for the natural world. The book is a truthful and wise recounting of his spiritual journey.

I’ve reread the first chapter, which tells of the first meeting between Lass and Keller, many times. It’s just… powerful. But this is the first time in many years I’ve reread the whole book, and it was all the more meaningful sharing it aloud with my family. Highly recommended.

Mere Churchianity

mere_churchianity-198x300You won’t find many whole-hearted endorsements of this book by evangelical heavy-hitters. But it’s the best book I’ve read since we left our church about a year ago, one that I resonated with in almost every respect and that gives a needed and truthful critique of institutionalized evangelicalism. Written by Michael Spencer (a.k.a. the Internet Monk), who died just a few months before it was published in 2010, Mere Churchianity focuses on the contrast between what he calls Jesus-shaped spirituality, and church-shaped spirituality. The former puts Jesus at the center without a whole lot of intermediaries; the latter puts the church with its programs and building funds and pastor-centrism and Christian subculture practices at the center.

His critics would argue that when he acknowledges that those who leave the church are doing so because it’s the only path they see toward authentic spiritual growth, he’s being too soft on wimps who have unrealistically high expectations and who just want to be able to sin more easily. (I’ve read a couple of their reviews. And I’ve been around evangelicals long enough to have heard this a time or two… and more.) The faithful, they say, stay — because the institutional church as evangelicalism defines it over the last 50 or 60 years is really the only legitimate forum for authentic spiritual growth.

I would respond that doubtless such “wimps” exist, but this book is not addressed to them. And if they read it, they will find themselves seriously challenged. It’s not a book for game-players. The author’s honesty and devotion to Jesus is much too real. No one looking for a feel-good justification of lip-service Christianity will be interested.

I’m in my late 40’s, and I’ve been an active member of evangelical churches all my life. I’m a committed disciple of Jesus. But over the last decade, my confidence in the institution has evaporated. We left our church with fear and trembling, and though we’ve visited several over the last year they all look like the same cereal in different colored boxes. Most of our spiritual growth is occurring as we follow Jesus here, outside the walls. It’s not always easy, and our journey is not over. But our family is coming to life spiritually in new ways.

Mere Churchianity is the first book I’ve read that represents neither a diatribe against the institutional church (Michael Spencer is a trained pastor who served in ministry at a Christian school for 17 years) nor a vilification of “deserters” such as myself. It maintains an admirable balance, rightly condemning the artificiality of much that goes on in church but acknowledging that staying (as he himself has stayed) is a viable option. It’s just not the only option. He affirms that God is not confined there, and that spiritual authenticity and ministry and fellowship and sacramental living are just as possible outside the walls.

Some have faulted the book for not giving a detailed description of what “unchurched church” (for lack of a better name) should look like. Spencer chooses to conclude that those who are on the brink of leaving, or have left, to follow Jesus, have a number of options. It’s as wide open as one might expect with an infinitely creative God at the helm. To hand people a new program after so thoroughly facing all the limitations of program-based faith would have been untrue to the rest of the book. Finding Jesus-shaped spirituality involves listening to the Holy Spirit and trusting him to show you the next step. Substituting “the Michael Spencer plan” would turn this into just another religious self-help book — of which there are already far too many.

The writing is highly readable, unpretentious, funny at times, and always truthful. Spencer had the gift of speaking the truth in love, and he is able to talk about the failings of the church, somehow, without bitterness or condemnation or superiority. His insights are deep (I loved his reading of the story of the prodigal son) and he consistently directs our eyes to Jesus. I felt that the book was a blessing — a last blessing, as it turns out, from Michael Spencer — on all seekers of Jesus, whether inside the church or outside.

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Why bother?

“When we reflect that ‘sentence’ means, literally, ‘a way of thinking’ (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, we realize that the concepts of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic — not negligible in any sense. A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought — what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense.” (Wendell Berry, “Standing by Words,” emphasis added)

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My eighth grader was asking me last week if I ever thought about whether it was a compound, mixed, or compound-complex sentence that I was writing, and whether I then wrote it down with attention to every phrase and sentence part — adjective, noun, direct object, etc. Brilliant teacher that I am, I extracted the pith of her question: “What’s the point of sentence diagramming?”

She is doomed to diagram sentences, because we use Rod and Staff English. And what she does at the eighth grade level is pretty challenging. I myself only had to practice sentence diagramming twice in all my years of education: in eighth grade, and in a graduate linguistics course. She has been doing it steadily for years now.

Her question is common enough. I have a feeling the only place sentence diagramming is still done (occasionally) is among homeschoolers, and not by all of them. No one seems to like it. (Except geeks like myself, for whom it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle.) And no one seems to know why we should bother with it.

I’m not altogether sure myself. What I told my eighth grader is that it’s like working with legos. Once you learn the different kinds of building blocks, you can put them together to create anything you want without having to think about it. You just reach for what you need, and you know what looks right, and you know how to structure something that will do what it’s supposed to do.

But today I stumbled upon this wonderful definition of a sentence in Wendell Berry’s 1979 essay “Standing by Words.” As is usually the case, he lays his hand with precision and elegance on the heart of the matter. Probably no one thinks in terms of grammatical labels when they build sentences, but they’re helpful in understanding how sentences work — and sentences provide the opportunities and limits through which we can connect with the world outside ourselves. A little tedium is a small price to pay in learning to use them well.

Think she’ll buy it? Her first response was, “I can think without sentences.” But try coming up with an actual thought without a sentence…

 

More than once in The Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns affirms the tradition of debate in Judaism. I wanted to offer an extended quotation toward the end of the book that captures that tradition. I love the picture it gives us of God:

A famous story from the Talmud, Judaism’s early medieval core text on Jewish faith and life, records a debate between rabbis. The debate is over whether an oven that has been made impure could be purified and used again.

The majority opinion was no but one rabbi, Eliezar, argued the opposite, but, alas, to no avail. Exasperated by his colleagues’ dim-wittedness, he challenged them with some miracles. If I am right, he said, may that tree over there move — whereupon the tree picked itself up and moved about the length of a football field. But the others weren’t convinced. They were certain their argument from the Bible was sure, and no moving tree was going to convince them otherwise.

Eliezar wouldn’t give up. He called a stream to reverse course and then the walls of the house to bend inward, but the others responded the same way. Finally, Eliezar asked whether hearing the heavenly voice of God himself would convince them, at which point the voice of God declared that Eliezar was absolutely right.

This didn’t work either. The others responded that God had already given his Torah on Mount Sinai. In that Torah we read that God’s commands are “not in heaven” but right here, available to all. God himself is bound by his own recorded words in Torah, and so even his heavenly voice can’t change that.

At hearing this, God laughed with delight. “My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!”

This story illustrates something Judaism seems to have a good handle on but that many Christians do not: debating each other, and debating God, is what God wants. (Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So)