What is the Bible? Part 21: In Air, In Sea
What is the Bible?
Part 21: In Air, In Sea
A number of you have asked about inerrancy. If you aren’t familiar with this word, it’s a word that some use to argue that the Bible is without errors. In the next few days I’ll be writing about the idea that the Bible is the word of God, inspired, and authoritative, but today, inerrancy.
My 13 year old son is currently doing an education program that requires him to listen to a certain amount of classical music every day. So on the way to school each morning instead of listening to our usual Blink 182 and rap, he listens to…Mozart. Not his first choice, but just lately he admitted that classical music has grown on him. (How does a parent not smile at that?)
A few questions, then, about Mozart:
Did Mozart’s music win?
Would you say that the work of Mozart is on top?
Is Mozart the MVP?
In your estimation, has Mozart prevailed?
Do Mozart’s songs take the cake?
Odd questions, right?
They’re odd because that’s not how you think of Mozart’s music. They’re the wrong categories.
Because what you do with Mozart’s music is you listen to it and you enjoy it.
Which brings us to inerrancy: it’s not a helpful category. And if you had only ever heard about Mozart as the one who wins, those arguments would probably get in the way of you actually listening to and enjoying Mozart.
First, this isn’t a word the Bible uses about itself. Can you imagine asking the apostle Paul if the letter he was writing was inerrant? It’s important not to cram the Bible into categories that the Bible itself doesn’t acknowledge. The writers talk about the word of God and inspiration and God breathing and authority, but they don’t mention inerrancy. What the writers of the Bible do talk about is how events unfolding in actual human history reveal a God who is up to something in the world. What they’re interested in is their readers seeing this movement and finding life in it.
Second, that’s not the book we have. What we have is a library of books written by a number of people over a long period of time. Sometimes they’re for divorce, sometimes they’re against it. One says Jesus was from Nazareth, another from Bethlehem. In one place it’s written that the fate of individuals is predestined, in another everybody is free to choose. One says David paid X for a piece of land, another says he paid Y. One story begins with God leading David to do something, another tells the same story and says that Satan led him to do it.
The list is long.
Some of these differences/contradictions are easily resolvable-one account was written earlier, reflecting that currency or way of thinking or mindset, while the conflicting account was written later, reflecting the shift in thinking that had take place in the years between the two accounts.
Sometimes the writer has an agenda and is working in a particular style and referencing current events in such a way that we simply can’t get at what exactly is going on in what they wrote.
Other times we have assumptions about history and how it’s recorded that aren’t shared by the writer, and so we’re reading it trying to figure out how they got it so wrong when they weren’t writing with that particular intention in the first place. (It was believed that the Emperor Caesar at the end of his life ascended to the heavens to sit at the right hand of the gods-is that why Luke ends his book with Jesus ascending…? Where did Jesus go? Up into the sky? Because we’ve sent spaceships up there and no one saw him! Haha. We assume Luke is writing the actual details of what happened but when you back up and realize that Luke wants his audience to see Jesus as Lord, not Caesar, then the way he describes Jesus ascending starts to make more sense. We moderns love history to be precise with times and dates and actual facts. That’s why we’re still fascinated with the JFK assassination-it feels like we don’t have all of the exact facts. But ancient writers had different agendas-Luke isn’t trying to mislead, he’s telling a story how people in his day told stories…)
But however you deal with the funkiness of the Bible, if you deny it or avoid it or act like it’s easily dismissible, people will either shut their brains off or stop reading.
Is this you?
You either bought the party line, which meant you had to check your intellect at the door
you checked out?
Which leads me to a third point-inerrancy and similar arguments have an extraordinary ability to turn people off to the Bible.
I’ve seen it countless times,
so have you.
It’s not about Mozart winning, it’s about Mozart being experienced for the beautiful sound that it is. Using unhelpful categories will always backfire on you. It’s possible to use lots of words and arguments for the Bible in such a way that people are actually inoculated against it’s power and beauty.
Which leads me to fourth point, which begins with a question:
Have you fully embraced string theory?
Does it shape the decisions you make every day-from what you buy to how you eat to your beliefs about multiverses to how you responded to the last episode of Breaking Bad?
But what if string theory is proven true? What if it turns out to be how things are how things are-and then the implications of this shape human behavior in innumerable ways? What if string theory becomes how we see the world? (Remember, there was a time when people realized that the earth was round. Another time they realize that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Another time it was the realization that, though they’re unseen-germs are real.)
Now, let’s imagine that this string revolution happens-will it negate everything you said and did before? Will we read your tumblr posts from before you became a stringist like the rest of us and discredit you? No, we won’t.
Why? Because you are a real person, and everything you do and say comes through your very real humanity, with its passions and dreams and thoughts and limited perspectives and rash judgments and everything else that makes you, you. The power of the Bible comes not from avoiding what it is but embracing what it is. Books written by actual, finite, limited, flawed people. Real people, living in real places, at real times. And it isn’t just their limited worldview-one of the repeating claims of the biblical writers is that we as humans are sinners-from the Adam and Eve story all the way through to the Apostle Paul writing about how we’ve all fallen short…we have the tremendous capacity to make a mess of things. And the Bible comes to us through these exact sorts of human beings.
Fifth, then, to argue for inerrancy is arguing for a different kind of library of books, a library that we don’t have. It’s important to grow up, to evolve, and to mature. And central to maturity is discernment, the growing acknowledgement that reality is not as clean and neat and simple as we’d like. Inerrancy is a failure to grow up in thinking about the Bible. What we have is a fascinating, messy, unpredictable, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, other times viscerally repulsive collection of stories and poems and letters and accounts and gospels that reflect the growing conviction that we matter, that everything is connected, and human history is headed somewhere.
As I’ve written before, to fully appreciate the Bible, you must let it be what it is. And when you do that, you find it’s full of life and surprise.
Which leads me to one last question: If something extraordinary and real and compelling was happening in human history, how else would it get written down?
Or to put it another way: When it comes to the Bible, what were you expecting?
Or to put it another way: Where did people get the idea that without error is the highest form of truth?
Is Mozart without error?
Is the sunset without error?
Is the love between you and the person you’re in love with without error?
Is the best meal you’ve ever eaten without error?
In math it’s great to be without errors,
same with designing a car or building a house that you don’t want to collapse, but the Bible is about meaning. Hope. Courage. Inspiration. Joy. Redemption.
The Bible is about the music.
Music that you don’t analyze or argue for,
music that you listen to.
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