In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk about Pete’s book, How the Bible Actually Works as they explore the following questions:
- Why did Pete write How the Bible Actually Works?
- What is the point of the Bible?
- What does the ambiguity of the Bible teach us about God?
- What are some examples of different theologies in the Bible?
- What does the Bible teach us about reading the Bible?
- How do Jonah and Nahum represent two conflicting theologies?
- How can the messiness of the Bible actually be freeing?
- How has the Bible been interpreted throughout church history and what can that teach us?
- How do our metaphors for God shape how we read the Bible?
- What are healthy ways to read the Bible?
- How do we limit ourselves in our readings of the Bible?
- Why is leaving room for ambiguity in our Bible reading a more responsible way to read the Bible?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete and Jared you can share.
- “[The Bible] is a text we get to engage, we don’t control it.” @peteenns
- “The diversity of the Bible tells us that we’re already seeing within the Bible itself people grappling with what the Bible means.” @peteenns
- “I actually think at the end of the day, it’s not so much what the Bible means, it’s grappling with what God is like.” @peteenns
- “We have to be very careful not to impose things on the Bible. All of us do that, I do that, all of us do that. I think we should be at least self-aware of what it is we’re doing.” @peteenns
- “We do ourselves a disservice by this dominate metaphor of God being a parent and us being children, because I think in a lot of traditions we build theological systems for children and then we don’t allow people to really grow up.” @jbyas
- “I don’t think God is out to dehumanize us and to keep us just simple people who are afraid to ask questions or afraid to risk.” @peteenns
- “This whole thing about growing in the faith it involves risk and pain and suffering… and I think just dealing with the Bible is a microcosm of the whole spiritual journey.” @peteenns
- “I think a tolerance for ambiguity is a very important lesson for all of us to learn from.” @peteenns
- “Learning to deal with the ambiguity I think forces you into a position of dependence on God in a good way, in a healthy way.” @peteenns
- “Maybe God is in our midst and values that we’re doing the best that we can and it’s going to be ok. I think the Bible models that for us.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: How the Bible Actually Works
- Book: Reflections on the Psalms
- Book: A Year of Biblical Womanhood
- Video: ASMR
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty Intro Music]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. A few things before we get started:
First, you’ll notice that my voice is cracking a lot and that’s not because I’m going through puberty (laughter). That’s not the reason.
Pete: Whatever you say, Jared. Okay.
Jared: I’ve just been sick, so I may be—it may not sound like me, but it is me, for real.
Pete: It sounds like an NPR episode. That’s what I think—
Jared: Yeah. I’ll try to—
Pete: Hello everybody. Let’s talk about the—
Jared: So, secondly, just a reminder about our Patreon Campaign. We are getting these transcripts together. We want to keep the Podcast free, so you can go to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople and help us hit our goal of 1611 patrons.
Jared: In honor of the good old King James.
Pete: The true Bible.
Jared: The tr– the one and only. Then lastly, today, it’s just going to be you and me.
Pete: Yeah, Man.
Jared: This is it for Season Three.
Jared: Three years since we were just babes in the woods.
Pete: Yeah. Technically, it was two years ago that we did the first last episode—
Jared: That’s true—
Pete: It’s only been two years. It’s funky the way time works.
Jared: Weird math.
Pete: Time’s relative, Man.
Jared: Yeah. All right. For that, we are going to focus a little bit on how the Bible actually works. So, this episode is called, “How the Bible Actually Works Works.”
Pete: Get it? Do you get it?
Pete: Do you get it?
Pete: It’s so clever. I’m so happy about that title, but—
Jared: Okay. But, we’re gonna talk how the Bible actually works and I’m just excited about it because Pete wrote this book by that title, but we really want to do a deeper dive into some of these concepts and maybe even respond to a little bit of the pushback. I think, overall, it’s been really good, but there are some things that we want to think about and talk about a little bit more—
Pete: Interact, a little bit, maybe with some things—
Jared: Yeah. But before we do that, maybe just a quick overview, Pete, of the main points. Then, we’ll go from there and take a deeper diver on this—
Pete: You mean, for those who haven’t memorized the book yet?
Jared: I know. Those pagans.
Pete: For the seven of you listening, okay. Maybe the first thing that I can say is why I wrote it. That’s really a big thing behind the scenes. It just struck me that the language we typically use in the world of Evangelicalism or Conservative Christianity or even in the mainline Church about the Bible, it tends to be very positive and holy. It’s God’s Word. It’s God’s revealed Word. For some traditions, it’s without error. It’s our faithful guide to practice and to doctrine.
All those things are wonderful, but the problem that I’ve seen and many, many, many other people have seen is that when you actually read the Bible, you come up against all sorts of challenges to those kinds of ideas.
In fact, there are elements, characteristics of the Bible that have to always be defended against, put in their place so that ways of looking at the Bible can remain.
I just thought to myself, these characteristics (and I have three of them that I list in the book) are not just here or there. They seem really baked into the pages from the very beginning of the Bible to the very end. You can’t escape them. In fact, they’re deeply characteristic of the Bible itself.
I don’t think they’re remotely negative. I don’t think they need to be defended against. I think these are things that actually open windows and doors for us to see how the Bible actually works, if you’ll allow me to say that.
The three characteristics (I’ll just mention them here) are that the Bible is ancient. It’s really old. The Bible is also ambiguous, meaning it’s not a clear book in terms—even if the sentences are clear, the implications are not clear. It’s ambiguous. The third, which I think for the way I think about all this stuff, is the most important and theologically fruitful characteristic of the Bible of the three that I’m mentioning here. The Bible is diverse.
Those three things are so much a part of this Bible that we have and whether it’s the Christian Bible that includes the New Testament or whether it’s the Hebrew Bible, which is just the first part of the Christian Bible, it’s still the same. I’d like to think, and I could be stepping out of my paygrade here, but by faith I’d like to say that this is a thing that God likes and God intends.
Again, I don’t know what God intends. I have no earthly idea. I even say that in the book. But I still think that this is a positive thing for the Church, because these characteristics drive us to work through this Bible and struggle with it and not treat it like a rule book, but treat it as this unending source of wisdom as we engage with it.
Jared: Maybe you can–just on that point about the ambiguity, I often translate into thinking about I don’t know when the Bible’s describing something and when it’s endorsing it—
Jared: Would that be a good way to kind of characterize that too? Sometimes, we’re reading it and my tradition would go ahead and say, “This is something the Bible’s endorsing.” There’s a lot of baggage to what it’s saying and endorsing. There’s other things—“We don’t need to listen to that. It’s just describing the ancient world.”
Pete: Right. The way it’s often put, again to use the language that inerrantists use, “The Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms or teaches.” I’ve had discussions with people about this in the past and that’s exactly the ca—“Well what does it affirm and what does it teach?”
For example, I’m pretty adamant that Genesis Chapter One teaches and affirms that there are six, 24-hour days of creation, because there’s morning and evening and I think the implication is very clear. It’s intended to tie with the week and then the Sabbath rest that the Israelites have later on in this story. Frankly, it’s unambiguous. That’s clear to me. It’s not ambiguous what they’re intending.
But the implications for us, that’s another thing. It’s arbitrary to say, “Well, it’s not teaching or intending to say anything like that. It’s got to have some other meaning. That’s just part of the ancient world.” Blah. Blah. Blah.
Once you start mixing those categories, it’s really hard to separate them. It’s hard to know what’s going on in these texts.
Jared: Would it be fair to say, then, that whether you say we all pick and choose or whether you say—you put in this phrase, “It all depends on what the Bible intends and affirms,” that’s basically putting a layer of interpretation between us and the Bible. What I’m hearing in your book and how you talk about the Bible, Pete, is wisdom is finally acknowledging and being aware and getting really healthy with that layer—
Jared: That layer of interpretation and being friends with it and not denying that it’s there. That’s what I would have grown up with. “No. I just read the Bible. I don’t interpret it.”
Jared: But because it is ambiguous and it is that diverse, we have to interpret it. I mean, it’s in language.
Jared: Part of how the Bible actually works is forcing us to acknowledge that interpretative framework. Part of wisdom is looking at that and saying, “Yeah. There are some really unhealthy ways of interpreting this book and they are probably healthy ways of interpreting this book.”
Pete: It’s not always easy to know which are the better ways and which are not, but that’s part of the task of theology and the task of studying the Bible. This is as old as the Bible itself.
The whole thing about, “I don’t interpret it.” We do interpret the Bible. Even if we don’t know we’re doing it, because of just who we are and when we live and the questions we ask and our backgrounds, that really does affect how we look at texts. To think of the Bible as this thing that’s just there, sort of a neutral thing that we have to engage, we’re reading it in English here in America, at least, and it’s not written in English and translations have a significant interpretive dimension and scholars make decisions about which texts are better readings of the Old or New Testament. That’s part of our world too.
It’s almost like there’s ambiguity heaped upon ambiguity. I’d like to think there’s a lesson to be learned there for us. We should not expect a Bible that we can access without being conscious of that fact. Again, maybe breeding a little bit of humility as a result of that. This is a text we get to engage. We don’t control it. It’s not just a neutral kind of putting down of words, the meaning of which is pretty clear and the implications of which are pretty clear.
I think the history of Christianity contradicts that pretty quickly, because you have so many different opinions on all these things, Jewish and Christian. Maybe that’s not the bad news. Maybe that’s the good news. Maybe that’s okay. People accessing these texts in different ways and in different times and places under different circumstances.
Jared: What are some of those lessons we can learn? That’s something that we get quite a bit. “You’re tinkering with how people have always read the Bible.” By that, they mean their tradition and they assume that their tradition is how the Bible has always been read. What are some of the lessons we can take from how the Church has really—it grew and was thriving in a time when it didn’t always just have one singular way of reading it.
Pete: Yeah. People were always debating it. For me, the really important element here, which I suggested above, is the diversity of the Bible. It tells us that we’re already seeing within the Bible itself, people grappling with what the Bible means.
I’m going to even be more specific than that. I actually think, at the end of the day, it’s not so much what the Bible means, it’s grappling with what God is like. Even looking at the different ways in which God is portrayed in the Bible by different authors, it’s a lesson that we should take in and not say, “Oh my goodness gracious. Here’s a problem. We need to reconcile these ways of looking of God. There can’t be a major theological difference of agreement between the Biblical writers.”
But the fact is that there are these disagreements between the writers. Whenever the Bible was compiled (I’m just sticking with the Old Testament here) sometime after the Exile, there are people, learned scribes and rabbis who were involved in this process and probably priests as well. Who knows?
They could read and they understood how you have this diverse development of perspectives on God within this sacred text, all of which were worth keeping and all of which were worth cherishing and all of which were worth struggling with as well.
I find that to be a very important lesson for us as we think about the nature of the Bible, the nature of faith, and whether the point of the Bible is simply to give us answers about what God is like or it’s modeling for us what I call in the book, our sacred responsibility to own this process for ourselves, to be intimately knowledgeable with this story, this text, so that we can do a really good job of doing the same thing these texts do, which is to what I call in the book, reimagine God, to think about God differently in different contexts in different places.
An example or two might not hurt here. For those of you who haven’t memorized the book, these are examples here. I think one really good example is the book of Jonah, which Jared’s talked about that on a podcast too.
Jonah is the prophet who is sent to preach repentance to the Ninevites. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian empire. Of course, he doesn’t want to do it and who blames him. The Assyrians are horrible. They are the bad ISIS of the day. God wants him to go do it, so he runs away. He gets swallowed by a fish. He goes down to Sheol. He comes back up again. He’s spit up on the land. He goes and preaches repentance to the Ninevites.
He says, “Forty days and you’ll be destroyed” or something like that—
Jared: Well no. Forty days. It’s a play on words there.
Pete: Right. What is that again?
Jared: Forty days and you will—what’s—it’s destroyed.
Pete: Yeah. Right—
Jared: But there’s an ambiguity in that word—
Pete: Interesting. Yeah. Jared can’t think clearly because he has a cold and his head’s full of snot right now, so he’s not gonna—
Jared: No. But it is (laughter)—because you can read it in one of two ways. Jonah could say, “Forty days and you”—like conditional or unconditional.
Pete: All right. It’s a very short evangelistic sermon—
Pete: That’s the point—
Jared: It’s like three words or something—
Pete: Right. But the thing is that it works. It works because the king repents and the people repent and basically, Assyria functionally becomes a Yahweh nation. That didn’t happen. If that had happened, someone would have heard about it and noticed. “Hey, did you notice that the Assyrian Empire converted to a faith in Yahweh. What’s up with that?”
That’s a signal, one of the many signals from the book of Jonah that it’s not intending to be historical. There’s a theological message which seems to be God may care about people you don’t think that God cares about, even your enemies. This is a very Jesusy, New Testeamenty kind of moment in the book of Jonah.
The point is that two books over you have the book of Nahum. This prophet (it’s a three-chapter book) and they are just gloating over the fact that the Assyrians are getting destroyed. God’s response before it and at the end, everybody claps their hands. I sort of imagine a high-five across the world saying, “Finally, the Assyrians are out of the picture.”
The question is which is it. The way I explain it in the book is that the book of Nahum is an older book. The city of Nineveh was defeated by a coalition of forces like the Babylonians and the Medes around 612 BCE. That’s it. But Jonah is almost certainly a post-exilic book. It’s written after the exile, after the Babylonian captivity.
So what? Well, the so what is that during the captivity—you can imagine that you’re carted away to a foreign land. What happened about a generation or two later? These captives came back from Babylon. This was in 539 BCE. A lot of them stayed. They didn’t come back. They stayed in Babylon. In fact, Babylon became a cultural center for Judaism for about 1000 years after that. They stayed. They liked it.
I can imagine you’re taken captive. You move away and do you hate it here? But then, you say, “Listen. I just met the neighbors. They’re really nice people. They want us over for dinner. They have something called beer for heaven’s sake. What is that? We don’t have that kind of stuff in Israel. I can’t understand a word they’re saying. They have this weird language. But, we’re getting to know these people and they’re nice and they want to have a play date with the kids and it’s just going to be a great time. So let’s do this.” You make friends.
When I was in graduate school, I had a similar experience. I was told by some of my more conservative Christian friends, “Don’t talk to anybody. Don’t learn anything. Just keep your head down. Come out safe.”
But I met people there who didn’t believe anything like what I believed, but were just wonderful, wonderful people. I had an experience of meeting the other. I had to ask myself the question, “What does God think about them?” because had I been born in the countries where some of my classmates were born, I wouldn’t be Christian. A lot of this is an accident of where I was born. I’m thankful for it, but the reality is that I could have been born someplace else. My parents were immigrants. I could have been born in Poland. I don’t know what I’d be like right now.
Here you have a situation—I’m learning that maybe my view of what God is like has to expand because of my experiences. I think that’s very much—that’s exactly what’s happening in the book of Jonah. Jonah, after the Babylonian exile—the book of Jonah is portraying a view of God that does not agree with the portrayal in Nahum. God is for these enemies of ours. He picks on Assyria. Why not pick on the Babylonians? Because it’s a story. We’re picking the ancient enemies that we’ve had for centuries upon centuries. He’s making a beautiful theological point.
Jared: With that, let’s go further with that example, because then for the modern reader, are you saying, “I’m more of a follower of the way of Jonah than I am a follower of the way of Nahum”? Or is there a sense of wisdom in there that sometimes the way of wisdom is to love and forgive your enemies and sometimes it’s to rejoice that the—I’m just thinking of ISIS—
Jared: Like these things where terrible things happen.
Jared: Is it that wisdom thing of we have now stacked up behind us many peoples’ experiences that we can draw from at appropriate times?
Pete: For me, I would say that personally I’m more with Jonah in terms of envisioning and imagining a bigger God that I think is supported very much in the gospel. However, as I’m very quick to tell my friends too, I’m not living in Syria right now. I’m not living in some beleaguered country that’s being attacked by people where my prayer might be, “Lord, show up with your armies and the Lord of Hosts (which means armies) and take care of business.”
I cannot say that I would never say that. Like the book of Revelation. Our Bible closes with a book that’s like that. A beleaguered people want God to shed a lot of blood against the enemies.
Now maybe that’s not—maybe we have to do more thinking, Jared. Maybe part of wisdom—I’m just riffing here—maybe part of wisdom is leaving behind that point of view entirely because I think of non-violent resistance where people would rather die—the American experience with Martin Luther King Jr. and the impact that that has had—maybe that’s the course of wisdom.
I think we’re demonstrating the point, though, Jared, that it’s not really clear. The diversity here is creating an ambiguity that we have to think through theologically and situationally and be careful how we listen to other people as well who have a different perspective on that. The thing is we’re having a God-centered theological discussion in doing that.
Jared: That feels (maybe for some people) new and it feels risks and it feels unfaithful to the Bible. I was thinking of Brad Jersak and some other people we’ve had on, “Yeah. What we’re getting back to is that the Church has been this place for these conversations even before the Bible was.”
Pete: Yeah. We do forget that sometimes when Christians have always believed “X” about the Bible and whatever the “X” is usually isn’t true. We shouldn’t project our own post-enlightenment, logical, analytical strictures on an ancient text, which is essential Semitic. It’s ancient Jewish text. We shouldn’t impose those kinds of regulations and expectations upon a book like that. It seems to be built, designed if I may put it that way, to generate these kinds of conversations around the topic of what is God like?
Again, I think that’s when you come to the gospel. It’s when you’re treating things in the Old Testament. Is this the kind of God you can argue with or complain with? Or is this the kind of God you have to cower in front of and not even open your mouth and not even raise your head? It depends on what text you read. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I think it’s a great thing. It’s not a bad thing at all, because those reflect our experiences.
People have talked about how Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 present a different God. I think that’s true. Right at the very beginning of our Bible. Chapter 1 is the sovereign, above-it-all God who speaks into existence. He’s sort of a cosmic, button-pusher and everything falls into place. It’s exactly the way it should be. It’s perfect.
In Genesis 2, He takes a stroll in the garden. He asks Adam, “Where are you? Haven’t seen you in a while.” God walks in the garden. Even if that’s used somewhat metaphorically, it’s still a different portrayal of God than just a voice speaking up in the heavens.
God finds things out in the opening chapters of Genesis. When you get to the flood story, God regrets, He laments what has happened. That implies a sense of surprise. Think about that. “I’m so sorry about that because it caught me off-guard. I didn’t realize this was going to happen. Making humanity is not really that great. I have to drown everybody. Now, that’s what I have to do.” Which, by the way, is a very ancient conception of God. That’s one of the three points I make.
That’s a portrayal of God there that is not really consistent with the other portrayal of God in Genesis 1. I’m not making this up. People talk about the transcendent God and the imminent God in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. One of the reasons why you have this ambiguity at the beginning is because it’s setting up the entire story, because you meet this very imminent, human-like God who gets talked out of things, who has a temper that Moses has to calm Him down in Genesis 32 and 33. But other times, you have a god who even the temple cannot hold—the heavens and the earth can’t even hold this god.
Which is it? Is it one or the other? Well, it’s both. Sometimes, we connect better with one and sometimes, we connect better with the other. Sometimes, we need to hear about one more than the other. I think, Jared—in my opinion (this is a really blanket statement), but if you’re listening here (if you haven’t fallen asleep yet), which connects more with you? Is your experience more that you have trouble thinking about God as really imminent and with you and a part of you and next to you? Or it is easier for us to think of a god who is sort of up there and out there someplace, like a platonic god who is detached from this earth that we live in.
I think it’s more that. I think more Christians are comfortable with a god who is sort of up there and makes cameo appearances. We need this god of Genesis 2 and Genesis 3, who interacts with us like a character in the story.
That’s the incarnation. That’s Jesus. That’s a concretization of this god that we can talk to and refer to and argue with and cry with and all those other kinds of things. I think the ambiguity, the diversity, I think it’s fuel for theology. It’s fuel for (MUSIC STARTING) also appropriating the text for ourselves and nobody asked me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
23:48 (Producer’s Group Endorsement)
Jared: It’s messy. Sometimes we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to have this transcendent God, but the one who is with us and we don’t want it to be messy. The Bible shows us those all go hand-in-hand here.
Jared: Just a correction—you said Moses in Genesis 32, but I think you meant Exodus 32.
Pete: Oh yes. Exodus 32.
Jared: I have a kind of a broader meta-question here. Sometimes we say, “Well, given all this, then how is God behind this?” because there’s this view that God dictated it. You’re saying, “Well, the Bible is ancient, ambiguous, diverse and we don’t need to think that that makes it any less divine. God could easily have made it so that this is the kind of book we have. Why do we assume it has to be contemporary and unanimous and perfect, or whatever that means?”
Is this a question—I guess my question is, “Is it just by faith? What way is God behind any of these writings? Is that just a faith question?”
Pete: Yeah. In a way, yes. But also, it’s something that is confirmed by habit and by community and over time. It’s not a logical, “Here’s how I know that this Bible, exactly the way it is, comes from God. That’s my starting point and if I don’t start there, everything else falls apart.”
Maybe you have to get to that point. Maybe through struggling with the text. Also, through struggling with voices of the past who have also struggled with this text. Because we’re part—when we start dealing with the Bible, we are part of a community, not just a synchronic community, not a community that’s right now at the same time as us, but a diachronic community that goes through time.
Of course, not everyone’s going to read ancient church or the Medieval church or the Reformation church. That’s not the point. But the point is that we are actually in this very long conversation, diverse conversation over this text and to me, that’s messy, but the messiness, for me (I can only speak for myself and I’ll speak for you too, Jared) is a freeing thing. It’s not, “Oh my goodness, gracious. Now what do we do?” It’s like, “Thank goodness I don’t have to hold all this stuff together and have this perfect knowledge of this text, which seems set up to not let us have (laugh) that kind of a grasp of it.”
The Medieval period of the Church, lasting roughly a thousand years, there was a very popular way—the normal way of looking at the Bible was a four-fold method. There were four ways of looking at the text. There’s the literal way. There was an allegorical way, which sometimes means talking about Jesus, but sometimes it just means jumping off the page and going someplace else to see a deeper spiritual meaning. There was a moral meaning. What does it mean to me? How does this affect how I live? Also, how does this—what does this tell me about the whole Christian story that’s going to end one day when the world comes to an end and God judges everyone? How does that work?
I think that’s a beautiful thing. It’s not just one meaning. It’s multiple meanings. As far as I’m concerned, the Bible demonstrates that already for us. It’s hard to get two authors to agree on a lot of things.
Jared: Can you say a little bit more about that? What do you mean “it’s hard to get two authors to agree on the same things?”
Pete: Just because there’s such diversity in the Bible. You don’t have to look hard for it. That’s why it’s such a problem in apologetics. It’s not hard to find it. You can’t get out of Chapter 2 and you already have a major difference in how the Creator is being portrayed for us in these pages—
Jared: That’s why that Book of Bible Difficulties is like a thousand pages.
Pete: How many volumes? (Jared laughing) That kind of a book comes out of a mentality that is expecting a certain kind of Bible for philosophical reasons. If God has inspired this book, it needs to act a certain way. C.S. Lewis has a great comment. In his book on the Psalms—
Jared: Is it Till We Have Faces?
Pete: No. It’s a book on—
Pete: –the Psalms. He says, “We should never presume upon Scripture that it has to act a certain way, especially if after reading it, we see it’s not acting that way.” I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but maybe we can put that quote up—
Pete: I will find it. We’ll put the quote up in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). The thing is that it’s—we have to very careful not to impose things on the Bible. All of us do that. I do that. All of us do that. I think we should be self-aware of what it is we’re doing. When I choose to highlight in how the Bible actually works, these characteristics of the Bible’s antiquity, its ambiguity and its diversity, that’s my way of trying to do that.
You asked me, “How is God behind that?” My answer is, “I have no earthly idea. I’m a person. I don’t know how these things work.” I’m just working from the bottom up and saying, “This is what I’m seeing here,” but I’m doing that from a position of faith, not a position of, “and therefore, God does not exist.” I’m not saying that. I’m doing this within the context of faith and faith community and all that kind of stuff—
Jared: Well, you use a helpful word when you talk about freedom. Sometimes, you said it comes from a place—these other ways of reading—that the Bible has to look a certain way. Sometimes there’s this ethical dimension that we’re also afraid of the freedom that it gives.
Jared: Because then we’re scared that someone’s going to read it wrong. What happens if someone reads the Bible wrong? It comes from a good/protectionist mindset and there’s a certain freedom, but it is a terrible freedom, because like you said, we don’t have a choice. We have to read it somehow. There is an interpretive framework. So it’s this terrible freedom. We have the freedom, but we wish we didn’t, so we create these constraints and then we say that’s from God. But I think this freedom part is really important.
Pete: That is actually imposing something onto God at that point. We’re making God out to be a helicopter parent, making sure, “Okay. Listen guys. I can’t leave you alone for very long. I don’t trust you to figure anything out. Here’s this book that’s going to answer all those questions for you. You just have to be really careful to read it and make sure you follow everything it says.”
What’s the experience many people have? “I tried that. I tried reading it and following what it said and I don’t know what to do anymore, because I don’t want to do most of the stuff that it says to do and some of it contradicts other stuff. So what do you do?”
Rachel Held Evans’ book, The Year of Biblical Womanhood,” she tried to live according to the biblical dictates of what it means to be a “woman.” Although, they aren’t actually biblical dictates. They’re biblical dictates read literally. That’s really what she was after.
The Bible’s just too diverse for being smushed like this into this safe thing and then saying, “God wants us to have this safe thing.” Good parents don’t protect their children in ways that are unhealthy for them. You do protect your children from—the analogy breaks down at some point—but you’re going to hold your kid’s hand when you cross the street if they’re two years old. I was just with my granddaughter and I had to do that. I’m not going to let her go.
As a quick story, there was at one point little Lilah, who is just over two, had her finger pinched inside a little bucket where there was a toy in it. She started whimpering and crying and she looked at her mom, my daughter, Lizz, who didn’t come rushing over to help her with the bucket. She left her there and said, “Oh Lilah, are you okay? What’s wrong?” And Lilah then, got up the strength to get up from where she was and walk over calmly to Lizz and then Lizz helped her with relieving the pain on her little finger.
To me, that was a beautiful picture of what it means to parent well that lets children experience things because they grow from those experiences.
Jared: The only thing I think that with a lot of these analogies, we do ourselves a disservice by this dominant metaphor being a parent and us being children. In a lot of traditions, we build theological systems for children—
Jared: –and then we don’t allow people to really grow up. What is Christianity? For me, the natural development of kids grows from rules with wisdom. What’s appropriate for a six-year-old to allow or not allow them to do is very different than what’s appropriate for a sixteen-year-old and different than what’s appropriate for a 28-year-old.
You would hope the natural development is you moving away from dictating and having rules and consequences to wisdom. What’s a better decision or a worse decision for you? As a parent, you get less and less control. But if we have whole theological systems that keep us as children and God’s always the parent and we’re still little children, if we have that baked into the system, then it makes sense that we would see the Bible this way. It makes sense that we would have churches set up this way. It makes sense that we would have these.
So what does it look like where we have a Christianity where we are adults—
Pete: Where we’re actually preparing our children for adulthood.
Pete: Right. And not—
Jared: Maybe God is preparing us for adulthood.
Pete: That’s just it. That’s the analogy. A significant number of my students where I teach, they actually struggle with that, because we talk about things in our introductory Bible class. They’re not really daring things. It’s just—have you noticed Matthew and Mark tell this story differently? People thought about why that might be the case. Students are enlivened by that, believe or not. They’re like, “Oh my goodness, gracious. This is nice and complicated.” But the question is “why didn’t anybody ever tell me this?”
I’m remember when I was in graduate school, John Levinson, whose been on this podcast, he said, “There’s no adult who has a seven-year-old knowledge of math. There’s no adult who has a seven-year-old knowledge on anything.” But for some reason, when it comes to religion (he’s talking about his Judaism too), “there’s some reason when it comes to religion, it’s a good idea to keep children safe and protected where they don’t have to think for themselves.”
I don’t think God is out to dehumanize us and to keep us just simple people who are afraid to ask questions or who are afraid to risk. I think this whole thing about growing in the faith, it involves risk and pain and suffering. I think just dealing with the Bible is a microcosm of the whole spiritual journey because all those things are there. There are Biblical characters that experience every emotion under the sun, including being sick and tired of God. It’s all there. It’s modeling for us something that, Jared, you were saying before, wisdom is really what it’s modeling for us.
You cannot use this book as a safety net for your life. It’s going to push you out of the nest, so to speak, and you have to explore and you have to take risks and you have to figure things out. That sounds like secular advice—“you mean, don’t go to the Bible for a verse”—it’s exactly what I mean. Don’t go to the Bible for a verse. Use the brain that we’ve been blessed with and think about it with humility and not with pride. Sensing that that very act, the presence of God is there with you as you’re doing that.
“How will I know if I get the right answer?” You won’t.
Pete: Right. That’s life at that point—
Pete: A tolerance for ambiguity is a very important lesson for all of us to learn. I don’t like—I would love to have a lot of things cleared up, quite frankly, but I don’t. Learning to deal with the ambiguity forces you into a position of dependence on God in a good way, in a healthy way of faith and trusting God and not feeling like “I can trust God up to a point, but eventually, I need it in writing, so I can see in front me that will actually give me the answers to this.”
I think the entire Bible is set up to discourage that kind of mentality.
Pete: Which is the irony. I don’t think what I’m doing in this book is unbiblical. I think it’s deeply biblical. I think other ways are actually unbiblical even though they claim to be based on the Bible and its inerrant teachings or what God wants for us, by giving us this book.
Jared: You mentioned we can’t really ever get to certainty. But I think there is some comfort in knowing that we’re standing on the shoulders of this great tradition, where some of the things you’re talking about actually has been practiced—
Jared: Are there some examples that you might have to help us root ourselves in that?
Pete: Yeah. In a way, just put your finger down anywhere in church history and you have people who are reimagining God for their context and owning that responsibility. For me, the clearest early example is the gospel itself. The New Testament is reimagining God, just as Judaism had been doing before the gospel came around. This isn’t the first time it’s happened.
When you align the Creator and the One who chose Abraham to be the father of Israel—when you align this one with the shame of the cross and the Messiah is someone who dies for some reason. That is a different way of thinking about God. That’s unique. That was driven by the experiences of the people who were writing the Bible. That was their experience of Jesus and so they wrote about Jesus that way.
God is portrayed in ways that are sometimes very similar to the Old Testament. Sometimes not similar at all. Which is an example of this diversity within the Bible, now including the Christian Bible. But it’s not a matter of Old Testament versus New Testament. It’s a matter at looking at some of these developments about how God is portrayed within the Old Testament and then seeing the New Testament maybe picking up some of those trajectories, but also, doing some things that are really fresh and different and sometimes difficult to understand where did this come from.
I think the New Testament writers were grappling with that stuff too. How do we wrap our arms around a crucified and risen Savior? There’s no exegetical, hermeneutical handbook to go to, to understand how this works. So they wrote what they wrote.
Just right after that, the early church moved from a very Semitic and apocalyptic mindset, like “things are going to end pretty soon” to a more philosophical and Greco-Roman mindset. That’s what gives us things like the church creeds where they were arguing about theology because the “kingdom of God came and it’s sort of here, but it’s not really here fully, because Jesus hasn’t come back and the end hasn’t come and so we’re sort of in this holding pattern.”
John Caputo, the philosopher, says, “the church is plan B.” Plan B means, “We’re going to be here for a while. How do we make sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus when the story went a certain way? How do we live that story here?” In the early church, creeds came out of that. They were important things to talk about philosophically, about the nature of God and the nature of Jesus and the church.
All that’s fine. It’s wonderful. It’s not the high-water mark of the history of the church, but it’s a moment that reflects the time and places. Pick your guy. Luther did what he did because of his setting. He wasn’t reproducing what the Bible said. He was engaging it and reinterpreting it, quite frankly—
Jared: Yeah. I was thinking even if you think about that time of the Reformers and how much juris prudence and thinking about law—
Jared: –was coming into the culture.
Jared: It’s no surprise that a lot of these guys were doing theology in that context.
Pete: Also, the energy that was there for Calvin and other Reformers to really know your Greek and Hebrew and get back to the original sources—that was not a major emphasis at all in the Medieval period. For some, it was, but you don’t usually go around and learn Hebrew so you can read the Old Testament better. But—
Jared: That actually came out of the culture—
Pete: Yes. (Unintelligible)
Jared: That was a Renaissance thing—
Jared: (Unintelligible) back to the sources.
Jared: That could have been seen as a pagan influence.
Pete: Oh yeah.
Jared: (Laughter) Back then—
Pete: Absolutely. You can talk—
Jared: I think actually Erasmus got in trouble for that—
Pete: Yes. He did get in trouble for that. But he was actually a hero at the end of the day. It’s all sorts of examples like that. In other words, the point is that we can go to almost any place in the history of the church and any place in the church right now globally and we can see people appropriating the story in different ways depending on their experience.
We’re back to Richard Rohr and the analogy we use five times every episode which is, there’s a tricycle and the front wheel is experience and the back two wheels are tradition and Scripture. It’s experience that actually drives our theological thinking. That’s a scary thing. I know that.
I don’t how else to explain this stuff. Maybe God is in our midst and values that we’re doing the best that we can and it’s going to be okay. I think the Bible models that for us.
43:29 (MUSIC STARTS)
Pete: On that note, I think we’ll bring this to a close. What do you think, Jared?
Jared: I think it’s time.
Pete: How’s your throat doing?
Jared: It’s just doing so great—
Pete: How about sing a little song for us, right now—
Jared: (Whispering) I mean, it’s fabulous right now.
Pete: (Whispering) I can hear that. Anyway, so—
Jared: We’ll just have a whole ASMR. You know that thing on YouTube?
Pete: No. What’s that?
Jared: Where people whisper and they touch packaging and stuff and it gives you the tingly feelings?
Pete: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Jared: Oh man.
Pete: I need to go on—
Jared: Yeah. Look it up. ASMR—
Pete: Go on the Google Net or something—
Pete: –and figure that one out.
Jared: They whisper and they open packages of MacBooks and it creates this tingling sensation for people.
Jared: They’ll just listen to it for a long time.
Pete: Okay. That’s crazy.
Jared: We’ll have to do a whole episode with that.
Pete: What a horrible world we live in. (laughter) Anyway. Okay, maybe we should stop the episode so I can go on and do that stuff—
Jared: Maybe you should do it.
Pete: –or whatever—
Pete: Okay. Anyway, thanks again for listening, folks. This is the end of the season for us, right Jared—
Pete: This is the end of Season Three. Really, it’s gone so quickly, these three seasons. It feels like we just started yesterday. It’s been great. Wonderful. Thankful to all of you for listening and we’ll be back after a break. We always take a little break that goes about six weeks, right—
Jared: Right. Somewhere in there. We’ll see you for Season Four.
Pete: Season Four.
Jared: In the meantime, really take time to process everything you’ve learned this year.
Pete: Yeah. Get back to us. There will be a test in February. Also, don’t forget our campaign. We mentioned the Patreon campaign. That’s—we really want to launch this stuff because we think—we know that a lot of people would like it—the transcripts. That helps them a lot, so we want to do that too.
Jared: All right. We’ll see you guys in a little while—
Pete: All right, folks. Thanks for everything. See ya.