Interview with Barbara Brown Taylor: How the Bible is Curated with Human Fingerprints

In this episode, Jared & Pete talk to author, teacher and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. They discuss the many different stages and “human fingerprints” involved in getting the Bible from the original manuscripts to the printed translations that we read, including our own theological history and tradition.

Share BBT’s Wisdom

Barbara Brown Taylor says God trusts human beings with the message - The Bible for Normal People podcast
Read the transcript

Pete Enns: [00:00:00] 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 Byas: [00:00:08] …and I’m Jared Byas. Welcome everyone to this episode of the podcast. Today our guest is Barbara Brown Taylor. She’s a New York Times best-selling author. She’s a teacher, recently retired from Piedmont college, and an Episcopal priest from down south in Georgia. And she has a few very popular books. She’s written several, but one of them is “Leaving Church,” she wrote about ten years ago. And another is “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” about three years ago. And both, I think, probably somewhat about her personal story of faith and some of the experiences she’s had walking with a lot of students and a lot of people as she’s been a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Pete Enns: [00:00:50] Barbara’s sort of a big deal, if you haven’t caught on to that fact yet. I mean, a lot of you know who she is. And our topic today was discussing how the Bible is curated, which is a term that I don’t typically use but it means something like how it’s managed and how it’s controlled and that can be both a negative thing and a positive thing. But we all have our own tendencies. Our denominations have tendencies. Personally, we have tendencies. And in the history of the church, tendencies to sort of manage this text and to control it and to divvy it out to the masses in ways that people in power perhaps might want to support certain theologies. There are translations that are chosen of the biblical text that, you know, are not necessarily the best ones, but we all have this approach to the Bible. All of us do, including myself, where we privilege certain things and we highlight certain things. In that sense, I think she means to curate the Bible. We care for it and then divvy out to others like in a museum.

Jared Byas: [00:02:02] Yeah, I’m really excited about the conversation. So let’s get to it with Barbara Brown Taylor on Curating the Bible.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:02:09] Human fingerprints, for Christians, are no problem because God decided long ago in Christian understanding to trust human beings with the message. Beginning with Jesus and moving on through the apostles, you know, right down to us. God decided to risk trusting the humans. I hear students who’ve been discouraged from taking a religion course in college because it will “make them lose their faith.” And guess what? It does. They lose a kind of faith. But others come to a kind of faith they never knew was possible before.

Pete Enns: [00:02:38] Hey everybody. Welcome to the podcast. And welcome to Barbara Brown Taylor. Thanks for being here.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:02:43] I’m so happy to. Thank you for asking me.

Pete Enns: [00:02:45] This is now off your bucket list. Where do you go from here? You know, Barbara, that’s the thing.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:02:52] I don’t know. Colbert.

Pete Enns: [00:02:55] That’s a step-down. You know. But anyway, so. Now, we have fun here and it’s great to have you here to talk about things that interest our listeners and interest us too and one thing we have in common is we both have a little bit of background in–Jared as well–in teaching undergraduate students religion or the Bible, in my case, in Christianity. And, you know, probably we can riff a couple of stories there, but I know that in my context it’s – -and I mean this in a supportive way–it’s not hard to surprise them with things come up when you look at history or biblical scholarship in general because you know many young people tend to have sort of a flat Bible and an experience where there aren’t a lot of contours to the reading of scripture. And I imagine, you know, your setting was different than mine at Piedmont but I imagine you had similar kinds of experiences teaching undergrads as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:03:50] It’s true. I come from the south, so students emerged from a thick cultural experience of Christianity. And plenty of them were involved in churches, but like good Protestants, in many cases their relationships to their scriptures were rich with feeling and not so deep in history or in critical thinking, which we overuse in college classrooms but still. So it was always a big deal on my part to decide how to surprise them, intrigue them, without wrecking their confidence in their tradition.

Pete Enns: [00:04:30] Yeah, how do you do that? It’s a little different, right? I mean you have different populations and…

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:04:35] Yeah. Every class is different. Every year is different. And then clearly every decade is different. You know, the streams that move through the culture moved through my classroom as well. So the way I did it often was to stick as close to the historical record as I could in terms of the development of the New Testament canon but give them different ways to justify their own positions about it. Because I had people very very high on divine inspiration of Scripture or divine dictation of scripture and others who thought it was about as convincing as Greek mythology, as one student told me after his course in New Testament. So I would give them different ways to justify their own positions and in some ways that help them relax enough to consider other places they could be.

Pete Enns: [00:05:26] So you were teaching them scripture, taking into account historical realities, let’s call them, but trying to give them a space to sort of affirm where they are and let them maybe make peace with it in their own way at their own pace?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:05:41] True and I couldn’t protect some of them from seeing what they saw when they looked in a different way because again many of them would say they lived by the Bible, that the Bible was their guide for living, but they knew very little about which books were where or who had written what. So I used to start by telling them the difference between a devotional reading of scripture, which was hugely important and I always called their churches their primary centers, but I tried to distinguish that from a more academic look at scripture, which I stressed as a secondary place–classroom as secondary place. And yet, there were many surprises.

Jared Byas: [00:06:19] So Barbara what would be some examples of the surprises that you found kind of again and again when you would share this piece of historical knowledge that would shake people or have them asking a lot of questions? Are there any that stand out.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:06:32] Yes, clearly. Every single time. And it had to do with the first 300 years of Christian history.

Pete Enns: [00:06:39] Oh that.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:06:39] I think the largest surprise, though we have no transcripts from the time, was that it took 400 years to agree on a New Testament. We could look at earlier second century documents that suggested those 27 books were pretty solid a couple of hundred years in. But it was close to, you know, the 400s before the Christian church had agreed on the 27 books that would become the New Testament. That was a really long time for some students who had thought that it, I don’t know, washed up in a bottle on shore finished. And the second surprise for them..And they actually loved this because they’re big on conspiracy theories that someone had been hiding the truth from them. So to allow them to read the Gospel of Thomas or fragments of the Gospel of the Ebionites, or just to take a look at other texts around the same time that had been in the running. Some had even been on some final lists and then vanished from them. That was fascinating to them. So they liked that. But it did cause them to think differently about the New Testament.

Pete Enns: [00:07:44] That it was…

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:07:45] Curated.

Pete Enns: [00:07:47] Yeah, it didn’t just sort of pop up in whole cloth at one point in time, but the decisions were made about what to keep and what not to keep.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:07:54] Yes. And the reason, well my hidden reason, for going over all of that with them was to engender a little theological humility if I could that they, whether they knew it or not, were already part of a Christian community that stretched back to millennia. And if they did see the Bible and especially the New Testament as a guide for life they had a lot of people to thank for that. There were a lot of fingerprints on those texts they loved. And that didn’t rob those texts of their authority. But it did make them beholden to people who had come before them.

Pete Enns: [00:08:32] Although many people, I would imagine, you probably had students who you know reflect the teachings of their churches where having that human stamp in the canon, as you know we call it, is actually a problem for the authority of the text. I imagine that you would run into an issue like that now and then?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:08:49] Oh, of course, I would. And yet, I don’t know. There was some kind of magic that could happen in a classroom as long as I said this is secondary. This is a second place.

Pete Enns: [00:09:00] Yeah, I like that.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:09:02] Your churches are primary places and then all you have to do really is read the Bible to see differences between views. One of my favorite things to tell them was the early Church chose four gospels that did not agree in every detail because they thought we can handle it and that we could rely on that.

Pete Enns: [00:09:24] Yeah, and in fact, that gospel writers looked at earlier gospels or earlier records and changed them to get across their theological point. I mean I find that to be sometimes a challenge for students who have been raised to think about the Bible as something that’s kept under glass that, you know, human beings had a minimal role in it. You know, they sort of wrote the words they were told to write. But in reality, there’s a human stamp. Part of which is, as you’re saying Barbara, just even how these books came together and what choices were made. And, do you read things from outside of the Bible too with them or how does that work?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:09:59] I have exactly four classes for Christianity so we usually have to do scripture in an hour. You know we’ve got one minute for Job, do you have any questions? And then we move on. So I have very very little time in the introductory course to do that. But, well, just today in Clarksville, GA. I walked into a store and met a former student and she said, “You know, I was just thinking about your class cause my pastor was talking about the star in Bethlehem and how it was there for two years and then it just vanished.” And I said, “How could it just vanish?” And we stood over the white Christmas tree she was putting up and had a wonderful discussion about the gospel according to Matthew and how he didn’t think it was important to say what happened to the star. So the storyteller himself was the first curator. You know, long before church leaders or copyists and editors got a hold of it. But I usually come back again with students, if I see them really floundering, to say that human fingerprints for Christians are no problem because God decided long ago in Christian understanding to trust human beings with the message. Beginning with Jesus and moving on through the apostles. You know, right down to us. God decided to risk trusting the humans.

Jared Byas: [00:11:18] How does that work, Barbara, within, you know, you mentioned and Pete mentioned choices being made. So, you know, I think on the podcast we’ve talked some about, you know, the Gospels and the fingerprints there that are clear differences. But you dropped something I think that would be intriguing for our listeners is–what happened to the text after they were written and these choices that were made? What are some of the high points in that process that you’ve again found that your students really enjoy talking about? You mentioned some conspiracy theories of other books that didn’t make it in and other things like that. Do you have a brief version of that process?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:11:55] It’s always interesting to talk to students about translation because many have not thought through the complexities of translation that closer to our own time…Gosh, I remember the New Testament scholar who first told me there were five thousand manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts of the 27 books of the New Testament. I had to have another beer after that. That was so upsetting. And that scholars had to sit down, in my imagination at long tables, you know, with all of these possibilities and come up with the most reliable versions of the 27 books that I knew as THE New Testament. And then the process of translation. Do you attempt at a translation like Martin Luther? Or do attempt a paraphrase like Eugene Peterson? Do you do it alone? Do you do it with other people? If you do it with other people, what kind of people? Like minded people? Differently minded people? All of that. That’s shaky ground, actually, to think about what it means to read in translation. Because we would quickly study Islam and take our 4 class days for Islam and talk about Muslims’ confidence in the transmission of the Quran in its original language. So I hope I gave students also some ground on which to stand, but that’s quite a lot of information if your primary relationship with scripture has been emotional.

Pete Enns: [00:13:27] Right. Yea, any sort of information is a lot. And, you know, backing up a bit to manuscripts and translations, I know that in my context, the very fact that the primary Bible of the New Testament writers was a translation. The Septuagint. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, which isn’t necessarily a good translation. In fact, it’s quite diverse with its own history that’s complex with manuscripts and different kinds of versions of the Greek. And then, we go to seminary and you learn Greek and Hebrew so you can read the originals and then you find out we don’t really have anything close to the originals. We have a constructed text. We have a curated text on the level of even what readings are accepted to put into this Bible. It’s not just the books themselves. It’s the books that you accept. You have to make decisions all the time about what is the reading that we’re going to value in the community? And decisions are often made on the basis of what a community expects.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:14:30] True and I at seminary had Bart Childs as an adviser and he was the person who said to me over and over, “This is the text the churches have lived with for 2000 years. And that carries its own authority.” So, however these books got here they have shaped Christian belief and practice. That was a way to calm down people who got very anxious about the kinds of choices we’re talking about. But there was also a kind of speech sometimes to be made–I’m making my classroom much more religious than it was–but there was also a time to say, you know and given all of this, you know, how could faith be more important? You know, how could it be more important that you trust in some of these processes of transmission that are so complex and have so many people involved in them? But…

Pete Enns: [00:15:17] It’s messy.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:15:18] Yeah, it is messy. And with any luck that again engendered a kind of humility, my deep wish is people would own their own interpretations. Not give up on the importance of them. Not give up on defending them with everything in them, but to exercise some humility in the process.

Pete Enns: [00:15:39] Not to trade stories here too much, but one of the classes that I teach is on biblical interpretation, i.e. hermeneutics. And we look at the history of interpretation for that very reason to show that, you know, this text has been handled interpreted, a different kind of curation, has been interpreted in very different ways by people who knew a lot and who were part of their cultures and contacts. And, you know, to show that you’re not the first person to think the way you do. Other people think differently. And what if it’s all good?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:16:09] Isn’t that great.

Pete Enns: [00:16:11] What if that’s okay? You know, it’s not about…You know, I guess the fundamentalist and sometimes evangelical tendency to seek THE text we can sort of lock into the way distant past and THE interpretation of these texts that, you know, give us the right answer. And my goodness gracious the whole history of Christianity and Judaism has borne witness to such tremendous diversity of understanding. And it is humbling. You know, it makes you see God maybe through the text rather than in the words of it.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:16:50] True. And I don’t know when Christians became allergic–you may – – allergic to that. When I look at the sacred arguments of the Talmud or I look at how the four schools of at least Sunni jurisprudence interpretation of the Quran temper each other. They’re not fighting with each other. They’re tempering each other. You know each looking for ways to find the interpretation that, you know, can keep the Quran alive. And I think Christians have that. We have that in church fathers–wish there were some mothers, mostly fathers. But I don’t know when we got on that tack.

Pete Enns: [00:17:29] Can we go back to that? You mentioned the four schools of interpretation of Sunni or – -I’m probably misstating what you just said, but. Could you flesh those out?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:17:39] No. No I could not. Ask an Islamic scholar to do that. But I can tell you about a field trip to a masjid where a very articulate host went through a particular practical situation. And I’d give you anything to have rehearsed that conversation for you. But he just went through the four schools and how they dialogued and argued and asked each other questions about it and came to different conclusions but tempered one another. And I just…

Pete Enns: [00:18:09] Which is similar to Judaism, right? That’s similar to Talmudic reasoning as you mentioned.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:18:14] Right.

Pete Enns: [00:18:14] Sometimes it’s about the debate. Not that there are no parameters. Of course, there are parameters in both traditions, but it’s not about everyone arriving at the same point of view. It’s about different voices. Tempering each other and moving forward together rather than fighting all the time about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:18:33] Yes. And when you say that, see, it’s also not about pure individualism. Because in my limited knowledge of these other two Abrahamic traditions they’re citing precedent. They’re citing a rabbi of century X or they’re able to go back through the history of transmission, of that interpretation, of the Quran and cite where it came from and who came before. So it avoids on one side the pressure to come up with one interpretation and on the other side, the kind of lapsing into whatever I think it means is what it means.

Jared Byas: [00:19:11] So, Barbara you mentioned earlier this primary read and secondary read. I’m interested a little bit about how have you navigated that? And I’m always interested in that question when I talk with academics who are sensitive to that primary read or, you know, that there’s a community of faith and that still plays a part as Christians. So that walking that line between the community of faith and the academic and how have you navigated? What are some concepts that have helped you as you come across these hard concepts or truths or historical facts about the religious tradition of Christianity? And then talking with students who would still be practicing their faith? And what are some of those concepts you might be able to walk with people through?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:19:52] Well, the concepts… I want to answer your question. Of course, I want to go in my own direction with that too. But the concepts have more to do with…it may be kind of a false feint at the beginning. F-E-I-N-T. You know, where I’m trying to set students at ease and say, you know, there are questions about how to live your life and how to behave in certain situations and this class is not designed to help you with that at all. You need to take those questions to your community of faith because in the same way science perhaps relates to morals or ethics, the historical study of religion relates to its practice. So the classroom is not a place to answer your questions about practice, but it is a place to acquaint you with varieties of practice and belief so that you can perhaps peek out of the place you know best and see how some other people think and believe in a fairly safe classroom setting. What’s been interesting to me, very interesting probably because these are the students I want to pay attention to, are those who come into the classroom so excited about having a place they can ask questions that they could not ask in their primary communities and who actually come to faith. That kind of second naivete happens right there in front of me. Where they say things like, “Well, now I can take this seriously.” Or “Now I’m kind of interested in being a Christian. “  But these are often the, not disaffected, but they’re true late adolescents. I mean, they’re 18, 19, 20-year-olds who have come to college and are ready to reassess. And some of them actually come to faith in the classroom in a way they say they did not come to faith in the churches they were raised in. Now that’s no majority but it sure is an interesting bunch of students. Several of whom have gone on to seminary. Have made huge commitments of time, energy, and money to go on and prepare for ordained ministry because of what happened in the classroom. I mean, not that the church didn’t prepare the way.

Jared Byas: [00:21:57] We’re sorry to interrupt the podcast, but we want to take just one minute to mention two simple ways to support the work we do with the Bible for Normal People. One–just go to iTunes, rate us and give us a review, but only do it if you like us. If not, just remember this is the only God-ordained podcast on the Internet. Two–if you haven’t already, please check us out on There you’ll find ways to join the community, contribute to the discussion, and offer your support at various levels. Last, but not least, we want to give our deepest thanks to some of the members of our producer’s group. These folks not only email us feedback but they jump on calls quarterly and have supported us financially so thanks to Ryan Morrison, Michele Chontos, Dave Carlton, Kevin Meng, Teresa Thompson, Phillip Gibson, Lelia Fry, Steven Goulstone, John Thomas, Michele Casey. We couldn’t do what we do without you. So thank you. Now back to the podcast. That’s really interesting. I think that would probably be a path that would resonate with a lot of our listeners. Can you say more about this second naivete and how…maybe just a little bit more information that you’ve seen? Examples of people that you’ve seen who would have had questions and what do you think it is that has. Whenever I have doubts and I’m not able to share them it kind of keeps me on the outside, but whenever I’m able to ask the question even if I don’t get the answer that maybe some faith communities would deem certain or giving overcoming my doubts but even just being able to express them leads to a new expression of my faith is that…What do you mean by second naivete in that and what’s been the process you’ve seen?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:23:40] Yeah, and I think I’m misusing “second naivete,” but at least a willingness to re-enter the world of Christian faith because they have heard some alternatives that make a lot of sense to them. And to repeat what you said, to be blessed for asking questions and not suspected for asking questions. To be acquainted with a kind of, you know, a way of practicing Christianity that includes sacred dialogue and faithful argument. And yes but. And yes but. I don’t know. To rewind, it is students who feel free within a safe setting of the classroom where they’ve already been reassured that this is an academic look, but they hear one another asking questions they haven’t asked before. So it’s kind of the appeal of permission to wonder. Permission to be curious. Permission to doubt.  Permission to be skeptical. Permission to own up to their own part in things. And then sometimes again late adolescent permission to disapprove of their parents and elders and everyone who got them where they are. But it’s been wonderful to me, as someone who pastored churches for 15 years to realize the classroom too can be a place of awakening of faith.

Pete Enns: [00:25:00] And maybe more so for many of them than the church context because then it’s…You mentioned before, Barbara, maybe going back to the church to discuss the spiritual implications, let’s say of the kinds of things we’re discussing in the classroom. For many of them, that’s a hard thing to do. That would be a big problem. They’re getting in the classroom maybe with you what they could be getting in church but they aren’t, which is the freedom to ask questions. And they wind up leaving those churches eventually.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:25:31] Oh, yeah. And you’ve just put your finger on the huge bruise because I had a friend say to me… I said you know, my problem is so many students are so excited by what they learn. In fact, you mentioned the Septuagint and I remember a young woman who went right home to her pastor and said, “Do you know what the Septuagint is?” And of course, he did not. And so she became very irritating. Irritating to him and irritating to her family. So I was talking to one of my colleagues about the alienating effect of education. And he said, “Well that’s not just in religion. That’s in every area that you don’t fit neatly into the communities you came from once you start asking certain kinds of questions.” And that’s very tough when students say, “I love this class. Point me toward a church where we can keep talking like this.” And I don’t have a church to point them to.”.

Pete Enns: [00:26:24] Yeah. And the difficult, at least one of the difficult, factors there is that their upbringing, it sort of formed for them a narrative for their lives. But they’re sensing problems with it and they don’t know what to replace it with.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:26:40] Right.

Pete Enns: [00:26:40] That’s hard. You know it’s hard to know what to do in those situations. And you know I have students, you know maybe you have some of the same ones, but students who say you know, “I’m really mad my pastor lied to me all these years.”

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:26:53] Oh I hear that.

Pete Enns: [00:26:54] And I said well they didn’t lie to you. They spoke from where they were and you met God there and your journey began there and it’s OK but you don’t know where it’s going to end up. And you happen to be someone who’s come across information and you like it and you see the sense in it and welcome to that journey that many people wind up taking. But you don’t go back to church and start correcting the pastor’s sermons.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:27:18] No you really don’t. Because you’ll just make everybody miserable.

Pete Enns: [00:27:22] Well, including yourself.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:27:22] Right. That’s right.

Pete Enns: [00:27:24] Just maybe except that stage in your life. And then, you know, when the time is right, moving on is not a sign of lack of faith. It’s just a sign of changing and developing and growing.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:27:35] True. And see, you point out that there is a lot of pastoral care to do in the classroom as well because when students say that to me, I’ll say, “No, no.” They loved you they were giving you the best, you know, that they had to offer. If it had been vitamins, they were giving you multivitamins. They were giving you the best they had. So those weren’t lies. But it might have been a simplification. You know, it might have been sixth grade. And now here you are in college.”.

Pete Enns: [00:28:03] So I guess you didn’t quite leave the pastorate, did you?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:28:09] No. I like to say that I got out of the answer business and got into the question business.

Pete Enns: [00:28:13] That’s a good way of putting it.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:28:15] And I get to give grades which makes life so much easier. You always have that threat.

Pete Enns: [00:28:20] You do have that. I mean you’re sort of a default chaplain or something. I know the Bible and Theology faculty at Eastern, we sort of think of ourselves that way because we deal with the students on the ground level. And I remember, you know, I’ve never ever wanted to be a pastor. And people asked me, “Do you ever be a pastor?” No no no. I said, wait a minute. I think I’m sort of doing that.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:28:37] I think I am.

Pete Enns: [00:28:39] And I don’t know why I’m doing that because I’m not good at it. But anyway. Okay. Now, can we get back? Jared asked a question earlier about curating. Because that’s a really fascinating concept. And, you know, you mentioned the canon around like in the fourth century around 400 began to get finalized. And that’s an act of curation. Have there been others that you see subsequent to that?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:29:05] Yeah I am an Episcopalian so I shouldn’t say things like this, but I do think each of us curates our own scripture, don’t we? When someone wants to talk to me about the Bible, I usually say, “Have you got one with you? Hold it up and let me see where the dark pages are that you’ve handled a lot and the ones where you never go.” And perhaps even denominational groups and communities within denominations curate their own texts. There are certainly churches that go by lectionaries and those that don’t. And sometimes I think pastors and preachers have way way too much say so about how much of scripture shows up in worship. But I do think that learning about how the New Testament comes to Christians curated is at least a way of coming to terms with the way we curate scripture ourself. And then with some luck that strengthens one’s resolve. It has strengthened my resolve to read more of it. You know, even the parts I wish weren’t there. I’d like to do a kind of Jefferson thing and just snip it, but I can’t. So to live with the parts I just wish weren’t there as well as the ones I adore and read often, I don’t know. There’s a kind of again humility in that seems helpful to own.

Jared Byas: [00:30:23] You know, the way you’re talking it seems like the goal is to not have so much of the curated Bible or canon within a canon. But also it sounds like it’s unavoidable and that’s maybe something… Is that something we should just..we should celebrate and just say… Just as though, you know, we live in a pluralistic society where we live with our Muslim neighbors and we live with our Jewish neighbors and where our Christian neighbors and we celebrate our diversity in the differences in traditions even within Christianity. We all have our own bibles, so to speak that we all, you know, certain denominations, all the way down to individuals, we resonate emotionally and otherwise with certain parts of the text is that okay? I mean I hear you saying there’s some danger in that where some pastors maybe have too much power?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:31:12] They’re often the community curators, yea. The curators of interpretation within a certain community, I think pastors do lead that. But see, I do believe we celebrate but we also suffer our diversity, don’t we? I mean, I think we do both. And the danger here and a conversation we’re not going to have because we’d have to start all over again is what I hear so often about, you know, relativism. That the minute you say things like celebrating diversity, you’ve collapsed into relativism. And I don’t think so. I think they’re just fabulous discussions to be had about why I like Matthew’s Jesus better than I… Well, I like Luke’s Jesus better than Matthew’s Jesus. But I think to have a conversation like that is to invite Matthew in and Jesus in and you in and me in. And it’s just to invite so many more people into the conversation to be able to both celebrate our differences but also to suffer them. You know, when we get to irreconcilable differences about our views of the nature of Jesus based on the portraits we get from those gospels or our own experience.

Jared Byas: [00:32:15] And I heard earlier the first key to that though is we have to own it. Like you said, if we could own our own curations and interpretations. That we are doing this and then we can have meaningful conversations.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:32:26] I’m afraid I have no patience for people who won’t do that. It it’s…just…God bless them. I hope they have a good time. But I just…I don’t want to get into that conversation. If we’re going to… There’s no dialogue if we’re going to sit down and argue about who has the right interpretation. I’m more interested in why that interpretation matters to you or what you base that on and tell me the story behind that. And where’d that come from? Then we’re into some kind of human narrative that is worthwhile.

Pete Enns: [00:32:59] And that sings to me Barbara and I know that some listening might sense also the tension there between Scripture is something to be dialogued over, even discovering own humanity with humility, where they’ve been taught that that’s not what scripture is.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:33:18] Sure.

Pete Enns: [00:33:18] Scripture is that word from the top down and you just do it.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:33:22] Well see. And if I’m following what I’m saying I’m not going to argue about that. I think if that is a way of making meaning that is making more of you, making more of your life and community, making you a more loving person go for it. You know? Don’t don’t listen to me. I mean, I’m a boutique flavor so there’s no sense in which I’m arguing for my understanding being the only correct understanding. One of the most intriguing things I learned in the classroom early on was a student who would interrupt me every three minutes to ask me to proof text what I was saying. Every three minutes. And then one day he started talking about how the Quran is different from the Bible. I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “Well, my Muslim friend and I have two hours of scriptural study together every Friday. You know, we sit down and read the New Testament the Quran together and talk about how they’re alike and how they’re different.” I was floored that a student I would have called one of the most conservative students in the classroom was the one who cared deeply enough about scripture to know why his Muslim friend cared equally deeply about Scripture. I never sat in on one of those sessions but I wish I had.

Pete Enns: [00:34:35] You mentioned earlier several different stages of curation and that intrigued me. And you went right to the personal one which is really where this ends. That’s exactly what people have to come to terms with but I wonder if the realities of like maybe the Protestant Reformation, in general, might play any role in your thinking about this curating of the Bible – -and curating, sort of managing it for people for their consumption–or anything along those lines? I’m not angling for anything particular but just, you know, where else your thinking has gone on that very fascinating idea of curating the Bible?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:35:17] Well, we’ve already, in terms of levels of curation, I count six. And then there’s us. And it’s the original storytellers who decided what to include and whatnot. And then the church leaders who decided what the 27 books and the New Testament would be. And then, as we’ve discussed, the copyists/ editors, who both copied and now we know sometimes edited as they went along. And then closer to our own time, the scholars who had to decide on the most reliable documents to work from. And then the translators. When you bring up Protestant Reformation, I won’t tell you how old I was when I realized how different Protestants and Catholics were translating some Greek words in order to make cases for their own ecclesiastical polity, if nothing else, of their own understandings of Christian being and doing. I also have gotten into, in our own time, interesting conversations. I read chiefly NRSV. Why? I went to an Ivy League seminary where that was the required version. But I’ve had plenty of students who are equally devoted to the NIV and thank goodness the Interpreter’s Bible includes parallel versions of both because one of my big deals in Life of Jesus is that Jesus never said he was the Son of God. And a student raised his hand and said, “Excuse me. He did.” And I said, “He did? Bring it to me.” And the next day the student brought it to me. You know, and it’s all around that Greek phrase when Jesus interrogator’s say, “Tell us whether or not you are the Son of God.” And in my NRSV, he says, “You say so.” And in the NIV, he says, “I am.” You got it right. And I was floored! Floored! In the classroom. And I was an adult who was already a seminary graduate and an ordained clergy person. But just that difference in two popular translations. Nevermind the fact that the Greek word “diakonos” for Deacon is often translated servant when it’s a woman and Deacon when it’s a man. That’s a real significant difference. So translation, I think, plays a far larger role than many of us are aware of. It’s why I like reading parallel Bibles with a lot of different translations on the page. Students eat that up. They have the best time noticing the differences and getting curious about why.

Pete Enns: [00:37:39] Yea, we talk about the realities of the market and how Bibles are translated and the kinds of expectations that people have. And it’s sort of a shame you’re treating this sacred text in a way to bend it and shape it in ways that–I think even intentionally bending and shaping it to–serve a subgroup, I guess, of believers rather than just sort of you as best as we can. I mean it’s a bit naive to say just let it be what it is because you have to translate and there are tough decisions you have to make. And that is you know we I encourage–we don’t have parallel Bibles that we use–but people bring whatever translation they want. And..

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:38:18] That works just as well. Yea.

Pete Enns: [00:38:20] Very interesting discussions about the NIV. Other translations don’t say that. Hebrews doesn’t say that. Greek doesn’t say it. But it does. And, you know, if you understand something about the history of and who tends to buy it. It makes a lot of sense. That’s, I think, a wakeup call and even a bit unsettling for people that translations are that different and the translation they grew up with is one that is as susceptible to this curating influence as even the bad guys’.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:38:47] It’s true. And I…and again we talked earlier about sort of the bruise. And to wake up to what we’re talking about can be very disillusioning. And I think it does take, I don’t know, some support, some courage, some activity of the Holy Spirit to hold one steady to keep going. Not to give up on the whole thing once you realize how many fingerprints there are.

Pete Enns: [00:39:11] Although they’re set up for that. I think, you know, they’re set up for that downfall if they have been raised with that particular way that the Bible should be uncurated thing dropped from heaven. And it just…it does, as you know and as many of our listeners know, this is exactly the post-traumatic stress disorder that they have to work through. And it’s good to hear people such as yourself modeling, I think, a wise and compassionate way through some of these issues because these are people. And they have feelings and stories and their faith means a lot to them. And you don’t want to rip that away. But on the other hand, there are just some facts out there that a lot of Christians and others have been able to assimilate, let’s say. And it’s a good process for them to go through as well. Probably even a necessary one or else they have, like you said, this major faith crisis about the gospels differ.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:40:05] Yes. And because I was raised by a psychologist, I console myself sometimes that I don’t have the power to rip away anyone’s faith. And that when people’s interpretive choices are important enough to them, they’re not going to surrender them easily nor should they. I do what I do and then I trust them to do what they are led to do as well. Though it is… It’s a sacred process and I don’t think the classroom gets enough credit for that. You know, I often hear it. I hear students who’ve been discouraged from taking a religion course in college because it will “make them lose their faith.” And guess what? It does. They lose a kind of faith. But others come to a kind of faith they never knew was possible before.

Jared Byas: [00:40:50] Well, Barbara, we are coming to the end of our time here and just wanted to give you an opportunity just for our listeners. What books or what resources or final thoughts you would have? Where would you point people to look into some of these conversations or other conversations that you’ve had in books that you’ve written?

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:41:08] I wish I had written more in this line. The book I’m working on now is called “Holy Envy.” After Krister Stendahl. And I’m trying to write a kind of memoir of a nonfiction a Christian pastor who becomes a college professor and teaches these things. And the sorts of markers we’ve been talking about that happen along the way, especially in my relationship with people of other faiths and in learning about the ways other people handle their sacred texts or their reliance on a tradition that doesn’t include a sacred text, like Zen Buddhists or native Americans. So “Holy Envy” is the book I’m suffering through now. But I suppose, in terms of the things we’ve been talking about, it would be the older books of sermons where week by week by week, I and a zillion other pastors struggled with a text in the midst of a somewhat diverse congregation to make sense of an ancient text in a contemporary world. So I am not a big online presence, but there certainly are some wonderful things out there for those who are and know how to Google well, including this podcast one might add.

Pete Enns: [00:42:18] Thank you.

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:42:19] Yes.

Pete Enns: [00:42:19] We’re trying.

Jared Byas: [00:42:21] Thanks everyone for listening. We hope you can find a group of people that you can participate in the kind of conversations that Barbara was talking about that can be life-giving in your faith. Also if you haven’t already read them, we would encourage you to pick up a copy of her books. “Leaving Church” or “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” I know for me and several friends of mine, found that a really helpful book as they were walking through some times of doubt and questions and in their faith.

Pete Enns: [00:42:46] And to continue conversations like this, you know, please feel free to find us on the Internet, especially my website, The Bible for Normal People. And continue listening to our podcast and sign up for the newsletter and even join our online community at Patreon on where we try to give a context and a setting for people to think about hard questions and to ask them and to answer them as best as we can. Thanks for listening people.

Get smarter about the Bible and stuff.

Get insider updates + articles + podcast + more.

More Episodes...
Ecclesiastes with Pete Enns

Ecclesiastes with Pete Enns

June 11, 2018

In this episode, Pete takes us into the somber book of Ecclesiastes. He cautions us against an optimistic reading as the author intends to question everything — even God Himself. It’s a book that’s not for the faint of heart (or for the new Believer) as you need to have weathered the storms of faith to fully appreciate the tough questions being asked . . . and ultimately, the hope found within!