The Irony of Being Bible-Believing

As someone who went to graduate school to study the Bible and who has since been paid by a university to teach the Bible to college students, I have learned a very valuable lesson.  When people say they are a “Bible-believing Christian,” that is not usually what they mean. They usually mean they will protect their core beliefs about the Bible at all costs. They are not opened to having their core beliefs about the Bible corrected, even, ironically, by the Bible itself.

Of course, this topic could be a whole book. But I want to look at just one of these core beliefs, the one that is revealed when people say, “What, you don’t believe God could have fill-in-the-blank?”

The core belief is this: The correct reading of the Bible is always the most supernatural reading, the one that requires the most “faith.”

For example, when I tell people that I don’t think the story of Jonah really happened, the automatic response is, “What, you don’t believe God could have made a fish big enough to swallow Jonah and allow him to live in his stomach for three days?” The assumption is that the “correct” way to read that story is to always read it in the most supernatural way, the way that makes God look the most miraculous.

And the only reason I could ever have to question that reading is because I don’t have enough faith. My God is too small. So, instead of actually looking at what the Bible is trying to say, we turn it into a competition about whose God is bigger. The person with the God who does the most incredible things wins.

When I teach Old Testament, I purposely introduce the parting of the Red Sea in this way: “You know, if you were at the parting of the Red Sea, it would have just been the wind.”

And almost always, I get called out as someone who “doesn’t believe what the Bible says.” Or at the very least, I get a lot of very nervous looks.

But then I simply quote Exodus 14:21a: “21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night Yahweh drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.”

Busted. The looks and comments just revealed to me that they aren’t interested in what the story says but only interested in defending their conception of God.

And the examples go on and on.

But I am not interested in seeing whose God is more miraculous.  That’s not taking the Bible seriously, that’s not taking the Bible seriously enough. And what’s worse, people who question the “God competition” or simply don’t know about it, are made to feel guilty for not having enough faith, when really, they are just reading the Bible inquisitively, asking questions to understand more.

What God is or is not “capable of” should have absolutely nothing to do with the way we read our Bible. Could God have had a fish swallow a man? Sure. Could God have reached down and opened up the Red Sea? Sure. But neither of those questions are important when it comes to understanding the Bible. The important question is what the Bible itself is saying about itself. And if we would get rid of our fear and defensiveness long enough to listen to it, we would be ashamed at how often we put words in its mouth, shaping it to fit our ideas of what it should be.

May we let the reach of the Bible shape even how we read the Bible. Let’s let it out of the box, allow it be what it is, in all its powerful, strange, confusing, messy glory.

I confess. I am a Bible-believing Christian. And that’s precisely what gets me into trouble with Bible-believing Christians.

31 responses to “The Irony of Being Bible-Believing

  1. To extend, I would also say that many times, even the majority of them, the factual reading of the bible, comparing it with a scientific explanation, can conjure up an even more incredibly creative and technical God.

    Sometime around second grade, just before snacktime one Sunday morning, we were all taught to see a rainbow and know that God put it in the sky. A few years later, we learned about the refraction of light by water droplets, the true cause of rainbows. We could stop here, be a good ultraconservative Christian fundamentalist, and disregard the scientific explanation, sticking with our notion of a God who manually paints pretty half circles in the sky after rainstorms.

    Or we could start thinking. God doesn’t just paint rainbows for us every now and then. He created an entire system of electromagnetic physics to continually create rainbows as another system, the water cycle, ensures that the Earth remains free of life-obliterating floods. This, to me, is a much deeper promise.

  2. so, what DO you think happened to Jonah? you can’t make a statement like “For example, when I tell people that I don’t think the story of Jonah really happened…” and never come back to it! ya left me hanging there.

    seriously though, i get what you’re saying about the parting of the Red Sea, and what Jacob is saying above me here about the rainbow. i have no problem with seeing the hand of God even in the scientifically explainable (wind pushed the waters back, not some giant hand; the rainbow is a naturally occurring process, but this doesn’t diminish that it’s placed there by God to remind us of the Noahic Covenant).

    where my feathers are potentially ruffled here is in saying “I don’t think the story of Jonah really happened…” Without further explanation, i have to cry foul here. i’ll wait to hear what you mean before going and explaining why you’re wrong 😉

    on a side note, how much of this (the unwillingness to be corrected by the Bible when defending the Bible) do you think is due to poor teaching and/or lack of self-instruction? One of the more common responses I get in these situations is something like, “Well, I was always taught…”

    • I didn’t know there were that many people that really think Jonah actually happened… I think this is because I avoid conversation with my fellow evangelicals – so I can pretend we all think the same. You’d be hard pressed to find many non-fundamentalist historical critical biblical scholars that will vouch for the historicity of most anything in the OT before Abraham and for many they doubt the reality of events recorded before the kings (and even that is considered somewhat dubious propaganda). Is that a fair assessment of the field, Jared?

      • “I think this is because I avoid conversation with my fellow evangelicals – so I can pretend we all think the same.” Hilariously true.

        I guess it depends on where you draw the line for “fundamentalist.” Often we define “fundamentalism” based on specific views they hold. So in a way, your sentence reasons in a circle: many might define fundamentalism by how much of the historicity of the OT they affirm so that, by that definition, it’s impossible to find a “non-fundamentalist scholar” who vouches for the historicity of the OT, since that is what defines fundamentalism. Does that make any sense?

        Anyway, to your actual point, what you say is true but it gets really complicated when we start looking at the nuances of what we mean by “history.”

      • There is nothing that says “I’m an emergent” like it depends what you mean by history/truth : D

      • Jen, believe it or not, there’s still tons of people that believe that Jonah’s story is historically accurate (“really happened”), especially within the ever-widening circle of “evangelicalism”, whatever that even means anymore.

        suffice it to say, i went to a college and then a seminary chock full of historical critical biblical scholars that all believed in the historicity of Jonah, and the OT.

        as for the discussion on “fundamentalist,” it’s been my experience that nowadays anyone to the right of me is a stodgy old fundamentalist, and anyone to the left is a flaming liberal. (‘me” being whoever is doing the blogging/commenting at the time) both terms are almost exclusively derogatory, and rarely advance the conversation anymore.

      • Austin – agreed. Those terms are generally useless and completely relative. If I talk to my friends from my undergrad, I am probably completely liberal. If I talk to my friends who went to Princeton or Harvard, I am completely conservative. Talk about identity crisis.

      • jared, i think you and i are in a growing group of people (growing? perhaps just more vocal?) that are somewhere in the middle of the extremes. i wouldn’t say “moderates” because that’s just as bad as “liberal” to some conservatives. what would you call it? the Betweens? the Not-so-sures?

      • I agree and my hope is to be a voice for this growing group, letting them know they are not alone. I think I would just call it “Christian,” resisting all urges to define myself based on church division, accepting the diversity that the Kingdom of God celebrates. I think titles are helpful, which is why I would still identify myself as an evangelical, just as “Methodist” is important and other distinctions. But value-loaded terms like “moderate,” “conservative,” “liberal,” etc. are simply not useful any more.

      • I apologize – my comment about Jonah was written with tongue firmly in cheek (as I’d hoped was indicated by my comment after about avoiding conversation with evangelicals – if I’m allowed to call them that, no one wants a label these days). I spent 5 years in Bible College and have been reading/studying since then and I am painfully aware that almost every Christian I know blindly assumes there is some way to prove the historicity of all biblical events (and I’m not saying there isn’t SOME evidence in SOME cases, but many Christian and non-Christian biblical historical critics would say the case is generally weak compared to the evidence to the contrary).

        I agree, of course, that “fundamentalist” as with all terms it seems have become useless because everyone has their own version of each brand of Christianity/scholasticism. That is one the most frustrating parts of trying to talk about any of these things with others, especially on the internet!

        I often think a more interesting question (with perhaps a more useful response) is “Where did the Jonah story come from? How is Israel’s version unique? Why did the faith community choose to include this story in their literature? What can we learn about Israel’s perspective on God/their role/prophets from this story? In what way was this story being used during the time of Jesus life? How has the faith community interpreted this story throughout the different ages? Why? ” – none of those require me to believe it actually happened, but I still leave the door wide open to learn all kinds of things and to have God speak through this story.

    • PS – I should said I’m not meaning to imply that all Christians who believe in the historicity of all OT events are accepting that idea blindly. I know there are lots who study and come to that conclusion – so be it! But most average church-going non-bible-college Christians have never even considered it.

  3. My lacuna was meant to be provocative. It worked!

    I think you are right about the “I was always taught . . .”

    Perhaps one day I will write a blog post about why I don’t think Jonah actually happened. It has to do with how stylized it is in the Hebrew, including how a-historical it is for a “prophetic” text, the poetics of chapter 2, the exilic bent, and the common practice of using obscure characters in a tradition for later parable-like stories.

      • That’s what it feels like when I read through it with the rest of the OT in mind and in the Hebrew. But, as always, I am open to changing how I read it.

      • so, how do you take Jesus’ words in Matt. 12:39-42? it would seem to me that Jesus took the account of Jonah literally, or else he is saying that a fictional population of Ninevites will be present at the judgment. In addition, this would make the account in 1 Kings 10 fictional as well.

        More importantly, what does this mean about Jesus death, burial, and resurrection? Perhaps one could argue that Jesus was reminding his hearers of a parabolic tale and saying “in that same way, i’ll be hidden for three days.” However, he then brings another historical account into the discussion, puts all these events (his burial, Jonah’s long weekend, and the Queen of Sheba/the south’s visit to Solomon) on the same level of credulity and flashforwards the all to the Judgment.

        i told you, you should’ve just written that post…

      • I understand the underlying argument of Jesus quoting the Jonah story. But it is based on some highly suspect assumptions. Two of these are:

        1. Jesus would never use a non-historical parable to help people understand his own life, mission, and experience.

        2. That people today do not use language in the same way as the assumption in #1 above.

        3. That Jesus & people would not mix non-historical tradition with historical tradition to make certain points.

        The first assumption is, it seems to me, quite obviously untrue. So, it’s okay for Jesus to make up parables out of thin air to help explain what he is about, but it’s not okay for him to use a story from his tradition to do so?

        The second assumption is even easier to dismiss. Just last night I watched an old episode of 30 Rock where Liz & Jack pull a “Mamma Mia” in real life. That’s using a fictional story to relate to real life.

        That’s the point of stories, historical or not. They are supposed to help you make sense of your experiences, finding ways to connect with them. I have a hard time finding out what is illegitimate about that, except that it really helps us to argue that Jonah really happened, which is circular.

        It also makes a lot of sense as to why Jesus would use the Jonah story to make his point once you see the nuances of Jonah 2 – a pastiche of psalms put together in a poetic descent out of creation, rejected by God, followed by a “resurrection” and God bringing “Jonah’s life up from the pit.”

        The third assumption is not as easy to dismiss, but examples are still plentiful. For example, in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham is a main character. Are we to conclude from this “mixture” of parable and history that Abraham never existed? Or, on the other side, that since Abraham is included in the story, the whole parable must have really happened? I don’t think we want to go to either extreme.

        The apparent conclusion is that Jesus used a well-known character from the past and created a new story with him. The same could easily be true of Jonah (which takes care of your 1 Kings objection) as well as why it’s okay for Jesus to combine a historical account (of Sheba the Judgement, perhaps) and a non-historical account (of Jonah) in order to make the bigger point, which is, as always, Jesus himself.

      • first of all, bad form. i never made the first assumption you listed, i actually copped to it as a possibility, and i don’t BELIEVE i made the second assumption at all. shame on you sir!

        second, i’ll grant you all those points (reluctantly) for the sake of moving to my biggest objection. as i mentioned before, Jesus says that these figures (the repentant Ninevites, and the Queen of the South) will be present at the Judgment, along with his hearers.

        now, one could possibly argue here that Jesus is using some poetic license (as if I were to say that Power Rangers would condemn our disbelief since one greater than Zordon were now with us), but he is speaking here of the citizenry of an historical city.

        on a side note, i believe you hold a high view of scripture, and assumed (whoops, there i go again!) from my knowledge of you and your training that you believe in inspiration and inerrancy. so then, would you hold to inerrancy in this case by saying that the Bible does not actually claim historicity in the tale of Jonah, but assumes all along that the reader understands the parabolic device? if you don’t hold to inerrancy, disregard the last question, obviously

      • Sorry, my response was too curt. I didn’t mean that you made those assumptions in your comment. I was channeling the various evangelical authors I have read over the past decade who used the “Jesus refers to Jonah so it must have happened” argument. Their arguments are usually based on those 3 assumptions. Sorry for not spelling that out (I get in trouble for jumping ahead in my thought process a lot — usually by Sarah).

        To your second point, it sounds to me like Jesus’ main point is that “this generation” will not repent even though they are witnessing something even more miraculous than the preaching of Jonah. As you say, it sounds like a rhetorical device, like making fun of someone’s artistic taste by saying, “Even a Philistine would get that TV reference!” I am not making any claims about the actual Philistine’s when I say that. They are irrelevant to the point. This gets into how language works, what words “do,” and how they “mean,” (see Austin and his influential Speech-Act theory).

        Lastly, you say, “the Bible does not actually claim historicity in the tale of Jonah, but assumes all along that the reader understands the parabolic device?”

        Yes, that’s my point, which is why I used it in the original blog post. If we would read the Bible carefully, we might be surprised at how many assumptions we make that the Bible itself does not share.

  4. Thank you for this post!

    However I think you may being unfair to those who’s philosophy requires a literal and historical read of Sacred Scripture…and I think the remedy that you prescribe …which sounds reasonable…is however the very original cause of the malady that you wish to be cured.

    True it bothers me that I have friends and relatives that “stand” on the historicity of the book of Jonah while absolutely refusing the moral teaching of the book. My philosophy and reason require I look to works like Jonah or Genesis for their moral teaching while almost ignoring them as historical records…but I cannot say for absolute certain that my manner of hearing from God is correct for others – for the simple reason that “God could….”

    In a very real way the way the ones you are describing as “Bible-believing Christians” are engaging in their worship and offering to God their trusting hearts. Those hearts may be backwards and unteachable but those are the only hearts they have to offer to God. I truly believe with respect and honor that their “steadfast” belief is a token offered by them to the Lord. Who is to say that such an offering and honor is not acceptable to God? I believe it is a certainly that God is not in need of praise of a certain level of reason and critical thinking!

    As to your remedy I would humbly suggest the problem is not how they interpret the Sacred Scriptures as to content but rather that they study the Sacred Scriptures independently of the teaching authority Christ has given his Holy Church.

    I point to the warnings of the Church concerning private bible study even though most protestants/evangelicals view that stand by the Church as a proof of the corruption of the Church…and somehow proof that the Church is “against the Bible”

    Since the time Saint Peter warned against private interpretation the Church has clearly and consistently repeated that warning – recently in the statements of the council of Trent and Vatican II…and the fruit of such independent “scholarship” has all the characteristics of the dangers spelled out in the warnings: Schism, Polygamy, immorality, amorality, distorted end times views, and others.

    I feel it pays to remember that his time Jesus looked at them with compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd each of them going their own way.


    Garry, OFS

    • Oh man, Garry, I hope I didn’t come off as saying that they are not sincere in their devotion to Christ. I certainly did not intend such a thing. I am simply revealing what is often already there in their reading of Scripture, namely, an ideology. And I am just as guilty (as ideology is always and already there, the buffer between the Real and the Symbolic, to use Zizek & Derrida out of context).

      You good Catholic, you. I have so much sympathy for what you are saying in terms of privitized study. I am not sure I am sold on the Catholic way of doing it (in terms of hierarchical authority) but I think they have a much healthier framework than we Protestants do. I actually think we have a lot we could learn from our Jewish cousins about how to read our Bible in community.

  5. “What God is or is not “capable of” should have absolutely nothing to do with the way we read our Bible. Could God have had a fish swallow a man? Sure. Could God have reached down and opened up the Red Sea? Sure.”

    Is it so easy as just saying “sure he could have”? I think that shows a certain view of how God works in the world that not everyone would agree with. It’s immature (in the non-playground way but the “I didn’t really think about it” way) to think that God can just “do” anything. Most people say that but we don’t really think that. Once you start digging (Can God do something bad to people? Would God make someone kill someone else? Would God cause the tsunami in Japan?) people usually start backpedaling and making a criteria for what they actually mean when they say “God could do anything” or “God is capable of anything” – and it usually starts with “EXCEPT…._______” (fill in blank with whatever that person’s personal views on what God is/isn’t like and can/can’t actually do here).

    Especially for those who subscribed to the usual form of soft Christian dualism (you know, the one where we blame good things on God and bad things on the devil as if the devil is a type of demi-god with lots of powers but just not quite as many as big God), there is an easy out for bad things that happen so we don’t have to blame God (depending on how much control you even think he has in the first place). So maybe for me the question isn’t “could God ______?” but “would God ______?”. Or are those two different questions at all? I might be making zero sense and I know none of this has to do with the real point of your article, it’s just a bone I felt like picking on a Monday afternoon : D

    • No, I completely agree with you. I wrote about this before about the phrase “With God, all things are possible.” We usually only ever take that positively, ignoring all of the completely negative things that are also “possible with God.”

      We are pretty good at telling God what he is allowed to do. Or, as I often hear it we throw a tantrum and declare that if he doesn’t follow our dictates we just won’t believe in him anymore. Take THAT God. This is usually what is meant in the phrase, “I could never believe in a God who . . .”

  6. Jared,

    I agree with you about revelation in community and thank you for saying I am a good Catholic – that is an honor!

    The revelation-in-community of the Jewish people is the model for Catholic Scripture revelation. The Liturgy of the word at Mass is a direct continuation of the synagogue experience as it was carried into the Christian experience by the early Jewish Christians.

    The Church does not teach the interpretation of scripture but rather teaches doctrines that help guide our understanding. Doctrines such as the Triune nature of God,the Virginity of the Holy Mother, the fully human and fully divine nature of Christ serve as anchors or reference points and give illumination to our study of Scripture. Some of these doctrines are raised to the level of Dogma and it is believed that the Dogmas are binding on the conscience.

    There are many times when those that serve in the Magisterium will offer their ideas about the interpretation of scripture and often those offerings will have profound effect on others but that is not the normal mode for revelation through scripture and the faithful is generally not bound to accept them on the basis of hierarchy. Because the Church holds that God speaks to people through the scriptures expository preaching is almost never experienced in a Catholic Mass.

    In Mass the scriptures are read and the homily that follows normally provides an understanding of the context of the scriptures along with exhortations on the application of the scriptures in our lives. It is expected that the faithful listen to the scriptures and interpret them according to their experiences and guided by sound doctrine.

    A Roman Catholic is generally permitted to believe as they will regarding scriptures, however they are generally not permitted to speak against the defined dogmas or to actively oppose the work of the Magisterium. in its teaching capacity.

    It can also truly be said that the Church has tremendous appreciation for the zeal of the protestant communities for the Holy Scriptures and is thankful for the contributions from protestant scholars in the field of textual criticism.

    Because we all hold Scripture so dear we tend to feel that any unexpected expressions that claim to flow from Scripture are a sort of violence against Truth, while the truth is that misunderstanding


    Garry, OFS

  7. If you think you are interpreting the Bible correctly when using “scholarly” methods, do a study on Jesus’ use of the Old Testament. By scholarly standards, many of Jesus’ prophetic links are out of context.

    I’ll let you guess who actually has the wrong context.

    I’m not calling your bluff regarding Jonah or Moses, but I will say this: a scholarly understanding of scripture is almost useless in the eternal perspective.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Nathan, perhaps you can clarify some things. If you do not use “scholarly standards,” what standards do you use? And where do you get them from? I would venture to guess you have some group of scholars you count as authoritative. What makes those scholars different? I guess I am just confused by what you mean by “scholarly methods”? What methods are those? How do you judge which methods are “eternally worthy” and which are “eternally almost useless”?

      • When I say “scholarly,” I am referring to Western or “Greek” methods as opposed to Eastern or Hebrew methods.

        An apt example of the difference would be in John 6:53-58. Jesus said “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life.” The “Greek” understanding of this would be that Jesus is advocating cannibalistic connection with his followers. Is this a correct interpretation? As seen in v.66, all or most of Jesus’ followers left him due to this saying.

        We have the benefit of hindsight to interpret this in a more “spiritual” (read: metaphorical) way, but we do the Scriptures no justice if we allow for spiritual understandings only where the text approves of such later.

        You’re a professor in a “Greek” institution, so you are doing what you should be doing. I have no criticism.

        But when speaking of Biblical interpretation in general, the only method of eternal significance is to consider every reading of Scripture as merely a springboard unto the living God. Authoritative trust in one’s own scholarly interpretation is (usually) only arrogance and a gross misuse.

  8. Pingback: Is Jonah Historical? The Overview (Part 1 of 5) | Jared Byas

  9. You explain the Red Sea story as “just being the wind” but it’s parting is actually attributed to God. God uses a natural source (the wind) to part the Red Sea. The supernatural reading (God parted the Red Sea using a strong East wind) is necessary to get the whole picture. God does intervene. It’s also shown in the Bible that miracles are rare events. Gideon wanted to know, “where are all the miracles our ancestors told us about?” (Judges 6:13) It’s also rather obvious that they’re rare when you consider the time frame of the entire Bible. If a particular text attributes an action to God, we can’t leave the attribution out just because what the actual event would look look like doesn’t *require* God in the explanation.

  10. Pingback: Blog Rewind | Jared Byas

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