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.