The Good Book

This post is brought to you by Theology Thursdays – simply one variation of Jenn-story. Don’t worry. It’s just on Thursdays now.

Before my parents thought I was emotionally sturdy enough to handle watching Fiddler on the Roof, let alone both halves of it, when it aired on television on Thanksgiving and the night after, respectively, I was already able to quote songs and dialogue from it. My parents were right to shelter me from it for a while, too; when I finally did see the whole thing, I sobbed my eyes out–and loved it from the bottom of my heart. It probably helped, though, that they had been quoting Tevyeh for years before that. One of the best things about Tevyeh was his running monologue with God and his quotes from the Good Book. The line my parents always laughed about was when he starts telling God Himself what the Good Book says:

The Good Book says [pause, chuckle] . . . why should I tell YOU what the Good Book says?

The Good Book says . . . why should I tell YOU what the Good Book says?

Tonight a group of my classmates and I are going to be engaging in a debate about the Good Book. The Good Book including the bit that Tevyeh wouldn’t have acknowledged, where the Messiah has already appeared and stuff. Our class spans two campuses, and so last night our debate team had a conference call to talk about our arguments. We’re the first debaters in the class and some of us (such as myself), while we may have argued before, have never debated a day in our lives. To complicate things, some of us have to argue a position we don’t even hold. The students from the New England campus are arguing that the Bible, while it may have been inspired, wasn’t inspired in every detail, nor is it without error. The students from the D.C. campus are arguing a more orthodox view.

Interestingly and refreshingly perhaps, I am the only non-Latino white person in this group. One of our texts for class made this interesting observation:

. . . the African-American church tended rather reflexively to acknowledge and therefore submit to the Bible as the word of God. The debates over inerrancy largely played out in white American Christianity. It’s not that the African-American church took inerrancy lightly. On the contrary, African-American Christianity had such a firm sense of biblical authority that the challenges to inerrancy that flourished in many places on the American church landscape never even gained a hearing (Nichols & Brandt).

This is proving to be true in our group. One of the African-American women said, “I thought these were arguments from a long time ago–like, not more recently than the beginning of last century. I didn’t realise people were still talking about this today.”

White people: not the first ones to break the word of God

White people: not the first ones to break the word of God

Oh yes. We in the white church, not content to take anything at face value, particularly not something which we have so taken into our culture that we mistakenly think that thing is white, are definitely still talking about this. In Now Church, Pastor Ron and I would both say we believe the Bible–even that it’s God’s Word–but what we mean when we say that is something often entirely different from the other person’s meaning.

Our Latino brother in the group, who is helping to argue against the idea that the Bible has no mistakes in it, said last night, “I feel kind of guilty arguing from this perspective. Like–I feel bad even saying this stuff.” Which sentiment not only highlights his belief in the Bible as the exact Word of God, but also kind of exhibits why: if he, a mere human being, doesn’t want to say anything false, surely God Himself wouldn’t have spoken words of error.

As for me, well–I’m white, and I’m in a primarily white semi-liberal church, and I have “progressive” (that’s the new thing now, right–it’s not “emergent” anymore?) Christian blogging friends whose opinions and insights I value, and I’ve recently been in discussions about the nature of the Bible with some of these friends because, in spite of my new classmate’s surprise, for some of us, it is still a live topic. Tonight I will be arguing from these progressive friends’ perspectives, but I’m finding that, rather than feeling guilty for saying this stuff out loud, I’m feeling clarity. Somehow saying them with my mouth is highlighting to me that these arguments miss the mark in a lot of ways. I understand the critical thinking and quite often the genuine compassion that fuel these arguments against plenary inspiration and total inerrancy, but . . . I’m finding that bringing them into the light of day makes them look a little shabbier than they did when they were just batting around my head.

Wanna know why? Engage me in the comments. Debate me. I’m not very good at it, but it could be fun.

This might have happened. (Actually, you know what? I think it did.)

This might have happened. (Actually, you know what? I think it did.)


12 thoughts on “The Good Book

  1. I can see why this debate continues on and likely will until the End of days…. (did they really mean that). I tend to take a quite literal view of scripture hopefully sprinkled with a sense that there is context and the fact that I know none of the original languages, let alone have some kind of inside track on the culture and it’s varying shifts throughout the times of, if you’ll excuse the pun , biblical dispensation. All that to say I find myself more often than not saying … why not, it certainly could have happened that way with an omnipotent creator,

    • Yes. I think it’s important to acknowledge our own limitations–and even the limitations of the writers, but I still think God could have inspired them to, say, talk about the sun rising and setting because . . . it’s how people speak (still!), and how much more confusing would it have been if He gave early man an astrophysics lesson before humanity had got to that point in our observations?

      There are, of course, all kinds of other issues, but ultimately I don’t think they’re that overwhelming.

      • Amen to that. It’s funny but having this discussion …I hear this little voice yelling at me saying, “You people are so weak and wimpy, you don’t want to think for yourself , you just swallow any line that comes along. etc It reminds me of a story that Frank Perretti tells about the whole truth being relative argument and how people in there attempt to want to know the truth can’t recognize truth because their argument is that everybody’s truth is different. Good grief, sorry, I could go on and on and it seems I already have 🙂

        • Haha–go on as long as you want. I do think we sometimes argue ourselves into corners such that . . . well, I don’t think anybody is ever objective about anything, but I think you can be MORE objective about some things. In any case, I feel like sometimes we put ourselves in positions which, by the very appearance of openness and tolerance and flexibility, are really very confining indeed.

  2. I like when you write about theology, Jenn. And I think Jonah was historical…just studied 1.4-16 in Bible study and there is tons of good stuff there!

    • There is! I think the fact that Jesus (who clearly had a very high view of Scripture) spoke about Jonah the way He did . . . doesn’t PROVE the Jonah story was historical, but kind of makes it more likely.

  3. But to even get into this debate, we need to clearly define what we mean by “inerrancy.” After all, not all inerrancies are the same. One of the primary distinctions is between the “full” inerrancy of those who hold to a “verbal plenary” inspiration of scripture that dictates every word of the bible is without error on every subject that it speaks about *or seems to speak about,* on the one hand, and the “irenic” inerrancy on the other which simply holds the bible is without error so far as its authors intended it to be without error. This is usually highlighted in the creation debates. A full inerrantist would argue that the world must be created in six literal 24-hour days because that’s what it says. An irenic inerrantist would point out that such talk is derived from post-enlightenment scientific claims, and the ancient authors didn’t care about that sort of thing. This can get pretty extreme when one sees the mustard seed, which Jesus claims is the smallest of all seeds, is not, in fact, the smallest possible seed. A full inerrantist might object, claiming that really other seeds that are smaller are not technically seeds, by producing some additional criteria of “seed-ness” that must be met, which these other seeds don’t really have. A further discussion involves the Jonah incident. On the one extreme of irenic inerrancy is someone like C. S. Lewis who argues that Jonah does not describe an historic event, nor did the writers ever intend it to be taken that way. On the other (far) extreme of full inerrancy is the claim that it could not have been a whale that swallowed Jonah, but had to be a fish (according to modern taxonomy), forgetting, for the moment, that Hebrews did not distinguish whales from fish. Even within these sub-categories of inerrancy there is variation. So, one must ask, which kind of inerrancy are you promoting?

    • Heh. Rats, I just barely posted this and already you’re blowing my cover. Honestly, I’m still wrestling with that, which is why (along with time constraints and not liking to make book-length posts), I didn’t get into that above. I don’t believe in 6 literal 24-hour days of creation, if that’s what you’re asking (though I have plenty of friends who do). This very question you bring up is my remaining sticking point–though not so much for myself but more in wondering how to explain what I really believe to my friends who find that argument against “inerrancy” compelling.

      There was something I read for this class which likened God’s inspiration of the writers to, say, a secretary who has been working for the same boss for so long that she (or he!) can draft a letter from that boss exactly as the boss would write it, without actually having been dictated to. This sort of makes sense to me.

      I guess I’ve never really been able to see the specific sorts of things you bring up as “errors.” I think our interpretation of those things can be erroneous, but turns of phrase and forms of literature and different cultural expressions and understandings don’t seem to me to be errors–they just need a little more (or a little different) unpacking.

  4. Admittedly, I have not read all of your blog posts but this is by far the best. What a great exercise! One key to honest dialog is found in genuinely seeking to understand the opposing view. The USA political front line has no honest debate because no one listens. There are (brace yourselves) those with extreme opposing views who are genuine in their beliefs. Defending, even intellectually, an opposing belief you do not hold will bring you closer to your truth and, prayerfully, to the Truth.

    Looking forward to hearing more.

    So, when were you emotionally study enough for Fiddler? I still catch myself singing the songs.

    • Thanks, Mark–that’s lovely of you to say. And yes, I think being able to articulate the view one does not espouse really does help clarify some things. Interestingly, I think our “heretical” team in this particular debate did better than the team who argued for the beliefs most of us actually held–probably partly because of what you describe. We could have probably held a pretty riveting debate against ourselves, having gotten into the mindset of both sides.

      I don’t think I was able to watch Fiddler all the way through until high school.

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