How Not To Read The Bible

by Matthew Sitman

From ages 17 to 23, Jessica Misener was a born-again Christian. And then she went to graduate school at Yale, learned a bit of Hebrew and Greek, delved into studying Scripture, and eventually lost her faith, which “hinged almost solely on believing the Bible to be the literal, inspired word of God”:

More and more, I realized that the Bible was a flawed, messy, deeply human book — and that in treating it as an unimpeachable guidebook for life in the 21st century, many conservative Christians were basing their entire worldviews on a text that, in my opinion, wasn’t that much different from any other historical collection of letters and stories. I was forced to confront the fact that I’d converted into a pre-fab worldview: one hatched largely in recent American history from Jonathan Edwards and the theology of the Great Awakening, and one that “family values” politics has buoyed through modern decades.

This was something the evangelical students in my program at Yale talked about often: the behemoth of doubt that sets in as your airtight hermeneutic of scripture is drained from the bottom. Christians from other traditions didn’t have it so bad…We evangelicals, with our infallible view of scripture ripped from our hands, were left gasping for air. If you crumple and toss out a literal reading of the Bible, then what does it mean to talk about Jesus literally dying for your sins?

There are places in Misener’s essay that elicit empathy and interest, especially her descriptions of what faith did in her life – how she liked who she was as a Christian, and how she misses the meaning that religion offered. But I find it utterly baffling to assume – as she implicitly does – that our options for reading the Bible amount to a choice between the evangelical belief in Scripture’s “inerrancy” and the view that it’s little more than an unreliable jumble of tall tales and fables.

This is all the more curious given that, by her own admission, the evangelical position she once held is something of a modern innovation, and that most Christian traditions outside of evangelicalism, such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox ones, to say nothing of more liberal strains of Protestantism, hold different and often more nuanced and complex understandings of the Bible. In fact, out of fairness to my evangelical friends, I’d even say that within conservative evangelical theological circles you can find approaches to the Bible that uphold inerrancy without reducing it to a simplistic literalism. Misener doesn’t seem to show any interest in any these alternatives. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s worth emphasizing that what she describes as a kind of personal revelation – the Bible is “messy,” and doesn’t really hold up well when read literally – is something that countless theologians and thinkers throughout Church history have affirmed, commented on, and tried to understand. Dreher is on the same page:

It’s a false choice to say that either Scripture is 100 percent infallible in a literal sense, or that none of it is reliable. It’s rather that Scripture requires an authoritative interpretive community, which is the Church. When are we free to read Scripture as a metaphor, and when must we accept it literally? Both [Roman and Orthodox] churches have answers to this, but they aren’t simple answers, and they aren’t strictly binding. You can find Orthodox Christians who believe that Genesis is literally true, and must be affirmed as such, and you can find Orthodox Christians who believe that Genesis is a “true myth” — that is, a symbolic story, like parables, through which God reveals foundational truths about Creation that are beyond the comprehension of us finite creatures (that’s what I believe, for the record).

Now maybe, ultimately, Misener wouldn’t find these alternative ways of approaching the Bible persuasive either. Many don’t, and I sincerely respect them. Or perhaps, after being burned by evangelicalism, Misener just wanted nothing to do with religion – as someone who grew up in a rather severe fundamentalist church, I’m sympathetic to that impulse. There are good reasons to be an agnostic or atheist, and even those of us who continue to be attached to Christianity, which I am, grapple with doubt, uncertainty, and dark nights of the soul. I have to say, though, that the intellectual bankruptcy of certain forms of American evangelicalism strikes me as problematic grounds for jettisoning Christianity.

But most of all, Misener’s essay points to the sad state of so much American religious life, especially the messages delivered by too many Christian churches. She makes clear that, at times, she still feels “a wave of something truly ineffable, a surreal flutter in my soul that the world was vast and overwhelming and rich and meaningful and also not really fucking meaningful at all.” That’s something most of us have felt, I’d guess, whether believer or not. It’s a pity that the brittle, ahistorical, and ultimately untenable evangelicalism she was peddled convinced her that those feelings are alien to Christianity, that faith demands the silencing of doubt and uncertainty. It’s a shame that too many Christian churches present the Bible in such a way that, when an earnest young person encounters the historical-critical approach to it, the result is shock and perplexity. It’s lamentable that more churches aren’t places where such difficulties can be worked through, where you feel welcome even if you are far from having what you believe figured out. Pope Francis has said that the Church should be a “hospital for sinners,” which is to say a refuge for all of us who struggle in all kinds of ways, profound doubt included. Misener’s story is testimony to how far Christians have to go to make the Pope’s words a reality.