I don’t recall the exact moment when I realized I disagreed with the mission of the Gideons. I do remember wondering what that realization made me. A dick? A “religious person”? That was a worrying thought, mostly because I wasn’t sure why I didn’t approve of them. Something just didn’t sit right about the whole approach: give people a Bible in order to “save” them and ultimately turn them into little evangelists who then give other people Bibles and create other little evangelists. The whole operation looks and sounds remarkably (and uncomfortably) similar to some sort of grand spiritual pyramid scheme.
My experience with the Gideons is limited: a New Testament at the end of baccalaureate when I graduated from public high school or a leather-bound copy in a hotel’s bedside table drawer once in a while. My reaction in those situations was never, “Oh, how nice and thoughtful;” it was more along the lines of, “Why?” As I’ve thought about it more, it seems that the problem with the whole enterprise is a misunderstanding of the Bible itself and how it should be used. Yes, there is a right way to do it.
I guess it makes sense for that misunderstanding to be endemic to the Gideons, particularly considering the entire organization is composed virtually exclusively of Protestant evangelicals. While there’s is no doubt on my end that they mean well, as I’ve pointed out many, many times before, good intentions are not enough. A great many problems within the modern Church stem from the fact that good intentions often became a suitable substitute for rational strategy, sound doctrine and orthodoxy, and historical precedent.
Protestants (and many Christians on the whole) seem to not really understand what the Bible is–or what it is not. In fact, they seem to spend a lot of time making it into whatever they want or need at any given moment and calling those who challenge their revisionism (or outright heresy) “religious people,” “pharisees,” and the like. The thing about Christianity is that you can’t just make shit up as you go. While there are a lot of doctrinal points that don’t matter (“How many demons can fit on the tip of a ball-point pen?”), there are plenty that do and messing up on those makes what we believe morph into something other than Christianity. Part of getting it right is understanding the proper way to read and interpret the Bible as well as knowing when–and having the humility–to defer to scholars more knowledgeable than ourselves.
1. The Bible is not one text.
This is very, very important: the Bible is an anthology of multiple books and writings, spanning multiple genres, and written by multiple authors across multiple centuries. What’s more, not everyone can agree what books are canonical. The Protestant Bible, for example, cuts out several books contained in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, mostly arbitrarily. Basically, the Bible is not the Quran, Islam’s holy book written entirely by Muhammad. Indeed, even the most educated scholars aren’t sure or can’t agree on who wrote some portions of the Bible. There are accordingly multiple voices present in the Scriptures and not all of them can be read in the same way. Leviticus isn’t read or interpreted in the same way as Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. One is a part of the Torah, the Book of the Law, and the other is a pastoral letter written to a particular church to address particular problems within that church. The distinction is vital to understanding the purpose and context for each passage of Scripture.
Unfortunately, so many pastors and so-called “teachers of the Word” make no distinction between the Corinthian letters and Leviticus; between epistle, law, and poetry; or between Old and New Covenant. When people begin a pontification by saying, “Well, you know, the Bible says…,” they are demonstrating–consciously or otherwise–that this is a concept they haven’t grasped. There’s a lengthy list of things said within the Bible that are contradicted in other parts of the Bible and to claim that any sort of unified voice emanates from the book makes it–and the faith itself by extension–appear schizophrenic.
2. The Bible is not a technical manual to Christianity.
It’s really disconcerting to think of all the heresy that results from bad sermon illustrations and cute, catchy church sayings. One of my favorites is the one where some over-zealous preacher nears the end of some fiery three-point sermon, leans over a rickety podium, and says with voice dripping in Southern drawl, “You wanna know what the Bible is? Well, I’m about to tell you: look at the letters: B-I-B-L-E. What’s that stand for? Basic…Instructions…Before…Leaving…Earth. Write that down.”
It is cute, of course, but also absurd.
Instructions are what you get when you buy a build-it-yourself entertainment center from IKEA. Instructions are what you’ll read in a dessert cookbook recipe for Sock-It-to-Me Cake. Instructions are what you’ll find on the back of the shampoo bottle detailing the proper way to wash your hair. The Bible, for all its usefulness, is not a book of instructions on how to live a Christian life. It might be easier if it were but we have to work with what we have, not make it into what we think it should be.
3. The Bible is not a history or science book.
At some point, the modern Evangelical movement is going to have to come to terms with the fact that all of humanity does not share a common ancestry with one historical couple. Research from the National Institutes of Health and the Human Genome Project has shown that modern humans are descended from an original population of about 10,000 individuals roughly 100,000 years ago; the closest thing to common ancestral parents to all humanity would be (hypothetically) Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam, though they wouldn’t have been “married” and would have lived thousands of years apart. It’s also very unlikely that the worldwide flood of Noah actually happened according to the traditional Christian understanding; the geologic record simply does not support it. And, Christians are going to have to accept that the Earth is not six thousand years old, but closer to four and a half billion. Most importantly, people have to realize that none of this jeopardizes the faith or impugns the truthfulness of the Scriptures. Truth is not dependent upon accuracy.
Those ideas legitimately were, at one time, the best theories people had, as modern science had yet to fully develop. As our understanding of the Earth’s geological and biological history has grown, however, the need to accept that understanding and not cling to antiquated beliefs has grown along with it. This is important not only because being asininely obstructionist toward scientific research makes Christians look like uneducated conspiracy hacks but because it also shifts the focus of Christianity away from the redemptive Gospel toward a preposterous cosmogony. When the salvific message of Christ is lost amid the furor of a debate over origins, that’s when Christians have thoroughly succeeded at missing the point.
4. The Bible is not meant to speak for itself.
This, I think, is the biggest reason why I’m against the idea of just giving someone a Bible and hoping they get the message. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Scripture is completely straightforward and is more than capable of speaking for itself. This is wrong, of course, as should be self-evident from what I’ve said up to this point.
First and foremost, the Bible isn’t an English document. English is a pagan language whose most ancient form didn’t even come into existence until four hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written. Consequently, even the best translation of the Scriptures is an approximation of the original meaning. I’m not saying everyone should be able to read ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek, but part of fully understanding the Bible means knowing what it meant to the people it was written by and to and what it was intended to accomplish then. Otherwise, our own cultural and linguistic context and bias can give rise to all manner of misunderstanding and confusion.
Furthermore, the Bible’s often contradictory nature means someone unfamiliar with it is more likely to put it down confused, not enlightened. “How can Christians claim God is love when he ordered His people to slaughter entire tribes of people,” they’re likely to wonder. Unless someone—preferably someone who knows what he or she is talking about—is present to help a new student of Scripture understand it, they could walk away with any number of wrong ideas about who God is and how he relates to Mankind.
5. The Bible is not meant to be taken literally.
All the Southern Baptists and fundamentalists probably just had an aneurysm. Stemming from the fact that there are multiple genres of literature present in the Bible (poetry, chronicle, genealogy, law, apocalyptic writing, etc.) and in line with my point that the Bible isn’t an instruction manual, it cannot, in the aggregate, be interpreted literally. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the overuse of the word “literally” that people seem to be confused on this; people say, “I literally died laughing!” all the time. Jesus doesn’t literally have a sword proceeding from his mouth. We all know that, but when people walk around saying that the Bible is the “literal” word of God, either they don’t realize what they’re saying or they’re lunatics.
6. The Bible is not the fourth person of the Trinity.
Whether vocalized or not, the idea that the Trinity is Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and Bible is very nearly dogmatic in many Christian communities. That idea is, in all honesty, toxically heterodoxical. It distorts the very nature of the faith we hold and elevates a book to the same level as the God who inspired the men who wrote it. If the Bible were to disappear from the face of the Earth, the faith of those who hold it dear would continue. If the written accounts of the Gospel were to vanish, we’d write them down somewhere else as best we could. While much of the doctrine contained within it is essential, the book itself is not. That’s an important distinction to make.
7. The Bible is not a substitute for living and working in a community of faith.
Of all the things I’ve said to this point, this is by far the most important. There is this idea present in modern Christianity that as long as believers are diligent about reading the Bible (or, “The Word,” as some like to say), church and Christian community are optional, particularly if they’ve found some reason to dislike the latter. Private devotions and prayer are integral to the Christian life, but they are not a replacement for being under spiritual discipleship and obedience. Life as a believer was never, ever intended to be something we pursued independently. That idea is anathema to the faith.
Now, historically and even in the present day, a very few people do devote their lives to isolation and individual pursuit of prayer and meditation. St. Mary of Egypt spent 47 years of her life in extreme isolation wandering the desert in prayer and fasting. St. Anthony the Great was another desert ascetic and St. Herman spent most of his life as a hermit on Spruce Island in Alaska. The point I’m making is that these are examples of something rarely undertaken with success. The most notable thing about hermits is that there are so few of them. Even monastics, whose entire lives are dedicated to prayer, live in a monastery under the spiritual authority of an abbot. So, in short, for modern Christians living in the wealthy West to believe or even entertain the idea that they are capable of living out the faith on their own is a mark of extreme arrogance. These people are, sadly, on a path toward ruin.
Well then, what is the Bible?
Predictably, it’s much easier to say what something as complex as Holy Scripture isn’t than to say what it is.
Is the Bible true? I think so.
Is it accurate? That largely depends on how we define accuracy.
Is it the Word of God? Yes, in a manner of speaking.
Is it one very important component (among many) of living life as a right-believing Christian? Decidedly.
The Bible is a hard thing to ignore or escape. It was the first book ever printed on Gutenberg’s press in 1445, signaling the earliest dawn of the Information Age. It remains the best-selling book worldwide and exists in over 1200 languages. Maybe its seeming omnipresence has given rise to an intellectual distortion about the role it is meant to play in our lives. If so, perhaps a little diligent self-examination on the part of the Church is warranted.
The most important thing people should take away from this discussion is that the Bible can itself become a stumbling block to orthodoxy. Paramount to ensuring our own proper treatment of the Holy Scriptures is remembering that they were written by God-inspired men. They are a tool, not an object of worship. They are not a being with their own will, the Trinity is. They are not the means of our salvation, Christ’s death and resurrection is.
Furthermore, people must outgrow the notion that the Bible is something that can be handed out to non-believers in the hope that they’ll be able to “get it” on their own. Do doctors hand a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to their patients in need of kidney surgery? Of course not. Fully understanding Scripture requires at least a cursory concept of a redemptive narrative and I truly believe that Christians all too often take that for granted. We often forget that the Christian faith is profoundly weird and counter-intuitive to the system of the world around us. For that reason, the Bible cannot become something we hand out as though it were a glossy brochure for Paradise. We must use it, but use it correctly.