I grew up as a scripture scoffer. The pages of my Bible were printed in two columns, just like an encyclopedia or reference book, which suggested empirical reliability. But as the child of a science-minded father who liked to debunk things, I thought many of the purported happenings seemed pretty far-fetched. The Creation in six days, the flood, the burning bush, the miraculous healings and all the rest — such accounts simply didn’t bear close scrutiny in my house.
Going to church, where I ventured on and off, left me with the same vexing doubts. I just couldn’t believe the stories in the Bible were true in the way that seemed expected. So if they weren’t true to life, then what was the point of reading them?
Such concerns are hardly original. For the past 150 years or so, historians, archeologists and biblical scholars have been challenging fundamental assumptions about what kinds of truths the Bible tells. Judging by the criteria of historical and scientific criticism, scripture has plenty of inaccuracies and contradictions.
So how are we to read the Bible now? What kind of book is it? These are certainly not questions with simple, universal answers. But they are ones that many people still grapple with. Some might answer them by dismissing the Bible as passé or by giving up on church because they don’t believe the things they hear.
But there are other, more rewarding, ways of thinking about the truths of the Bible, ways that invite us to read it more closely, rather than either taking it at face value or rejecting it out of hand. In his book How to Read the Bible, for instance, Harvard professor of divinity Harvey Cox makes a strong distinction between reading the Bible historically and reading it spiritually. He argues that while it is essential to take the historical dimension into account, it is also important to realize that our concept of history did not emerge until centuries after the Bible was written.
In addition to asking questions about the Bible’s origins, he advocates an approach to reading that recognizes and celebrates scripture’s many ambiguities. To read the Bible spiritually is to be in ongoing dialogue with it, informed by the ancient context but not stuck in it. To read the Bible spiritually is to read it with fresh eyes, open to doubts, questions and multiple alternative interpretations.
Over the years, I have changed my mind about the Bible. I am no longer a scoffer. This shift began in my early 30s as I often found myself deeply moved, to my astonishment, by biblical passages that felt true about the mysteries of life. Take the story of Moses in Exodus 3:14, when he hears a voice from a burning bush saying its name is “I AM.” This doesn’t seem plausible. Even efforts to explain the bush by science don’t help. However, the symbolic resonance of the story — the encounter with pure being, nameless and timeless, via an unquenchable flame in the desert — makes it profound for me.
Is the Bible true? All I know is that letting go of my previous assumptions makes it more fascinating rather than less. The more I study the Bible, the more I find it a vital source of insight into life’s unfathomable depths.