Oh, the B-I-B-L-E….Yes, that’s the book for me….I stand alone on the Word of God….The B-I-B-L-E!
In the fundamentalist, evangelical milieu in which I grew up the Bible (Protestant Old and New Testament) was understood to be “verbally inspired of God, and inerrant in the original writings, and…the supreme and final authority in faith and life”. In other words, the Christian scriptures – naturally excluding those odd extra documents the Catholics inserted – were more or less dictated by God, contained no mistakes or inaccuracies in their original form and, with regard to what one believed or how one lived, they trumped every other source of inspiration or knowledge.
On paper this looks like quite a straightjacket. In reality it was a free-for-all. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. And with 774,746 words strung together in all manner of composition one could find, if one looked long enough, just about any personal instruction for any given situation. And if you didn’t like the exact wording of a particular translation you could always lean on another. There was even a translation which provided multiple options for most of the words so, as you read, you could pick and choose the meaning that was most satisfactory or inspirational for you. Literary type, context, intended audience, logic, historicity, scientific possibility…none of that could stand in the way of someone who said, “this morning, reading my Bible during my quiet time, God showed me…”.
Of course there were those things upon which we all agreed. God created the world in six days, about 7000 years ago. That was easy enough to figure out using the genealogy of Jesus mentioned in Luke chapter 3, which takes it right back to “Adam, son of God”. All one needed to do was add up the known and estimated ages of all those men (some of whom lived for many centuries) in the line from Adam to Jesus, add in the time since Jesus’ birth and, presto, one had an accurate age of the earth. We also knew when the world would end. Based on some seemingly predictive words of Jesus’ about end times and tying them to “one generation” within the founding of the modern state of Israel, many confidently pegged 1988 as the year when all hell would break loose, literally. I have a distinct memory of being advised not to pursue serious study after I graduated from high school in 1980; what would be the point, seeing as I would only have 8 years to leave my mark in the world?
Sadly, the Bible was strangely quiet about some things that really mattered to me growing up. Masturbation, for instance. Why would God leave us in the dark about something like that? As my biology teacher put it, “Surveys show that 90% of young men masturbate; the other 10% are compulsive liars.” According to one youth group leader I was doing great psychological, physical and spiritual harm to myself; according to another all I had to do was imagine a giant Cross over any erotic picture that came to mind (yeah, right); and a third – thankfully – assured us that masturbation was a gift from God and should be enjoyed to our heart’s content. Eventually I even found the necessary proof-texts to put my adolescent mind at ease. Psalm 16:11 says: “In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore,” and James 1:17 adds “Every good and perfect gift comes from above…”. Seek and ye shall find.
Do I love the scriptures? Absolutely. The enduring memories of my childhood include those many times when I would wake early and find my parents sitting quietly in the living room reading their Bibles. I still admire their constancy and devotion, and wish I had it; it came out of love, not compulsion. Do I believe the scriptures are a guide to life’s bigger questions? No doubt about it. They record centuries of humankind’s understanding of the Divine, wisdom from the ages, lessons learned which should not be forgotten.
There came a point in my life, however, when I realized I could no longer embrace the fundamentalist creed. The Bible, that library of ancient documents, is not verbally inspired by God, it is not inerrant, and it cannot take God’s place, and God’s alone, in being the “supreme and final authority in faith and life”.
I remember sitting in the office of a professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, talking about these things, confessing my doubts, and also my anxieties. “If I let this go, what then will I hold onto?”