Before hackles are raised, hear me out. This is an unpopular observation of mine that began when I entered university as a student majoring in youth ministry and religion, and it’s one I’ve held to this day. Most Christians read the bible from a self-focused perspective. They relate what they read to their own lives from their own cultural perspective without accounting for the historical, cultural, sociopolitical, and literary elements of this collection of books.
“But why does that matter if it’s God’s Word? Isn’t God’s Word universal?”
My response to this is: How can you understand God’s Word if you don’t understand the context from which it originated?
If you’re a Christian, you root yourself in the teachings of Jesus. But how can you truly understand his teachings if you don’t understand the nuances of his references, the cultural and sociopolitical backdrop that influences them, or even the very religion (Judaism) and traditions through which he teaches? If you claim him as your teacher, wouldn’t you make it a point to know him and to understand exactly what his message was?
When readers don’t have context, they misinterpret what they’re reading. Metaphors and terms are misunderstood. Poetry and literature are interpreted as fact. Laws for specific tribes (e.g., Leviticus) are mistaken as global laws for society. Confusion bubbles up when contradictions arise within biblical teachings because room isn’t made for the reality that Judaism evolved tremendously over the course of thousands of years.
The description of God has changed, too. He wasn’t exactly the nicest guy in the Torah. The God of unconditional love that Christians embrace today isn’t the one found within their Old Testament. He had a lot of conditions. He was jealous, brutal, vengeful, and left an ocean of blood in his wake. But when you realize that the God of the Old Testament reflected the state of human evolution and the tribes at that time; fiercely independent tribes that quite frequently found themselves faced with brutal war, conquests, and enslavement, you have context. And you can better interpret why the Hebrew God/God of Israel/God of the Jews is framed this way.
But what about the inconsistencies? I’ve encountered a lot of people who use biblical inconsistencies as a way to disprove the existence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. Christians faced with this reality may find that context can give them plausible answers to this. When you realize the book is a compilation of numerous oral traditions as well as written texts compiled over the course of thousands of years, it shouldn’t disturb you that there are inconsistencies like two separate creation stories in Genesis or contradictions across the Gospels, and between books across the old and new testaments. Each book of the Bible had multiple authors because they were pieced together using multiple documents from multiple sources found in various locations. Thus, you’ll find different variations and changes that naturally occur throughout the storytelling.
However, this scares a lot of people. They fear the moment they start to acknowledge that the bible isn’t just a literal, infallible guidebook to life that their faith becomes threatened. But people shouldn’t be afraid of this. While it can be scary to think “Maybe everything I’ve learned up to this point isn’t entirely accurate,” it’s okay. In fact, it opens new doors of understanding and opportunities to grow. If you’re someone who believes in the God of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths, then you should take heart in knowing that your faith is allowed to evolve, just like it did in the books that you hold so close to your heart.
I’ve always been a thinker. When I was a Christian, blind faith was not something I sought. I thought it dangerous – and I still think it dangerous. But beyond that, it’s not the way Jesus taught. Jesus was a rabbi – he taught using parables and questions. It encouraged understanding something rather than just believing it because someone you trust told you it was true.
Your spiritual journey is just that – a journey. One that is shaped by your life, your experiences, and the events that unfold within your time. The bible itself a very large illustration of this, which is why I often find myself wishing that churches embraced the same practice. I believe that it is essential that Christians not only learn how to see the bible through the complex lens in which it was written, but that they learn that it is okay to wrestle, to question and to test those teachings; teachings that have already undergone significant changes and shifts in philosophy over time.
If they did, I think Christianity would evolve tremendously.