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Woensdregt: On reading and believing the Bible

Yme Woensdregt
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Yme Woensdregt

Last week, I wrote about a conversation with a shopkeeper on the Oregon Coast. He became a Buddhist to try and make sense of life in all its complexity and wonder after coming home from Vietnam. He couldn’t talk about it with his wife because she told him it had to be her God.

I didn’t mention that his wife joined us about halfway through the conversation. She was wise enough not to interrupt; she knew that we were having a very deep conversation which was important to him. But at the end, she asked, “If you believe that way, can you really say that you believe the Bible? Doesn’t the Bible say you’re supposed to believe in Jesus to be saved?”

Her husband tried to shush her because “it’s rude to talk to a customer that way.” I said it was fine; I loved these kinds of conversations, even if we disagreed.

I told her that I absolutely do treasure the Bible, but I don’t read it literally. This collection of books was written by people who tried to make sense of who God was and how God interacted with the world in a time and place which was vastly different from ours.

Then I said that I didn’t think she read the Bible literally either.

She was stunned by that, and burst out, “Of course I do. The Bible is God’s word! The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

So, I asked if she stoned her children when they were disobedient (Leviticus 20:9). She said she didn’t — which is a good thing. Did she eat her meat rare? If so, she’s guilty of breaking God’s command (Lev 17:14). I asked if she shopped or opened her shop on the Sabbath, which in Old Testament terms would be a Saturday. I also told her I hope she tried to prevent people with disabilities from approaching God (Lev 21: 17–23). I mentioned that the Bible says it’s ok to keep foreigners as slaves as long as you treat them kindly (Lev 25: 41–46), and it’s perfectly fine to pass them on to your children as part of their inheritance.

“Well … that’s all from the Old Testament. It doesn’t apply to us anymore.”

I told her I was relieved, because that means we won’t stone the LGBTQ community anymore, since that’s also in the Old Testament; it doesn’t apply to us.

She looked confused. “Welllll … some parts of the Old Testament are still valid.” Her husband was smiling quite broadly, as I asked, “If you read the Bible literally, don’t you have to treat the whole thing as if it were God’s word? You can’t just pick and choose, can you?”

I went on to ask her if she honestly believed that the earth stopped revolving for a day (Joshua 10), or if she really believed that God would order the genocide of men, women, and children in enemy nations (1 Samuel 15: 3), or if she honestly thought God was xenophobic and misogynistic.

She pondered the question a while. “No; but it’s the Bible!”

I went on to say that the New Testament also condones slavery and tells women to shut up in church. Both Jesus and Paul expected the world to end in their lifetime; it obviously hasn’t.

This was all new information for her. She had never thought about this before. I said that I don’t believe the Bible was ever meant to be read literally. It’s not a manual for living or a self–help book; it’s not a history or science textbook; it’s not a book of family values or morals good for all time.

Rather, the Bible is a collection of letters and laws, prophecies and proverbs, stories, and songs, written over the course of more than a thousand years. It comes from a culture and language we don’t know very well. In fact, the Bible has more in common with other texts from that time and place than it does with 21st century understandings. The story of creation in Genesis echoes the same themes as the ancient Babylonian account of the origin of the world, the Enuma Elish. The story of the flood is found in ancient cultures all around the world, including ancient Jewish lore.

Nevertheless, I do take the Bible very seriously. Even with all its difficulties, the Bible remains an important testimony of two ancient communities about their sense of God’s presence in life. The Bible models several ways in which we can testify to the presence of the divine at the heart of life. Ancient communities spoke about the divine presence in the stories we find in the pages of the Bible.

We continue that work today as we discern new ways of speaking about God’s presence in our contemporary world. How is God present in our universe, which we have learned to see in a whole new way since Copernicus and Galileo and the James Webb telescope? How can we talk about God’s presence in the light of what we have learned about how the mind works from Freud and Jung and other psychologists? How do we talk about God’s work of creation after Darwin, Hawking, and other scientists, physicists, and astrophysicists have probed the origins of life and the very beginnings of the universe. And how do we speak about God’s love for the entire world when our neighbours have come so much closer to us?

As we try to articulate our sense of God’s presence in ever new ways for new times, we discern new ways of being faithful to the God who infuses life with blessing and hope. And sometimes our answers will be different than those of our ancestors in the faith. And that’s ok.

We agreed to disagree. We exchanged contact information, and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook



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