Straying Off The Reservation

Brian Zahnd once told a story that went something like this.

“There was a pastor at a fundamentalist church in the same town as my church and, one Sunday morning, he gets up to preach and says, ‘I’m no longer a Christian. I’ve become an atheist and can no longer in good conscience lead this congregation.’

“His church was understandably shook up by this and someone convinces him he should talk to me about it although I don’t think either one of us believed it would do any good. So, he sits down in my office, he tells me his story, and I say ‘Look, your problem isn’t that you’re an atheist. You problem is that you’re a fundamentalist.'”

I think Zahnd’s point was that the mindset among fundamentalist Christians and most conservative evangelicals requires strict interpretation of the Bible without much (if any) wiggle room. You start to question x, y, and z, discover some facts you can’t refute, cracks form in your foundation, and, boom, you decide you can no longer be a Christian.

The pastor in the story above was hemmed in by this kind of belief system. I don’t know which tenets of his church he could no longer accept but, with anything short of denying Christ, this guy didn’t have to abandon the faith.

Conservative evangelical leaders in the church today need to start talking about supposed Biblical contradictions and how the Old Testament was influenced by Ancient Near East mythology to let people know that their salvation doesn’t depend on believing the Bible as it may have been taught to them in a traditional church. This would be especially helpful for kids entering high school or going off to college. As Andy Stanley says, we tend to give Sunday school answers to real world questions. And those answers will most likely be insufficient to allow these kids to continue in their faith.

You don’t have to become an atheist or agnostic if you’re a Christian who decides you can’t continue in the tradition you were raised in. There’s a great big world of Christianity outside of traditional conservative evangelicalism. Don’t be afraid to kick open some doors and look behind the curtain. You’ll find God is already there.

How Did a Good Baptist Boy Like Me Wind Up In This Headspace, Anyway?

I blame Trump. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s a good pat answer but it isn’t really applicable in this instance. Part of it had to do with reading the Bible critically, asking questions, and not necessarily accepting the commonly accepted answers provided by my conservative evangelical tradition. I should probably back up enough to explain what I’m talking about in the first place.

I was saved at a young age in the Southern Baptist church and for decades my theology was standard, conservative fare. I believed in once saved always saved, took Genesis 1-11 literally, and thought communion was certainly an ordinance not knowing there was any other way of looking at it. Later on, I adopted a large dose of Calvinism into my beliefs and the legalism associated with that doctrine meshed nicely with my Christian mindset at the time and what I thought I knew.

There were periods where I was certainly more serious about my Christianity than at other times and there were years when I wouldn’t take time to do any real Bible study or commit myself to a small group.

This on-again/off-again cycle continued until several years ago when, after getting back from my church’s men’s retreat, I decided to read the New Testament in 90 days. I found that you could get this knocked out by reading three chapters a day and, lo and behold, I managed it. Emboldened by this and not knowing any better, I tried the Discipleship Journal read the Bible in a year plan and got it done (it might’ve taken 14 months, but still …). I used an ESV reading plan to go through the Bible the following year.

During all this reading, I started to notice things that didn’t really make much sense to me. For instance, I read about Saul meeting David in I Samuel 16, then read about him meeting David for the first time again in totally different circumstances in the next chapter. I generally do my readings early in the morning, so at first I wondered if my fuzzy brain hadn’t processed something correctly. “Well, that’s odd,” I thought. And I went on without giving it to much additional thought at the time.

But stuff kept on piling up. Like, why is God trying to kill Moses in Exodus 4 after telling him to get back to Egypt and confront Pharaoh? It just didn’t seem to compute. There are also several minor discrepancies between the Gospels. Were there two demoniacs among the tombs or just one? Did blind Baratmaeus have a buddy? How many angels were at Jesus’s tomb? What day was Jesus crucified on? Why are there two different versions of Jesus’s (or least Joseph’s) lineage?

Some of these questions have good answers and some just don’t. I was attending a solid men’s Bible study at the time and got possible answers at that time, some of which made sense to me while others seemed like they were stretch in an effort to justify making everything in the Bible as literal as possible.

Another eye-opener for me had to do with the Apostle Paul (shocka) but perhaps not quite in the way you might think. Quite a bit of my theology nowadays comes from Andy Stanley and the Bible Project (“Well, that explains it,” mutter the naysayers while they simultaneously do a Paris Hilton-worthy eyeroll) and during a Bible Project podcast Tim Mackie pointed out that in I Cor. 10:10 Paul attributed the deaths of the Israelites in the wilderness “grumbling” passages “the destroyer” or “the destroying angel”. Mackie goes on to say that Paul’s comment is based on a common belief among Pharisees at the time that God had a destroying angel that did his dirty work.

The thing is this isn’t what the Bible says in the grumbling passages. They talk about plagues, the earth opening up, fire from God, etc. but (someone correct me if I’m wrong) none of them mention a “destroyer”, as such. BTW, the grumbling passages are as follows:

  • Numbers 11:31-34 God provides quail for the Israelites, then kills them
  • Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron rebel
  • Numbers 14:36-38 God kills all the scouts except Joshua and Caleb
  • Numbers 16:31-36 Korah’s rebellion
  • Numbers 16:41-50 the people rebel after Korah’s death
  • Numbers 21:4-9 fiery serpents
  • Numbers 25:1-9 the people worship Baal

Why is this a big deal? Because Paul’s view of the Scripture in this instance is informed by his cultural tradition at that time. This isn’t Scripture interpreting Scripture, the approach I was always taught to take. This is an example of a Biblical author’s cultural and historical context influencing his view on existing Scripture and that view finding its way into the Bible. I didn’t know it at the time but this would open a huge door (or Pandaora’s box, depending on how you want to look at it) further down the road. (Pete Enns had a similar experience that he describes here. Scroll down to “The Rock Was Christ” for a specific example that Enns mentions in a later podcast as deeply affecting him.)

Once I discovered Ancient Near East cosmology was an actual thing, I began to look at the creation story quite differently. I had figured out that Genesis 2 couldn’t be a more detailed commentary on Genesis 1 because the creation sequence was different. Turns out that creation in Genesis 1 is a reflection of how everyone in that geographic area at that time thought the Earth, skies, and sea were structured. That whole business with the firmament finally makes sense. Genesis 2 is most likely a second version of the creation account, IMHO.

However, after all of these changes in how I read the Bible, I still believe that there is a real live God who created the world, created humanity, and sent his Son to save us from ourselves. I’m no longer as certain as I was about the details of Scripture but one thing I know is that these finer points don’t matter. The Bible is still the primary way God chose to communicate with us and it still points to Jesus.

Oh yeah, about that Trump thing – I was a registered Republican for decades until Trump was elected. I knew I’d feel compelled to defend the yahoo if I voted for him so I voted for Evan McMullen, then registered as an Independent a few days after Trump won the general. It’s very freeing to no longer be obligated to making excuses for a Republican president. Likewise, it’s very freeing not having to jump through cognitive hoops to rationalize the Bible I was raised with. ‘Tis the season for changes.

A Little About The NRSV

I’ve had an interest in the New Revised Standard Version for a while now* but I hadn’t managed to get a hold of one that quite suits my fancy. The translation just doesn’t have the sales figures to justify a plethora of purchase options.

My initial NRSV was large print and contained the Apocrypha (both features I liked) but is just a little too large to comfortably hold in one’s lap. My second attempt to get into the translation resulted in the purchase of a used large-print pew Bible but, upon closer examination, it has the syllables separated by bullets. I assume this feature is for ease of pronunciation but it’s just distracting when attempting to sit and read a passage.

I noticed that a couple of teachers I admire, Tim Mackie and Pete Enns, both use the NRSV or at least reference it in some of their lectures. That prompted me to cast about for a more usable version of the translation. After a modicum of searching, I found this thinline NRSV online.

It isn’t perfect for my needs and preferences since I would rather have large print (middle age isn’t for the faint hearted) and the smooth bonded leather cover is just ugly, IMHO, especially when compared to the nice cover on the CSB ultrathin.

sample of NRSV thinline text size

I’m sure this text size would have been fine for me five years ago but now …

But the content inside that homely cover is quite interesting. The translation committee wasn’t afraid to admit that there can be more than one meaning for a given passage based on which manuscript you use, so there is a legend in the front of the book listing various sources. There’s also a well written preface by noted textual critic Bruce Metzgar which explains the history and tradition of the NRSV.

I’ve used the NRSV for my regular semi-daily Bible reading the past two days and I happen to be in Isaiah currently. The first thing I noticed was that it isn’t afraid to use big words. The reading level is supposedly 11th grade but it felt collegiate-level to me. (Give me a break, I graduated NSU.) The second thing that became apparent was that this translation doesn’t give you any help in figuring out what a passage means when the original text didn’t spell it out.

For example, the NRSV translates Isaiah 23:4 as “Be ashamed, O Sidon, for the sea has spoken, the fortress of the sea, saying: “I have neither labored nor given birth, I have neither reared young men nor brought up young women.” And I couldn’t figure out what was meant by “fortress of the sea” so I consulted the NLT which said, “But now you are put to shame, city of Sidon, for Tyre, the fortress of the sea says, …” I don’t know enough about ancient geography to tie this stuff together on my own but I’m glad other folks have figured it out and shared their knowledge.

In a similar vein, Isaiah 33 is plugging along talking to the people of Israel about restoration when, all of a sudden, the NRSV hits you with verse 23: “Your rigging hangs loose; it cannot hold the mast firm in its place, or keep the sail spread out. Then prey and spoil in abundance will be divided; even the lame will fall to plundering.” Wait, what?

The NLT renders verse 23 quite differently: “The enemies’ sails hang loose on broken masts with useless tackle. Their treasure will be divided by the people of God. Even the lame will take their share!” Okay then.

The NET Bible, not to be outdone, splits the difference between the two in rendering the verse with notes as follows – “The first half of the verse is addressed to Judah and contrasts the nation’s present weakness with its future prosperity. Judah is compared to a ship that is incapable of sailing.” I’m starting to get the idea scholars may not have reached consensus on what this verse actually means.

It’s easy to understand why the NRSV is a favorite among many scholars and professorial types if the rest of it is like what I’ve seen so far in Isaiah. The translation focuses on being literal and sticking to what the original texts said rather than what they meant unless they have to deviate from that to keep things from becoming really confusing.

On the other hand, it can still be confusing for reasons like those I’ve noted above. And it doesn’t convert ancient units of measurement into their modern equivalents. This means I’m going to reach for the NLT or CSB when reading through things like measurements for the first temple. I just can’t handle wading through all that verbiage and seeing “cubits” time and time again. That makes it even easier for me to skim the passage and get even less out of it than I otherwise might.

So, the NRSV isn’t everyone’s cup of soup but I like it. You have to contend with its translations of Genesis 1:2 and Isaiah 7:14 but the verbiage most of us are accustomed to is present in the notes. It’s a good translation that probably deserves more popularity than it currently enjoys. I suspect I’ll be using it for a while.

*My ideal Bible translation would be done by a group of scholars who respect the text enough not to put a specific theological tilt to it one way or another.