I saw the title and knew it was going to get ugly.
Just before Christmas, Newsweek published a cover story entitled: “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s A Sin,” written by Kurt Eichenwald.
It’s not that I think a national publication writing about the Bible and faith is bad; I’m actually really glad they’re publishing content of that sort. I just wish it was done differently.
After wading through the article—it’s quite a long read—I stepped away confused, frustrated, curious, saddened, and feeling misunderstood.
What Newsweek Got Out Of The Bible
The aim of the piece was to call into question Christians who quote the Bible, but do so mistakenly, according to Eichenwald. He argues that none of us has read the Bible, because our modern translations are only translations of copies of translations of copies, etc..
In regard to scholarship, the author seems to know how to string together serious arguments; however, he picks and chooses the sources on which he bases his arguments. In regard to his approach, fundamentalist Christianity and conservative politics get a large share of his academic ire.
I don’t disagree with many of his points. While I would very much like politicians and mean-spirited leaders to stop quoting verses for their own power and gain, the author’s deductions are shortsighted and oblivious to the metanarrative of the Bible. His treatment of writings about women, homosexuality, hating family, conflicting Gospel accounts, and the like are quite simplistic and demeaning—not only to people he stereotypes, but to any of us who wish to live our inward faith in outward extensions of our work and lives.
The circular storytelling of the Creation account, the seemingly “doubled” narratives throughout the Old and New Testaments, the council of Nicaea gathering to decide which books and letters would be included in the Bible—these are not new concerns to students of the Bible. Many within all sorts of streams of Christianity have engaged in these discussions for hundreds and thousands of years.
Our Problem With The Bible
Eichenwald poses the challenge: how can so many Christians be so confident in Bible-based beliefs when they don’t even know what it really says? And why do Christians so obviously contradict the very Scriptures they claim to revere? The author isn’t condemning Christians for wanting to believe the Bible so much as he’s decrying the hypocrisy of Christians who claim to know the Bible but misappropriate its tenets.
There’s a lot of truth to the questions Eichenwald asks. I agree with him in premise:
If Christians truly want to treat the New Testament as the foundation of the religion, they have to know it. Too many of them seem to read John Grisham novels with greater care than they apply to the book they consider to be the most important document in the world. – Kurt Eichenwald
More than we know, we need to read the Bible to understand it and ask God what in the world it means for today.
When it comes to studying what the Bible says, there’s no shortage of interpretations and opinions and translations. What was missed in Newsweek’s Bible exposé wasn’t research or actual excerpts from the Bible, but the simple element of context. Who wrote it? When, and under what circumstances, to whom? What is the big picture? How does it fit with the rest of that chapter, book, or entire Bible?
When any of us read the Bible, we can extract any meaning we desire from it, albeit incorrectly. But if we’re interpreting Scripture through the lens of context, things come into focus far more than if we’re simply asking, “what does it mean to me?”
We need not read alone; the Holy Spirit is the chief interpreter of the pages of the Bible, giving us understanding in ways that lifetimes of study could never grant us.
Critiquing The Bible Critic
In response to Eichenwald’s analysis and conclusions about the Bible’s inconsistencies and Christians’ failure to know what it really says, several helpful voices emerged.
Rachel Held Evans pointed out the Newsweek article’s failure to capture an accurate picture of evangelical Christians and what many of them believe and act upon:
I agree that evangelicals need to engage in some tough, uncomfortable conversations about the nature of the Bible and our interpretation of it. But unlike Eichenwald, I am familiar enough with the culture to know that those conversations are indeed happening.
Peter Enns declared in his article, “The Newsweek Christmas rant on the Bible: naive, over-the-top–and basically right”:
He wants to undermine politics, not religion.
Daniel B. Wallace replied with a piece, “Predictable Christmas fare: Newsweek’s Tirade against the Bible”:
I applaud Kurt Eichenwald for stirring up Christians to think about what he has written and to reexamine their beliefs and attitudes. But his numerous factual errors and misleading statements, his lack of concern for any semblance of objectivity, his apparent disdain for and lack of interaction with genuine evangelical scholarship, and his über-confidence about more than a few suspect viewpoints, makes me wonder. I wonder why he really wrote this essay, and I wonder what he hoped to accomplish.
Other voices haven’t moved the conversation forward or presented thoughts in such a tempered fashion.
An unfortunate fallout from Newsweek’s article has been a lot of distasteful response online, especially of what appear to be Christians aggressively verbally attacking not just Eichenwald’s arguments, but the man himself. And in defense, Eichenwald appears to grow only more critical and harsh in his assessment of Christians. Instead of seeing the nuances of different traditions and practices within Christianity, the loudest voices are only enhancing the author’s rather lopsided caricatures of evangelicals in particular.
What We’re Missing When We Talk About The Bible
Maybe what most of us are missing—behind all the persuasive essays, straw-man arguments, and rapid rebukes—is heart. Maybe we’ll gain more clarity about the Bible and its message when we approach it, being our authentic selves and giving it permission to speak to us because God is a God who loves to communicate with people.
Perhaps when we approach the Bible, holding the tensions of translation history and man-made decisions while simultaneously revering it as a collection that becomes more than its parts, we can see it for what it’s worth.
The Bible isn’t an instrument to solve all our problems or a weapon with which to beat back all our ideological foes. It’s the story of God and humanity, of terrible downfalls and glorious victories. It’s not for our trite answers or an exhaustive instruction manual, but paints the picture of who Jesus is and who we are, and how where we’re at now doesn’t dictate where we’ll be forever.
Let us approach God’s words with humility, with passion for the truth and positioned with grace, willing to walk through misunderstandings and confusion and mystery. For we do not worship the pages of a holy book, but a holy God who walks with us through confusion into clarity.
Did you read the Newsweek article? Share your thoughts in the comments below.