Can we trust the Bible? The danger of pick'n'mixianity, expanded


It's a debate that's been going on for a long time: can we really trust the Bible - every word? And if it contains any mistakes, can we believe any of it at all?


I've written a brief article discussing this over on Threads titled The Danger of Pick'n'mixianity but there's a lot more that could be said. It's not discussing the evidence for the Bible one way or another, but rather the implications of whether Christians believe it to be completely true, or believe it to contain a mix of truth with human opinion and error. It's in response to a well-known Christian leader Steve Chalke who is arguing for the latter.

Here's a longer, expanded version of that article, though I'm painfully aware I'm still just scratching the surface of a really big topic...

Steve Chalke recently weighed in with his article Have We Misread the Bible? He suggests that the Bible is not wholly divine revelation, but conversation. He describes the Bible as:
a collection of books written by fallible human beings whose work, at one and the same time, bears the hallmarks of the limitations and preconceptions of the times and the cultures they live in, but also of the transformational experience of their encounters with God.
He argues that the Bible is "sometimes discordant, sometimes contradictory". Rather than being a finished word from God, is a dynamic ongoing conversation involving all Christians. He says that the Bible is in no way infallible or inerrant (that is, free from mistakes and errors), and that to teach this is to send the "chilling message" that the Bible must be "blindly accepted".

For all Chalke's talk of a "new conversation", this is an old and ongoing debate. But how God speaks to us through the Bible is a question that every Christian must grapple with, and one that anyone considering the truth of Christianity must evaluate. Chalke raises some good and important points: the need to read the Bible as a consistent whole, rather than focusing on favourite bits; the importance of understanding each part in its context; for believers to be able to ask questions open and honestly in our churches.

Let's face it, understanding the Bible is sometimes difficult, and parts of it seem strange, offensive or immoral to contemporary ears. We need to really wrestle with that challenge. But it seems to me Chalke is in danger of throwing out the trustworthiness of the Bible with the bathwater of naive interpretation.

The basis for trusting the whole Bible is the radical claim that God has spoken to us and revealed himself to us, in word, action and in the person of Jesus. God is real and has spoken. And since God is all-knowing and truthful, his word is completely true and trustworthy. Paul wrote to Timothy that "all scripture is God-breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (1 Tim 3:16), and while he would have had the Old Testament scriptures in mind, even in the New Testament we see Peter including Paul's letters with "other scriptures".

There's obviously a lot to discuss here about what exactly that all means. But trusting the Bible as "infallible" or "inerrant" doesn't mean accepting it blindly or stopping asking questions about it. This kind of anti-intellectualism can be a real problem in more conservative churches. Often one particular interpretation of the Bible, such as complementarianism or Young Earth Creationism or some other shibboleth, is asserted to be the "plain meaning of the text", and to deny this is to deny the authority of the Bible itself. Whatever the merits or demerits of those interpretations of the Bible, to insist on them as the only interpretation is toxic. This will either drive people away from completely trusting the Bible, or make them acquiesce to a shallow, fragile understanding of the Bible. But this is far from the whole picture, and in my experience is much less common than critics of Christianity, especially its evangelical forms, would like to make out.

There are many Christians who treat the total trustworthiness of the Bible as a foundation that inspires confidence to examine, question and discuss what it says. We can go to historysciencephilosophy and so on, to consider and debate whether the Bible is true. If the Bible really is absolutely true in everything it affirms, then it will stand up to honest, humble scrutiny. And if on closer examination it turns out not to be true, then it wasn't worth believing in the first place.

To believe in the objective truth of the Bible is to live and to believe dangerously. We aren't playing word games, but dealing with questions of truth and reality. The facts may one day demand that we admit that our faith is mistaken and our confidence misplaced, or they may continue to demand our complete obedience and trust in Christ.

When you stop trusting the Bible completely, you're in danger of no longer believing Christianity but instead your own Pick'n'mixianity. Pick'n'mixianity can't be disproved, because anything that does get proved wrong can be swept under the carpet of human fallibility, or spiritualised away into nothing. A faith that can never be shaken by facts is unreal.

If the Bible contains mistakes, then it becomes easy to dismiss anything uncomfortable or counter-cultural as a human mistake, rather than from God. Believing in a fallible Bible makes it easy for us to filter God's word. Chalke is quick to point out that we all pick and choose parts of the Bible. To a point he's right: no-one is saying it's easy to interpret and live by the Bible as a consistent whole - but we should be trying.

Can Jesus provide a unifying principle for interpreting the rest of the Bible? Chalke says "we are called to live with the example, character and teaching of Christ – the full revelation of God – as our guide and our primary lens for all biblical interpretation". In one sense, agree that Jesus is the key to understanding the whole Bible. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus explained to two of his disciples how the whole Scriptures "beginning with Moses" showed that Messiah had to suffer, die and rise again, which I take it includes all the weird laws and wars and stuff we stumble over.

But where I disagree is the idea that we can use the living Word of God, Jesus, against the written word of God, the Bible. Our knowledge of who Jesus is and what he taught comes from the Bible. So if the Bible is unreliable, how can we have a reliable understanding of who Jesus is to guide us? "Jesus" becomes subjective, the projection of our own ideas of what's good.

What's more, the New Testament presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament, not simply as the next stage in the conversation, with more stages to come. Chalke says that the "dynamic conversation continues beyond [the Biblical canon] and involves all of those who give themselves to Christ's on-going redemptive movement". While I agree that the project of discovering how to live out what's revealed in the Bible is ongoing and dynamic, it's based on a finished plan of salvation.

The reason why, for example, Christians don't obey the law of Moses from the Old Testament is given within the New Testament specifically on the basis of Christ fulfilling the Law for us, and because the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts specifically does not require gentiles to follow that law. There are still further interpretive questions to apply - for example, few Christians today observe the principle of avoiding eating blood in meat, which the Council reaffirmed - but there are some clear principles in place to guide us in our interpretation of how we are to obey under the new covenant. The fulfilment found in the New Testament is specific, not an ongoing trajectory of spiritual "progress" that conveniently seems to culminate in modern Western liberal values.

I also disagree with Chalke that Pick'n'mixianity is more credible to a modern generation. People will probably like us Christians as people more if we just outright reject the parts of the Bible that seem to them to be authoritarian, sexist, homophobic and so on. But Christianity itself loses its credibility as truth if we edit it to fit with contemporary values. While people will be pleased that we're not "bigots" and "fundamentalists" in their eyes, many will ask us "why bother clinging onto the Bible at all?"

Interpreting the Bible carefully and correctly will clear away many misunderstandings and barriers, without the "need" to throw out chunks of it. I don't for a moment believe that the Bible is actually sexist or genocidal or homophobic when correctly understood and interpreted. We also need to be humble in recognising that although the Bible is infallible, our interpretations aren't, and so we should always be open to correction.

We need to be aware of our presuppositions - we never start from a neutral position, but all begin by placing our faith in something, whether that's human reason, or personal experience, or religious tradition or whatever. I've found that the best way to tackle my doubts and questions has been by trusting God, asking him for understanding, rather than by putting my faith on hold until I find answers. Real faith isn't blind, but seeks understanding.

If the Bible is really eternal truth revealed by God, we should expect it to challenge each of us in every culture in some way, and not just in the ways that support our agendas. If we only see challenges for other people in the Bible, and it isn't making us personally uncomfortable and different, we've probably stopped listening. Our faith has credibility when not just our beliefs, but our whole lives and lifestyles, are shaped by radical obedience to Christ.

Let's continue the 2000-year-old conversation about whether the Bible is completely true or not. But let's not underestimate the difference it makes to approach it as fallible "conversation". To do so crosses a watershed, where authority shifts from the text as God has inspired it, to us as interpreters. It's not just a change in what we believe about the Bible, but a change in how we arrive at every belief. Above all, it takes us back to the questions of is God truthful? Is he trustworthy? And is he a good communicator?

As I've grown in my own faith, I've wrestled with many questions about the Bible - what does it really say about Creation? About Hell? About the role of women? I've doubted and explored and questioned whether it's historically accurate, scientifically true, morally good, in the face of what have sometimes seemed compelling challenges. I don't have all the answers, but I have enough to convince me that my questions are best approached from the starting point of trusting God and his word.
A few suggestions for further exploration:
  • Watch Steve Chalke and Andrew Wilson discuss "Does the Bible Have Errors?" on Premier.tv
  • The Great Evangelical Disaster by Francis Schaeffer (on the watershed between trusting the Bible completely or not; written 30 years ago but very relevant to current debates)
  • Is there a meaning in this text? by Kevin J Vanhoozer (on whether it's possible to know meaning from a text, particularly the Bible)
  • The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell (collects evidence for the resurrection and reliability of the Gospels - probably a bit dated by now, but a good intro)
  • Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan (tackles many of those tough Old Testament passages where God seems like a jerk)
  • Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? by Dennis Alexander (discusses various models of relating and reconciling Genesis and science)
  • Who's afraid of postmodernism? by James K A Smith (really helpful on the relationship between reason and faith)

Can we be certain what the Bible means?



Sipech has written an interesting and thoughtful piece on Uncertainty over on his blog, The Alethiophile. Go and read it, then come back for my thoughts.


I largely agree with what he says. It's important to acknowledge what we can and can't be certain about, and to be humble about our own interpretations.

But I disagree that the limitations of our own understanding mean that we can't know or be certain about much of what the Bible says. As G K Chesterton said:
What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.
When I say that the Bible is true and certain, I am not making a claim about myself or my ability to know, but about God's ability to reveal truth to us. I am claiming fallible knowledge of an infallible God.

The Bible is full of declarations that we can have knowledge of God, his character, actions and will for the world. Luke wrote his Gospel so that "you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed". Either the Bible is being ridiculously over-optimistic about our ability to know, or certainty isn't the infallible God's-eye-view that we sometimes assume.

Epistemological certainty as Sipech describes it is a mirage. We are finite creatures, so we can never have 100% certainty about anything, even that you're using a red laptop, or that you live on planet Earth, if you really stop to consider all possibilities. (I blame Descartes. If you start your epistemology by doubting everything, then in the end even "I think, therefore I am" becomes uncertain).

All knowledge begins with faith in something, whether that's individual reason, sense perception, majority opinion, divine revelation, or whatever. What makes that faith epistemologically justified is that it continues to make sense of the world better than other available starting points.

For the Christian, our epistemological starting point is that God has revealed himself to us. We might by comparison find another starting point that better explains the available data to us, but that will equally be from a position of faith. All human knowledge rests on both reason and faith, no matter how hard people try to suppress their faith - such as the New Atheists, with their naive view that they use rational thinking alone, unlike those faith-heads with their blind belief.

We must always be revising our understanding and reforming our interpretation as we read and reread the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must never confuse our interpretation with the reality.

But we shouldn't be taken in by the black-belt interpretive ninjas who creatively reinterpret parts of the Bible that don't fit with their systems. When someone tries to convince you the interpretive equivalent of black is white and up is down, the best thing to do is often to reread what the Bible actually says, and laugh. We often mistake our difficulty with accepting or obeying the Bible for uncertainty or lack of clarity in the Bible.

Some details in the Bible are unclear and uncertain, but the big picture is clear: God made the world, Jesus died on the Cross and rose again, God sent his Holy Spirit, and so on. We can know these things. The question is, what's your starting point for knowledge - where are you placing your faith?

My movie review of 2013 - part 1


Aided and abetted by the use of my Cineworld Unlimited Card, I saw a lot of films at the cinema in 2013. Here's the first part of my round-up of what I thought of them.

Life of Pi


Based on Yann Martel's touching, clever philosophical parable, this film was visually stunning and the first of two this year that really justified their use of 3D.

The story of a boy who is shipwrecked and ends up in a lifeboat with a tiger for company, it presents two version of events, one unlikely and uplifting, one more realistic but grim, and asks us which is the better story. The character Pi says "so it is with God" - he is a better story, even though, the film suggests, we cannot know he exists.

It's great that the film poses these questions, even though I disagree with the answer it gives. God does make for a "better story", but whether he exists or not can be investigated and weighed up by examining the evidence of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Our lives need to live by not just a good story, but a true one.

Les Miserables


I love the Christian hope contained in the ending - the lyrics of the final song are fantastic:
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise. 
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord
We will walk behind the plough-share
We will put away the sword
But its themes of redemption are tear-jerking despite, not because of, the direction. the incredibly choppy, hand held camera work gives it no sense of scale, and the extreme close ups alienate as often as they draw in. For a better explanation, see Film Crit Hulk's fascinating essay on Les Mis.

Argo


Tense, gripping thriller about a CIA scheme to get Americans out of the Iranian Revolution, by faking a science fiction movie. Neatly balancing comedy with suspense and danger, it deservedly bagged a heap of awards. Take its version of events with a pinch of salt, of course: it enlarges the Americans' role and airbrushes out the part played by the Canadian ambassador.

Lincoln

It feels at times like a period version of Aaron Sorkin's White House set drama The West Wing. The moral weight of the questions of war and slavery give it dignity, but it lacks the scale or flourish to make it really shine as a piece of cinema. Read my full Lincoln review here.

Warm Bodies


Surprisingly fun and touching Romeo and Juliet story between a zombie and human survivor - for more about this, read my article on "why do we love a good apocalypse?"

Wreck it Ralph

An affectionate tribute to video games past and present, it also has real emotional heart with Ralph's efforts to start again as a good guy rather than video game villain. It follows a typical "chase your own dreams in life rather than what you were made/programmed to do" Disney shtick, but the funny and well-plotted script breathes life into a well-worn formula.

It's fun playing I Spy with cameos from various video game characters. I only wish that that hard-bitten space marine Commander Calhoun had been voiced by Jennifer Hale (who plays Commander Shepard in Bioware's fantastic Mass Effect series!)

Cloud Atlas

A gloriously ambitious attempt to bring David Mitchell's centuries spanning novel to screen. Intercutting between 6 different settings and storylines, it's a masterclass in editing.

It's also got some big things to say, even if it doesn't always say them subtly. "There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well", intones Hugo Weaving's character ominously, justifying the supposed superiority of the white man over black slaves. Across different time periods, we see various characters struggling to overcome oppressive systems, with their actions rippling through history.

So some great themes, and it juggles the multiple narratives skilfully. But its device of having the same actors playing different roles in various times, in some cases crossing race and gender, is in rather dubious taste, and results in some rather silly wigs and prosthetics. The film also simplifies much of the novel's complexity and nuance, especially the altered, more upbeat ending.

Does it hang together? Not quite. But I love the film for trying. Personally I'd rather a story that's over-ambitious that falls short, than just another generic blockbuster. Speaking of which...

The Host

Andrew Niccols' track record with Gattaca and The Truman Show gave me hope that he would do something interesting with Stephanie Meyers' other, non vampire novel. In it, the Earth has been invaded by floaty silver aliens who possess human beings. Only a few scattered human survivors remain free. But when Melanie Stryker is caught and possessed by the Wanderer (nicknamed Wanda), she fights back for control of her own body...

I was rather disappointed, with even the talented Saoirse Ronan unable to overcome the hokeyness of arguing with her own voice-over. That kind of inner conflict perhaps works better in the book, which I haven't read, but its translation to screen seems ham-fisted. Playing to the post-Twilight audience, there's a rather weird love square (rather than triangle), with Melanie and Wanda falling in love with different young men. There are some intriguing ideas here, and the way that the aliens seem to have made the world genuinely more peaceful and harmonious adds a nice note of moral ambiguity, but for me it fell quite flat.

So that's the first few! Check back soon as I move on to more 2013 films, including many of the summer blockbusters...

Merry Christmas 2013!


Nadolig Llawen pawb, as we say in Wales! Not that I'm in Wales right now... this is my first London Christmas, but the sentiment still stands. It's been quite a year for me and my wife moving from Cardiff to London, but God has really looked after us, and I'm thankful. London is a very exciting place to be, and I'm really enjoying my new job in publishing.

It's been sad to say goodbye to old friends in Cardiff (though it's not really goodbye, not with social media and semi-regular trips back, happily), and also fun making new friends, especially at Dundonald Church, which has become our new spiritual home.

I've written an odd little article/reflection on Christmas for Threads about First Contact vs First Christmas. How does Christmas compare to making first contact with aliens? Believe it or not, Christmas is weirder, more wonderful, more life- and history-changing than the discovery of intelligent life from other worlds could ever be.

While I'm at it with the links, 2013 also marked 50 years of Doctor Who, and 50 years since C S Lewis died. You can read my reflections on what Doctor Who and Narnia mean to me over on science fiction, fantasy and horror website Hodderscape.

I've enjoyed my new experiences in 2013, and look forward to further adventures in London life, publishing and more in 2014. God bless, and Merry Christmas!

5 reasons why I find Nanowrimo helpful...


...plus one book recommendation on how to write.

It's that time of year again, and I've embarked on the 50,000 words in a month novel writing challenge, Nanowrimo. I'm returning to The Sword in the Spaceship, an idea I've had for a while of doing a King Arthur and time travel story (props to Mark Twain's fascinating A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court as partial inspiration, plus T H White's The Sword in the Stone, of course).

I've done Nanowrimo before twice - no three times - once where I completed it, back in 2007, another when I used it to work on an existing novel in 2008, and another where I made a start and didn't finish, in 2011. Some people find the whole exercise rather pointless - why bother to churn out a badly written novel, rather than taking the time to do it properly?

If Nanowrimo helps you write and you enjoy it, then great. If not, that's fine. There's no one-size-fits-all writing approach. But here are my reasons why I personally find it helpful:

1. An excuse to be antisocial

"Sorry, I'd love to come, but I've got to keep up with Nanowrimo!"

I always mean to prioritise my writing, but it tends to get the dregs of my time. Too often, it get what's left after home and work and church have taken their toll, and after I've chilled out in front of the TV, surfed the web and so on. Since moving to London earlier this year, I've been really out of my writing groove. This is a chance for me to  make it top priority for a limited time. Nanowrimo gives me a more concrete reason to say no to stuff than just my writing in general. Hopefully a month of intensive writing will help me regain my writing rhythm going forward.

2. The sketch before the painting

I use Nanowrimo as a way of doing the quick sketch before embarking on the painting. I find that Nanowrimo works best for harnessing the white heat of excitement as you try out a new idea or approach, throwing everything on the page to see what works and what doesn't. Using it to work on an existing novel didn't really work for me - I wasn't able to treat it with the same exuberance.

For me, Nanowrimo is actually "draft zero", in that it's the stage of my writing which I don't show to anyone. By the time I show someone my "first draft", I'll already have begun tidying it up and editing it. 

3. Become a writing shark

You know the story about how some sharks have to keep moving to breath, or they drown? Nanowrimo forces you to become a writing shark, moving on relentlessly or drowning in your paltry wordcount.

Sometimes I let myself get bogged down for days or weeks on some knotty problem with my writing. Nanowrimo forces me to keep writing - if I really can't solve a problem now, I just have to skip it and come back to it later.

4. Harnessing social pressure

I tell people I'm doing Nanowrimo and have to write 50,000 words by the end of the month, and give them updates. If I don't make it, I look a fool. This is a good motivator.

On the flipside, if you live in a city like Cardiff or London, there are plenty of other people doing Nanowrimo, and you can meet up for write-ins, where you have a quick chat, and then write together. There's nothing like a bunch of other people tapping away industriously to stop me from firing up Facebook or Twitter!

5. It's fun

I enjoy it. Which is a pretty good reason to Nano!

So how am I doing right now? I'm just shy of 10,000 words, which is around a day behind where I should be wordcount-wise. But it's the end of the work week, and I've got the weekend to help catch up, so I'm not too concerned.

Two things have been particularly helpful so far: One, a small tub of Jelly Bean Factory gourmet flavour beans for rewards / motivation. Yum!

Two, Douglas Wilson's book Wordsmithy, which is a wonderful little guide to the writing life. The 49 tips don't just cover writing technique, but the whole lifestyle and mindset of being a writer. Although not every piece of advice is necessarily applicable or helpful to me, I found it to be wonderfully written and frequently hilarious. Check it out!

Are you Nanowrimoing? What do you find helpful for writing? Let me know how you're getting on...

Avoiding debt slavery


There's a good article on Debt over at threads, and how our culture encourages us to be far too casual about something that makes us slaves:

The banks and credit card companies tell us that this kind of debt is good. It’s a way of bringing forward tomorrow’s spending to today. It gives you choices you wouldn’t otherwise have. There’s even a credit card called the ‘Freedom’ card (and no, this isn’t product endorsement).

Debt is normal. More than that, it’s unavoidable. And except in the worst cases, we’ve generally swallowed that line.

We are the only generation in history to see debt as a convenience. Previous generations have avoided it wherever possible. In the Bible, taking a loan was a last-ditch solution to living in utter poverty. Jesus repeatedly used debt as an image for sin. It was scary. No-one went into debt lightly.

Why? Because debt enslaves us. In the worst cases it keeps us locked into a state of never-ending poverty. Even smaller debts, or lower interest rates, have a serious impact – and the average adult owes more than they earn in a year. “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7).
Before I left home, my Dad advised me never to go into debt for anything that decreases in value after you've bought it. That covers most things - cars, gadgets, consumer goods, which quickly lose value second-hand, or things like holidays, where you're getting a one-off experience.

The exception being things that increase in value or add value over time - education, to be learn and prepared for life, and to better able to work and earn. I was fortunate enough to be able to avoid getting into any debt at uni beyond my student loan, which is paid off out of earnings and written off at retirement. And mortgages are usually relatively "safe" since house prices tend to go up over time.

But even then you need to be wise and cautious, and there are incredible pressures to get into debt. University fees have shot up even since I was a student. It can't be good for society to place people such a burden of debt.