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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete and Jared reflect on all the ruining they’ve been doing, what it means for how we read and connect with the Bible going forward, and how they’ve been personally affected by an evolving view of Scripture. Join them as they ask the following questions:

  • How could it help to reimagine the Bible as compost for a garden?
  • If the Bible isn’t the only sufficient ingredient for living a faithful life, what else can help Christians grow into people who love like Jesus?
  • What are some of the flaws of a theology that needs the Bible to be inerrant and sufficient?
  • What are some analogies we can use for understanding helpful vs. unhelpful approaches to reading the Bible?
  • How does the Jewish tradition or mentality around Scripture differ and what can it teach Christians?
  • Is there a relationship between how we picture God and how we read the Bible?
  • How have Pete and Jared’s views of Scripture shifted over time?
  • How did the lens of literature play into an evolving view of Scripture for Pete and Jared, and how can other Christians benefit from that lens?
  • What does imagination bring to the experience of understanding God and Scripture?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete and Jared you can share.

  • There are lots of means of spiritual growth and faith formation and the Bible is one of those. When we talk about how to read the Bible now that we’ve ruined it, it’s putting [the Bible] in its proper place in the toolkit of a vibrant faith. — @jbyas
  • The Bible [is] a necessary thing in faith, but it’s not the only thing. There’s other things you need to grow a healthy plant or grow fruit. So yes, it’s great to have soil—but you also need rain, and you also need sunlight, and there’s these other things that set up the Bible in a context where you need other things alongside of it. — @jbyas
  • You can have an inerrantist idea that the Bible [is] sufficient and necessary for everything that we need, and yet we still have things like all the sexual abuse going on in the church. This perfectionistic idea of the Bible doesn’t safeguard against what I think is the more important thing, which is how we live our lives in relationship to each other. — @jbyas
  • Certain approaches to the nature of the Bible that make it a foundation to everything that we do and think—that is a product of that modern mindset and not really a mindset that’s been part of the historic both Christian and Jewish faiths over the past couple thousand years. — @peteenns
  • How do we have a different relationship with the Bible, and a way of trying to discover what that is? It’s just listening to other people talk and how they engage in it and why they engage in it. — @peteenns
  • How can we be faithful to God in our generation? And if that’s the anchor—to be faithful to God—then how we get there is going to be different for different people. It’s going to be through the arguing, it’s going to be through the process. — @jbyas
  • I think the deeper problem is truly a theological problem in the strict sense of the word. How we picture God really affects how we think about the Bible. I think those two things are not distant. — @jbyas
  • When you have a God that’s contained in a book, we get to master it, we get to dissect it, we get to parse it out—because it’s literally words on a page. But if God’s bigger than that, then now we have an uncontrollable God, and it feels scarier. That’s an important shift for me, too, is to have this bigger God than the systematic theology books led me to believe. — @jbyas
  • I have come to those realizations by studying the Bible very deeply. And it’s not like, “Oh, I found the answer here in this verse.” It’s more like, this whole collection of writings doesn’t work the way others have insisted—on pain of death—that you agree with. These diverse writings have tremendous ambiguities, and the antiquity of it all…It’s not an easy book. — @peteenns
  • Seeing and valuing the Bible as literature, as something that can motivate us as it resonates with our humanity, has helped me not to see it as a divine authority, but as this engine of creativity. — @jbyas
  • [Seeing the Bible as] literature gave me the reminder I needed…that there are some beautiful writings in the world that impact us not as divine authority that’s going to smack us down if we don’t agree with it, but in a way that beautifully resonates with our humanity and where we are. It motivates us from the inside out, not from the outside in. — @jbyas
  • Theology is not simply an analytical exercise…it’s supposed to be a connection with the Divine involving us as people. We’re not machines, we’re people with hopes and dreams and imaginations. — @peteenns
  • There are theologians who talk about how imagination is crucial to the theological task because we’re dealing with things that we simply can’t understand. The quantum world, the cosmology with the size of things, the age of things—we have no frame of reference. And to think of God involved in all of that is an act of imagination, it’s not an act of exegesis. — @peteenns
  • There’s reading [the Bible] for the original intention: what did the authors actually intend? And then there’s reading it for my own spiritual growth today. For me to mutually respect or honor the original intention and my own context, I can’t reduce one to the other. They stand in conversation with each other at all times. — @jbyas
  • Am I going to the Bible to understand it or to stand under it? — @jbyas

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete  

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas.

[Music plays]

Jared  

Welcome everyone to this episode of the podcast! Alright, now let’s get into our episode, which is just you and me today. You and me.

Pete  

Yeah.

Jared  

We’re going to be thinking through this question: How do we read the Bible now that we’ve ruined it? And of course—

Pete  

We haven’t ruined it…

Jared  

We mean this—By “we” we mean Pete. Because if you listen to the podcast, Pete’s always ruining books. He’s ruined Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers…

Pete  

A little Isaiah. Yeah. 

Jared  

And so we sometimes get this question, “Okay, great. Thanks for ruining it. Now, what do we do with it?” And today, we’re going to answer every single one of those questions.

Pete  

With “I don’t know.”

Jared  

[Laughing] Yeah, we didn’t say we were going to answer it well! No, of course, we’re going to end with more questions. That’s how we do things here at The Bible For Normal People.

Pete  

Yeah, we’re sort of Zen. 

Pete  

[Music plays under teaser clip of Pete speaking] “The history of the Christian church has always taken the Bible with utmost seriousness. But they also understood things like flexibility in interpretation. There are different ways of looking at these things. And that’s a gift I think, I mean, to approach the Bible with the expectation that people will come to different conclusions on the basis of what they’re reading from their own personalities, their own experiences. That’s simply an acknowledgement of not the Bible as less than, but of our own human limitations and frailties.”

[Music ends] [Ad break]

Jared  

[Jaunty music plays briefly] Well some of this comes from a presentation we gave not too long ago on this topic, and one of the things, maybe if I can start us with this, we played a lot off of one of our previous guests, Walter Brueggemann. He has this metaphor in a book called Text Under Negotiation, which I always recommend you don’t read it because it’s really nerdy and boring. There’s a lot of Brueggemann books to read, maybe not that one. But one of the really valuable things is this idea of the Bible as a compost pile. And for some people, that’s offensive. 

Pete  

Yeah. 

Jared  

Because they think, “Oh, the Bible is garbage, then, huh?”

Pete  

Yeah.

Jared  

But whenever you really take some time to think about it, it’s really a beautiful metaphor for, maybe, what we can do with the Bible now.

Pete  

Yeah, and I think it’s also a beautiful metaphor, because it seems to describe the way the situation actually is. So, you know, the idea, Jared, that we’ve gone through a lot—we’ve talked about this now and then—is that the Bible is that out of which things grow. It’s not the focus, like, when you’re planting a garden, you gotta have a good soil, good compost, but it isn’t like “Hey, come on over and look at the compost only.” It’s what grows out of it. And different gardens grow different things, they may grow roses and other kinds of flowers, they may grow vegetables, you know. In our garden at home, we have zucchini, which I hate, but we also have other vegetables that I can barely tolerate. So it just depends and, you know, different parts of the world, different soils will grow different kinds of things, but they’re coming out of, you know, to keep the analogy, the same compost pile. And over time, you know, people grow different things, they have different tastes, I guess. So I find that valuable, Jared. I just think it’s a helpful way of thinking about the beautiful things that grow up out of the compost pile. And not everything that grows looks exactly the same. And you might not even like some of the things that grow out of it, but for other people, it might be their existence is on the line because they can grow those carrots and that rhubarb or whatever they do.

Jared  

Yeah. And I also like it because it sets up the Bible as one thing—it’s a necessary thing in faith, if we’re going to keep the analogy, but it’s not the only thing. It’s not sufficient. There’s other things you need to grow a healthy plant or grow fruit. I mean, in some ways, this is a biblical metaphor, as Jesus talks about the fruit growing. And so yes, it’s great to have soil—but you also need rain, and you also need sunlight, and there’s these other things that set up putting the Bible in a context where you need other things alongside of it. And I think that’s something that we’ve talked about more and more in the last couple of seasons, that those things may be our own experiences, our tradition—

Pete  

Yeah. 

Jared  

—reason, wisdom. Those are things that play into a life of faith, which may be new for some people who always taught, you know, sola scriptura, is a little bit of a contradiction with this compost pile analogy as though that’s all we need.

Pete  

And I mean, I know some fairly conservative people who say, you know, Scripture is not sufficient in and of itself. You know, our lives come into it, tradition comes into it, reason comes into it.

Jared  

Or even like natural revelation. 

Pete  

Yeah, like, knowing just how things work out there, right? So you know, I mean you engage science or history, and then you sort of read portions of the Bible and say, “Listen, I have to engage this biblical text with all these other things.” And then something, let’s say, wonderfully theological can grow out of those conversations. And this is hardly a new idea. This is something that has been with the church since the very beginning. It’s, you know, just look at the ancient Greek fathers and how they employed philosophical language in their own context to grow certain things out of this compost pile. And, you know, I know, Jared, that, some listening here might think, again, this is really degrading of the Bible. But again, without the compost pile, nothing grows. There is nothing there, right? So, the compost is non negotiable, it’s just not…

Jared  

Sufficient. 

Pete  

Sufficient!

Jared  

It can’t just be the only thing.

Pete  

It doesn’t grow things by itself, right? It needs…

Jared  

And—

Pete  

Other things.

Jared  

—it’s not the point. The point is the growth. That which comes out of it is the point. And sometimes, I think, you know, my emphasis in my tradition growing up was that Bible reading in itself is the end, not the means, but the end.

Pete  

It is the end. Yeah. 

Jared  

And recognizing when it’s a means, like, you’ve talked about it in past episodes of means of grace, there are lots of means of spiritual growth and faith formation and the Bible is one of those. So I think that’s important when we talk about how to read the Bible now that we’ve ruined it. It’s putting it in its proper place in the toolkit of a vibrant faith.

Pete  

Right. Which is, again, not to denigrate, but to, I would say, more to recognize.

Jared  

Well, let’s talk about that. Because if you grew up thinking that the Bible had to be or was the inerrant Word of God, in some ways, this will feel like a denigration. But I would just say that was an unrealistic expectation—

Pete  

Yeah. What do you mean?

Jared  

—to have on it. And so… Just the idea of denigration is like, well, yeah, in some ways, this is taking it down off this pedestal of, I guess the assumption that a high view of Scripture necessitates inerrancy.

Pete  

Right. Yeah. In other words, the compost has to have no pebbles in it. 

Jared  

Right. So, with that, maybe going in a different direction but similar, one other thing I like about the compost pile is that it’s a repository of tradition and the Bible itself is a part of that tradition. 

Pete  

[Hums in agreement]

Jared  

Just like when we say, “Out of that grows new things.” You mentioned the church fathers, in the fourth century who, they had the biblical text and out of that, they added Greek philosophy. And that comes some new language. And then the medieval theologians added on to that, and then the Reformers added on to that, and here we are adding on to that. The soil gets richer and richer, and new material gets put on top of it. And the Bible isn’t of a different thing, it is part of that tradition.

[Music plays before Ad break]

Pete  

Now, how about this, though—Again, I’m trying to anticipate what some people might say that, “Okay, all these things get added, but can anything be added? Can you just, can anything come out of this? Or is there any sort of boundary? Are some things that grow out of just bad things to grow out of a garden?” And my answer is: yeah—I think that’s true, but holding the Bible to an unrealistic standard, let’s say, is not going to guarantee that you don’t have that issue to work through, right? People with a “highest view of the Bible,” the most inerrantist of inerrantists, there are problems with their interpretations—with all of us! Because the Bible is not the most unambiguous piece of literature ever compiled, you know? It’s got questions that come up in reading it. And so an inerrant Bible doesn’t safeguard what I think people might be concerned or afraid about thinking of the Bible like a compost pile.

Jared  

Well, and maybe more importantly—I mean, more importantly from my perspective, for some, you know, doctrine is the most important thing—but for me, it doesn’t safeguard against a people who love like Jesus.

Pete  

Right.

Jared  

So you can have an inerrantist idea that the Bible will give us—it’s sufficient and necessary for everything that we need. And yet we still have things like the SBC scandal with all this sexual abuse going on in the church. And so this perfectionistic idea of the Bible doesn’t safeguard against what I think is the more important thing, which is how we live our lives in relationship to each other. So for me, yeah, it’s a little bit risky. But I also think it’s not only realistic, but important to give weight to the community. And so this goes back to which came first: an inerrant Bible? Or a church, the people of God, the community of God, the rule of faith, that then the Bible supports? And I think that’s still true today. So when we say, “How do we safeguard against this?” the answer is not in an inerrant book, it’s in the community of people being shaped into the likeness of Jesus in community with each other, holding each other accountable to this idea. And for me, that’s part and parcel of what we’d call wisdom.

Pete  

Right. And that doesn’t happen, let’s say, apart from the Bible, it happens in the engagement of the Bible, as well. Because again, I’m anticipating an objection, “Well, how do you know…you can love all you want to, but how do you know if you have the right doctrine or this or that, and you have to pay attention to the Bible, and you can’t just jettison the Bible.” Well, nobody’s jettisoning anything. We’re just recognizing that this is not a pyramid that we’re building where the foundation is a perfect, flawless view of a perfect flawless Bible and everything else grows out of that, it’s more of like a matrix and interconnection of nodes on the web and, if you can imagine that, and just signals firing back and forth, and together? Those signals firing back and forth make us, and how we think, and how we process. And, you know, love as part of that net, that matrix I think, I mean that’s so clearly biblical.

Jared  

Right.

Pete  

[Chuckles] That’s so clearly part of the tradition, so rises to the top, I think. 

Jared  

You know, with that kind of, I want to come back to the question for this episode of how do we read the Bible now that we’ve ruined it? And I think one thing we’ve said, is that we read it in concert with these other things. And I think that’s really important. It’s not that foundation that then everything has to be, you know, filtered through, but it is a node on a multi-nodal network of faith expression—Which again, isn’t new. This is going back centuries for how the church thought about faith. But I think that’s how we read the Bible now that we’ve ruined it—is we put it in its proper place in the toolkit of faith. Again, for some, if that was the only tool that mattered, it might feel like we’re jettisoning the Bible, but what we’re really saying is, it’s just one thing among many, it’s an important thing. 

Pete  

Right. 

Jared  

But it is only one.

Pete  

Yeah…yeah. And I think in a sense, what you’re saying is partly, this is going back to some pre-modern sensibilities, right? Which a lot of theologians talk about and say, “Yeah, that’s, that’s pretty much needed.” And I’m reminded of your series of The Making of the Modern Mindset, how—I mean, not to beat a dead horse here—but how certain approaches to the nature of the Bible that make it a foundation to everything that we do and think—that is a product of that modern mindset and not really a mindset that’s been part of the historic both Christian and Jewish faiths over the past couple thousand years. So there’s a sense in which, you know, I don’t mind saying—Jared, I don’t know about you—but I think there’s a sense in which a course correction is needed. And I think that course correction is coming from people who are saying, “I can’t do this anymore. This doesn’t make sense of my reality. And I need to find a different relationship with the Bible.” And, you know, if there’s anything that we’re about talking about, it’s that. It’s how do we have a different relationship with the Bible, and a way of trying to discover what that is? It’s just listening to other people talk and how they engage in it and why they engage in it.

Jared  

Yeah. So with that, you know, listening to other people, I think is a—it’s a great segue to our next point, which is; how do we read the Bible? I think seeing it as a compost pile, not the end in itself, but that which new things can grow out of. I think, two, seeing it as one tool among many in the toolkit. But then thirdly, with what you just gave us a new metaphor of this pyramid, we might say the pyramid and the net—right? To play off the old David Clines essay (nerdy reference that no one will get). But if we have the pyramid and the net, now, let’s go with that metaphor. Whenever you have a pyramid, we have the foundation and everything has to build off of that. You can’t have diversity or plurality in how we interpret the Bible, because we’re looking for a sure foundation. So we need the one correct interpretation.

Pete  

Right.

Jared  

It’s not about what grows out of it, it’s not about this network, it’s about the one true meaning of that text so that we can have certainty, and surety, and grow out of that.

Pete  

And build on top of that—

Jared  

And build on top of that.

Pete  

—that sure foundation. 

Jared  

But if we have a net, where it’s all these nodes, then actually diversity and plurality strengthens. Because the more nodes we have, the fuller picture we get. And so that, I think, is another good point to make about how we read our Bible, is we read it within or with a respect for diversity and plurality.

Pete  

Right. And, you know, just back to that analogy of the pyramid, it’s like…The point of the pyramid is to make that foundation as solid and immovable and permanent as possible, not something that grows and changes and interacts. And you don’t put some bricks and then some pebbles, and then acorns or something on bottom. You have to have that sure foundation. And I always think of that hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”… “is Jesus Christ her Lord,” which is not saying the same thing as the Bible. Right? And I think, in my opinion just from my own studying this stuff over the years, and you too Jared, the history of the Christian Church has always taken the Bible with utmost seriousness. But they also understood things like flexibility in interpretation. There are different ways of looking at these things, and that’s a gift I think, I mean, to approach the Bible with the expectation that people will come to different conclusions on the basis of what they’re reading—from their own personalities, their own experiences, which is huge.

I mean, how many guests have we had on the podcast over the past six years who are people of color or people who are not like us in one way or the other, who have insights into just the nature of God or the nature of faith or the nature of the Bible that we might not have gotten to in the course of our existence because we just don’t see things the same way. Right? So that, I think the flexibility notion and the plurality notion, that’s simply an acknowledgement of not the Bible as less than, but of our own human limitations and frailties. You know, how can you just say, “Here’s a book, this is how you understand everything. This is the one way to understand it. And if you don’t, God’s really mad at you.” Right? What if this is more of a compost pile that generates things? I’m just remembering here, Rachel Held Evans in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and what she learned from engaging Jews reading her own Bible, and how much they revel around the notion of this flexibility and plurality without feeling the need to come to a solid final answer that everyone agrees on. That’s not really known in Jewish interpretation. Frankly, it’s not really that known in Christian interpretation, either. But that’s what it is. And because their foundation is not the Bible, their foundation is the tradition that’s been built over the years around the Bible. And what unifies them is their own Jewish heritage, right?

So, you know, to Christians, you could draw an analogy a little bit and say, “Well, what holds Christians together? Well, The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ, Her Lord.” And well, what does that mean? Great question. We can talk all about what “Jesus Christ, Her Lord” means, and that’s part of it. But trying to get at those things is a big thing that unites us, even though we look at it differently. And that, I don’t know Jared, I just got happy thinking about that, because it just takes all…it takes the pressure off.

Jared  

Right. Well and again, for me, what takes that pressure off—and it’s circling back to what we said earlier, is another way of saying—if we change what the goal is, then we’re less anxious about who’s in and who’s out and who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s like saying when we go to the gym, what’s the goal? If the goal is to get stronger, each of us have to set up our own workout in our own way, because we recognize the diversity of our body types and where we’re starting from and what our, you know, what is our aim? And we’re all doing it in our own way—

Pete  

I just wouldn’t go to the gym. But anyway, go ahead. Continue, please.

Jared  

[Laughs] So then, whenever we see that, to get to the same end we need a different means, each of us have to go at it our own way, I think it helps us to—that’s different than, “No, the most important thing is that you all do it the same way.” 

Pete  

Yeah. 

Jared  

So it’s changing the ends with the means. And I think that comes back to this compost pile that at the end of the day, just when you’re talking about Jewish tradition, I feel like there’s a huge emphasis on being faithful to God.

Pete  

[Hums in agreement]

Jared  

How can we be faithful to God, in our generation? And if that’s the anchor, to be faithful to God, then how we get there is going to be different for different people. It’s going to be through the arguing, it’s going to be through the process, it’s not going to be through the, “No, you just do 1, 2, 3 and you get to 4, and everybody’s always going to be the same. And you’re always going to do it the same way”—this conveyor belt mentality of what faith is about. It reminds me of, I think we’ve said it a couple of times, but I think John Levenson says, you know, for Jews, faith is a problem to be solved, and for Christians, it’s a message to be proclaimed.

Pete  

Mhmm. Yeah, that the Bible is a message. 

Jared  

Yeah, right. The Bible.

Pete

Yeah. 

Jared  

And so that difference of mentality, because whenever it’s a message to be proclaimed, as a Christian tradition in the last couple 100 years, at least in America, we’ve gotten really good at making it a product that gets put on an assembly line, and we get replicated over and over and over. We’re mass producing it rather than getting into the weeds of a problem to be solved, which takes creativity and innovation and community and back and forth. It’s just a very different way of seeing how we engage this text.

Pete  

Yeah. Well, I mean, I could be wrong about this, because, you know, I want to say something that’s sort of very big here and I’m not convinced I have it all right. But I think what fuels, let’s say, that assembly line product mentality is maybe like an unconscious assumption that God is way off someplace. And what we have is the Bible, and the Bible is God’s presence with us. And you know, one change in my life over the past, at least, definitely 15 years, is thinking more of the presence of the Spirit of God in all people and all things and just permeating the entire universe—which sounds New Age-y to some people, but I don’t think it’s that at all. This is a very ancient Christian idea, you know? But I think if you’re not trying to—if you don’t think your job is to access God from a distance through your obedience to Scripture, but if you think rather, the presence is there present all the time and your job is more to become aware of that presence, the Bible then becomes a means of engaging it in community with other people of becoming aware of a presence that’s already there, not something that’s far off up in some galaxy someplace, right? So, in other words, I think the deeper problem here is truly a theological problem in the strict sense of the word. It’s Theo. God. How we picture God really affects how we think about the Bible. I think those two things are not distant. And so when you criticize the Bible, the responses I get regularly are basically, “You’re actually critiquing God.” They might not put it quite that directly, but that’s exactly what they’re saying. Like when you mess with the Bible, you mess with God, because this is God’s word, and God inspired it and so, you know, the two things are basically two sides of the same coin. 

Jared  

Yeah.

Pete  

And I find that to be a depressing way of thinking about the nature of reality, quite frankly. Doesn’t work for me.

[Ad break]

Jared  

I think that’s really good. And I’d like to maybe use this as a chance to move into some of our personal experiences because I think that might be helpful for people. Like how we utilize it. But for me personally, I would want to tag onto that, you know, for you talking about changing how you’ve, you’ve got to now not being transcendent up there and out there far away, but present in people and things. Another shift for me that was really big, I’d say over the last 20 years, is moving away from the God that can be controlled and explained in a systematic theology textbook, to a God that cannot be understood or tamed in that way. And I think when we were talking about, you mentioned the Spirit of God being bigger than the Bible, I couldn’t help but think of in John’s gospel when they talk about the Spirit, and the Spirit goes where it wishes. And that’s that scary idea that it’s not tameable, it’s not controllable. And we gain some things with that, we also lose some. We lose the sense of certainty and we lose the sense of safety. That’s what a God who’s contained in a book gives us. When you have a God that’s contained in a book, we get to master it, we get to dissect it, we get to parse it out, because it’s literally words on a page. But if God’s bigger than that, then now we have an uncontrollable God, and it feels scarier. And I think that I think that’s an important shift for me, too, is to have this bigger God than the systematic theology books led me to believe.

Pete  

Mhmm. And you know, for me, maybe a little somewhat ironic, ironic turn is that, coming to that realization that you just spoke, I have come to those realizations, by studying the Bible very deeply. And it’s not like, “Oh, I found the answer here in this verse.” It’s more like, this whole collection of writings don’t work the way others have insisted—on pain of death—that you agree with. It is the, you know, these diverse writings that have tremendous ambiguities and the antiquity of it all, it’s not an easy book. You wrestle with the Bible. Wrestling with the Bible is what people of faith do. It isn’t “you go to a verse and this explains everything”, you look at passages where it seems like God’s gonna put people in eternal torment when they die, and others, like, God loves the world so much that he gave his only begotten son. And I know people have ways of putting these things together, but they do create tensions. How do you reconcile the flood story with the cross? And despite attempts, I don’t think that’s something that’s very, very easy to do. You have different portrayals of God in the Bible. And that’s the kind of thing, especially when you look at it in the context, historically, in which some of these things were written, you just start coming up with a view of the Bible that is not that picture perfect, you know, garden in a greenhouse, at—what’s that Longwood garden near our place? If you people don’t know, don’t know what Longwood garden is, you need to just Google it because it’s a beautiful place—it’s this picture perfect thing, it’s pristine. Don’t pick anything—

Jared  

Very curated.

Pete  

Very curated, that’s the word right? So I’m finding the Bible to be very uncurated. 

Jared  

Right. 

Pete  

It’s just not curated. This author clearly has never read this other guy, or he has—

Jared  

And he doesn’t even care. He just puts it right in.

Pete  

And to me, that…the compost pile analogy helps me give language and concepts to what I have found to be in my life and my understanding, how the Bible works and just what the Bible is. And now the question, of course, is, “Okay, now what do we do with it? Well…”

Jared  

Yeah, and with that too—And I appreciate you bringing that part of it in, when you talk about the way the Bible functions, because another thing that’s helped me in what to do with the Bible, now that I have this other view of it, is to see the Bible as literature, and how that—in my tradition, that meant it wasn’t very valuable. So we had a, I had a dichotomy presented before me. I had a choice: Either the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, which is of utmost value because it gives us certainty in what we can know and how we can know God and how we can be saved for eternity; or it’s not an inerrant Bible, it’s not the inerrant Word of God, and therefore, isn’t really worth much of anything. And so once I let go of this idea of inerrancy, I was confronted with the fact that I assumed it meant nothing, because that was the two categories I was given. It’s either this, or it’s nothing.

And literature actually gave me the reminder I needed that those are not the only two options. That there are some beautiful writings in the world that impact us not as divine authority that’s going to smack us down if we don’t agree with it, but in a way that beautifully resonates with our humanity and where we are. It motivates us from the inside out, not from the outside in. And so there’s a reason why we have Lord of the Rings that endures even into the 21st century, you know, 100 years after it was written. There’s a reason the stories resonate from 300 years ago, 500 years ago, 1,000, 2,000 years ago. It’s not because there’s a divine authority that makes it evergreen, it’s because there’s something in it that resonates with our humanity. And so seeing and valuing the Bible as literature as something that can motivate us as it resonates with our humanity has helped me not to see it as a divine authority, but as this engine of creativity.

Pete  

Right, from the inside out, rather than outside in. And the word that comes to my mind is sparking our imaginations. One of the more significant moments of my early life was after college—this is before I went to seminary or anything like that, but I read The Chronicles of Narnia. And I mean, I’m a college graduate reading children’s books and I couldn’t put them down, right? Because they sparked my imagination and they gave me…I think theology and imagination go together hand in glove. Theology is not simply an analytical exercise rooted in knowledge of Hebrew or Greek or the Latin fathers of the Greek fathers of the Reformation. It’s because it’s supposed to be a connection with the Divine involving us as people. We’re not machines, we’re people with hopes and dreams and imaginations. And I know that’s gonna sound very weird to some people listening like, “Your imagination is sinful, you can’t listen to that.” I got news for you pal: your reasoning is sinful then too, everything about you is fallen if you believe in that. Right? Everything about you is a mess, including how you read the Bible. And how you—And me too!

Jared  

It’s amazing that total depravity doesn’t seem to affect our reason. 

Pete  

Yes, exactly. But—

Jared  

Anyway, that’s for a different podcast.

Pete  

For a different podcast, yeah.

Jared  

So imagination, you’re saying imagination. 

Pete  

Yeah, imagination is really, really important. And I know some stuff I’ve been reading lately about science and religion and things like that, there’s theologians who talk about how imagination is crucial to the theological task because we’re dealing with things that we simply can’t understand and we know we can’t understand it. We can’t understand the quantum world, we can’t understand the cosmology with the size of things, the age of things, we have no frame of reference. And to think of God involved in all of that is an act of imagination, it’s not an act of exegesis. It’s not an act of finding the right bit of soil in the compost pile. It’s just imagining what the garden can look like when you’re done working with it, you know? And it’s not going to be a perfect garden. But that’s not the point. It’s not about perfection, it’s about communion, I would say.

Jared  

Yeah.

Pete  

And imagination is crucial to that.

Jared  

And for me—and I think we should probably wrap it up here in a minute. So my, my final thought is, I think of it as a polarity, where there are two sides of this coin for me. And I’m gonna just be kind of personal for how I read the Bible now. For a while, I tried to reconcile these two and then I just recognized there’s an ebb and flow and there’s a polarity here where it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and, and it depends on where I am and it depends on what I’m doing. And that is what you called it, kind of this analytical and this imaginative side. And I would call it—there’s many ways we can present this polarity. There’s reading it for the original intention: what did the authors actually intend? And then there’s reading it for my own spiritual growth today. Those are two different ways. They’re not really easily reconciled. They’re two different ways. And for me to mutually respect or honor the original intention and my own context, I can’t reduce one to the other. They stand in conversation with each other at all times. And I’m constantly going back and forth between the two because that’s what a relationship and a conversation is—

Pete  

And some tension, a little.

Jared  

Some tension, for sure! That’s how relationships work. And so that for me is the ebb and flow of—sometimes I go to the Bible, and another way I say it is, am I going to the Bible to understand it or to stand under it? And those are two different things. If I’m going to understand it, then I put my thinking cap on and I’m looking at the original languages and I’m reading my study Bibles. And I’m reading commentaries, and I’m trying to understand the original context. That’s different than when I’m going to the Bible to stand under it, which is more to be convicted on how am I living my life? Am I loving well, am I not? And I will look for that. So that is the lens, I would call it like the love-centered lens, that I am putting on specifically for the purpose. And I don’t do that just with the Bible. I do that in relationships with other people. Sometimes I’m trying to understand my friends and sometimes I’m asking them to look at me and give me feedback and give me criticism. How can I improve? 

Pete  

And sometimes—

Jared  

I do that in my church community.

Pete  

[Jokingly] And sometimes you hate your co-host.

Jared  

[Chuckles] Sometimes I hate my co-host, and I don’t want feedback from them. 

Pete  

[Laughing]

Jared  

No, so that’s kind of how I’d end for me. That’s a very practical, you know—sometimes I think we’ve tried to reconcile these two and for me, I’ve given that up. I’ve seen the beauty and the polarity of, sometimes I’m going to understand and sometimes I’m going to stand under.

Pete  

Right. And that’s a good thing to end on, I think, yeah. 

Jared  

Excellent. 

Pete  

We can’t say everything here. 

Jared  

No, we gotta have…

Pete  

We’ve said a lot. This keeps going. 

Jared

That’s right.

Pete

What is the Bible? What do we do with it? That keeps—

Jared  

How else are we going to have a seventh season?

Pete  

Or a 70th season, if we’re around that long…

Jared  

Exactly. 

Pete  

I can do this when I’m 130. That’s no problem. I can, I can do that.

Jared  

[Laughing] Alright, folks, see you next time.

Pete  

See you!

Outro  

You’ve just made it through another episode of The Bible for Normal People! Thanks to our listeners who support us each week by rating the podcast, leaving a review, and telling others about our show. We couldn’t have made this amazing episode without the help of our Producers Group: Erica Moradshahi, Alta Draut, David Jackson, Stephanie Nicole Walton, Sandi Banister, Steve Micham, Scott Burch, Webb Hall, T. Randall Smith, and Derek E Wilder. As always, you can support the podcast at Patreon.com/TheBibleforNormalPeople where for as little as $3/month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. This episode was brought to you by The Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Tessa Stultz, Nick Striegel, Haley Warren, Jessica Shao, and Natalie Weyand!

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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