Before you Read…
– This is intended to be a brief overview of my personal journey with the bible and not a theological argument.
– I’ve tried not to go into too much detail but if you’re interested, there’s a great list of resources at the end that unpack some of these ideas more thoroughly.
– I’ve been careful not to include any direct quotes from the bible to respect the art of contextual analysis.
– It’s long.
Growing up with life’s handbook
The Holy Book.
The Living Word.
From a very young age,
I was taught that this book was the ultimate Guide to Life.
My moral compass,
my relationship counselor,
my career guide,
my financial advisor,
my spiritual guru,
my sexual framework,
God’s personal manual, written for me.
I was taught that in order to live a full and happy life I should study it daily, absorb it thoroughly and above all, treat it with reverence and respect.
If I didn’t, I’d be unable to navigate life’s physical, emotional and spiritual challenges in the correct way.
I spent all of my formative years treating the bible this way, holding it above all other forms of wisdom and knowledge. Trying my best to function as a 21st century adolescent in harmony with this ancient book.
Reading the bible in this way caused a lot of problems for me over the years.
I developed a pretty messy habit of justifying the parts that seemed primitive and barbaric…
… God commanding people to kill children…
… Peter endorsing slavery…
… Lot having sex with his daughters… etc etc
Reading the bible in this way forced me into a permanent posture of defense.
Constantly having to vehemently defend challenging verses because to doubt or disregard the validity of any of them meant having to deny the whole bible.
As I grew older I started to learn a little bit about historical context and the ways in which culture in the ancient world differed radically from culture in today’s western 21st century world (shocker!).
I started to consider that perhaps not every single thing in the bible was an instruction for me in the 21st century, but rather a lesson for the people of that specific day and culture.
I began applying this new insight to specific parts of the bible that didn’t quite fit in with my ‘cultural norms’… but carried on reading the rest of it like a modern handbook.
It wasn’t until I reached my mid-twenties that I started to realize how hypercritical it was of me to claim the bible as a
perfect life guide,
written by a
but then not act like it when facing the challenging bits.
After a series of events (which I wrote about here) and a ton of research, I discovered that I had been sold a shoddy version of the Bible.
That growing up I’d been handed a lazy and completely inefficient lens to read it through.
That in spite of a lifetime of weekly bible studies, sermons, conversations, books, conferences and personal contemplation, at 25 years old, I was still reading this book in completely the wrong way.
I realized I’d never been given the tools to read it how it was actually supposed to be read.
I’d been reading the bible as a modernist, through the familiar lens of precise and factual language… but it doesn’t read like that and it was never supposed to!
If you’re going to read the bible as an inerrant, factually accurate, historical document (in the way that we regard accounts of history today) then you have to be okay with ALL the places it contradicts itself, sometimes in the same book!
– Genesis 1 and 2 completely contradict each other on the order in which God created stuff.
– Jesus’ last recorded words differ drastically between Mark, Luke and John.
– In fact, all 4 Gospels consistently contradict each other on factual details.
So if you’re reading the bible through that lens then of course you’re going to struggle with it.
You either render the whole bible untrustworthy and dismiss the whole thing.
You claim that it is exactly how God intended it to be and we are fools to question it.
Truth beyond Dualism
During this period, I was discovering that the writers of the bible were trying to convey something far beyond a simple ‘factual account of history’.
In fact, that factual style of literature didn’t even exist back then.
Before “The Age of Enlightenment” in the 18th century, all historical accounts were wrapped up in cultural narrative and social identity.
They weren’t the stark, rigid, hard factual accounts of history we’re used to reading in history books these days.
In ancient sematic culture storytellers were far more concerned with conveying the significance and meaning of an experience than the precise factual details.
Historical truth was conveyed in a mixture of parable, metaphor and poetry, rich with culture, personality and colour, because they knew how to really communicate the essence and beauty of an experience.
The Bible is no exception to that practice.
This is why I think Jesus appeared to speak in parables so often.
It seems like the best way for humans to draw meaning out of an experience.
Moving beyond the dualism of true or false language helps us express those moments that feel transcendent, otherworldly, boundless and beautiful.
Those life-changing experiences drive us towards art, imagery and metaphor because precise and factual language can’t articulate them.
To me, literal truth is the lowest form of meaning.
If I wanted to convey a beautiful experience to somebody, for example, my first kiss
I wouldn’t use precise factual language –
“The atoms colliding stimulated the nerve endings on my lips which sparked a release of dopamine in my brain.”
I’d use imagery and metaphor –
“It was as though time stood still and the world stopped spinning around me, as if every event in my life had been leading up to this one moment”
The world didn’t literally stop spinning, but I’m trying to convey something far beyond factual language.
A beauty I can only express through metaphor.
The writer’s of the bible knew all about this.
But that isn’t to say that there’s nothing historically factual in the bible, it’s written by real people, writing to real people, living in real places.
It’s just that (to quote the writer Rob Bell) “sometimes a poem is as real as you can be.”
The Humanity in the detail
The other big thing that had never really clicked for me before was that the bible was written by… HUMANS…
Those fallible, chaotic, emotional, messy, imperfect animals.
Shockingly, it didn’t just fall out of the sky.
So of course the bible is messy – no human is all knowing about the past.
No human sees every angle of everything.
Many of the writers existed in different centuries and had never met one another. Each writer’s perspective is limited to his or her own time and place.
Also, before 1440 and the invention of the Printing Press the great majority of people couldn’t read or write.
Only the wealthy and elite could afford to use hired scribes as ink and papyrus were very expensive, and it was only really the wealthy and elite that had access to stuff that had been written down.
Most of the stories in the bible were oral traditions and transmissions first, many of the events weren’t even written down until decades after they had happened.
So it’s not suprising that the small details are often a bit messy.
If I were re-telling a significant event that happened to me 20+ years ago I can’t imagine I’d remember many of the specific details either, or particularly care.
All I’d be concerned about is retaining the potency of why the experience was so powerful and significant to me…. and I’d probably use a bit of poetry and metaphor to communicate it.
How I read the Bible now
The bible is a collection of writings; stories, myths, parables, poems, hymns, letters, genealogies, gospels and other styles of literature
written over a timespan of 1500 years,
on 3 different continents,
by 40 odd different writers spanning multiple ethnicities, languages, cultures and stages of consciousness; each writer with a different agenda and intended audience.
It’s not a magical book of miracles, personal fortune cookie or something to instantly validate a worldview.
I find that the best place to start is with the Human…..
Real people with real personalities and social identity, facing real challenges, harboring real emotions, writing with real agendas shaped by real cultures, real economies, real political climates and countless other REAL factors, trying to make sense of their experiences with something transcendent and divine.
Using the language and knowledge that they had available to them.
The 4 Gospels differ in style because each writer is writing with a specific agenda shaped by their particular cultural narrative.
Luke’s message is that any spirituality that ignores the poor and casts out certain members of society is wrong.
He turns the cultural norms of hierarchy upside down by speaking about a kingdom marked by self-giving love and not power.
Mark’s Gospel however is laced with all sorts of military and political references, warning about the corrosive effects of empire…
something his intended audience was extremely concerned with.
Mark’s focus is on whether Jesus is the Jewish Messiah or not, as many Jews had hoped the Messiah would overthrow the corrupt Roman Empire they were living under.
They were worried about the way government was lying to and misleading the masses in order to pull off all kinds of terrible things…
something a lot of us are still extremely concerned with today.
A bit of context suddenly starts to breathe life into these ancient stories.
Discovering the Higher Themes
When asking the question, what was so fascinatingly progressive and enlightened about these stories that the writers felt the need to tell people? The whole thing starts to make more sense.
The flood story in Genesis.
People had been telling flood stories before. Stories about how the gods were angry and fed up with humans and their immorality, so they unleash their wrath, everybody dies and the gods were satisfied. These weren’t unusual at all.
How else would you explain tons of water coming at you out of nowhere and wiping your entire life away before the age of weather reports, telescopes in space or climatology.
This is how people viewed the world.
But this flood story was different; in this story this god commits to living with people in a new way, in which life is respected and preserved. This god speaks of a covenant with humanity, a relational bond of love and respect.
This is a radically new idea!
A more peaceful god whose greatest intention for humanity is not violence, but love.
The creation story in Genesis was equally progressive.
People had been raised in a culture where creation stories involved cosmic battles between gods and demigods fighting for control of the elements.
To hear about a god who created the world out of love and not violence and that he said it was “good” would have blown people’s minds.
There may be times when these progressive and enlightened higher themes still feel barbaric and primitive and that they fall short, but when you can consider the method of how to go about evolving an entire consciousness… how to change an entire way of conceiving things that people have held on to for as long as they can remember…
It seems like the best method would be to meet people where they’re at, in the language they speak, in the forms they’re accustomed to, and then gradually introduce new ideas that help them make changes step by step.
History bares witness to this quite shrewdly.
Recognizing the genre and style of literature
Not paying attention to the genre or literary style a certain passage is written in can make you miss the significance and brilliance.
Is it a poem, a letter, a genealogy, a gospel, a parable, a speech, a hymn, a list of laws etc… ? all of which communicate truth in really different ways and should be read differently.
Revelation (that crazy book about the end of the world and stuff) is a poetic letter. So if it’s a poem, then it should be read like a poem.
It’s written by a pastor called John who’s currently in exile, so life is hard.
His people are under a great deal of pressure and he’s writing a letter to help and encourage them.
John uses a number of graphic and violent images to portray the reality of the evil his people are facing, and to offer encouragement that matches the intensity of what they’re going through.
He wants them to know that love ultimately defeats evil and to remain strong and faithful in the midst of persecution.
Without recognizing the style of literature and the intent behind the use of such evocative and visceral apocalyptic language, this book can be wildly misinterpreted, and the significance and beauty completely lost.
The Original Translation
The last thing to note is that bible was written in several different languages – various types of Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Aramaic spanning many different dialects and styles.
A lot of the depth and cultural connotations that some of these words held are lost when translated to modern English (or any other modern language).
Often there just isn’t a word in English that can convey the same depth, richness and cultural subtext as the original Classic Hebrew or Koine Greek.
The word ‘Hell’ isn’t even found in the bible.
There are 3 Greek words and 1 Hebrew word found in the bible that have all been translated as the blanket word ‘Hell’.
‘Sheol’ and ‘Hades’, which are more accurately translated as ‘death’ or ‘the grave’
‘Tartarus’, which is the name of a person/place in Greek mythology
and ‘Gehenna’, which is an actual geographical valley in Jerusalem.
And with a little context into the cultural connotations attached to these words the entire concept of ‘Hell’ takes on a completely different meaning to the one I grew up believing.
(Here’s a link to a great article that unpacks the concept of ‘Hell’ in the bible thoroughly)
It takes way more effort to read the bible using these disciplines, as apposed to diving straight in with our modernism… but it’s an ancient text… there is no other way to read it.
Historians have been using these disciplines with ancient texts for years; it’s weird that some of us assume the bible can be read any differently.
These disciplines are essential in understanding why these ancient writings were so significant and drawing out wisdom and truth that still rings today.
There’s a ton of great resources out there to help develop these disciplines (i’ve listed a few at the bottom).
Why I still bother to read such an ancient book
When searching for wisdom I DON’T exlusively read the bible anymore and I think it’s incredibly narrow-sighted and limiting to do so.
However, I do believe that when read in the way it was intended, the bible reveals thousands of years of unique wisdom that is just as enlightened and inspiring today as it was when it was written.
As 21st century humans, we tend to assume that we are intellectually superior to the people of the ancient world.
We certainly have a far greater knowledge of the physical world, much more advanced technology and resources.
But CS Lewis and Owen Barfield argue that actually, if the great thinkers of the ancient world were to take an IQ test, they’d likely score the same if not higher than us today.
Although they had different beliefs, superstitions and ways that they understood the world, they certainly weren’t idiots.
They were arguably just as intelligent, inquisitive and diligent as the great thinkers of our time.
I still bother to read such an ancient book because when I read these stories (as primitive as they may appear on the surface) I’m reading the writings of progressive, intelligent, enlightened, forward thinkers wrestling with the same big questions that we still wrestle with today.
I’m leaning into the ancient experiences of ordinary people, and discovering language for things that I’m experiencing right now.
I’m leaning into stories of worry, doubt, stress loss, pain, anger, and hardship and amidst all that humanity, discovering beauty, truth and wisdom that inspires me to move forward.
I’m witnessing many principles and ideals that are now fully embedded in our modern culture first being introduced into human consciousness and history.
I’m discovering ideas and ideals that are still way ahead of our present consciousness and practice.
I’m discovering that mankind has been on a trajectory for thousands of years, towards greater love, peace, inclusion etc
From Genesis to Revelation, this book is consistently and radically shaking up the old way of thinking, evolving consciousness and pushing humanity forward.
The fact that we find some of these stories violent, primitive and barbaric shows us just how far we’ve come!
It reminds me that we’ve still got a long long way to go and that we should never stop encouraging progression towards greater peace, greater inclusion and greater love.
To me that’s the whole point.
I used to say if more people read this thing and adopted it’s messages, the world would be a much more peaceful, inclusive, equal, generous, warm place
And I still stand by that.
I read it because it talks about concepts like
ending the disparity between rich and poor,
caring for and eradicating homelessness,
peace and not anger,
condoning power and profit driven systems that mislead and exploit the masses,
promoting the power in you and evolving your own consciousness and awareness.
Things that I think are still just as important and relevant.
Things we still haven’t achieved.
A few great resources that helped me
Resources about disciplines (historical context, language etc)
NIV Compact Bible Commentary by John Sailhammer
The Bible Project (dot com)
Tim Mackie (dot com)
Brazen Church (dot com)
Resources about how to read the bible overall
The Bible tells me so by Peter Enns
What is the Bible by Rob Bell
The Liturgists (Episode 3 – The Bible)
The Deconstructionists (Episode 5,6 and 7 – The Bible Series)
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