Atheist “evangelist” Andrew Seidel once said, “The road to atheism is littered with Bibles that have been read from cover to cover.” In my pastoral experience, he’s not wrong, unfortunately.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, I have seen significant shifts in our culture’s critical attention on the Bible, shifts that are impacting both believers and unbelievers negatively. While in past years many objections to our faith centered on Christian attitudes or church cultures, increasingly it is the Scriptures themselves where the “trouble” is. From anti-religion memes on social media or atheist sites like EvilBible.com, to the more urbane lectures of the new atheists, it is clear that the Bible is not automatically assumed to be the Good Book anymore. In fact, it’s seen by a growing number as a book for the unintelligent at best, and at worst an actively evil text that justifies slavery, hatred toward women, disdain for science, genocide and more.
“We need to improve not just how much people are reading the Bible, but how they are reading it in the first place.”
Of course, the words such critics pull out of context can be found in the Bible. And even in context many of their objections and questions are hard, worthy of real discussion and sometimes without tidy answers. But for the most part, what is frustrating is that such vocal critics are not reading the Bible correctly. The Bible is being misquoted to try to prove it wrong. This would be an easier problem to fix, except that churches often aren’t doing much better. We all can admit that much usage of the Bible by churches has become sloppy and often out of context. Should we be surprised if now the not-so-nice Bible verses are being pulled out of context in the same way?
LOST THE PLOT?
What if we Christian leaders have, with great intentions, focused so much on making church teaching and the Bible easy for people to understand that we’ve glossed over or even dismissed the hard questions and strange stories that are present in our beautiful and messy collection of Scriptures? While working on our video venues, worship songs and dynamic programming, is it possible we’ve missed how many of our people are wrestling with difficult questions about the Bible? We all have to ask ourselves if we have become numb to the book we claim to believe—and unintentional in how we’ve taught people to handle it.
“The hardest questions of our culture are a wonderful opportunity to engage our hard and holy book.”
It reminds me of coming to Christianity during my college years. Beginning with a tract handed to me at an event, my early searching was full of hard questions, a sense that I didn’t belong in any of the churches that I was seeing, and my friends’ concerns that I was joining some kind of cult.
Then there was what happened when I actually read the Bible. The more I started getting into it, the more obvious it was that it had things in it that I never would hear about from Christians. There were the slavery questions, the extreme violence and even the refrain (so bizarre to a nonbeliever) that he rose again from the dead.
Eventually I found a space where I could ask my hardest questions. After college, my band moved to England. I was playing punk and rockabilly, still reading my Bible, but still questioning. Then one day I was walking by a little church and happened to pop my head in. An 82-year-old pastor was inside with three other elderly people. Somehow I ended up getting involved in a Bible study with them.
They didn’t judge me for my hair or how I was dressed. They cared about whether I knew the Scriptures, and made sure I was able to ask questions. And the more I asked, the more I saw different things. There was this intelligent Christian pastor with a degree in music from Oxford, leading fewer than 20 people in what was probably the most uncool church in England. But that group took me under its wing; they were thoughtful, intelligent and not judgmental.
“Is it possible we’ve missed how many of our people are wrestling with difficult questions about the Bible?”
Now I’m an insider, but I never want to forget the outsider’s feeling. It is so easy to lose perspective. There are strange things in the Bible. We become used to them, but they stick out to the non-Christian or the questioning Christian. Not just “the Bible helps you with having peace or to know you’re forgiven.” But to say that we believe that a man died a brutal death, was in a grave, came back to life, appeared to many, then kind of … went up into the sky … and disappeared behind the clouds. It sounds insane.
I believe it’s 100% true, but we’re in a culture where people will question things past the surface level. Because of the internet and media, we’re seeing atheists and others focusing on more of these tough things that generally hadn’t been pointed out at a popular level in previous generations.
A CLOSER LOOK
Two things are happening as a result of this growing scrutiny: Christians who have never questioned the Bible during their young adult years are now confronted with intense criticisms of the Bible and don’t have good answers. And many non-Christians have first experiences of the Bible that are profoundly negative.
With all this in mind, I believe that one of the most important aspects of outreach today is how we train others—and ourselves—to read the Bible. We need to improve not just how much people are reading the Bible, but how they are reading it in the first place. And there is a lot of work to do.
In more churches than we would like to admit, we have never properly taught or modeled Bible study methods to people. Most of us church leaders could tell stories like the true one in the beginning of my book, How (Not) to Read the Bible: Making Sense of the Anti-Women, Anti-Science, Pro-Violence, Pro-Slavery and Other Crazy-Sounding Parts of Scripture (Zondervan).
Picture a young Christian guy. He’s been part of a healthy church with solid, helpful teaching. But then in a college Bible study of Exodus, all of a sudden he’s confronted with a God who killed innocent children during the Passover and seems to endorse slavery practices. For the first time, he’s really pondering that. When he told me later about his struggle, he said, “I was taught my whole life that it was evil that Herod killed children in Bethlehem. But all of a sudden it’s OK if God does it? All of a sudden, the God who is supposedly so loving and caring is now endorsing slavery?”
As he searched for answers online, he found more things that troubled him. Neither his parents nor his youth pastor could give him satisfying answers. Instead, they brushed him off with an explanation that these struggles would be explained in heaven someday. He couldn’t intellectually take that. I received a long letter from him, outlining how his struggles were leading him to leave the faith.
As a pastor for many years, I don’t think it’s far off to say that a majority of Christians have never truly pondered and studied how to respond to such issues. The average Christian has never deeply fought through these tough questions.
“We need to be biblical and winsome theologians again, without dumbing things down.”
Of course, good responses do exist. The Bible is reliable. But we need to do more than teach isolated Bible verses and then jump to the felt-need application. We need to teach people how to study the Bible—the whole Bible—and show how we come to the interpretations we do. We have created a culture of biblical dependency in our churches, that holds people back from responsibly engaging the Bible themselves. From upper-elementary age through adulthood, we ought to intentionally teach how to study the Bible, not just what the Bible says. We need to begin with what it is—not a book, but a library of books—and continue through all the important methods of study. This does not have to be a daunting or tedious task. People love this kind of learning. And along the way, we will be giving them a biblical education rich enough to carry them through life.
I once asked 2,500 college students, “What is the biggest question you have about the Bible or your faith?” In response, there wasn’t a single question about the validity of the resurrection—the crux of our faith. Most of them were the common things like, “Did God promote slavery?” “Can I get tattoos?” “Why did God kill people?”
“Begin to see theology as outreach. People want answers and a theology with life.”
It all highlights this truth: We need to be biblical and winsome theologians again, without dumbing things down. If we want to respond effectively to what’s going on in the culture, biblical engagement and apologetic theology are the biggest things to focus on.
We have the music down. Laser lights? Sure, if you need them. The parking lot will figure itself out. But what we’re not doing well overall is equipping our people, especially younger generations, to respond to the questions of the day. When we teach from the Bible, we have largely been focusing on the nice, happy Bible verses, often pulling them out of context and applying them to our life with little deeper work or thought. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can still be seeker sensitive and seeker friendly as we teach theology.
And of course, even with a great biblical education, the Bible can still be a hard book. Even Peter acknowledged in 2 Peter 3 that Paul’s writings were hard to understand. Not everything is going to be crystal clear. It’s all right if we don’t understand it all. The great news is that we can work together to read the Bible better. Yes, it’s going take a little more work to engage tough texts and great resources with deep thought. But even a little effort and time on the part of everyday Christians will do wonders.
“Have we become numb to the book we claim to believe—and unintentional in how we’ve taught people to handle it?”
In my book, I actually thank some atheists. Why? Because I believe that the hardest questions of our culture are a wonderful opportunity for Christians to engage our hard and holy book and learn to understand even better what we believe and why we believe it. We don’t have to have every answer to every problematic verse. But if you get to know some basic Bible study methods and how not to read the Bible, and you learn how to respond to a couple of them, you won’t be caught off guard. You’ll know there must be an answer, and you’ll have what you need to get those answers.
Ask your church—especially the youth—what hard questions they are hearing from their non-Christian friends. Do a survey on what they’ve always wondered but have been afraid to ask. Teach on common criticisms of the Bible. Have a staple class on how we got the Bible and how we read it today. Use memes in your youth group, your adult groups, even your church—put them on the screen and ask, “How would you respond?” Should women really be silent in the church? How do we explain that one? How do we explain when the Bible says you can sell your daughter into slavery? Put that up on the screen. Talk about it.
And most importantly, in all these things, begin to see theology as outreach. I have story after story of non-Christians who came to faith not in spite of wrestling with tough questions, but because of it. People want answers today. They want theology with life. We need to step back, ask what’s really in the Bible and wrestle together with how we should read it.