I love it when people use the phrase, “elephant in the room” to describe that taboo topic that needs addressing in public. Everytime I hear it I visualize that elephant and just where she might be standing. I usually imagine her in the middle eating peanuts.
Here’s an elephant in the religious room: there are Biblical inconsistencies.
Not an elephant for you? Not for me either. But it is for some people, apparently. Or at least, was.
Take Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill (go Tarheels!) for example. He was trained in a conservative tradition where the Bible is viewed as inerrant. Going from Moody to Wheaton to Princeton, that view evolved much to his sadness, and he’s written about it.
Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus, Interrupted, these are all books which pull back the curtain, as it were, on what he believes people think or have thought about all things Christian, from the words of Jesus to the compilation, contents, and meaning of Scripture.
I was introduced to Jesus, Interrupted by a congregation member. He was reading it, so I figured I should read it.
I found it to be well written, but not particularly instructive. The congregant, on the other hand, found it to be totally disruptive. In short: it was faith-shattering.
Ehrman, too, lost faith after studying at Princeton and finding out much of what he has recorded in Jesus, Interrupted. Apparently finding out that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Old Testament (surprise surprise, especially considering that if the historical Moses were based off of a real individual he was probably illiterate…and would probably not write in meta-Moses form about his own death) was faith destroying. Or if not that, perhaps it was learning that the end of the Gospel of Mark was added at a later date because it was just too much to have the “women say nothing to anyone” after the resurrection. Or perhaps finding out that in the Gospel of John Jesus dies on a Thursday, whereas the synoptics have him dying on a Friday.
Perhaps it was all of these that caused Ehrman to lose faith; perhaps something else.
My point, though, is that I learned all of this at university, and was taught much of this in seminary.
And here I am, a Christian (reluctantly).
And learning it didn’t destroy my faith at all, it just reconfigured it.
I lost faith in the words, but grew in faith to the story the words pointed to. I lost faith in the empirical thinking that we for some reason believe must rule our lives, and fostered faith in the storied thinking that truly moves mountains and inspires action.
Dr. Ehrman: in what was your faith? Was it in the words, or was it in the promise the words pointed to?
In seminary I had a classmate who said boldly, “Even if tomorrow they find the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, I still hold fast to the promise…that is the nature of faith.”
Indeed, it is.
Religion does no good in espousing the inerrancy of its documents, creeds, doctrines, dogmas…whatever. I have no doubt that people are leaving churches in flocks because they find that their faith in the inerrancy of Scripture cannot stand up to the fact that Paul probably did not write all the letters ascribed to him.
I should also mention that, the early church probably knew this and it didn’t seem to challenge their faith any…
But I do empathize with faith-destruction. It’s tough. Even Christopher Hitchens has a touching moment in God is Not Great where he speaks of his disollusionment with Marxism, and likens this to the religious individual losing faith. He writes,
“Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined-as I hope-I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through. There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” (God is Not Great, 153)
The rub? Hitchens and Ehrman point to the same evidence in both of these books. Sure, Ehrman is less flippant and less inflammatory, but the gist of their arguments are the same.
And their purpose, I think, is probably the same.
And where is the defense of faith? Usually found in the voice-box of a literalist…and thus the elephant enters back into the room. Spong and Borg are attempting, Craig and McGrath are making some good noise, but the fact of the matter is this: if we are to defend faith as a life-giving concept, we have to stop teaching ridiculous notions like Biblical inerrancy, which are nothing but death knells waiting to ring.
Where is the emphasis on stories and how story shapes our reality? Where is the emphasis on promise, beauty, love that defies description?
I read Hitchens and Ehrman, and find myself nodding a lot. A lot of what the atheist and agnostic says makes sense to me, a reluctant Christian. But none of it destroys my faith. So either I’m deceiving myself (the Truth is not in me, I assure you), or my faith is in something other than words on a page or empirical proof.
So now, what are we to do?
Perhaps we can start by ushering the elephant out of the room, and then tell a story. That’s what this a/theist does.