A provocative article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of weeks ago, “The Bible Is Dead; Long Live The Bible” in which professor Timothy Beal makes a revealing if unorthodox case for the Bible. Essentially, he defends it by not defending it. Or, rather, he claims from the outset that:
The Bible is anything but univocal about anything. It is a cacophony of voices and perspectives, often in conflict with one another. In many ways, those dedicated to removing all potential biblical contradictions, to making the Bible entirely consistent with itself, are no different from irreligious debunkers of the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general. Many from both camps seem to believe that simply demonstrating that the Bible is full of inconsistencies and contradictions is enough to discredit any religious tradition that embraces it as Scripture.
Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits. They agree that the Bible is on trial. They agree on the terms of the debate, and what’s at stake, namely the Bible’s credibility as God’s infallible book. They agree that Christianity stands or falls, triumphs or fails, depending on whether the Bible is found to be inconsistent, to contradict itself. The question for both sides is whether it fails to answer questions, from the most trivial to the ultimate, consistently and reliably.
But you can’t fail at something you’re not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so… Ultimately it resists conclusion and explodes any desire we might have for univocality.
Now, as much as I sympathize with what Beal is trying to do (i.e. expose the human propensity for turning everything into a weapon), this is hardly a sympathetic point. I may not be a Bible scholar (remotely), but it reads like a cop-out, or at least an overstatement. To say that the Bible intentionally eschews any univocal message seems a bit far-fetched, even for a mainstream publication like The Chronicle. Certainly there’s no lack of ambiguities. But off the top of my head, I can come up with any number of sentiments about which it is not conflicted, for example, that human beings uniformly struggle with matters of personal integrity, that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, etc. And I’m not sure Beal would disagree.
Beal, of course, has picked up on one of the stranger refrains of the contemporary religious debate: the Bible is logically inconsistent, even internally contradictory, and is therefore unreliable and… untrue. I say “strange” because that strikes me as a particularly modernist gripe with the text, not to mention one that ignores centuries of scholarship on the matter (as if Christians had never noticed these things… gasp!). After all, aren’t we supposed to be in the “post-modern era” that’s allegedly so comfortable with messiness and paradox?! It would appear not, at least if the Religion endcap at Barnes and Noble these days tells us anything. But Beal, as a Christian, should not be faulted for engaging this issue, regardless of whether or not it’s a smokescreen for other, less abstract/more personal objections to the Bible (which it almost always is).
He hits the nail on the head in his description of the deadend that is reached by viewing the Bible as a cosmic encyclopedia. It’s true – the Good Book does indeed resist the question-answer paradigm. The Bible is not an argument or a textbook – and most minimally thoughtful traditions have never taught that it is. Martin Luther referred to the Scriptures instead as “the cradle which holds the baby Jesus.” In other words, while the Bible is not the Gospel (as much as some might wish it were), it is certainly where we find the Gospel, the message of salvation, of God’s counter-intuitive love for sinners, the promise, the forgiveness, etc. Of course, it is also where we find the Law – the threat, the judgment, the instruction, etc. And these “two words” are indeed contradictory. [For more on this, listen to Jady Koch's talk from our recent conference].
Beal touches upon this aspect fleetingly in his insightful discussion of The Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov:
Jesus came to give people freedom, but that’s not what they want. What they really want, [the Inquisitor] says, is to be told what to do and believe, and to be fed.
In other words, the fact that we come to the Bible looking to be told what to do means that we come to it the same way we come to pretty much anything: we come looking for the Law. We want control and we want it now. It is our hardwiring, born out in history and literature and relationships, and, yes, even the Bible. This is why I sometimes hesitate to unleash the Bible on students – how will they read it without only hearing requirement? But where we might use this tendency as a teaching opportunity (what it tells us about human nature etc), Beal follows a more castrating impulse:
The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument—even, and especially, when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all their answers. The Bible interprets itself, argues with itself, and perpetually frustrates any desire to reduce it to univocality.
The Bible can atheist any book under the table on some pages. It presumes faith in God, yet it also often gives voice to the most profound and menacing doubts about the security of that faith. The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. How rare such places have become in a society addicted to quick fixes, executive summaries, and idiot’s guides. The canon of the Bible is that kind of place.
Again, while I admire the intention, this is where he loses me. As a Christian (and human being), to get out of bed in the morning I need a little more than just a bunch of questions. Life has questions enough. Plenty of other books ask questions, and in lets-face-it considerably more accessible language. No, I need some input. I need something to hold on to. I need some forgiveness. I need some truth, and, as the Magnetic Fields sing, I think I need a new heart. If the Bible is simply a compendium of thoughtful questions, no thank you. Personally, I can’t think of a lamer or less exciting hermeneutic. Fortunately, Beal does not end there:
We might even go so far as to say that the Bible kills itself. It deconstructs itself. Reading it undermines the iconic idea of it as a univocal, divinely authored book and our desire to attach to it as such. Scriptures have a tendency to exceed the boundaries of orthodoxy and resist closure. The Bible keeps reopening theological cans of worms. It resists its own impoverishment by univocality. In so doing, it fails to give answers, leaving readers biblically ungrounded.
In response, we can buy another values-added Bible and keep the dream alive. If at first we don’t succeed, buy, buy again. The Bible biz is at the ready. Or we can give up on the Bible altogether. Very many do, as if it stands or falls based on how well it fits our inadequate idea of it. Or we can begin to let our attachment to that idea die.
We might slightly reposition Beal’s words here. Substitute the word “Law” for “Bible” and re-read his conclusion. The Bible does deconstruct, and powerfully so. That is the purpose of the Law. But it’s not evidence of its non-divinity – quite the opposite. By deconstructing any sense of certainty or value that we’ve come to in and of ourselves, the Bible tells us who we are: sinners in need of a savior. Troubled men and women, tirelessly shooting ourselves in the spiritual feet, yet dying for some relief. That the Bible also points us, over and over again, to the one who saves is no coincidence. It’s not a contradiction. Or a question. Or, even, an answer. It’s purely and simply Good News. But don’t take my word for it, Blind Willie Johnson knows the score: