Christian leaders and writers have for a while been lamenting the loss of Biblical literacy and the decline of motivation to study the Bible in recent times. This loss and decline has relevance to them because it impacts the relative power the Bible and the church have in our society.
Why I Care
This is a very large and complex issue. It is obviously a self-interested one for the church. As a pastor I experience it as a significant challenge as I understand my task, within the tradition I inhabit, which is to connect people to the Bible in a substantive way, both in terms of knowledge and motivation. I want the Bible to be alive for them but I also want them to read it in the most informed way they can given the restraints both of their contexts and their mental capacities.
The Rise of Scientific Modeling
A big part of this transition has happened in the West due to the rise of scientific modeling and the transition from ancient perspectives on the functioning of the world to modern ones. People are highly tool oriented in terms of their motivational structure. They are motivated to pursue tools that within their opinions advance their power and their agency in this world to attain the things they desire. The Bible was, for a very long time in the West a primary tool at many levels. The Bible was the interpretive tool for giving people their location in the world, their book of world history, etc. The Bible was, within Christendom the key for a person navigating their course through the imaginary they inhabited, from the beginning of their life within the imaginary on through death and into the next life for better or for worse. The Bible was the primary tool for Christians, which was obviously the dominant imaginary within Christendom for guiding people into blessedness and goodness.
The Bible hasn’t disappeared as a tool in this way but the competition has gotten so much better interm of delivering goods that people want. Today we imagine that its chief competition comes from science and technology. This competition plays out at various levels. This series of videos I’m doing about the world of the Bible hopefully can open up the Bible for readers who don’t inhabit a traditional world where so many of the elements in the Bible were obvious and accessible to a broad range of readers.
A Big Question for Skeptics
I begin with addressing cosmology. Cosmology is, for many moderns an enormous hurdle in embracing the Bible. If you read Genesis 1 you get a picture of a flat earth with a bowl on top protecting our world from waters above and waters below.
It’s usually right here that the debate is joined. Telescopes and rockets have disproved this picture in our minds and therefore the credibility of the text is diminished or destroyed. If the Bible gets cosmology wrong how much more must it get other topics we are motivated by such as money, power and sex wrong. If you listen to David Gushee’s evolution on same sex marriage in a talk he gave at City Church you’ll find that this perception is foundational in coming to his conclusion that Biblical texts about sexuality can simply be set aside. If we can accept that the Bible get cosmology wrong why can’t we simply accept that the Bible get sexuality wrong. The reason for the revision in this case is not telescopes and rockets but rather the perceived goodness, blessedness and performance of same sex marriage over same sex promiscuity.
While Nick Wolterstorff doesn’t talk about cosmology in his defense of same sex marriage that evidentiary finding, in contrast to Biblical prohibitions is what motivates him as well. It is it seems the strongest evidence in supporting the morality of same sex marriage against Biblical injunctions against same sex sexuality.
My point isn’t about the debate about same sex marriage. It’s about the underlying assumptions about credibility and believability and how they control in subtle ways.
This issue isn’t just about changes in sexuality of course, the Bible getting the world wrong on cosmology undermines its credibility or sometimes forces Christians to take some rather drastic steps in defense of the Bible which has become the whole camp of Young Earth Creationism and Flat Earth Christians. They in a sense double down on the Bible by becoming skeptics of the entire space program or anything that modern scientific models have produced. While I can appreciate the religious ardor and Christian zeal of this approach its fruits often begin to strain credulity. It’s rather disingenuous to cast doubt on the American or Russian space programs while watching TV with images beamed through sattelites for almost 50 years or gassing up our cars fueled by petroleum found with geological models that we doubt becuase of the Biblical cosmology. It’s also disingenuous to make use of modern medicine built upon evolutionary models of biology without demanding that if we must demand we use Biblical cosmology as our scientific models then we should also use Biblical anatomy to govern our medical practices. Do we use the bodily organ of the heart to believe with or to pump blood with?
This project doesn’t at this point seem fruitful. The YEC community and the flat earthers will of course not be detered so I wish them the best. I think we should be tolerant of skeptics and outliers of various kinds so I will on principle remain open to their projects just in case we do discover that we have all been duped by modern medicine, modern geology and modern astronomy and that in the end the are right. If I can be generous and welcoming of Biblical skeptics why should I be generous and welcoming towards Biblical literalists?
How then do we try to maintain and defend the credibility of the Bible in the face of mindshare and motivational competition?
We should be aware that this challenge has been with us for a long time and that many thinking Christians have dealt with it in various ways, some better and some worse in my opinion. There are also varying levels of sophistication in dealing with this. Our job as those who wish to promote the Bible and elevate its credibility should be to help people find better answers for these questions.
Many popular solutions or resolutions to these answers have varying degrees of validity and usefulness. There seems to be some relationshiop in how easily a particular answer can be turned into a meme and popularly disseminated and the degree to which it sometimes breaks down upon further inspection. A simply answer may be “good enough” for some, in terms of their motivation at embracing it while not good enough for others who are willing and motivated to give it more time and attention. This will be popular but weak solutions or resolution. Other answers may be more difficult to conceptualize but more able to rigorously defend. It is probably the task of preachers and teachers to figure out how to translate these better answers into concept that can also become more popular. This is why preachers and teachers need to be bridge people between some of the work done by Christian philosophers and the people they speak to in churches and in blogs.
As I’m working on some of these videos that are intended to re-connect modern readers with what was common knowledge to ancient readers I’ll need to also work on the models for figuring out why the Bible has credibility even if contemporary models of cosmology seem to undermine ancient ones.
Here’s the playlist