living without inspiration: the Bible and Me

When I was attending Pensacola Christian College, one of the guest speakers that came in for the mandatory four-day-a-week chapel service castigated Christians for not respecting the Bible enough. He compared us to Muslims in order to illustrate how we were failing, explaining that Muslims handle the Qur’an with extreme care, propriety, and piousness. Depending on the interpretation, only those who are formally purified can touch the mus-haf (the printed Qur’an in the original Arabic), and it’s commonly taught that it should always be kept in a safe, clean place. The chapel speaker accused us of being negligent in our reverence for God’s Holy Word and said that most of us probably kept our Bibles on the floor in our classes, or right there on the glossy concrete in chapel.

He was right. Every day I stepped over Bibles that littered the floor on my way to my chapel seat. However, I felt so smug that day because I had been taught to properly respect the Bible. My Bible had never touched the floor. If I had to set it down somewhere– even on a desk– it was always on top of the stack. Even though I took notes in the margins, I was careful to keep them neat and clean. When the bonded leather inevitably started to deteriorate I twinged with guilt at not making sure it had lasted longer. I had been taught to see this book as holy.

And it wasn’t just the physical copy I revered, of course. The Bible was God-breathed, inspired, inerrant. I thought of it in terms that bordered on idol worship. It was how I ordered my life and all my decisions, it was sharper than any sword, it was the lens through which I viewed all information.

Over time, of course, my views have … shifted. You can trace that shift here, even. Toward the beginning of my journey here I said things like “[the Gospels] pass every single test for historical accuracy with flying colors,” which in retrospect is a trifle embarrassing at how naïve that sounds. Six months later I had reevaluated some things, and had arrived firmly at “I don’t know what it means for the Bible to be a divine book, for it to be inspired.” By early in the next year I was wrestling with my conceptualization of the Bible as “a magic book,” and in another six months I found myself barely treading water. In the middle of last year I was asking questions like “if Old Testament characters could be catastrophically wrong in their views, why can’t New Testament writers also be wrong?”

I feel like I’m stuck wandering around the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time, and just when I get something untwisted I have to go back and twist it all up again, all while running around making sure a giant hand of despair and frustration doesn’t come whooshing out of the sky to smash me. Look at my bookshelf and you’ll see a theme– The Bible Tells Me So, The Sins of Scripture, Jesus Interrupted, Whose Bible Is It?, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, What the Bible Really Teaches … apparently I’ve had a years-long interest in trying to figure out what the hell the Bible actually is.

Turns out the fundamentalists were right. Once you give up their concept of inerrancy and really start examining the Bible, a lot of things fall apart on you. In a way I walked through the gate of hell and ignored the sign that read “abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

At this point I’ve given up on concepts like biblical inspiration or inerrancy, even broadly defined. I’ve been through the looking glass, and I can’t really go back. Once I opened the door to concepts like Paul was a man of his time and that means he was a misogynist and very wrong about some things, “biblical inspiration” became a frustrating idea to deal with. Because, at that point, even if Paul was “inspired,” it’s so loose a thing it’s ultimately unhelpful. I cannot believe that “I do not permit a woman to have authority over a man” could ever have been anything but sexist, and I especially abhor the idea that a misogynistic cultural reality from millennia ago should have any effect on how I’m “permitted” to use my abilities.

Paul and Peter and Matthew and Mark and Luke and John were human, and they were bound to get some things wrong. Maybe Paul actually was talking about “loving, committed, same-sex relationships” in Romans 1– it no longer follows for me that means that being gay and falling in love and getting married are sinful because of what some dead guy thought about buttsex.

I no longer accept the Bible as a moral authority. It endorses genocide at multiple points, has laws that treat menstruation as a sin, has prophets that revel in horrific violence and infanticide, views a rapist as “a man after God’s own heart,” includes misogynistic commands to church leadership, tells a man he was wrong for wanting to escape slavery, uses ethnic slurs …  It’s filled to the brim with people doing and saying unpleasant things and getting patted on the back for it– either by the Bible itself, or by theologians for the last two thousand years.

A good story for this moment is when Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac. I’ve discarded the evangelical narrative about it and embraced the Reformed Judaic perspective that Abraham failed his test. I’m allowed to listen to what appears to come from God and reject it, based on my conscience and my belief that God is love. Like Jacob, who became Israel, I get to wrestle with God, to demand things from them. Like Abraham– who learned better, fortunately– I get to argue with them about how I think what they’ve just said is wrong. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman, I fully expect to win a debate with Jesus.

All of this doesn’t mean that I see the Bible as worthless– as the above should show, far from it. I love the Bible now more than I ever have. I love that I can be confused by it, enraged at it, and challenged by it. I love that I am a member of the same faith that brought doubters, thinkers, tricksters, liars, poets, and lovers together to create a sacred text filled with problems and contradictions and arguments it has with itself. James essentially spent an entire letter sub-tweeting Paul: “not going to name names, guys, but faith without works is dead *coughPaulcough*.”

I don’t have to waste time justifying why God commanded genocide– because I’m convinced they didn’t. I don’t have to come up with convoluted reasons for why imprecatory prayers are ethical. I’m perfectly free to ignore that Paul told a man to return to a life of slavery.

I can look at the Bible and, when necessary, say fuck that nonsense.

It’s opened up a whole new world for me. I get to rediscover everything. Did Jesus mean “you should spend all your time witnessing” when he asked the Apostles to be “fishers of men,” or by making a literary reference was he calling them to the task of restoring justice and mercy to Israel? If the Holy Spirit– who is always referred to in the feminine– was the one who visited Mary when she became pregnant, doesn’t that make God just a teensy bit gay? I can read Ruth’s speech to Naomi– the one we use in marriage ceremonies today– and think “yup. That woman is bi.”

The Bible is mine now. I can fully own what it is, and what it means to me. I can turn it upside down and inside out, create headcanons about it, and make perhaps wild, conjecturous, far-flung connections that strain credulity if I want to. I’m finally throwing off the heavy yoke of the evangelical view of the Bible, and embracing the notion that when Jesus said “you have heard it said, but I tell you that was wrong,” he was talking about the Bible.

Photo by Dwight Stone
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  • Catherine Cavanaugh Martin

    When I was a kid, I heard a sermon similar to what you described. The preacher talked about how we put other things on top of the Bible. He talked about how the Bible should be on top of our other books. He may very well have been speaking metaphorically, but I was about 10 or 11 at the time, so I was in a very literal stage of development. For years, I couldn’t put another book on top of my Bible. I still flinch a little when I pile books up and my Bible is near the bottom because it is so big.

    I have so much rolling around in my head about inspired versus inerrant, but I’ll write a post on my blog about it one day and not fill up your comment thread. You’ve made a lot of good points and I agree with lots of them.

  • Helena Osborne

    I think that realization, that the Bible was written and compiled by fallible people and therefore contains fallacies, was one of the most important steps on my path to atheism. (Not arguing that your realization will or even should lead to atheism; everyone is different, and I don’t think there’s one right way to approach religion even though there are several wrong ones.) I really don’t understand the rationale of people who think that the Bible is inerrant; it requires massive faith, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

    • Looking back at when I was in that headspace, it’s all rather circular.

      They’ve accepted the premise that there is a god, and that it is the Christian Trinity.
      They accept that because they believe the Resurrection proves it’s not any other god.
      The Resurrection also proves that the Bible is accurate and factual.

      From there is where it starts going into a circle. They believe that the Bible teaches the penal substitutionary atonement theory. Their logic for that comes from a bunch of places (mostly Paul), but notably they also pull from the first chapters of Genesis. Without a literal Genesis, they argue, there’s no proof of a literal Original Sin (although, as Augustine shows, it’s possible to believe in Original Sin without a literal Genesis, as he’s the guy that came up with it and he didn’t think Genesis was literal), and without Original Sin their version of the Atonement doesn’t make sense.

      So, to defend the Atonement, they defend a literal Genesis, and therefore a literally factual and inerrant Bible. From there it’s a bunch of sleight of hand and cognitive dissonance.

      • Helena Osborne

        I remember being so terrified to not believe. My belief was such an important part of my identity that I would make almost any mental leap to avoid losing it.

        • Sometimes I find it difficult to explain that it was physically painful to confront a lot of the things I used to believe head on.

          • Helena Osborne

            YES. My husband was kiiiinda raised Catholic, so he is like “But I was raised Christian too,” and it’s hard to explain that the gap between the C&Es and fundies is just as wide in many ways as the gap between nonbelievers and believers.

      • Benjamin Smith

        And it’s a house of cards. If I’d been raised in a more moderate Christianity, without the belief that the bible is 100% literally true, I might not be an atheist today. The realization that that couldn’t be true is what led me to start questioning everything and not being satisfied with the answers I found.

        • I was raised in just such a church, liberal protestant, no need to believe in the literal truth of the bible. That might be why it took me until college to deconvert.

          • Helena Osborne

            Well, I was raised fundie, and it took me until after grad school to even admit that I was a feminist, much less agnostic, much less atheist… Lol. To each her own path.

  • Sheila Warner

    Hmmmm….I went through such a phase. I finally wondered why anyone would even follow Christianity at all if it is so contradictory & subject to Biblical interpretations that hurt people. I realized that no prayers of mine were ever answered. And one day, I just realized that I didn’t believe any of it, any more. That was the lens that I myself could not go back through. Good luck to you as you do your own important wrestling with God.

      • Plain English

        “Jesus taught us to love and sacrifice for each other. To look around and make sure that everyone is being taken care of physically, spiritually, emotionally. We are to feed the widow and orphan. We are to liberate the oppressed.”r (from your 2014 post)

        I don’t think Jesus invented these human attributes but I applaud those moments when he supported them through example. We have perfectly good foundations for helping ourselves and one another by simply being alive and your expression of appreciation for the images of Christ-way in your head can easily be applied to a blade of grass, the infinite beauty or the woman who stands by another woman in need. I am not sure that the only problem with Christ is Christianity but Christianity is the biggest one I know thus far.
        Thank-you for a very interesting entry here. I much appreciate your sharing.
        For me, non-belief works much and fits me as I am, a plus sixty year old son of a Baptist preacher.
        You know, Samantha, I feel in my bones that we carry our harm in us, that our earliest experiences from the womb onward into childhood set a foundation we build on. If we are set in motion by hearing our whole world talking to the clouds, we will talk to the clouds, If our caregivers speak in tongues, it is likely we will learn the ‘gift’. As we are able and if we have opportunity, we can face that past foundation and actually change some things by being fully human about it all, by truly feeling, for instance, what it was like to be a child told they are evil-born and are punished for doing something wrong. We might say as Doug Wilson does that we needed spankong. We can bit by bit reclaim part of what was lost. That is human work in feeling and not easily accomplished. The harm done to children in Christianity is known but hardly known yet. And when it is more clearly documented by science, it will be shown that Christianity was only a tool used by harmed people to perpetuate that harm into the next generation by calling it love. Ask Michael Pearl. Ask Doug Wilson. These men are damaged people who juggle the tools of scripture to further the harm done to them. When we begin to face our own harm, as you have, we begin to live our lives as more balanced human beings. We are not magic, There is no magic man. (Well, maybe George Carlin, or Pablo Neruda!)

      • Sheila Warner

        Again, I was there, too. I applaud what you are doing for yourself and for those around you. If Christianity is working well for you, that’s great.

      • sowellfan

        I feel like you’re tending to pick and choose on the Jesus-front. Sure, he said and did some nice things. At the same time though, he was at the very least a jerk in some instances – and that’s making a *big* assumption that the things in the Bible mostly happened as-written (leaving off miracles and such). And if he’s so great, couldn’t he at least have said, “Slavery is bad, folks – don’t own please, thus saith me.”?

        Beyond that, it reads like you believe these things….because you like believing them. Is that really a good reason to believe claims such as the ones surrounding Jesus? Shouldn’t there be a higher standard for evidence? In what other area of our lives should our standard for believing stuff be so low?

        • Maybe he did say “slavery is bad,” and the people who passed on the oral tradition that eventually got written down left it out? Or it got edited out over time? Or maybe he didn’t address it– there’s a lot of things that aren’t specifically addressed anywhere in the Bible, and that’s just a reality we have to live with.

          Whether or not he was ever a jerk is a matter of opinion. If you read some of what was recorded and think “wow, what a jerk,” well, you’re free to react that way. I’m also free not to necessarily interpret that action as jerkiness.

          I do believe these things because I like believing them. I’ve been fairly straightforward about that, I think. I can’t force myself to be convinced by arguments in favor of atheism when I don’t find those arguments compelling, but after that, what religion I choose to follow is (IMO) largely a matter of personal taste and culture.

          I grew up a Christian, so of course that familiarity is a big part of why I still choose to identify this way. However, I’ve seriously investigated other religions, and I find myself dissatisfied with the theological claims they make. I like what the claims of Christianity says about the relationship with creation a supernatural entity might have chosen to have, and the actions they might have chosen to take.

          I have no “proof” or “evidence” that says Christianity is “True” or something– in fact, I find such a concept antithetical to faith. I choose to believe in the Triune God and their redemptive vision for us without having a “really good evidence-based reason.” If I found the concepts of another religion more sensical and appealing– like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the Aspects of the Goddess as Cosmic Balance from Wicca– I’d “believe” that.

          • And, in the end, what’s at stake if I’m totally wrong? My religious tradition helped guide me to love people and leave the world a better place? Do we really need a “high standard of evidence” for that?

  • NessieMonster

    Wait, what?! The Holy Spirit is referred to in the feminine? Links please!
    I’ve only ever heard of it in some weird, genderless, “transcendent” way. An “it”. And since the Holy Spirit arises from God the Father and God the Son, I’ve always inferred that It was masculine, if anything. Heh.

    Also, Ruth being bi? Please tell me more! Being bi myself, that’s kinda important. 😉

    • Jackalope

      It doesn’t explicitly say that she’s bi, but her response to Naomi in Ruth 1:16-17 is, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” Which is very strong for daughter-in-law affection.

      • NessieMonster

        I had literally never thought to look at that passage from that angle. Thanks!

        • Jackalope

          I find it more convincing to look at Ruth that way than the idea that David’s comment to Jonathan about how “Your love is better than the love of women,” which to me seemed more misogynistic than an example of same-sex attraction, but that’s just me. (Of course, David’s comment could have been both.)

          Also, to answer your other question, the word for Spirit in Hebrew is a feminine noun. If you study languages with gender (French or Spanish being the main ones people are familiar with) then you know that that doesn’t necessarily correspond to real-life gender (it still hurts my brain that the German word for “girl” is neutral rather than feminine, even if I understand the grammatical reasons for this), but when related to persons it tends to have at least some correlation. In Greek the word for Spirit is apparently neutral (the internet told me this, so take it with a grain of salt), so it’s not always the case, but it’s never to my knowledge a masculine noun (I don’t know Biblical languages so take this with a grain of salt as well).

          One of my pastor friends also pointed out that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. If you look at that list of attributes, many of those characteristics are the ones we tend to consider “feminine” rather than “masculine”. Not that men can’t have those traits, but this does tend to support the Spirit as a more female/feminine presence.

      • sowellfan

        The language for how Ruth came on to Boaz is even more interesting to me. I’ve read speculation that ‘uncovering his feet’ was a euphemism for a little penis action – and that makes a *lot* more sense, honestly.

  • Northwoods Dan

    Great topic Samantha! I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a whole lot I simply don’t understand about the bible and that its ok to not understand. I believe I’m saved by God’s grace, not by a book or any of my beliefs about a book. I think that we are taught in our culture to over-revere (sorry to invent a word) the bible because a great many just love to use the bible as a sword. Love, grace, hope, peace. A few concepts like that are solid. Unfortunately, rules, laws and condemnation are the preferred intoxicant of many and it’s hard to give that up.

    I think that I’m sort of a Christian existentialist right now although maybe I’m whacked about that too. I believe in God because I need to and I rest in a “love God, love others” approach and don’t mind that everything else is gray. I think Christianity makes the most sense that way. On the other hand, I find things to be too absurd without God to just walk away. But that’s just my approach and I think I understand (or empathize) more with an atheist than a Christian wielding a sword.

  • Eleanor Katherine Skelton

    eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee wow yes. Thank you.

  • I’ve given a lot of thought to the issues you describe – justification of genocide, David as a rapist, etc – and consequently found myself treading the path of agnosticism. I still attend church, but I left my mainstream, evangelical one for an Anglican church, because the liturgy is somewhat closer to what the early church looked like. Still, I’ve come to the realization that my questions are just too complex for any denomination to answer completely, and I’ve wondered what kind of Christian I am to say “I believe in Jesus, but everything else downright mystifies me.”

    On a different note, you would love my Jewish study bible. It’s a thousand pages longer than a bible that includes the New Testament because there are so many footnotes indicating which passages are uncertain due to translation difficulties or skepticism about whether a certain event actually happened.

  • Mimc

    I’m right there right now too. I have in the last month finally let go of a literal interpretation of the Bible and the idea of an inerrant Bible. It feels very freeing to not have to twist every bit of science I learn to fit a narrative. It also solves a bunch of moral questions about the stuff that goes on in that book. I don’t know where this leaves me on the rest of Christianity.

  • It’s funny. In the charismatic tradition I spent my early Christianity in, the whole message about the physical book of the Bible was the opposite. We should not especially revere the physical book, because it’s just a book, and therefore a tool for getting to know God better. Yes, we believed the Bible was inerrant, and we had all kinds of justifications for the genocide passages, etc.– but it was pointed out that the bronze serpent Moses had made for the Israelites for a specific purpose, later had to be destroyed because the people had started worshiping the physical form rather than honoring the God behind it.

    I remember people getting praised if their bibles were battered and used-looking. It meant they were “in the Word.” A lot.

    I no longer agree with many things my old church taught, but I do agree with them on that. The physical book is just a book. Holiness is something to search for inside it.

    I no longer believe in inerrancy, but I do believe the Bible is inspired. And I believe the authors wrote from their own human understanding, but God has deeper messages if we dig behind the cultural-historical surface.

  • Jackalope

    I would also like to mention from someone who grew up with the inerrant view of Scripture but also in a more liberal context that it is possible to take the Bible as inerrant (or as entirely inspired by God, if not perfect) and still not hold to the misogyny. Paul regularly wrote his letters with two main sections: a sweeping, overarching theology section and a series of local commands that were specific to the church he was writing to (and often included the names of people in the church). The Church as a whole has regularly chosen to believe that the former passages were more binding than the latter, although we can glean useful tips from those passages. Many of the passages about women are in the latter category.

    This is in fact one of my pet peeves about conservative Christians and their views on women, because they tend to take all passages that say something negative and controlling about women and make THAT section and that section ONLY be the part that is Universally True and Binding. For example: You don’t hear the curses in Genesis 3 being used to support the idea that zoos should feed their snakes nothing but dust, or that men who have jobs that don’t involve sweat are failing as men, or that epiderals should be outlawed. The one part that is considered binding is the part about husbands being in charge of their wives.

    If you look at the passage about “I do not permit women to have authority over men”, it is the same way. The rest of the passage is full of prohibitions that we no longer hold people to. We don’t require men to raise their hands while praying. Most churches don’t have rules against women braiding their hair or wearing jewelry, nor do they preach that women will go to hell unless they give birth (despite the “women will be saved through childbearing”). No, the one part of that passage that’s insisted on is the women in authority over men. All of this despite the fact that the word translated as “to have authority over” (authentein) is a word used nowhere else in Scripture, and we’re not 100% sure of what it means (although there is a fair amount of evidence in extra-biblical texts that it means something like “to domineer over”), so our translation is pretty iffy. Even for someone

  • keefanda

    Good for you. Thank-you for this. More people who have experienced something like this need to speak out.

    Although I never suffered any real abuse from being in conservative religion, I’d like to share a vaguely similar journey that has taken me from theism to atheism and back, although over many more years. (I’m 60 next month.) I was raised Presbyterian (USA denomination), but had a born-of-the-spirit experience at age 17 in 1973 at a gathering of counter culture types. Became a “Jesus Person” – you know, a hippie for Jesus. Became a very committed evangelical. But because I was a liberal politically and culturally even though conservative theologically, my fellow evangelicals kept ragging on me because of these liberal beliefs including unconditionally accepting all real, legitimate science. (I accepted evolution as a scientific fact – some thought that guaranteed I was never saved to begin with.) So I stopped fellowshipping with such people slowly and surely until no Christian fellowshipping at all, liberal or conservative.

    Then the unthinkable for me happened. All my life, even before this born-from-above experience, I never doubted life after death. But somewhere in the early 2000s I realized that I actually didn’t believe even just some of it anymore. I realized that I was actually an atheist. Very scary, this thinking that I would completely cease to exist at death. I finally dealt with this by completely accepting it. This complete acceptance gave quite a bit of peace of mind.

    From this, I experienced a major positive change, which could be best described as this: I became a true Christian when and only when I became an atheist.

    The idea is simply that with no more belief that the suffering of people and animals could be redeemed somehow after death, I became vastly more empathetic to the here and now suffering of people and animals, the vast majority of this suffering totally unnecessary since it is due to people and animals not getting proper food, shelter, or medical or hospice care because of humanity’s refusal to go all the way in obeying Christ and maximally using the tools God gave us such as government and everything related to such.

    From this last remark, it’s clear I have regained some of my faith (it’s more of a reflection of a certain New Testament passage: Lord, I believe – help my unbelief).

    As to how I got my essential faith back, it’s too long a story to share here, but the key relates to what you said in your article, which is to not accept the Bible as the final authority and to instead embrace the liberal Christian view that it merely contains some of the Word of God, the rest to be found in some other writings already given and not yet given as well as in some thoughts we experience that never see the light of day. The final authority as to what is or isn’t this Word has to be our intellect and conscience, the tools God gave us to find this Word.

    The biblical record says that Jesus actually taught this in such places as the parable on the woman caught in adultery, in which what he said could be paraphrased as this: “I don’t give a damn what the Bible says! What does your conscience tell you as whether you should execute this poor woman? Should it not say ‘Hell, no!’?”

    Thanks for bearing with this long comment. I’ll end with the sad observation that there are those of us liberals or progressives who believe in having a personal relationship with Sovereign Jesus but beyond that sadly have essentially no beliefs in common with what seems to be the vast majority of all those who believe in such a relationship. Oh well.

  • Pauline

    I once heard a priest describe the Bible as a library. It has historical records, poetry, inspired writings, and also things that reflects its time. Its quite poignant to think about.

  • Wow. This is so exactly like where I am now with the bible. Ever since I quit believing the bible was perfect/inerrant/etc, I’ve discovered there’s so much more to learn, there’s so much more than just that one interpretation that you have to believe or else you’re on a slippery slope to all kinds of terrible things. And yes, it’s really great to be like “yeah this part is wrong.” The bible says God commanded genocide, but nope, I don’t believe in a god who would do that. Doesn’t matter what the bible says- that’s just wrong.

  • A friend of mine linked to your review of Ruth Tucker’s book, and that led me down an hours-deep rabbit hole. I’ve been struggling with my faith for well over a year now, and haven’t been able to figure out where to even begin to read more. I was raised Lutheran, confirmed there, then became just a holiday attender. Much later, I married a girl who brought me into a heavily evangelical denomination and has since become a pastor in that denomination. Even as we planted a new congregation in that denomination, I was having doubts and questions. Thanks for sharing your journey and research with us.