Reconciling biblical contradictions

One of the recurring biblical discussions I have with people is about the seeming contradictions The Bible presents about the nature of God. Most of us in the progressive church tend to think of God as a loving energy source, perhaps even as the ultimate source of love in the universe. Certainly, the Bible is full of stories about God’s love for all creation. At the very beginning of the Bible, God looks at the universe and declares it good (Genesis 1:1-2:2). However, the Bible also often portrays God as a petty, childish, masochistic, sadistic, genocidal maniac, as Stephen Fry is only too happy to point out. How do we reconcile these seemingly conflicting ideas?

The problem stems not from the Bible itself, but from the ridiculously literal way in which we read the Bible (this is Stephen Fry’s issue as well—he’s too literal about the nature of God). Yes, the Bible is full of contradictions, because different people with lots of different ideas wrote it. It’s a philosophical treatise, not a history book. The people that wrote the stories in Scripture never intended for them to be taken literally. The stories are parables, filled with allegory and metaphor.

Unfortunately, interpreting allegory and metaphor requires a certain relationship to their setting and context. Two-thousand-years later, most of us have no relationship to the context of the Bible. How many of us know what a shepherd does, or how reviled they were in the ancient world? Without that type of knowledge, we can’t begin to understand the meaning of the Biblical stories. So, because most people don’t have the time (or inclination) to do deep biblical study, something curious has happened, particularly in America: People have completely lost their ability to read metaphorically. Somewhere along the line, people decided the Bible must be literally true—real history, real science, somehow a real revelation of and from God, written by God and infallible. When we read the Bible this way, we end up with irreconcilable dichotomies. When we read the Bible this way, we are doing something even the original authors and audiences did not even conceive was possible.

If we read the Bible as the beautiful creative work it was intended to be, these seeming contradictions matter less, because we can see a progress of philosophical thought (and sociological evolution) throughout the stories. This takes work in our modern world, though. First, as I stated previously, because our worldview is so different from that of the ancients, we no longer understand the metaphors used in the Bible. Second, we are a post-scientific, post-Einstein, post-Hawking, -Sagan and -Dawkins people. We are used to being presented with facts, which have been tested and re-tested to prove their validity. So when we read the Bible, one of the greatest collections of poetic parables ever produced, we imprint our literalistic 21st Century mindset on this deeply spiritual, non-literal work.

There are news articles about new archaeological finds that “prove” the gospel of John is true (even though a guy named John didn’t even write it). There are movies and specials about how the Red Sea could have actually parted due to a weather anomaly. These are pointless exercises that reinforce our ill-conceived and dangerous literal reading of the Bible. Who cares if these things ever happened? That’s not the point of any of the biblical stories. We have turned the Bible into a history or science book instead of a text that explores the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. So we misunderstand when the authors come to different conclusions, not granting them the same poetic license we grant Plato or Kant, or even each other when we too come to different philosophical conclusions.

Perhaps there lies the rub, though: We no longer understand poetic license, so we seldom grant it to each other. We’re intolerant of different opinions, especially about religion. I think this intolerant world could use a good dose of poetry and metaphor. Perhaps then we might overcome all the seeming contradictions that are slowly tearing us apart at the seams*.

Meditation: Read me a poem of love and tolerance, God who is all love and tolerance. Amen.

*That's a metaphor, by the way.

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