Yes, We Must Pick And Choose What We Believe in The Bible
That is exactly how the beatify—and truth—of the Bible is revealed to us.
Coming back from my grandfather’s funeral a couple weeks ago, my sister told me about a run-in she had had with a coworker, a long time ago, when she worked at a department store in college. She was taking up for her Queer younger brother against some evangelical “Christian,” who told her simply, “well you can’t just pick and choose what you want to believe in the Bible.” My sister said that comment made her blood boil. She refused to work any shifts with that woman ever again. And surprisingly, it made my blood boil too, perhaps because spending an extended period of time back in West Virginia had once again exposed me to some of these fake Christians.
To say something as ignorant and ill-informed as that is to truly not read or understand the Bible at all. For years, idiots — evangelicals and fundamentalists — have been pushing the notion that the Bible is God’s itinerant, infallible word. They have decided it is simply one book, with one author (God) and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But anybody who has read more than a handful of verses knows this is absolutely not the case. The Bible, far from being one book with one author, is, more aptly described as a library: a collection of writings, with many authors, from many places, over many, many, centuries. Importantly — and beautifully — this allows it to constantly challenge us on what we think, feel, believe, and how we act.
Some of these challenges come from differing accounts of the same event. They can be quite minute to the average reader. Which apostle was given charge to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles after Jesus’s death? It’s a pretty contentious issue, this whole business of inviting non-Jews into what is effectively a Jewish cult. The writer of Acts said it was Peter who was given this enormous task — but Paul disagrees, writing himself it was he who was chosen (Acts 15 vs. Galatians 2). Who do you believe?
Other challenges are quite big. How does God deal with evil? The authors of the Bible have many different opinions on this, but the starkest comparison of two conflicting ideas lie in Proverbs and the writing which immediately follows it, Ecclesiastes. Proverbs is quite clear: the good and wise will prosper, while those who do evil will fail and have calamities fall upon their heads. “To get wisdom is to love oneself,” the Proverbist writes, “to keep understanding is to prosper;” but, “a fool will not go unpunished, and the liar will perish” (19:8–9). The author of Ecclesiastes, however, has a much different worldview. “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” He laments, “the same fate befalls them all” (2:15, 12).
Another challenge is how certain characters are presented and painted, most notably, who was Jesus, exactly? Was Jesus a peaceful, bucolic leader, whose “yoke is easy and burden is light” (Matthew 11:30)? Not if we take what Jesus says literally when asked by a rich man what he needs to do to have eternal life. “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:16–30, cf. Mark 10:17–31, Luke 18:18–30). Joel Osteen and Evangelicals may completely ignore this directive, but some people take that admonition VERY seriously. It’s why mendicant Catholic orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, prohibit their members from owning property or barely any possessions at all. Not exactly an easy yoke in the 21st century.
Or — was Jesus a rabble-rousing hell raiser, a prophetic witness sent to overturn the earthly order of things — as painted so vividly in Christ’s overturning of the money tables in the Temple? Scholars and historians believe that this event, described in all four Gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2), in all actuality, probably happened. Did Jesus walk on water or feed five thousand with just a few loaves of bread? History cannot tell us for certain, but we do know Jesus had to do something to piss off the authorities, so much so that he would be executed for it. But did this event happen at the end of his ministry, when Jesus finally enters Jerusalem (as in Matthew, Mark and Luke), or did it happen at the beginning, as in John? Is it the climax of the story, or the inciting incident? Again, a literal reading of the Bible would force us to take a side.
The answer is that Jesus was — and is — all of these things. These different paintings of Jesus may appeal to us at different times in our own lives. For example, my grandfather on his deathbed probably took much comfort in knowing that Jesus’ yoke is easy. Me, however, at 34 years old, I’m ready to turn over some motherf*in’ tables in the Temple. To be forced to decide which is “correct,” by fake Christians, is to miss the love of God and the beauty and truth revealed in the Bible.
The Bible should be important to real Christians for two reasons. One: it is the best historical record of Jesus’s life and ministry. Even with all its mistakes and likely embellishments, the gospels having been written a generation after Jesus death, it’s still the most accurate account we have. And two: This library we are given reveals not a truth about an infallible God, but truth about very fallible humans. The Old Testament, more correctly called the Hebrew Bible, shows an ancient civilization, struggling to understand its place in the world. The New Testament recounts a multifaceted man who simplified the commandment of God to simply love, and how dangerous and incomprehensible that message seemed to be. Do these struggles then not mirror our own struggles? Our own struggle to understand our place in the world, our own struggle to love — the struggle to love God, each other, and ourselves?
And as we grow older and hopefully wiser, our understandings will change and evolve. Life and chance and even the text itself demands that “we chose what we believe” in the Bible. We must remember, as Emerson warned, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”