Introduction to Bible Study

There is a reason why most people are not Mormons. They listen to the stories about how the religion was formed and what Mormons believe, and they conclude that key parts of it are nonsense.

That’s pretty much the story for most religions. Religions tend to focus on very big-picture things, like the purpose of life, the origin of the universe, and what happens after death. If they were focused on everyday stuff, like how to make a good salad or what to do this weekend, the reactions would probably be more flexible. But when one person tries to tell another person what to think and how to live, some resistance is likely. And so most Muslims do not become Christians, most Christians do not become Buddhists, etc.

People tend to think that their religions are serious and important. Everyone else’s religion is nonsense; but their own religion is different. Their religion — typically, the one they were born into — leads to Truth.

Yet a funny thing happens when nonbelievers do take the religion seriously. It turns out that believers don’t really want that either.

Christianity provides an example. There are all kinds of Christians; there is, in fact, a lot of disagreement about the definition of “Christian.” But if you look particularly at the various Christian denominations that call themselves “fundamentalist,” “Bible-believing,” “evangelical,” or otherwise based on the Bible, you quickly see that they do not want you to study the Bible. They want you to study only a few aspects of it, and they want you to see those aspects in just one way.

Consider the Mormon example again. Christians often object that the origins of Mormonism are sketchy if not downright ridiculous. How could the religion be true when Joseph Smith was such an obvious fraud? But if that is a legitimate line of argument, why don’t we apply it to Christianity itself?

In Bible study, the first problem is completeness. Suppose I wanted to plan a vacation to Greece. Greece is a place of ancient culture. So of course I would want the most ancient tour book I could find. A copy of something by Pausanias, perhaps, written more than 2,100 years ago. This would be a pretty silly way to plan a vacation, no? I mean, Greece may have changed a bit over the centuries. Yet this is the Christian approach (using “Christian,” henceforth in this post, to refer specifically to fundamentalists and the like). This approach causes a lot of grief to believers and unbelievers alike. The Bible is extremely old. It is not a practical guide to contemporary life. That is part of the reason why there are Christian bookstores, filled with the latest publications in a 2,000-year tradition of discussing things that the Bible, itself, does not explain. Believers often find that those Christian books (like any other books) are imperfect, sometimes very wrong, often mutually contradictory — but what’s the alternative?

The second problem is honesty. Christian students of the Bible learn that they are supposed to invent excuses for God’s failure to provide the kind of book that they want him to provide. As many first-time Bible readers have observed, the Bible is riddled with inconsistencies, bad ideas, and hokum. The Bible itself does not claim to be the word of God — the New Testament, in particular, makes clear that this is not the case — but Christians go through tremendous contortions to avoid admitting it. The Christian preoccupation with the Ten Commandments is an especially visible example of what happens when people try to blame God for writing something that he didn’t write, and didn’t claim to write: there is both an embarrassing focus on those few commandments while ignoring many others, and a blatant disregard of the words of Jesus — who, according to the Bible, really is the Word of God.

The third problem that arises in Bible study is blasphemy. There may or may not be a God, or gods. He/she/it/they may or may not have had anything to do with the writing of the Bible. If they are gods in any ordinary sense of the term, they are capable of expressing themselves pretty clearly. If they have declined to do so, presumably they have their reasons. In that case, the human attempt to put words in their mouths — to hold them responsible for wars and other horrors, crimes, falsehoods, and the many other things that arrogant people attribute to their deities — is blasphemy. It makes God look absurd; it gives sensible people good reasons to choose atheism. You might as well draw a cartoon of God, with a word bubble that contains any crazy or evil statement you can imagine. That is what Christians are doing, when they portray the Bible as God’s word, and then intrepret it according to their liking.

The fourth problem is history. As in the Mormon example, the Bible did not just fall from the sky. It came into existence through centuries of fighting among people who decided what they did and did not want it to say. Those people were actual human beings, just like people living today, and in these regards they behaved just as today’s humans would behave. In other words, there is no sign that God stood over the process and steered it — unless you think that he was responsible for the fact that Christians have murdered each other by the thousands, down through history, because of their disagreements about that book. The origins of the Bible are just as relevant to its meaning as the origins in Joseph Smith are to the meaning of Mormonism.

What Christians call Bible study is actually the study of deception. Inconvenient matters are avoided; preferred views are promoted. It is very much like the practice of law: there is already a conclusion that we want others to reach, and the only question is how we can help them — trick them, if necessary — to reach it.

That is not real study and learning. If you want to really understand something (as distinct from making up a story about it), you are best advised to approach it humbly, realizing that many of the things you think you know are likely to be wrong. You build up your knowledge about it, while remaining open to new information that could contradict your preferred beliefs. If you come across something that doesn’t fit, you slow down and examine it carefully, because that has often been exactly where people have discovered the most important learning.

There are many ways to interpret the Bible. Nonbelievers will probably find Christianity more appealing when it becomes less proud, less lawyerly, and more honest. In the area of Bible study, in particular, nonbelievers will probably not be able to sit down at the table with believers until the latter become more realistic and respectful. The nonbelieving student of the Bible is probably not possessed by the Devil, probably not stupid, and probably not trying to avoid divine insight. Based upon what the gods do seem to have communicated to humans (assuming, again, there are any gods at all), the nonbeliever may even be ahead of the Christian, in the effort to listen to heaven — even if the nonbeliever just calls it philosophy or science.

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  • john  On July 24, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Hi Ray,

    Don’t take offence but you really are wasting your time even thinking about Christianity (all your comments above attest to this).

    The only only!! approach to spirituality is to look inside your own mind to see what is in there, and to keep looking and keep looking and keep looking ad infinitum until you completely understand your own mind’s contents.

    That will answer all your spiritual questions.

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