Why Give the Bible a Chance? Reading ‘The Good Book” in Late Modernity

Richard Deeble explores the tension between our modern sense of universalism and the historicity of the Bible.

This article was first published in the second edition of CRUX, our Church-published zine for the Universities of Wellington.

“…there is a deeper reason for the modern aversion to the Bible. This is the scandal of the Bible’s particularity.”

When one mentions “the Bible” in public discussion it rarely inspires interest or excitement. This is true even among those, like me, who threaten to entertain such a strange and dangerous hobby variously described as religion or more precisely, “Christianity”. Most New Zealanders would probably conclude that the bible has had its day and is at best a book containing a few universal truisms of wheat situated within the chaff of the obscure, the incredible and the plain offensive.  Those with more extreme opinions might rather characterise it as a form of hate speech. Even among many Christians it would appear that “the good book” remains something of an awkward disappointment, with the result that its pages largely go unread other than a few highlights or quotes which might look good in a Hallmark Card or fridge magnet.

What is it that makes the bible so squeamish or even offensive for modern readers? On a surface level one might point to aspects of the world view or teaching of the bible which appear to stand at odds with modern thought, whether in it’s apparently “anti-scientific” supernaturalism in which miraculous events which defy the laws of nature occur, or its apparent promotion of moral norms such as slavery and subjugation of women. The degree to which the authors of various biblical books might appear to promote a view of the world fundamentally at odds with what educated westerners regard as true is certainly a factor in such squeamishness. Yet I would argue there is a deeper reason for the modern aversion to the bible. This is the scandal of the bible’s particularity.

Much of the material we find difficult about the bible, yet are largely unfamiliar with, is troublesome because it appears to contradict notions of justice or goodness we regard as universal. If God exists at all, we would far rather that such a being revealed himself in the kind of language one finds in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights or the language of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle so important to modern ethics – “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.

In comparison, the God one finds throughout the bible seems to be rather messy in communicating when compared to the tight logic of Mill or the definite and indeed important statements of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. God reveals God’s self not through universal principles or divine commands but through the particular history of a small and insignificant and frequently badly behaved nation. The solution to our universal problem – a world which doesn’t work the way it should, dominated as it is by human violence and selfishness – is not by some sort of abstract, universalised divine command or act of judgement, but through God’s choosing a particular people to deal with the problem. By being revealed through a particular people and their history, God inevitably commits to the messiness of human life. Thus much of what we read throughout the Old Testament story of Israel is not simply abstract commands or laws but God communicating with human beings within their particular life and world and the real moral and cultural quandaries they struggled with. The point is not for God to reveal some sort of absolute list of divine commands as it is for God to work within the confines of human history in order to deal with what is wrong in the world. As the field of Anthropology has frequently told us, much of what we consider normative seems utterly contingent or bizarre within different cultural contexts.  Thus, even God’s commands are subordinate to God’s ultimate intention to be revealed through the particular historical narrative of the people he chooses.

This culminates itself in what Christians have historically regarded as the heart and climax of the entire narrative of the bible: the story of Jesus. God’s decision to be revealed through the particularity of history rather than abstract universal commands or slogans culminates in the thoroughly bizarre notion of what Christians refer to as the incarnation: that God becomes a human being in the historical person Jesus Christ. In reading the story of Jesus, and in the regular act of remembering his life, death and bodily resurrection, Christians have trusted that they are encountering what God is really like in the life of who was like us in every way but resisted every real urge to be selfish or evil. Yet this man was no ‘everyman’ or archetype of human perfection, but a 1st century Jewish figure one can learn about not just by reading the words of the Bible but by studying history itself.

“God reveals God’s self not through universal principles… but through the particular history of a small and insignificant and frequently badly behaved nation.”

This is the heart of both the story of the bible and Christianity. Yet much more could be said about the actual content and detail of the bible. It is filled with a wide variety of literature, from ancient stories of Israel, to books of ancient near eastern legislation, to books of poetic wisdom and proverbs. The world of the New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus we call “gospels”, historical letters written by leaders to various groups of Christians, and the strange, scary, yet hopeful promises of God’s future judgement and redemption of the world.  Contrary to what many well meaning fundamentalists might try to make out, it is not without its tensions, paradoxes and ambiguities. Yet what ties it all together is the big story that culminates in Jesus.

My appeal then, both to those who identity as believers in Jesus and those who don’t, is to at the very least, give the bible a chance and at least read it. Despite the oddness of some of its material, its ambiguities, tensions and texts which clash with own modern sense of what is just, it remains a fascinating story which has and continues to shape the minds of many. We can at least try to be somewhat informed about what is there, even if it clashes with our modern sensibilities. And perhaps, just perhaps, there could be more to this story and the one at heart of it all than we first imagined.