Minister: The Word of God for the people of God.
People: Thanks be to God.
No. The Bible is not the word of God.
There. I said it.
That’s not a remarkable claim, though, until I add this:
I am a Christian.
Gasp! How can that be? Don’t all Christians – evangelical, liberal, orthodox, progressive – believe that the Bible is the word of God? The answer is “no,” and I am Exhibit A.
I’m a Christian, and I know that the Bible is a collection of words written by human beings. Not human beings taking dictation from God, nor even human beings so filled with divine inspiration that the words they wrote are effectively the word of God. Just plain human beings.
In order for these two claims – that I am Christian, and that the Bible is not the word of God – to make sense together, I have to answer two questions: What do I mean when I say I am Christian; and what is the Bible to Christianity if not the word of God?
First, being Christian means believing in God. This is not the place to go into detail of what I mean by “God;” suffice it to say that it means what most people think it means in the general way: God is an “other,” not a human; God is the ground of being, the creative force behind the existence of all that is; God exists spiritually – that is, beyond the constraints of ordinary matter and energy; and finally, people experience God’s existence – and not just with their five senses and their minds, but also by some other means, a means that may be difficult to put into words, but one that is nonetheless real.
Being Christian also means believing that Jesus is Christ – that the man Jesus, described in the Bible, was anointed by God to teach and to lead in God’s name. Jesus is the Christian’s consummate prophet. Even more, a Christian believes that Jesus was himself divine.
Finally, being Christian means believing that God calls people through Jesus Christ to a new way of life. The only rule governing this new way is “love God and love other people.” More specifically, the call is not merely to feeling love, but to acting with love in every part of life.
I call myself a Christian because I believe all of these things.
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The answer to the second question is more complicated, but can be summarized simply: the Bible is not the word of God; it is an ancient mythology, created and written down by people over thousands of years.
That’s right. I said the Bible is mythology.
Am I saying it’s a fairy tale?
Am I saying it’s pagan in some sense, like Greek or Norse mythology?
Am I saying it’s merely a collection of entertaining stories, with nothing to teach us today?
Am I saying it isn’t true, that it’s not sacred?
No, and absolutely no.
In fact, I’m saying that the Bible is true, it is sacred, and it has much to teach us today.
Myth is deep truth about God and humanity, expressed through story because there’s no more direct way to express it. Other forms of speaking truth are limited to declaration and logic, addressed to the conscious mind. Story offers metaphor, dream, symbol, allegory, and so many other ways of expressing its truth. This is what allows story to communicate directly with the unconscious, the deepest layers of instinct, emotion, and spirit. This deepest communication of deepest truth is what makes mythology sacred.
The Bible is the sacred myth in our cultural heritage.
How could it be otherwise? God is not just a person, in the sense that each of us is a person. God neither exists nor is experienced as a mere logical construct. We can talk about God only in this mythical way, which may seem indirect to our rational, everyday minds, but is in fact a much more direct way to reach the inmost layers of who we know ourselves to be.
Ultimately, to say that the Bible is myth doesn’t diminish it – far from it. This understanding of the Bible as a story created by people at the dawn of human time, passed down through unimaginable generations, across vast distances, and into the deepest levels of the human spirit leads us to see it as more powerful, more meaningful, more sacred than it could ever be if it had been just dropped, immutable and complete, from the sky.
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The Biblical mythology is the one that speaks to us Christians. It is the primary source that teaches us about the meaning of the beliefs outlined above. Our sacred myth is a way of talking about God and our human selves, about who God is and who we are.
If we pay attention to the mythic story the Bible is telling, rather than how it tells the story, it teaches us about our relationships with God and with one another. The Bible, especially the story of Jesus, teaches us that divine and human can exist together in the same being. The Bible teaches us moral values: awe, honor, respect, love, and more. It teaches us the ethics through which we live out these values: give what you own but don’t need, to those who do need it; keep your promises; give of your heart to comfort those whose hearts are broken; don’t hurt people to get what you want, yet stand up bravely against those who would hurt others. And above all else, our sacred myth teaches us to reciprocate God’s love for us, to trust God, and to deserve God’s trust by actively loving one another.
That’s what it means to be Christian, and that’s what our mythic Scripture means to Christianity.