“I am 86 years old now and I am confused.” The e-mail came from a Canadian Mennonite reader who was referring to references in this magazine to myth and metaphor in the Bible.
The writer, who has read a range of books about the Bible, did not dismiss untraditional approaches to Scripture, but admitted difficulty in truly understanding them. And then he concluded, “I can’t find my way back to the Bible.”
I wander the same wilderness.
It’s a tough place to be. Both because doubt is less comfortable than clarity, and because we risk the disapproval or reproof of those who see ambiguity as the enemy.
The e-mail writer expressed fear about raising questions openly in the church. According to John Neufeld—former pastor and president of Canadian Mennonite Bible College (a founding college of Canadian Mennonite University)—both the questions and fears are relatively common among seniors. Neufeld, himself in his 80s, has spoken to many seniors groups and churches over the years. Often he speaks about a more nuanced approach to the Bible than so-called literal reading.
He says we want the Bible to be perfect, but it just isn’t as neat, tidy and consistent as many of us were led to believe.
How is this message received? With “amazing openness,” he says.
There are people who are defensive, but he has story after story about elderly people who have deep-seated questions about Scripture and are glad for a space in which to explore them.
“Seniors are struggling with questions and fears and uncertainties,” Neufeld says.
He speaks of the biblical account of Peter’s traditional views being blown open. Peter was raised to observe Jewish restrictions about associating with Gentiles. But God leads him to break those rules and fundamentally revamp his beliefs.
Neufeld has devoted much of his life to understanding Scripture and helping others do the same. “The Bible doesn’t behave the way we would like it to,” he says. For instance, the creation accounts, flood story and other elements of the Old Testament are clearly similar to earlier literature of other peoples in the area, as I learned from a Mennonite Brethren prof at a secular university years ago.
The Bible also behaves poorly as an historical account. Scholar Northrop Frye writes that, if the Bible were intended as a history text book, it would be a badly flawed one, with differing accounts of creation, numerous inconsistencies between the gospel accounts and many details left out.
In terms of literal reading, what would that mean? For instance, I don’t refute the people who conclude the Bible says men shouldn’t have sex with each other. They have a strong literal case to make. The Bible also says we should kill such men. It says women should remain silent in church, or at least should cover their heads when they prophesy or pray. It says we should sell all our possessions, the world was created in six days and Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish.
I don’t refute the biblical injunction against same-sex relations, but I happen to believe that some people are simply gay. They are among my friends; I’m not going to kill them. I also want to hear what women have to say, whether they are wearing a kerchief or not. I’m too chicken to sell all my possessions. I don’t believe the world was created in six days. And I have no problem with Neufeld’s suggestion that the Jonah story contains a great deal of wisdom and truth even if it didn’t actually happen.
I’m a selective literalist—the only kind there is.
I also appreciate the good third of the Bible that is obviously poetry or literary: “deep calls to deep,” the caring shepherd, the “daybreak from on high” that shines on those in darkness, the hungry filled with good things. Something doesn’t have to be a factual occurrence to contain truth. Think of parables.
And I struggle profoundly with the man-heavy nature of the Bible, the violence (God killing babies to free his people), the difficulty in understanding stories from a very different time and context, and the way the Bible is so often used as a weapon of judgment (by literalists who don’t take “do not judge” literally).
To the 86-year-old who confessed his confusion to me, I say this: First, you appear to be in good company. Invite John Neufeld to your church. Look up the book The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns, as recommended by Neufeld.
My feeling is that the desert of doubt is not necessarily such a bad place. The wilderness holds a special place in Christian tradition.