45: Why Seams & Stitching Matter
All the talk about stitching and literary complexity got Nate and Tim talking about why this stuff even matters. What does thinking of the Bible as a literary mosaic change? How does paying attention to redaction and arrangement affect our views of Christianity and how we relate to one another?
Nate: So after our last episode, which if you haven’t listened to that, you should go listen to that, we started just having a conversation, and it ended up being the length of about an episode, so we wanted to share that with you. So here it is.
Tim: Let’s not even think podcast for a while. If you just think about it for a minute, in what sense do you think, Nate, that this actually does matter? This could be for the show or not. How would you answer that question?
Nate: To me it just comes back to the entire worldview of a lot of people is built off of what this Bible is saying. So when you can point to maybe there’s something else going on with why the words, people literally look at words—I’ve done this, I’ve taught it—look at words in the Bible and a sentence in the Bible. In context, I’m not saying they take it out of context, necessarily. Everyone’s trying to put it the context of, what was the author actually talking about? But they take those words to then say, “What decisions should I make with my life? What decisions should I make in how I vote and how I think we should set up this country and the city that we live in and the community or all these kind of things? How should I relate to the people that live next door to me and down the street from me and in the same city as me and all those things? What am I supposed to be doing in my day? How should I spend my money?” All these kind of things. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. If you have a religious text from God that tells you how to operate and live your life, if it has, as one sentence in the Bible says, “All you need for life and godliness,” then that’s probably a smart thing to do. But if this collection of scrolls and books and songs and all these things are doing something different, then that’s really, really important to know. And it’s also really, really difficult to come to grips with, I think. And so there’s some people that will hear that and go, “No, I’m there, I got you.” And there’s other people that will go, “Don’t. Don’t do that, don’t you dare try to change the Bible, what the Bible is for me.” So that was a lot, but that’s how I think it matters.
Tim: Yeah. What I hear you saying is that what we see all the time is, we cut words and especially verses out of any literary structure or context, and we treat them as if God sort of snuck those verses into the world. And if we have those verses, we have access to something divine. But what we’re seeing when we pay attention to these seams is that some verses weren’t even a part of the original text and were added in order to function mechanically as literary connectors, which should at least open our eyes to the fact that all of this thing has deeper layers of function and literary usefulness. They’re trying to do something literarily that may or may not have anything to do with how we’re using those particular verses. And therefore, if we can zoom back and start to see this thing as a work of literary creative design rather than this random collection of almost magical words, then that can basically start to change the way we even think about decision-making and hearing from God and that kind of stuff.
Nate: Yeah, I think the fear, and I can hear the devil’s advocate in me saying, “It sounds like you’re trying to take away value for what the Bible is.” Because a divine book, where God has put in, in story form, in poems, in songs, in allegories, He’s put in the words He wanted us to know, the ways to live life that He wanted us to follow, that’s really valuable. And so if you’re saying it’s this piece of art, if you’re just saying it’s this piece of art that we can appreciate, it doesn’t sound—you know what I’m saying? Because if you look at the scales, one looks really, really valuable and seems like, when we talk about a high view of scripture, that would be that view. And then the other one seems like you’re trying to knock it down a level and say it’s not any of that stuff, it’s this piece of art that a guy or a group of guys made not that long ago, a couple thousand years ago, they just crafted and cut up all these pieces and put them together. It’s cool, but I can see how someone would say, “You’ve made it not as valuable.”
Tim: Hmm. Yeah, it’s like, I get the picture of, if the Bible is truly a mosaic, what we’ve been trained to do is take them all off of the wall and sort through which ones make any kind of sense or strike an emotional chord with us, and then put those in our pockets. And then when times get rough and we need something to say to somebody, or we get in a fight on social media, then we pull out one of those pieces, and we’re like, “Hey, look at this.” And it may or may not have anything to do with the overall purpose. If the sense is that we’re saying, “Hey, you no longer should be able to have those pieces in your pocket and pull them out and use them for what you want to use them for,” I get how that could be feeling like there is a kind of importance, or a kind of usefulness for what to do with the Bible that we are saying it’s not actually very useful for that, or wasn’t intended to be used for that, or shouldn’t be given that kind of importance. But I do think, and we’ve said this in different ways before, that presenting this thing as an intelligent whole where each piece is functioning at multiple layers to create an overall portrait, and one that points to Jesus, actually is saying that the Bible itself is more important than a bunch of pieces to keep in your pocket and use for what you feel like using them for. But it’s important in the way that it’s claiming for itself to be important, not the way that we’ve decided we want to use it.
Nate: Just to be fair, I don’t think I was ever just trying to keep a collection of my favorite verses in my pocket to use for different things. I was trying to figure out the context of those verses within the book that they were in, within the larger whole. I think what’s different is that this changes what the larger whole is, this scholarship that we’re looking into. It changes what that larger hole was intended to be and that’s where I think the change. Everyone’s trying to figure out the context. I mean, everyone who’s doing decent reading of their Bible is trying to figure out the context of the verses inside of the book inside of the whole. The difference is, what is that whole. I think to be fair.
Tim: Yeah, and I think a core question, and one that this raises necessarily, is whether we should be talking about the Bible primarily in terms of how it was written or how it was edited or redacted, in the sense that, who has the final say? And I think again, to go back to the metaphor, if in our head, this is God’s word and He chose what to be written, then the ultimate essence of it is in the writing process, and I think therefore we’re threatened by any sense of editing, right? We’re threatened by the sense that you could cut some out or paste some somewhere else, or have a later person add to the Torah, right? But if we actually start to see the compilation and arrangement and literary restructuring and repurposing and passing things forward, if that redaction project, if that actually is the last, final, and most important voice in the overall whole, then I do think it forces us to step back and say that within any given text, even if we’re looking for the context of the verse, it isn’t in just that book. It’s within the greater whole. And that should change how we have conversations, for instance around the conquest and what that says about genocide and violence and all that. We can understand a conquest command within the context of Joshua and Israel being told to purge the land of Canaanites, and it’s still going to lead to a view of a really awful, evil God. Or we can zoom even further back and read those stories within the greater context of a literary arrangement of texts and at least, at least, that should get us to lighten our grip on the sense that Bible is saying that God commanded genocide. If one text is giving us a story in which God commands genocide, is that one text the same as saying that is what the Bible says?
Nate: Right, and is that line even, “This is what the Bible says,” is that how we should even be approaching this thing?
Nate: Hi, friends, Nate here! Real quick, if you have any questions for this series or any other episode that we’ve done, you can ask those at almostheretical.com. And then, we’re so thankful that a number of you help support our show, and if you want to do that as well, you can go to almostheretical.com and click on the Give button in the top right hand corner.
Nate: And we get emails from people all the time talking about how, they’ll maybe word it as how their theology changed or their doctrine changed or something like that, but I think the heart of it is that how they’re approaching the Bible has changed. And I was just talking to someone a couple days ago, and he was mentioning nearly being written off as a Christian by his family because of changing how he’s approaching the Bible. And I just feel like I’ve heard that story so many times since we’ve started doing this podcast and even before. It’s not so much that, yeah, you’re theology and your doctrine is changing, yes that’s a byproduct I guess, but it’s mostly that how you’re approaching and how you’re viewing the Bible has changed, and that seems like one of the biggest issues or barriers between people. Does that make sense at all?
Tim: Yeah, I mean in Christian-world.
Nate: Yeah, totally.
Tim: I think if you’re one who’s spent good time in the church or grown up in the church. I think that’s why, even if you disagree with some of the ideas that we’re presenting or see it differently, I might change my views on some of these things slightly over the next few years, but it’s worth thinking about. It’s worth questioning because we are so deeply ingrained with seeing things a particular way. It’s like that metaphor, if you’re a fish in a fishbowl, you don’t know the water that you’re swimming in. And there’s a whole world of assumptions about what the Bible is, how the Bible does work and what we’re supposed to use it for that aren’t from the Bible. There’s a whole world of assumptions that are not biblical that are underlying what everybody uses to throw around what is and is not biblical. So it’s at least worth the reflection time to go back and reconsider. So you talk about division and people seeing things differently, one of the issues of theology that has been the most divisive in my family has been whether or not Jesus and the Christian way is intrinsically committed to nonviolence, or whether Jesus would carry a gun and promote AR-15s and self defense. I’ve had conversations at the Christmas table get nearly violent over this issue of violence and nonviolence. And so that’s why I think, take that example of say, conquest or the laws in the Old Testament, and it matters immensely whether we believe that what the Bible is saying is, “Here is your law. Here are your laws. Here is what God told Israel to do. Here is how violent God is.” Or whether the Bible is saying, “Look at how this story and this story connects to this story and this set of laws and these set of poems and this set of prayers to all point to Jesus. And then what does Jesus say? To lay down your arms and commit yourself to not seeking vengeance against even your enemies, but loving your enemies through nonviolence.” In other words, does Jesus’ own life, message, teachings use the Old Testament as a set of books that we are to read literally, as if they were all just gathered, divine texts and placed in a library to listen to all of those texts? Or, when He says that the whole thing was pointing to Him, He meant that they were pieces in some sort of overall mosaic or portrait or quilt that was pointing beyond those texts to a kind of hero, and that hero is Him, and therefore His teachings on nonviolence show that God was not violent and decreeing genocide or asking His people to enact vengeance on their enemies? And those are huge questions, and we’re not going to have all the answers, but at least being able to ask those questions can do a real service in helping us move towards, if not common ground, then loosening our own presuppositions in terms of what’s biblical and what’s unbiblical.
Nate: I think that’s why so many people love shows like this. It’s not about us, but it’s about a safe place to ask questions. A safe place to think about things that they’ve never thought about before and question and push back on things they never questioned or pushed back on before and don’t have a safe place to do that. That’s why we do this show. Because we hope to be there for you, to show you that we’re on this journey as well, and you’re not alone, and there’s so many other people thinking about this. Even though some people might make you feel completely crazy and like you’re not a Christian, going to hell, there’s a safe place of a lot of Christians here that will stand with you and go on this journey with you.
Tim: And it’s worth noting too that in this exploration where, safe to say, that we will continue to find that the Bible says more than we ever thought it did and less, oftentimes, than what we thought it does, that it also sometimes pushes, to use our binary language, a more conservative direction. So several years ago, I was reading a bunch of stuff, critiques on New Testament, critiques on the Bible, and really went down this hole of like, “I don’t know that I’m seeing the New Testament make any of the claims of the divinity that Jesus actually was God or God was Jesus like the way we talk about. Like that, saying Jesus was God. I’m not seeing that anywhere. And it seems like in many places, Jesus is being treated as the ideal human who is then exalted.” Well then I did some more scholarship and started seeing deeper levels of connection between the New Testament and Old at the level of really subtle echoes and illusions. One of my favorites, I found this through scholar Richard Hays, was showing how the story of Jesus walking on the water—remember the disciples are in a boat and Jesus is walking on the water, one of the gospels actually goes so far as to say that Jesus walked past them, like He’s just going out for a stroll, didn’t even notice them, just passes them on the water? I had never really stopped to pay attention to that, and Richard Hays pointed out, that’s a very clear allusion to the book of Job and even the Psalms, which is referencing God as powerful over the waves, and in the Septuagint the language says He even trods on the seas. And so very clearly what I was seeing was, there’s this echo that what it’s doing is it’s trying to be really careful, the gospel writers, really careful about what they say and don’t say about Jesus. So the way they were making claims to Jesus as the incarnation of God was not by saying something so crude as that, but by overlapping stories where what we’re reading about Jesus is what we’ve already read about God. And so that actually pushed me back far more in the traditional view of Christian theology in terms of Christ and Christ’s divinity and all that. There’s just more here everywhere. And for one, I love that story because it’s so quirky, the one of Jesus walking on the water. And for me it stands out because the audacity of a gospel writer to say not only that Jesus was walking on the sea, which is already like, “What do we do with that?” I’ve never seen somebody walk on water, and I don’t know if I believe that someone could or would. But then the audacity to say that He actually just walked right past them. [laughing] There’s something almost comical. There’s something so clearly literary about that line that I don’t think I need to get stuck in the like, “Did historically, literally, Jesus walk past their boat?” I don’t think that’s the point! If I see the connection the subtle literary design going on, I go, “Oh! You’re wanting me to see these other passages. You’re wanting me to see that Jesus could do things that only God could do, and that the disciples were coming to realize that.” Do I think Jesus physically walked on water? I don’t know! But it’s changed the significance of that question for me. In other words, I can go to sleep at night not having an answer to that question and still having a rich Christian faith. There was a time in which my Christian faith was entirely dependent on having a particular answer to that particular question.
Nate: Well, because it just sounds like, I guess that’s what I mean, there’s like two sets of ears, right? There’s the set of ears that will hear that as, “Wow, thank you, that really empowers me to ask tough questions and to explore places I hadn’t explored before.” And then there’s another set of ears that just hear you saying, “God’s not capable of doing miracles. God’s not capable of doing these superhuman to prove He’s God.” You know what I mean? It sort of feels like there’s this divide, I guess is what I’m saying.
Tim: Totally. I get it. And that’s why, to go back to that example, we can find unity, to me, pretty quickly with two people asking the question, “Do I think Jesus literally walked on the water?” One person answering no, one person answering yes, and still find a whole bunch of rich overlap and shared faith where, so long as we can see the greater meaning of that story and the others like it in the Bible. How often—look at all the culture war battles over the age of the earth and whether the flood actually happened. And not only do you just get to these gross distortions of science and anti-intellectualism that’s been really, really destructive for a lot of people, but you basically end up fighting battles that I don’t think the Bible ever asked you to fight. I think most of those wars, if you could resurrect any of the biblical authors or redactors, or if Jesus Himself would show up, they all would think it equally laughable, right? That that’s where we’ve picked our battles. Where I think we need to pick our battles is the kind of stuff we’ve gotten into on the show over gender and race and racism and sexism and patriarchy and homophobia. Ethics. Where we are using the Bible in ways that has placed Christians and the church in a position of moral inferiority. Where the church is perceived as being unjust in society. That is where I think we really need to go back and do our homework. That is where I think we need to dig our heels in and say, “No! Jesus was, certainly the most ethical, moral, loving human being that ever lived.” If we believe Him to be what He claimed about Himself and what others were attesting to Him, we have to fight to make sure that none of our theology, none of the way we do church, none of our Christianity is in any way unloving, unjust, or immoral to those around us. That is something worth digging our heels in. Making claims that the earth is 5,000 years old? To me, not only is it silly and foolish and leads to a crippling inability to learn and trust scientific discovery, but it’s also just a fruitless battle. It’s bearing nothing but bad fruit in that battle.
Nate: So this wasn’t another window into how the Bible worked, but it was a continued conversation that we were having and we wanted to share that with you. We’ll be back next time with another picture into how the Bible works. If you want to find out more about us or this series, you can do that at almostheretical.com.