As you may know, I am a Christian. You may also know that I am a scientist. Furthermore, you may be aware that there is an enormous movement within the church, known as fundamentalism, which demands that everything written in the Bible (Athanasius’s 367A.D. canon) must be taken absolutely literally (or at least as literally as the loudest authority figure demands), and also that there is a pretty large movement outside of the church, known as the New Atheists, which grew in response to fundamentalism, demanding that everything that is religious is absolutely worthless and harmful to human flourishing. I would argue that we need to land somewhere between these two perspectives.
Ever since I’ve been able to read I have enjoyed learning about science, starting with astronomy and gradually working my way towards the particle physics I study today. Early in my (private Christian) schooling I was taught science by some qualified, but also some extremely unqualified teachers. The most egregious example of my bad education (honestly lets call it what it is, intellectual abuse) came in 7th and 8th grade, where my science teacher was the school’s assistant football coach who was mindbogglingly unqualified to teach anything, let alone science. He would spend most days just making us read from our (Christian and badly biased) textbooks and even worse, he would often subject us to Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis lectures and propaganda videos. On top of this, my church also had an ample supply of videos explaining how evolution had to be false because of the existence of complex animals, and other incredibly easy to debunk claims that continue to be perpetuated by the 7th Day Adventist inspired segments of the Creationism movement. Needless to say, by the time I was 16 or so I was pretty messed up in the head and the only science I trusted or understood was the astronomy and physics I was getting through science journalism. If I hadn’t had my view of biology so badly distorted who knows, I (and many other similar people in The South) probably could have become a doctor, who knows. Additionally, coming to terms with all the lies and propaganda I was subjected to has taken years of reading and work and struggling through various doubts, none of which I would want to go through again.
All this is to say that modern fundamentalists read the Bible incredibly incorrectly and are a danger to themselves and their children, either through the lost opportunities of going into technical fields, a destruction of critical reasoning skills, the evaporation of trust in the methods of science and its results, or through religious doubt induced by recognizing the folly and lies of the leaders who also hold claim to spiritual truths. Fortunately, many scholars have taken the traditional literalistic reading of the Bible that gives rise to the host of problems faced by fundamentalists today and have corrected it by putting the ancient texts back into their proper literary and historical contexts. In his fantastic and colloquially accessible book, “The Bible Tells Me So…”, Dr. Peter Enns manages to show how harmful it is to the actual message of the Bible to continue making the kinds of demands that fundamentalists have made for so long.
Enns shows the Bible for what it is, an ancient text which records the conversations about God and life that the nation of Israel has with itself, as well as the way that this conversation is reinterpreted and retold based on further developments, such as foreign exile and the person and work of Jesus Christ. He fights against the view that the Bible is somehow a literal transcript of words spoken by God or that every verse is meant to be taken as a prescription. He goes through a lot of the contradictory or morally offensive portions of the Bible to show how what was written is more a reflection of the writers than their god and should not be taken as a modern historian’s portrait of reality, nor as a series of laws and rules about God and life to be memorized and enforced, but rather an ancient oral tradition aiming to convey more broad ideas and provoke further discussion, not shut it down.
Enns basically takes an entire seminary course on exegesis (similar for instance to the standard textbook “He Gave Us Stories,” with a few more conclusions about how we should treat legalism and respond to the Bible thrown in as well) and condenses it down into a few hundred pages of much easier to read and understand common language. I don’t want to go too much into the details of Enns’ discussion, but I do want to point you to an interview he gave on The Liturgists Podcast about the book, as well as make the claim that the damage I and many others have suffered can easily be avoided if more people approached the Bible in the healthy and rigorous way that Enns exemplifies in this great book.