When we talk about God, let’s be honest.
Kirby Godsey wrote a book with that title several years ago, and I think we need to do the same with the Bible.
Most of the students I teach, whether they are Christian or not, tend to think of the Bible as a book of answers, a how-to manual of sorts.
What these descriptions have in common is that they lead us to expect the Bible to speak with a single voice.
Once we actually start to engage the biblical texts, however, these descriptions become harder to hold.
It turns out that we have not been honest about the Bible, for it does not speak in a single voice. Instead, it speaks in many voices.
Consider the Hebrew Bible.
What was created first: light (Genesis 1) or Adam (Genesis 2)?
Should we welcome foreigners as blessings (Ruth) or divorce them as threats to national security (Ezra)?
Should we respond to persecutors by outwitting and killing them (Esther) or practicing nonviolent civil disobedience (Daniel)?
The Christian testament is hardly any less diverse.
Does God get involved with Jesus at his baptism (Mark), his conception (Matthew and Luke) or from before creation (John)?
Does Jesus teach love your enemies (Matthew) or does he return to wipe them all out (Revelation)?
Do we gain entrance to heaven by what we do (Matthew and Revelation) or by faith (Paul)? If faith, is it our faith or Jesus’ faith (the Greek of Romans is ambiguous)?
For some, the discordant notes are worrisome; we could respond in several ways.
One is to dismiss the Bible as full of contradictions.
Another is to develop a canon-within-the-canon in which we prioritize some parts of the Bible over others and use them as the key to understand the more troublesome parts.
Yet another is to identify unifying themes beneath the surface diversity.
Marcus Borg, in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, identifies three: the Bible points to the reality of a God who remains mystery, the Bible asserts that living a whole life entails being in relationship to that mystery, and the Bible teaches us that God is a God of justice and compassion.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Borg, but I think that being honest about the Bible also encourages us to rethink canon.
The term “canon” comes from a Greek word that means “reed,” as in the plant that grows in shallow water. In the ancient world, reeds served as the equivalent of our yardsticks. They gave us a shared way of measuring things.
In the context of the Christian tradition, the canon is the measuring stick for what counts as an authentic word about God, authentic worship, ethics and so on.
But it turns out that the canon, because it contains multiple voices, is a rather complex yardstick – even more than one that is marked in both inches and centimeters.
The way out, it seems to me, is to remember first that the Bible has Jewish origins and second that the name Israel is connected to Jacob.
Jacob’s name is changed to Israel in Genesis after he wrestles with a stranger. The name means, more or less, “One who struggles with God and lives to tell about it the next day.”
Understood in light of that name, the canon invites us to wrestle with God. Rather than giving us answers, it instead invites us to wrestle with hard questions about what it means to pledge our allegiance to this God.
Does the fact that the canon contains different voices undermine it as the Word of God? I think not, for it presents a much more interesting understanding of God and what God wants from us and for us.
We have too long insisted on using the Bible as a book of answers, not a book of questions. Let’s be honest about what it really is and see where it takes us in our journeys.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.