Sunday, January 12, 2020

How do I decide which parts of the Bible I believe in, since there are contradictions

In a FB group I'm in, I was asked the question, "How do I decide which parts of the Bible I believe in, since there are contradictions." It's a long answer, but one I haven't typed out before. If you're interested, here it is.

For many thousands of years, people received all their information, of all kinds, through oral learning. Not just "oral traditions" of culture, history, music, art, etc. But EVERYTHING. That's very, very hard for us as a post-literate culture to understand. By post-literate, I mean that we are people who are MANY generations removed from those generations who began relying on the written word to define everything we are, everything we learn, everything we know. We do not know who we are without written words and their modern electronic media equivalents. We do not learn about anything without redress to "a 
medium," meaning "the thing between."

About the only thing we learn to do without media today is speak, and even that, in many countries, is relegated to a mix of people and machines (See: Blues Clues, et al).
Before that, there were no media; no "things between" people and everything they learned. You learned everything you knew from another person. How to do your job, where things are, where you came from, what you eat, how to cook, how to fix things, what the world looks like, what other people are called. Everything.


That is very, very, very hard for us to grok.

A LOT of the stories in the Old Testament came through that period of time from many different cultures. They are stories that had many different purposes. Some of them were meant to be morality tales. Some of them were meant to be histories of the world, inasmuch as people like to know, in a general sense, "Where do we come from?" Origin tales. Some were bloodlines that help people maintain a sense of "us as a people." All the "begats" are there for that reason.


Side note: For the Jewish people it is VERY INTERESTING that the "begats" in many cases were for regular people, NOT JUST ROYALTY. In a lot of cultures, the only people who deserved to have their names written down were the kings, queens, etc. You have lists of regular folks in the OT. I just find that interesting. Anyway...

At different points in history, different parts of these stories were written down by different people for different reasons. So now you have literate/literary "lock-in" based on the desires/needs of the person, people or cultures who are doing the writing down at that time.

This is horribly important.


A story has been told, person-to-person, family-to-family, tribe-to-tribe, without any kind of lock-in for generations. Possibly hundreds of years. It has crossed borders of language, culture and need. It has been changed to meet circumstance because the needs of the story have changed. For example, you don't teach kids about how to conserve water in a culture where water isn't scarce. You don't teach about the importance of defending against intruders if you live in a place/time where there aren't enemies, etc. It's usually much more subtle than that, but there is simply NO WAY TO KNOW if the story that grandpa is telling you is the same one his grandpa told him because it was never, ever written down before and you don't care and he doesn't care and he probably would say it's the same even if it's different because we know that's how memory works. So...

We now, at some point, have literary lock-in of a story that, for centuries, was fluid.

We do that, at different times, to a bunch of other stories from a bunch of other traditions. We put them together in a collection that, at some point in history when we have enough literary people to decide, "This itself is THE THING" becomes a medium.
That thing, the Old Testament, is now locked in. And because we (humans) are still relatively new at being literate -- we are literate, not post-literate at this point -- we do not understand that "the medium is the message." We do not have media studies, because we don't have a few dozen generations of literate people to look at and go, "Hmmm...

This is a thing that happens when you do this." We have less than 1% of the population with the ability to read, and they (the rich and theological) are the ones in charge, and so of course they lock-in the stuff that keeps them in charge.

Today we look at that and say, "How evil! They were in control and they did this to keep their power monopoly!"

Well, they did it, yes. But they had no more idea that that was what they were doing than the Romans did that lead was making them insane.

They had been handed something and had been told, "This is the truth," the same as the folks who'd been given the oral tradition had. If your grandpa says, "This is true," you believe them. If your priest says,

"This is true," you believe him. Isn't it better to write it all down so that it doesn't change and if grandpa or the priest dies, you can have a book to pass along all that wonderful truth?

Of course it is.


Except it's not just "wonderful," it's also insanely different and has all kinds of knock-on effects that we wouldn't understand for, well... 1,500 years or so.

Same thing, to a certain degree for the New Testament. I mean, we had a slightly more literate society at the time. And we had a written tradition at that point for a lot of the OT. But you had a dude who was nowhere near important enough to be documented in real time by anything like a literary scholar. So we have most written accounts of his life trailing Jesus' time by about 100 yeas. Or, roughly 3 generations of people growing up and hearing, "Hey, let me tell you about this Jesus guy."

And then a bunch of people interpreting and passing that stuff along.


So, with that background...

Most modern Christians I know interpret the OT the way I describe it above: a set of stories told for various purposes, over time, and locked-in at various times for various reasons by various groups. If there is "truth" in them, it is the same kind of "truth" you get from Aesop's Fables, which is an important distinction between "truth" and "fact."

I have no doubt -- zero -- that there was not a literal Adam and Eve.

I also have no doubt that a story about the difference between animals who behave "automatically" within a natural framework and humans who have moral choices is useful.

When it comes to the teachings of Jesus, I tell the same thing to my atheist friends as I do to my biblical inerrancy friends: If Jesus is the son of God, then his teachings are true. And if his teachings are true, then it doesn't matter if he is the son of God, because his teachings will be useful.


That often is good for at least 5 seconds of puzzled eyebrows.

I have spent more than 40 years debating my faith with myself and others, and, again and again, keep coming to the same conclusion:

I don't really care -- for the sake of discussion of the texts -- if Jesus was real or even if God is. I mean, personally I do. I think he was, based on the reading I've done and my own experiences. I think God is, based on how I feel, but I'm not going to go to the mat and unfriend people based on those beliefs.

What I have found, though, is that the way Jesus lived and the things he taught about mercy, grace and love are useful shortcuts for getting shit done in a very friendly, helpful way that makes me -- and other people I've spent time with -- feel better about a lot of stuff.

So, for me, the Bible is less about "fact" above), and more about "truth."

So when people point out that there are contradictions, I understand that that's a pain in the ass. Yeah, you have to have some flexibility and an open mind and it doesn't help that a lot of the main denominations don't have either of those. It doesn't help that certain people yell, "If you don't believe in these contradictions, you'll spend eternity suffering in one of them!"

I see the Bible less like a history book or a science book and more like a cookbook. There are recipes. In some cases, there are multiple recipes for the same thing. And, at some points in history, we should be fine simply saying, "You know what? The recipes for apple pie in Deuteronomy were written before we invented sugar, so let's mostly not use them anymore."

Most of the recipes that Jesus gave us are about loving each other, looking out for the poor, not being a dick, looking at our own sins before pointing out others', the power of grace/mercy/forgiveness and how, frankly, a bunch of the older recipes aren't as healthy as we thought they were. When he says, "I come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it," I take this to mean that, yeah... you can live off the shitty old recipes... if you want. But mine are a lot more healthy and, frankly, more fun and easy.

You know, he even says, "Take my yolk upon you..." ;-)

Anyway. That's how I am able to process a bunch of writings that are full of contradictions and still come up with what I think is a consistent faith.

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