By Timothy Beal
When it comes to the Bible, many feel there is a single right meaning—the one its divine author intended. "Well, what does the Bible say?" "The Bible is very clear about that." This is part of the iconicity of the Bible in contemporary society, the idea of it as the one and only divinely authored and guaranteed book of answers, with one answer per question. No more, no less.
For many potential Bible readers, that expectation that the Bible is univocal is paralyzing. You notice what seem to be contradictions or tensions between different voices in the text. You can't find an obvious way to reconcile them. You figure that it must be your problem. You don't know how to read it correctly, or you're missing something. If the Bible is God's perfect, infallible Word, then any misunderstanding or ambiguity must be the result of our own depravity. So you either give up or let someone holier than thou tell you "what it really says." I think that's tragic. You're letting someone else impoverish it for you, when in fact you have just brushed up against the rich polyvocality of biblical literature.
The Bible is anything but univocal about anything. It is a cacopho ny of voices and perspectives, often in conflict with one another. In many ways, those dedicated to removing all potential biblical contradictions, to making the Bible entirely consistent with itself, are no different from irreligious debunkers of the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general. Many from both camps seem to believe that simply demonstrating that the Bible is full of inconsistencies and contradictions is enough to discredit any religious tradition that embraces it as Scripture.
Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits. They agree that the Bible is on trial. They agree on the terms of the debate, and what's at stake, namely the Bible's credibility as God's infallible book. They agree that Christianity stands or falls, triumphs or fails, depending on whether the Bible is found to be inconsistent, to contradict itself. The question for both sides is whether it fails to answer questions, from the most trivial to the ultimate, consistently and reliably.
But you can't fail at something you're not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so. That's a false presumption, rooted no doubt in thinking of it as the book that God wrote. On the contrary, biblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. Ultimately it resists conclusion and explodes any desire we might have for univocality.
We don't know, and will never know, many details about the history of the development of biblical literature. No doubt there have been countless hands, scribal and editorial, involved in writing, editing, copying, and circulating the various versions of various texts that eventually were brought together into a canonical collection. Nor do we know very much for certain about the ancient life situations—ritu al practices, oral traditions, legal systems—in which these texts had their beginnings. Nor do we know everything about the complex process by which the canons of Jewish and Christian Scriptures took form. What we do know for certain is that the literature now in our Bibles was thousands of years in the making.
Given how many hands have been involved in so many contexts over such a long time in the history of this literature, can we honestly imagine that no one noticed such glaring discrepancies? Can we believe, for example, that the seam between the first and second creation stories in Genesis, as well as the many other seams found throughout the Torah, were not obvious? That if agreement and univocality were the goal, such discrepancies would not have been fixed and such rough seams mended long ago? That creation stories would have been made to conform or be removed? That Job would've been allowed to stand against Moses? That Gospel mix-ups concerning who saw what after Jesus's resurrection would have been left to stand? That Judas would have died twice, once by suicide and once by divine disgorge? And so on. Could all those many, many people involved in the development of biblical literature and the canon of Scriptures have been so blind, so stupid? It's modern arrogance to imagine so.
The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument—even, and especially, when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all their answers. The Bible interprets itself, argues with itself, and perpetually frustrates any desire to reduce it to univocality.
I'm reminded of the famous parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The story is told by Ivan, a cynical atheist, to his younger, mystically minded Christian brother, Alyosha. In it, Jesus appears in the city of Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, just as a huge crowd gathers to witness a mass execution. He never says a mumbling word, and yet everyone immediately recognizes him. Throngs gather around him, and he blesses and heals them. A tiny white coffin passes by, and the child within it is revived.
Standing in the cathedral doorway, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor also sees Jesus, and immediately has him arrested. "Such is his power over the well-disciplined, submissive, and now trembling people," explains Ivan, "that the thick crowds immediately give way, and scattering before the guard, amid dead silence and without one breath of protest, allow them to lay their sacrilegious hands upon the stranger and lead Him away." In the evening, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus alone in his prison cell, and explains to him that in the morning he will be burned at the stake "as the most wicked of all the heretics; and that the same people who today were kissing Thy feet, tomorrow at one bend of my finger, will rush to add fuel to Thy funeral pile."
The reason, explains the Inquisitor, is that Jesus came to give people freedom, but that's not what they want. What they really want, he says, is to be told what to do and believe, and to be fed. "For fifteen centuries, we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good."
Are Ivan and his Grand Inquisitor right? Would we rather not be free, to think and question for ourselves? Sapere aude! proclaimed the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. "Dare to know" or "be wise," to release yourself from your self-incurred tutelage under the authority of others and think for yourself, to trust your own reason and imagination. To be sure, such a calling is both empowering and intimidating. Would we rather be told what to do and think? Do the questions make us nervous? Do we thirst for the answers that will put our restless spirits to rest? Is that what we really want religion to be, or rather do, for us? Is that what we want from the Bible?
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of doing an interview with National Public Radio's Michele Norris about my book Roadside Religion (Beacon Press, 2005). That book tells the story of my family's "blue highways" exploration of roadside religious attractions, from the World's Largest Ten Commandments and Holy Land U.S.A. to Precious Moments Chap el and Golgotha Fun Park. Norris knew that I had grown up in a conservative Christian environment, and wondered what kinds of thoughts and feelings those places evoked for me. Her final question was meant to bring our conversation around to this topic.
"As an avowed atheist ... ," Norris began.
"Um, wait. I'm sorry. I'm not an atheist. I'm actually Christian."
"Really!? Your publicity kit says you're an atheist at least twice."
Later, I asked my publicist why the kit described me as an atheist. She said that she got it from the book's introduction, in which I wrote that there were days when I could "atheist anyone under the table." That's true. But to say that is not to say that I am an atheist. In fact, what I'd written was, "Although I can atheist anyone under the table on some days, I remain a Christian, and I remain committed to the church."
The interview cleaned up nicely, and the confusion was worth a good laugh. But I think it belies a more significant, popular cultural understanding of what faith is, and what religion is. There is a widely held, simplistic definition of faith as firm belief. To many, especially nonreligious people, faith is seen as absolute certainty despite or without regard to observed facts or evidence. Yet, as anyone trying to live faithfully in this world knows full well, there is no faith without doubt. Doubt is faith's other side, its dark night. Indeed, in an atheist ing match, I'd put big odds on the faithful any day. People of faith know the reasons to doubt their faith more deeply and more personally than any outside critic ever can. Faith is inherently vulnerable. To live by faith is to live with that vulnerability, that soft belly, exposed.
Likewise the Bible. The Bible can atheist any book under the table on some pages. It presumes faith in God, yet it also often gives voice to the most profound and menacing doubts about the security of that faith. The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. How rare such places have become in a society addicted to quick fixes, executive summaries, and idiot's guides. The canon of the Bible is that kind of place.
Ambiguity is the devil's playground. Let it creep into your faith life and all hell will break loose. So some say. For them, faith is essentially a battle to keep up the wall of certitude against the immanent floodwaters of chaos. Uncertainty is a crack in the dam of faith. Rather, faith deepens not in finding certainty but in learning to live with ambiguity, as we ride our questions as far into the wilderness as they will take us. Biblical literature hosts that journey.
Blind Willie Johnson, a gospel singer, preacher, and pioneer of the blues, understood the power of the honest question, and he perceived its flame in the Bible.
Johnson was born in poverty in 1897 and blinded at age 7, when his stepmother, in a fight with his father, threw lye in his face. He died in poverty in 1945, sleeping on a wet bed in the ruins of his house, which had burned down two weeks before. Thankfully, between 1927 and 1930, he recorded a number of his biblically based blues songs with Columbia Records. These have inspired countless rockers, from Led Zeppelin to Beck. In 1977 his "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," a hauntingly inarticulate meditation on the Crucifixion, was sent into deep space on the Voyager 1 as part of the Voyager Golden Record, a collection of music representing the sounds of Earth to any potentially interested extraterrestrials. The time capsule was launched in November 2004 and is scheduled to be within 1.6 light-years of two nearby suns in about 40,000 years. The closest thing to timeless any musical artist could possibly achieve. Mercy, how we do so often love to immortalize those despised and forgotten in life.
Johnson's uniquely spiritual blues music is driven by the deepest questions, often finding voice through an encounter between biblical tradition and his own life experience, which was well acquainted with sorrow. The Bible peopled his imagination. It was his wellspring of imagery. It empowered him to call this world into question and to envision another. On at least one occasion, the powers that be recognized how potentially explosive such an inspired combination of biblical language and lived oppression could be. He was arrested in front of a New Orleans city building for inciting a riot simply by singing "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down," a song about the biblical hero Samson, who tore down the house of the Philistine lords after they had gouged out his eyes. To the officer who arrested him, the ancient story suddenly sounded dangerously contemporary.
In his well-known song "Soul of a Man," Johnson growls out the question he has pursued his whole life, knowing that no one can really help him find the answer: Just what is the "soul of a man"? Indeed, what is soul? It's a question filled to overflowing with other questions. Am I more than my mind? More than my body? More than the sum of my parts? Do I have a soul? Does it live beyond this mortal coil? What am I? Who am I? Why am I here? Such profound questions are often asked, but too often are followed by erudite answers from someone who claims to know. Rarely by someone who honestly does not know. As none of us do.
Johnson recalls his lifelong soul search. He's traveled far and wide, through cities and wildernesses. He's heard answers from lawyers, doctors, and theologians. None have satisfied. In response to each of the answers he's been given, he repeats his question with more forceful, gravelly urgency.
In his quest, he turns to the Bible:
I read the Bible often, I tries to read it right
And far as I could understand, nothing but a burning light
Called to preach since age 5, steeped in the African-American Baptist tradition, this blind sage of spiritual blues knew the Bible inside and out from memory. Yet it gave him no answer, only a more profound mystery: nothing but a burning light.
I first discovered this song when I heard the Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn perform a cover of it in a concert in Atlanta, Ga., about a year before I finished graduate school at Emory University. The image of "nothing but a burning light" immediately grabbed me, and stayed with me as I began my career as a professor. In fact, it was the title of my final lecture the first time I taught my introductory Bible course, which I called "Dead Prophets Society." To me, it is an image of mystery that is both compelling and dangerous. Warming, burning. Enlightening, blinding. Life-giving, dangerous. No angel of the Lord speaking from it, as there was in the burning bush that spoke to Moses. An all-consuming revelation, it sheds light on the absence of answers.
There is indeed a bluesy biblical mysticism here, a solici tation of deep spiritual unrest that opens us to that which is beyond articulation. The failure to find the answer gives way to a more profound revelation, a burning light of unknowing.
In its "failure" to say one thing on anything, in its "failure" as a book of answers or font of univocal truth, the Bible opens itself to mystery. It is faithful not to the answer but to the question that takes you to the edge of knowing. "There is a crack in everything," declares another great songwriter and theologian, Leonard Cohen. "That's how the light gets in."
The ninth-century Zen master Lin Chi is remembered for saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him"—meaning kill your attachment to the Buddha. Nurturing an attachment, even to the master of detachment, prevents spiritual growth.
Attachment to the cultural icon of the Bible is similarly debilitating. It's a false image, an idol. If you see it, kill it. The Bible is dead; long live the Bible. Not as the book of answers but as a library of questions, not as a wellspring of truth but as a pool of imagination, a place that hosts our explorations, rich in ambiguity, contradiction, and argument. A place that, in its failure to give clear answers and its refusal to be contained by any synopsis or conclusion, points beyond itself to mystery, which is at the heart of the life of faith.
We might even go so far as to say that the Bible kills itself. It deconstructs itself. Reading it undermines the iconic idea of it as a univocal, divinely authored book and our desire to attach to it as such. Scriptures have a tendency to exceed the boundaries of orthodoxy and resist closure. The Bible keeps reopening theological cans of worms. It resists its own impoverishment by univocality. In so doing, it fails to give answers, leaving readers biblically ungrounded.
In response, we can buy another values-added Bible and keep the dream alive. If at first we don't succeed, buy, buy again. The Bible biz is at the ready. Or we can give up on the Bible altogether. Very many do, as if it stands or falls based on how well it fits our inadequate idea of it. Or we can begin to let our attachment to that idea die.
Timothy Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University. This essay is excerpted from his book The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.