Review: The Bible Made Impossible

January 25, 2012

If I were to have a favorite book format, it would be the “dismantle and suggest” format. It’s a common format, one that challenges what we think about a subject, and gently, or sometimes not so gently, dismantling that belief system. At it’s best, this format then suggests a way forward, though not necessarily providing a rigid alternative that leaves nothing to the imagination of the readers. I read to grow in my own thinking, and this type of book structure works best for me.

This format is on clear display in a book that will be challenging, even troubling, for many: The Bible Made Impossible, by Christian Smith. But as challenging as it might be for some, it will be hopeful for many others; for those who find value in the words of the Bible, but are oft distressed at how the Bible can be reduce to a collection of forumulas for how to live. Or, perhaps, a collection of texts that we can mine for supportive content on how we think we (and others) should live.

I’ve long had misgivings about the use of the word ‘Biblical’ as an adjective to describe anything. It’s as if we can stamp this on front of an idea to give it authority. But the Bible is far too complex of a text, er, a collection of texts, to be reduced to a field guide for how to live. That’s not to say that the Bible should have to sway in how we live, but it should be seen as a larger narrative in which all of life can be seen, rather than pieces of advice for pieces of our life.

It is this broad misuse of Scripture that Smith addresses in The Bible Made Impossibly, describing how contemporary North American evangelicalism has created a scenario for the Bible that it is not mean to live up to. It is an impossible. And I find deep resonance in most of what Smith has to say, and deep hope as well, that the Bible can be more.

As a taster, I offer a number, but certainly not all, of my underlines from the book:

  • This book addresses Christians, especially evangelicals, who believe that the Bible is a divine word of truth that should function as an authority for Christian faith and practice, and who want to espouse a coherent position that justifies and defends that belief. My contention here is that the American evangelical commitment to “biblicism,” which I will define and describe in detail below, is an untenable position that ought to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority.

  • the biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.

  • My proposals assume that biblicism can be escaped not by turning away from an evangelical approach to the Bible but rather by becoming even more truly evangelical in the reading of scripture. Contrary to the fears of some biblicists, leaving biblicism behind need not mean losing the best of evangelicalism but, instead, can mean strengthening an evangelical hermeneutic of scripture.

  • So the question is this: if the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches? I know of no good, honest answer to that question.

  • The above two points are reinforced by the complicating third point that many American evangelicals—especially those shaped by the church-growth movement—assume that numerical growth in a congregation indicates spiritual strength and vitality, which, in turn, indicates possession of the truth. Numerical growth, the assumption suggests, can be taken as an empirical indicator that the Holy Spirit is present and working and leading a congregation into the right beliefs. God must be “blessing” such a spiritually vibrant and faithful church with increased numbers of visitors and members. The logic is faulty, of course.

  • Those studies make clear that, far from scripture functioning as an independent authority guiding the lives of believers, the Bible is often used by its readers in various ways to help legitimate and maintain the commitments and assumptions that they already hold before coming to the biblical text. In other cases, biblical texts often do not function as authorities driving discussions and applications of scriptural truths but are instead selectively engaged and made sense of primarily according to what happens to be personally, subjectively relevant to the reader at the time.

  • Evangelical biblicism is not an especially evangelical way to read the Bible. In practice, biblicism demeans scripture. On the surface, biblicism appears to champion a “high view” of the Bible, but its actual practices betray a rather low view of the Bible. Evangelicals who are truly evangelical can and ought to do better.

  • The purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ. It is embarrassing to have to write this, for it should be obvious to all Christians. But I am afraid this is not always so obvious in practice in biblicist circles. At least the profound implications of this fact for reading scripture are not always obvious to many evangelicals.

  • But talking and acting as if the Bible is God’s only and highest self-revelation is completely “unbiblical,” even when considered in biblicist terms.

And a big thank you to Adam Shields for lending me the Kindle version of the book via Lendle.

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