It’s not everyday that you find an article about the Bible in a publication like The Chronicle of Higher Education, but then again it is Holy Week and stranger things have happened. A rather lengthy piece titled, “The Bible is Dead; Long Live the Bible,” appears in the current issue of The Chronicle. This article is written by Timothy Beal, a professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University, author of The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book.
The author discusses the pluriformity of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
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.
Beal raises some interesting points in his article, noting that, in reality, those who wish to ‘debunk’ and those who wish to ‘defend’ the Bible are not all that different. Both groups seek to explain their respective positions drawing on the challenges present in the cacophony of genres, authors, styles and themes in the Bible: one side seeks to discredit, while another wants to reconcile the disparate parts.
“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,” Beal writes. “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.”
Having penned the phrase “I can atheist anyone under the table,” Beal notes that he remains an avowed Christian, yet recognizes the place of doubt in one’s faith journey.
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.
Those who believe that the Bible must be univocal in its assertion of certain claims do not understand the sensus plenior, the idea that amid the seeming contradictions stands an expression of a lived reality, a lived faith a living and breathing medium of God’s Revelation.
Scripture may be the ‘Good Book,’ but it is not an answer book. Answer books presumably have a singular response to an anticipated question. The Bible conveys Truth; the Truth of God’s relationship to humanity and creation. It should never be viewed as a uniform voice nor should people strive to iron out the multivalence (as some have tried, with the four differing Gospel accounts, for example). The ancient Israelites understood this, how else would you explain two completely different accounts of Creation back-to-back at the very beginning of the Torah?
Like Beal, I agree that those who point to this tension in Scripture as either a source for dismissal or as a problem to be solved clearly don’t get it.