I don’t know who needs to hear this, but EVERYONE interprets the Bible

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One of my least favorite evangelical sayings has got to be:

“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!”

As in, everything you could ever need to know about life and any decision or issue you could ever face is written in black and white, in very simple terms, right there in the Bible, which is basically just a divine dictation from on high. You look in there, see what it says, and just do that. Easy peasy lemon squeezy!!!

My response to this is — Have you people even read the Bible?

The Bible is many things, but simple and easily understood is definitely not one of them. From its beginning, with dueling creation accounts, to its extremely bizarre end in Revelation, which has probably spawned more cults than coherent sermons, the Bible is filled with confusing stuff that begs the reader to proceed with caution, humility, discernment. Just like, well, life. And faith.

But it’s a lot more comfy and cozy to gloss over all that, and to take the Bible like some kind of IKEA manual or a even a much less clear manual of a poorly made Chinese product and written by someone who doesn’t speak English very well.

I once made a major life decision using the Bible like that. There was a school of thought in evangelicalism back then that Bible could be used as a Magic 8 ball. You asked God to give you guidance, then you propped the Bible up on its spine and let it fall open. With eyes shut tightly, you plopped your finger on the page, and where ever it landed, that was the word God had for you.

In my case, I wanted to know if God wanted me to go to boarding school. Our family lived in small town Kenya, where my parents were missionaries, and I attended a local primary school that was absolutely fine. I wasn’t unhappy, I learned things, I had fun. But my older sister was too old to go there and had no other appealing options. So she went to Rift Valley Academy, a boarding school a few hours away, run by an American evangelical mission. And I missed her. She was my best friend, and I missed her.

I wanted to go. But I was also afraid to go, and I didn’t think my parents would let me anyway, given I was 10, and not a very grown up 10 at that. So I decided to seek a Word from the Lord that would strengthen my resolve and convince them to send me.

I got out my Bible, propped it up on its spine, and let it fall open. Then I closed my eyes and put my finger on the page. The first few attempts were confusing:

“The rock badger is unclean to you because it chews the cud even though its hoof is not divided.” Weird. What is a rock badger? They have hooves? What? I tried again.

“Then because of the dire straits to which you will be reduced when your enemy besieges you, you will eat your own children, the flesh of your sons and daughters whom the Lord has given you.” Well, that’s just disturbing. Hopefully my parents aren’t going to eat me anytime soon.

“Go up into the rocky cliffs, hide in the ground. Get away from the dreadful judgement of the Lord, from his royal splendor!” Hmmm. Not perfect, but getting closer. Other than the dreadful judgement, it works. The boarding school was kind of in rocky cliffs. But the dreadful judgement definitely does not sound positive. Moving on.

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” BINGO. BOOM. Pay dirt. My name’s not Abram, but other than that, this is the definitive word. Leave your father’s house and go to the land. Doesn’t get any clearer than that.

Armed with the Word of the Lord, I went to my parents to pitch the idea. To be fair, I don’t think they were big fans of the Bible-as-Magic-8-Ball model of scriptural interpretation. But they heard me out. “Mom and Dad, I know we planned for me to go to Mt. Kenya Academy for another few years,” I began. “But I have received a word from the Lord. God has told me he wants me to go to boarding school.”

“Is that right,” said my mom skeptically.

“Yes, that is right. I prayed and asked God for guidance, and he gave me this verse.” I handed my open Bible over to my dad and pointed to the verse. I did not mention that this was actually the fourth word from the Lord I had gotten and had opted against eating rock badgers or my own children.

“Well, how about that,” Dad said. “It does say that pretty clearly.”

And that was that. God said it, we believed it, and that settled it. I went to boarding school, which was absolutely not the right decision, I think my parents would now agree.

Obviously, this story represents an extreme example of poor Bible study and usage. I don’t think many evangelicals these days would endorse the specific method I used. But they continue to persist in the notion that the Bible is simple, plain, and clear. They even resist the idea of interpretation. There’s no need to interpret something that is literally God’s word, delivered word-for-word for all time. There’s no need to consider such things as historical and cultural context, other information that wasn’t available thousands of years ago, new insights derived from scientific knowledge, historical example, and the stories of types of people who weren’t allowed to have stories until very recently.

But in truth, everyone, EVERYONE, interprets the Bible. It’s impossible not to interpret the Bible.

Another story. I attended a weekly mom’s Bible study at my evangelical church when my kids were little. We read a parenting book by a guy named Ted Tripp that is an evangelical small-b-bible of sorts called Shepherding a Child’s Heart. Among other things, it argues that spanking is the only biblical form of discipline. I was not a fan of spanking, given academic studies I had read regarding outcomes, as well as my own negative experience with it, as both a parent and a child. But the group took his words as unchallenged fact. From what I could tell, this was based on a few isolated verses that instruct parents to strike their children with a rod. All of them specifically mention a “rod.”

“So why aren’t we using rods then?” I asked. (I didn’t have many real friends in this group. Or in the church, really. People were always polite to me, but I don’t think anyone was sad to see us leave).

Everyone stared at me like I had sprouted another breast (Breasts were kind of a big deal in this group).

“No, I’m serious. If we’re going to interpret the Bible literally, why are we stopping with a smack on the diaper? These verses clearly indicate you should beat your kids with a large stick, of the sort used on livestock.”

I can’t remember how they responded. I’m not a great listener, quite frankly, but it doesn’t really matter for my purposes here, because whatever their answer was, it’s clear they were interpreting the Bible, just like I was. In my case, I had decided the Bible indicated discipline was important, yes, but based on additional information available to me in the 21st century, I didn’t believe spanking was necessary or right.

They had decided that modern spanking was a good adaptation, and one that would not involve CPS, of the ancient practice of beating your child like chattel. Neither modern spanking or time outs and other non-corporal forms of discipline are mentioned in the Bible.

Of course there are any number of examples of how those who claim to follow a “literal,” interpretation-free approach to the Bible actually don’t. Stoning people for being disrespectful to their parents, mixing fabrics, eating shellfish, socialistic farming, women in head coverings, women speaking, women doing a lot of other things, men having multiple wives, men having slaves and concubines, people sacrificing animals. Frankly, someone who follows a literal interpretation of the Bible is more likely to end up in jail than in any sort of pulpit.

So, how should we interpret the Bible?

The hell if I know.

But I’m going to go with Carefully. Thoughtfully. Lovingly. With fear and trembling.


We walk by faith and not by sight.

Regardless of how you interpret the Bible, can we please agree to banish “God says it, I believe it, and that settles it” to some kind of evangelical museum?


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