How We Ruined the Bible — and How We Can Save It

That Bible everyone’s reading, quoting, arguing about, using to defend their positions? It’s not the real Bible.

I read the blogs, visit the websites, and scan the social media timelines and posts. I look at all the places where people search the Bible, quote the Bible, write about and argue over the Bible. I sit and observe and waves of sadness, despair, and even anger wash over me. We have a modicum of scripturality. We apply a veneer of Biblish to our pronouncements and prognostications, but the misuse of the sacred words is rampant.

The abuse of the Bible is so pervasive, so widely practiced, and then so well accepted that it can be hard to imagine how we might embrace a healthier Bible paradigm. Because the problem is not just our behavior — the problem is the Bible itself, or at least the Bible as we know it and as we have remade it. We are stuck in a set of atomistic, superficial, out-of-context, self-focused, and anachronistic Bible practices because we have lost the real Bible.

BibleOldDue to the way Bibles have been published and read in the modern era, we read individual sentences, or even parts of sentences, and mistake them for mini-truths dropped from heaven just for us. We ignore the kind of literature we’re quoting from, pretending that poetic metaphors are the same as didactic letters, or that apocalyptic visions can be used like moral instructions. We forget that the Bible itself often moves on, that the terms and conditions of earlier times don’t always apply to later times. We’ve lost track of authentic ways to get from then and there to here and now, to have the Bible speak credibly to our lives today.

We are able to do this so easily because some time ago, as Hans Frei reported, the great narrative of the Bible was eclipsed — it was covered up by our doctrines and interpretations and arguments about the same. When I say we’ve lost the real Bible, what I mean is that we’ve lost a holistic Bible, a literary Bible, and a storiented Bible, all of it embedded in the tangible lives of ancient peoples, nations and struggles. We’ve replaced this gift with a caricature of the Bible, reducing it to a mechanical theology and an owner’s manual for life.

The Bible aspires to remake our reality in the direction of flourishing life. But we are using it mostly to hurt each other.

Medieval_bulgarian_bibleThe Bible was not always used this way. The Bible as we know it is a pretty recent invention. How did this happen?

Perhaps it started when we just couldn’t leave the Bible alone. From the beginning, we’ve been messing with this text, making little marks, then drawing in the margins, then more aggressively breaking up the natural flow of the words and inserting artificial breaks and numbers. Finally, we buried those words in an avalanche of cross-references, headers, footnotes, and call-outs.

No doubt the intentions were good. We wanted these words to be usable. We wanted to be able to find things quickly. We had our own things to say about the Bible’s very important topics.

But here’s the thing: the long-term accumulation of all these additives has turned the Bible into something it is not. The Bible is not a reference book. It is not a numbered collection of 30,000 individual truthlets to be searched out, verse-jacked, and piled up into giant hammers of righteousness for whacking each other. It is also not a basket of little spiritual feathers to be fluffed up into giant pillows to make us feel better.

Bible3When we changed the form of the Bible, we changed what we thought the Bible was and what we thought we were supposed to do with the Bible. We no longer saw songs and poems and stories and letters addressed to ancient audiences. We saw double columns of numbered tidbits — everything the same everywhere in the Bible. Over time, this flattened-out Bible became something new in our hands: a handbook. This gathering of unique writings turned into a list, a look-it-up-answer-book for every problem we could think of and every theological or moral argument we need to make.

As long as we stay married to an artificial form of the Bible, our patterns of superficial skimming and proof-texting are likely to continue.


Is it possible to bring some health and honesty back to our Bible engagement? What would it take to make this happen?

I propose that we find our way back to a more natural and well-read Bible by revisiting the story of its birth. The Bible came into the world in the ongoing conversations of God’s people. They told stories and remembered them. They pondered pieces of wisdom and then collected them. They got together and sang songs of joy and worship but also of longing and lament. They shared letters and they recorded the visions of their prophets. The vast collection of unique writings that we know as the Bible was born in the real world of hard life and great journeys, of stomach-churning conflicts and surprising victories.

And in the end, this large, unruly collection came together into something clearly recognizable as a big story. It meanders, yes, but in the end it is a narrative that goes someplace.

The path from disengagement to re-engagement of this much more complex and therefore much more interesting Bible is to close the book on the reference tool. We’re long overdue for an extreme Bible makeover. Remove the additives and get the literature back. As we rediscover the rich writings of the Bible as holistic, well-crafted works, a new set of engagement practices will emerge. Feasting on whole books. Agreeing to read the Bible on its own terms and persisting until a new world emerges in the text right before our eyes.

When we realize we’re being invited into this narrative, beckoned to take up a role in its ongoing story, then the Bible will be doing the work it was created to do. We can read and live the Bible well once again.

Images courtesy Kodi Tannereye2eye, Wikimedia, Unlocking the Bible.

Glenn Paauw
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  • BM

    Since Abraham and Moses did not exist, bible reading is off to a very bad start if you are after historic facts. See for example, the New Torah for Modern Minds/”Etz Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew) published by the 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis.

    • saneandreasonable

      Liberal theologian lies.

      Yes, they both existed.

  • Keefa

    What books of the bible would you say apply to our modern age?

    • Eli Odell Jackson

      All, each and every one, and every chapter, and every verse, and every word, and every letter of the blessed, once-begotten Word of God.

  • Tom LeGrand

    Pretty sure that this is saying the Bible does apply to the modern age, just not in the way that we try to force it to apply. This doesn’t seem to be an issue of saying, “This book counts” and “That book doesn’t”. It’s a matter of understanding that not every word of the Bible is a direct instruction for how to act right now; that these stories are written in particular time and space; that there are literary devices and techniques; and that there are a wide variety of views on many aspects of the text. To me, it means that we need to be cautious when we throw out the words, “The Bible says…”

  • Ronnie Barnes

    That is good!

  • Ann

    Jesus came so we might have life, and have it more abundantly. All that was added onto the Gospels – the Epistles and Revelations eclipse, and even cancel or oppose, the words and actions of Jesus, himself. Jesus never said all the venom about women and homosexuals that were written into the Epistles. It we truly want a just and compassionate world of peace to emerge, Jesus should be the beginning and ending of the New Testament. Clear away all the writings that take from the words and actions of Jesus, and let Jesus, himself, lead the world into peace. St. Paul, other writers of the Epistles, and the John of Revelations are not painting the path of peace that Jesus, himself, forged for all of humanity with his own words and actions. Let them speak. And, let them heal our world. Let Jesus lead and end the New Testament.

    • Eli Odell Jackson

      And all the Bible is Jesus, from the falling of the first man and his deep stain that soiled man’s nature to the trial run for Calvary of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah to Isaiah, to Elijah, who prepared the way, to John the Baptist, to the 12, to Jesus, to Paul, Barnabas and the rest, if you disbelieve what Paul wrote then why, Paul being living in the times of Jesus, and the church filled with men and women who walked with Jesus in the flesh, why did they not denounce Paul? or Peter, James, Jude, or John?
      Why do their books exist in the Bible? If they were mockeries of Jesus’s word (as faithfully recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke & JOHN) then why were they not rejected by the same?
      Why have they only been rejected by those who reject the Word of God in modern times, who seek to hide away their sin and/or rejoice in their sin?
      Are you greater than Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Jude, Bartholomew, James, etc.?
      If they were there and accepted Paul’s testimony then why, you not being there do you not?
      Is every word of scripture not inspired by God?
      And what is written against women or homosexuals in the Word of God? That the Word of God disagrees with post ’60s inventions of right and wrong?
      God never changes His mind on sin sister.

  • dtr4331

    Not too many years back I attended a Sunday school class that was being taught by a substitute
    teacher; an MD who grew up at the church. He was given short notice, and all he
    really had to do was read the notes prepared by the teacher, who just happened
    to be the senior pastor. The MD did so, and because he did not improvise or
    expand any of the points raised by the lesson, he had an uncomfortable gap of
    about 15 minutes to fill. He did what any teacher would do, he opened the floor
    for questions. The lesson was on early Christianity and its expansion. The first question was regarding if/what
    there was a criteria used by the early church fathers to determine which books
    should be considered inspired/scripture and which not. The MD looked at her,
    chuckled, and then said that he was sure that there was, but he did not know
    what it could be.

    I volunteered to answer the question and assured the questioner that there was a
    scholarly consensus that the early fathers did show within their writings that
    an inclusion/exclusion criteria did exist and expounded a bit on the details.
    The MD looked at me and asked why I had not been chosen to teach the class. I
    mentioned to him that I was only a visitor. After the class ended, I asked the MD what he
    thought was more important to him, his faith or his vocation. He answered without delay that his faith was
    much more important to him than his vocation. I let the matter go.

    I have often reflected on this encounter and wondered what would happen if an MD had seen a
    patient and this patient had complained about a very troubling round of chest
    pains. I wonder if the doctor would be allowed to say, ‘I’m not sure of the
    source of your pain, but I am sure that there is one,’ and let the patient
    leave the office? How could someone pay a university hundreds of thousands of
    dollars to educate them on how to save lives, including grueling time as a
    resident, several years of study, licensing boards and the like, and then say that
    these efforts take a back seat to his faith, though he had no idea how his
    sacred books were selected from among a number of contenders? It is not like
    there aren’t several good references of the how the NT came to be a canon; L.M.
    McDonald, F.F. Bruce, A. Patzia, B. Metzger, just to name a few. I just cannot
    know how this MD could sustain his high view of his faith when he had obviously
    placed such a high value on his education and vocation. In any other aspect of
    his life could he choose to be so sloppy and unbalanced? Why so with his religion?

  • Eli Odell Jackson

    Well ain’t that a flowery pile of meandering doubletalk.

    But I suspended my judgment, I read it to the end, and long story short it says this: “Make a gospel of your own, brother, make a goldilocks gospel, not too hot, not too cold, but boy, just right for you, not right for Him, who needs Him, we’re enlightened people now, not ‘ancients’, brother we know stuff!”

    Or as the Word of God puts it: I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:

    Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.

    But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”
    Galatians 1:6-8
    But I guess brother Paul, that mighty evangelist, filled with the Holy Spirit of God misspoke, and brother Glenn Paauw knows the better, furthermore Paul was talking to someone other than us so we may as well just cut that out of the Bible and put it into some obscure reference book, in the goldilocks gospel, only what liberal theologians allow can pass muster, they’re God’s judge and yours, not them His.
    Honestly I don’t know what all this talk is about, maybe I’m old-fashioned but I read at least a chapter a day, sometimes a book, out of my trusty and never rusty King James, maybe I’m mistaken, maybe I’ve got to take out a pair of scissors and cut out all the parts that disagree with what I didn’t want to hear….
    Or maybe, just maybe, I ought to read the Word, then do it.
    Maybe I read this wrong and if so hold me to it, God bless y’all all I pray He keeps you.

  • Tom from North Carolina

    I think it’s time we objectively recognize the bible for what it is; a collection of stories by unknown authors within the context of an ancient culture whose values are filled with inequality and biases we would find unacceptable today in any other context. To think this is the divine word of god is to ignore its origin. There are no original manuscripts nor is there any way of knowing what mistakes were made as generation after generation hand copied other copies that were in turn copies each accidentally or intentionally varying the text.

    For a god wanting people to hear his word, wouldn’t it make sense that he would preserve his words?