Ancient, Ambigious and Diverse

Rev. Brian Moodie 

Deuteronomy 21:10-21 

I’ve just started reading a book by Peter Enns, a Professor in Biblical Studies in the United States. He recalls how a few years ago, he attended a parents meeting at his children’s junior high school. At the meeting, the headmaster urged the parents was to resist the temptation to become helicopter parents. To resist the temptation of trying to swoop in and solve all their children’s problems, or getting so involved in their children’s homework projects that they ended up doing the projects instead of the children themselves. 

I will come back to Helicopter parenting in a moment. 

The book by Peter Enns that I am reading is entitled: “How the Bible Actually Works”. 

In the book Peter Enns writes that there are two basic ways of approaching the Bible. (Now one needs to acknowledge that a statement like that is always a simplification, but for the purposes of his argument, it is helpful...”) 

The first way of reading the Bible is a very generally popular and widely held view that is espoused by hundreds of preachers, pastors and ministers all over the world. It is to assume or to believe that the Bible is clear and straight-forward with obvious and clear answers for all the problems that one might face in life. Often accompanying those adjectives of clear, straightforward and obvious are the accompanying adjectives of holy, and perfect. You will often hear people who follow this approach say things like: The Bible is God’s manual for living. If you face a problem or a question in your life, the approach will tell you to simply open the pages of the Bible and look for advice that will help you deal with that problem. This approach would suggest that the Bible offers clear and perfect advice on everything from being a good parent to how to respond to global warming, and everything in between. Accompanying this approach is the assumption that somehow the Bible is somehow a rule-book for life. To follow the Bible is to find the right rule and implement it in one’s daily living. 

This was the approach to the Bible that Peter Enns was schooled as he grew up as a Christian. It inspired him to go on in his university education to study the Bible in more depth. But the more he studied the Bible, the more questions began to be raised for him, and the more he realised that the Bible wasn’t the kind of book he had been told all along. That approach to the Bible didn't live up to scrutiny the closer and more carefully he looked at it. 

The more he studied, the more he came to recognize that the Bible isn't a book with clear, straightforward and obvious advice with clear and perfect rules for living. Rather, he said what confronted him as he read the Bible was that it was a text that he describes with three alternative words: Ancient; Ambiguous, Diverse. 

Ancient – In some ways, this should be obvious, but because we are so often told that the Bible offers clear obvious answers, we don't always see it. One example is in the opening chapter of the Bible we come across the English word firmament. On day two of creation, the God voice in the King James Version of the passage says: let there be a firmament to separate the waters under it from those above it. And God called the firmament sky. 

I read a few years ago that the English word firmament is actually a word adapted from Latin by English translators of the Bible. They had no English word with which to translate the Hebrew word rā·qî·a‘ and so used a Latin word meaning support or strength, foundation or framework, to try and convey what they imagined the word rā·qî·a‘ to mean. The actual word rā·qî·a‘ refers to the process of making a dish by hammering thin a lump of metal. And so the ancient Hebrew writer of Genesis 1 imagined the sky to be a kind of metal dome made of metal that had been beaten and spread out across the sky. This is an ancient world-view. 

We see something of the ancientness of the Bible in Deuteronomy 21 where we read of forced marriages and issues of inheritance in polygamous marriages. 

When we read the Bible, we are confronted with a text that is often ancient in it’s view and culture. 

Secondly, it is ambiguous. For example, Peter Enns points out that the Bible has passages that can be used to both justify slavery and abolition. It contains passages that can be used to justify both keeping women subordinate and for woman to be regarded as equal with men. It contains passages that can be used to justify violence against one’s enemies and passages that condemn it. It contains passages that can be used to justify the political status quo as having been put there by God, and passages that denounce it. When you read the Bible more closely, you will see that in many ways it is ambiguous. 

Thirdly, it is diverse. It contains a wide variety of different kinds of writing, in different languages, in different styles and genres from story and parable to history and poetry. 

Peter Enns writes that when many people begin to realise that the Bible is not a simple straightforward and obvious manual for life, providing simple and clear answers from God on how we should live, they lose faith in it altogether. I have a friend who experienced that. He was one of the most sincere and dedicated Christians I had known. A person of great integrity. He went on to work as a missionary and evangelist. I can imagine that his personal integrity and dedication must have made an impact on many people. But he was also part of an organization that had schooled him in quite a literalist, fundamentalist approach to the Bible. But the more he read his Bible and the more questions it began to raise for him, the more the framework that he was working within no longer made sense to him. He left the missionary organisation and no longer considers himself a Christian. But he remains one of the most sincere, honest and dedicated people I know. I don't have a lot of contact with him anymore, but when I do, he always leaves a deep impression on me. 

And so, when you are told that the Bible is meant to be obvious, straightforward and clear (and also perfect and holy), and you discover that it is in fact Ancient, Ambiguous and Diverse, for many people it is understandably a let-down, and begins to raise questions about having faith at all. 

Peter Enns writes however that far from being a let-down, having a Bible that is ancient, ambiguous and diverse, he says that in fact it is a gift. It is something to be celebrated. And that brings us back to the concept of helicopter parenting. 

Helicopter parenting he writes is the tendency to hover over and direct every aspect of a child’s life so that they can succeed. But, he says, wise parents know that their job is in fact to equip their children to become independent, to acquire the skill sets for navigating on their own the ups and downs of life, to experience failure and triumph, pain and joy, and everything in between, and to handle it all well – in other words, to be in training to become mature, well-functioning adults. But helicopter parenting he writes in fact undermines this process because it robs children of the opportunity to make mistakes and grow from them and to gain confidence in themselves. 

Peter Enns continues. He says, “Although many may not see it, many of us have been taught, in one way or another, that the Bible is an instruction manual, and that God is helicoptering over us to make sure we stick to it. And we have been told that if we read this instruction manual carefully, it will inform us on any topic we need an answer to: climate change, parenting, finances, human sexuality, gun control, evolution, which political party to vote for, whom to marry, whether to buy or to rent, where to go to university, what career path to take, what church to go to, what books to read, whether to be vegan, whether to recycle and so on…” 

All this assumes that God is a helicopter parent, closely monitoring our every decision to make sure we are being faithful to the instruction manual. 

Peter Enns writes however, that, “Judging by the fact that our ancient, ambiguous and diverse Bible is nothing at all like a Christian owners manual, and that, likewise, the life of faith, from the minute we get out of bed in the morning until we hit the pillow at night is rarely straightforward, I have come to the conclusion that, God is not a helicopter parent.” And this is good news he says. 

If God were a helicopter parent, he writes, our sacred book would be full of clear, consistent, unambiguous information to take in. In other words, it wouldn't look anything like it does. But if the Bible’s main purpose is to form us, to grow us to maturity, to teach us the sacred responsibility of walking humbly with God on the path towards wisdom, it would leave plenty of room for pondering, debating, thinking, and the freedom to fail. 

Judging by how the Bible actually is, God is not a stressed-out helicopter parent, living through his or her children, nervously fretting over us in the form of a Bible to make sure we stick to the script, so that it all works out. God is a wise parent, prodding us toward spiritual maturity, in a secure atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance, so that we can learn to navigate life well or wisely. That, says Peter Enns, is what good parents do. 

Peter Enns concludes this section of the book by writing the following: “The bible holds out for us an invitation to accept this timeless and sacred responsibility of working out for ourselves what faith in God looks like here and now, of owning the process, with no accompanying checklist of one-size-fits-all solutions, no safety net of pre-scripted responses, and no fear that God will bring the hammer on us for accepting the challenge of faith. 

And so the next time you may be looking for advice on how to be a godly, or a good parent, you might be pleased to hear that you don't need to simply accept at face-value that passage we read from Deuteronomy 21:18-21 “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son… his father and his mother… shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” 

And I hope that comes as something of a relief to some of you. 

Instead, the God who has given us a Bible that is ancient, ambiguous and diverse, invites us into a life-long journey into wisdom, a journey that invites us to think deeply, to ponder, debate and sometimes even to fail.