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How To Cut Up The Bible Without Anyone Noticing

August 08, 2011


From when we are young we develop a narrative that helps us understand who we are, who we are becoming and why we are here, a narrative that we largely adopt from our parents and then develop gradually over time.

Perhaps more interesting than what this narrative says is what it avoids saying, what it does not symbolise. For while we come to see this story as describing who we are it often has nothing to say about certain behaviours we engage in. There are behaviours that we enact which we treat as taboo in that they exist and yet remain unspoken. This is somewhat analogous to a family who never speak about an affair that everyone knows took place. It is a reality that has not been given form in the discourse of the family. In a similar way there are things we do that clash with the clean, coherent and cohesive story that we have about ourselves. Acts that are patently real and yet not acknowledged as such. By definition these are very hard to see because they are parts of our personality that have not been brought to the light. In order to find them we often need others to reflect back what they see. These kinds of encounters can be described as wounds from a friend because they are difficult conversations that expose something we would prefer not to acknowledge, yet they are required if we hope to grow and mature. When confronted with our taboos we can initially be astounded and then engage in an act of rationalisation in which we try to deny the truth of what has been pointed out.

An example will help. Often tabloid talk shows operate with a similar logic. Someone is brought onto the show, often thinking they are there for a reason other than the true one, and confronted with some problematic behaviour. They may have a problem with overeating, aggression or drug abuse. In such situations the individual might initially be shocked and surprised by the accusations (having never articulated the material reality themselves). Then there is often a point where the person considers what is being said but dismisses the accusations (claiming they are false) or defends themselves (claiming the actions were justified and can be explained within the coordinates of their current self-understanding). However, sometimes after the initial shock and defence the individual might break down and admit that they have a problem, at which point they are often offered professional help by the presenter. Of course by using this example I am not defending such shows, in fact I would be concerned about their effect for what they attempt to do is take a number of key moments in the process of human change and make them all happen in a 20min slot for entertainment. This however makes them useful in seeing how disavowal (not seeing what one sees), defence (trying to justify oneself) and acknowledgement (bringing ones own behaviour before oneself) operate.

We can see the same logic at work with the way that many people read the Bible today. For large numbers of churchgoers it is presented as a clean, coherent and cohesive text, an image that we tend to adopt for ourselves. Then, depending upon what we think the message of the text is, we simply refuse to see anything that might contradict our reading. We thus treat those parts of the text that might contradict our interpretation as taboo. In other words we see them without acknowledging them, we look at them in much the same way as a cow gazes at a passing car. When we are confronted with the broken nature of the text and the way in which we have repressed some parts of it at the expense of others we can often be shocked. Talking with young Evangelical Christians about the text I have often found this reaction. They simply never thought it was possible even though they have read the text a number of times themselves. When the facts are presented there can often be an anxiety and even hostility as they either explicitly avoid looking at the evidence provided or attempt to find ways of integrating the new information with their already existing worldview. Finally however there can be a point of recognition that opens up a different way of approaching and engaging with the text.

There have been various attempts by the liberal tradition within Christianity to remove parts of the Bible that they don’t agree with (e.g. the Jefferson Bible), something that conservative Christians have vehemently attacked. However the truth is that the conservative Christians simply engage in a different, more clandestine, form of deletion. One that doesn’t require physically cutting up the text: they do the cutting internally.

Philosophically speaking the claim that the Bible in its entirety is literal and inerrant (i.e. self-evident, internally coherent, and a reflection of the mind of God) operates as a ‘master signifier’. This means that it is a claim without any specific content that is worn as a badge to let you know what team you play for. It doesn’t matter too much how you actually fill in this empty container as long as you make the claim. It functions then as a shibboleth that identifies you as being in a certain tribe.

For as soon as one attempts to actually enact what it might mean to hold the bible as literal and inerrant (i.e. to fill this claim with content) one must treat large parts of the text as taboo. What becomes clear is that the person who makes the abstract claim that the bible is literal and inerrant, when enacting the claim, always refutes themselves.


30 Responses to How To Cut Up The Bible Without Anyone Noticing

  1. Stephen says:

    I couldn’t agree more. We edit reality to suit our wants and needs. When it doesn’t fit, out come the metaphysical scissors.

  2. Tamika says:

    I was just talking to someone about this yesterday. A man I know said “women, do not block your blessings,” posted the verse regarding women submitting to their husbands, then said, “Do you believe God’s word or not?” Several of his female friends said they agreed wholeheartedly with their reading of this verse. I had to interrupt the revelry to point out (what I thought) was the obvious, which was that this verse had been used to oppress women (in daily life and ministry) for decades. I also pointed out that both should submit to one another, without issues of control and power being factored in. What I thought was discourses turned into a heated debate.

    I am a woman of faith. I believe that there is much to learn and know in the bible. I also believe that an erroneous exegesis of the bible that supports one’s own issues/needs/xenophobia is extraordinarily damaging, disenfranchising and unoriginal. In short, it is not the path of Jesus, but rather that of humans.

  3. peter boumgarden says:

    been making my way through christian smith (the sociologists) newest book on reading the bible. he was in fact an evangelical who has converted to catholosim… might be worth a look to see how he approaches this as apt student of the evangelical movement:


  4. Lisa O'Rear-Lassen says:

    The clarity of this post is so pleasing-thank you for giving me a few coherent moments today! Well said! Cool art work!

  5. Calvin says:

    This process sounds similar to the stages of grief when someone dies: denial, anger, sadness… Acceptance. Can larger communities experience this as well as individuals?

  6. Adam says:

    We encourage to other people as well, especially children. When the get a bad grade, break a lamp, crash a car, do drugs. These are dismissed as anomalies. We justify: they failed the test because they were busy. We move quickly on: she’ll do better next time. And we divide their character into good and bad parts (and elevate the good): he’s a really got a good heart.

    Thanks for writing this. Looking forward to reading the upcoming book.

  7. Michael J Teston says:

    Peter as always your clarity and patience in getting it down is the reason I read you. Thanks

  8. chris says:


    Which taboos have been the most difficult for you to acknowledge?

  9. Kyle says:

    I find that the it is less about the text being taboo, it is the liberal engagement with the text that becomes taboo.

    A ‘us and them’ mentality spawned a staunch conservative engagement with scripture. Or the opposite.

  10. Jeff Murphy says:

    What if both are true? The bible is the innerrant word of God, but also contains our errors – his creation.

    What if his ways are above our ways, therefore we never see the whole picture, the whole of his word, or even the whole of oursleves, but threads of a tapestry?

    • Jeff Murphy says:

      My thoughts come from listening to Rob Bell, Francis Chan, and Rick Warren.

      Rick Warren made a comment I remember about God weaving a tapestry. Bell gives me the thought about the Bible in his book Velvet Elvis. Chan talks about God’s ways being above our ways from Isaiah in his youtube video about his new book Erasing Hell.

      • Warwick says:

        Hi Jeff

        I’ve repeatedly heard it used to justify why God could send someone to hell, when it seems so unjust to us.

        If I recall correctly from Francis’ video (can’t bring myself to watch it a second time), that’s the context in which he uses it too.

        The problem is that the context doesn’t support that reading. Isaiah 55 spekas of God’s mercy, and specifically verse 7, the verse immediately before that verse speaks of the wicked turning to God and that he will show them mercy because his ways are higher than ours.

        To turn it on it’s head to as justification of why God can send someone who’s never even had the chance to hear of Jesus directly to hell, do not pass go, seems to me to completely subvert the passage.

        And when pointed out, it almost seems to be a “proof” of Pete’s central thesis.

        • Jeff Murphy says:

          Thats a good point on the context of Isaiah 55. It also talks about “seeking, forsaking, and turning”, actions on the part of the saved.

          Don’t you think maybe God does know a whole lot more that his creation, especially about the other side of this life?

          A line from the Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis sticks in my mind:
          “Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”

          • Stephen says:

            Hey, this is a very interesting topic, article and discussion. My only comment would be to also remember Romans 1, that all know God, but repress the Truth for a Lie. Many may know Jesus, without knowing that’s His Name. Thats just a note about people who haven’t heard the Gospel from human lips but have seen God’s existence through creation. This is a video with David Platt that is about this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laA18HejfYg

  11. Paul Halcro says:

    Very interesting post. For me a once evangelical I always struggled with the bits of the bible that were hard, ie old testament stories where God ordered killing etc. I have left all this behind and now I know the bible was written by man and not inspired by God, I can still take the ethical bits and make sense of them. I fear too many fundamentalists treat the bible as God and expect miracles from the word. There are some very good books on the bible by Karen Armstrong and Bart D Ehman that give an interesting view of the books.

  12. Jeremy says:

    Great post Peter! The problem is that seeing an overarching message in the Bible has been used by all sides in some form “it’s about salvation / justice / liberation / miraculous power” etc. However much recognising the coarse texture can prove disorienting, it should make us wary of this kind of tribal “them/us” rut we (I) get into.

  13. existdissolve says:

    Excellent post. I’ve argued for years that inerrancy and infallibility are two of the most damaging concepts that could possibly applied to Scripture. It is really the same assumptions and methodology as the deconstructionists, only dressed up in the facade of piety. If anyone decries the “erosion” of the authority or Scripture, it us likely that they only have their own untenable philosophical biases to blame.

  14. Kenton says:

    Parts of this post were great, Pete, and affirm things I’ve been thinking for a while. Other parts convicted me to be frank. That’s OK, though. I’m just going to pretend those parts of this post don’t exist.

  15. Kenton says:

    Whoops. There should be a comma after “convicted me”.

    You try to have a little fun and then it sounds like I was feeling pressure to be straightforward with everybody.


  16. Jim McNeely says:

    Pete, I remember reading in The Fidelity of Betrayal that it is not only unavoidable, but good, that we read the text of scripture orthogonally. We use the text as a prompt to see subjective truth through our own cognitive framework. I don’t want to start referencing Plato or Kant here, but it is an old meme. The thing is, we are certainly going to do this culturally. If I do it from a culturally orthodox persuasion, and I am thereby doing the same thing you espouse, why will you criticize one cultural perspective and not another? I think on this level you may be inconsistent. I am, by intention, by choice, orthodox. I agree with Zizek in the “Puppet and Dwarf” book, that orthodoxy is the most subversive position. I see the inconsistencies, the strange violence of the OT. I say, ‘hmmm – I don’t like that, but I still believe in Bb vanilla dumb-as-a-doornail inerrancy. I am afraid to try to read love or justice into this, so I just shelve it.’ I read, as you point out here, orthogonally. I know it. I put this on the shelf, freely admitting, that I don’t like that passage. I can still believe. I can still believe in inerrancy. There are all kinds of rationalizations. Perhaps it is a telling of history that God did not condone. Maybe the Canaanites really were that evil. It all rings hollow. The problem is, there are rationalizations for every perspective’s weaknesses; we are shut up to weak positions. No matter what, faith is required.

    What becomes wrong, is to characterize my orthodoxy as primarily revolving around belief in the goodness of theocratic genocide. It doesn’t. I think some of these passages bring the justice of God to question. These are deep waters. My faith revolves around grace, the unmerited and unearned favor of God as a father, or as a lover, a savior. I came to faith in Christ, in a God of love, unaware of these issues. I am forgiven and accepted even with my rationalizations. I am not obsessed with answering every crazy passage in the OT, I am obsessed with grace and truth and with a God who truly loves me.

  17. Jim McNeely says:

    On a little more reflection, orthodoxy requires of us the same kind of irrationality that God required of Abraham when He asked him to sacrifice Isaac, as Kieerkegaard points out. It was raw faith. There was nothing moral, nothing good, nothing desirable, nothing even slightly virtuous in obeying this edict to kill his son. Maybe God, through orthodoxy, asks us to move beyond mere moral non-supernatural good, to a more frightening trust. Ironically those who seek to discredit scripture because of these difficult passages cling more to their own rationality and cannot move beyond themselves to trust, to simple faith.

    Just a thought.

  18. Jared Hatcher says:

    Anyone interested in a deeper study of ‘inerrancy as master signifier’ can read David Fitch’s essay about it here:

    And for those who believe the bible to be inerrant as an homage to orthodoxy – that’s cool. As long as you acknowledge that it’s only a tag used by a group of people to differentiate themselves from those they disagree with, not that it’s actually a reality.

  19. Jim McNeely says:

    Well if we didn’t believe it was reality, it wouldn’t REALLY be orthodoxy, right?

    I liken it to a little story from my childhood. My dad worked at a large insurance company. I was young, maybe 6 years old, and I asked him what he did when he went to work. He thought about it and said, “I make money.” I pictured him melting copper and pouring it into penny molds. Later I visited his office, and I asked to see where they make the money! He wasn’t lying though – he really did go to make money at work. On my side of the aisle, I am trying to help people see that our understanding of inerrancy and literal interpretations can be so stringent that we completely miss the truth.

    In this way we see that the lines between the ‘literalist’ and the non-literalist can be extremely blurry. The non-literalist would say that some of the Bible is somewhat true, or there would be no discussion at all. We ought not easily write off the ideas and insights of those we perceive to be different, who as Peter has put it, are monsters. I have been tremendously enriched by Peter’s ideas, even though there are certainly things I disagree with. Well, I disagree with Martin Luther and John Calvin and my own pastor on things as well. In fact, I disagree with my wife on some things. I know that somehow I am a monster to everyone. But I love and respect these people.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to make waves or press my views. I don’t really care too much personally whether or not I am an evangelical, that is almost as worn a tag as fundamentalism. It has certainly become more meaningless. I do mean to press for a much deeper and greater orthodoxy. I also don’t find myself trying to seriously defend some of the weirder parts of the OT. When asked, I just say, “Yes, that is weird all right. I hate that part, I wish I knew what it all meant.” After all, I’m under grace, and I’m not God. If I have no idea, then I have no idea. Why invent explanations for mysteries?

    I do think there is more at stake than identifying a mere tag to differentiate people. The deeper question is, what perspective do we stand in to view scripture? What is a Christian? Who am I? Am I allowed to doubt this and still be OK? These are not label questions, they are questions of truth and perception, of the nature of subjectivity and objectivity. Is objectivity possible? These are the real questions. Whatever semantic label people pretend to stand under, in their secret mind they are all over the map on these things. This stance of the secret mind is the conversation we are seeking.

    Finally, it can be unkind to pull the rug out from under people without reason. If anything, kindness is a hallmark of true spirituality; we speak and build and tear down with a vision for kindness and love for people. Parents are very careful with weening a child off of their favorite cherished toy or blanket. I have had to learn this as my emphasis is on grace and forgiveness, and in the grandest irony, I have sometimes become unkind in pressing this point with those I view as graceless. Love really is so important as we pursue and teach truth. I don’t want to prove you wrong – I want to sit down and have a beer with you and make a great friend. You can be free to doubt your way and I can be free to doubt my way.

    I love you guys.

    • austin says:

      Thank you, Jim. I’ve noticed your comments on Pete’s blog for awhile now, and you have always been gracious, insightful, and loving. Above all, that is perhaps a microcosm of why we are all here to begin with: To further discuss, probe, and understand Love.

    • Matt Westbrook says:

      Jim, I think Jared might have been saying that actually reading scripture literally is not a reality, not the belief itself. Christian Smith’s recent book was referenced in an earlier comment. In it he documents this very phenomenon. I would recommend the book.

  20. Michael Dise says:

    This is why I privilege narrative theology.

  21. Juan says:


    I dig reading your posts, they always make me think but sometimes I fear you don’t actually say anything because you leave no specific examples. The post before this was great and more powerful because you left us with a personal example. What about this one? Its all just floating abstract thought that could have some real balls to it if you just left us with a few strong examples from the text.

  22. Margaret says:

    I think we all bring to a text our own viewpoint and do not or cannot accomodate other readings of it, whether from a deliberate, conservative “thou shalt not” point of view or because at any one time we can only deal with certain things, and we will be looking for our current issues in everything we do.

    The crunch comes when our current philosophical support system is kicked out from under us, whether by curved-ball events or by another reading of our favourite texts. Are we prepared to let it go and to replace it with some other way of seeing? Some keep their sense of security by making the familiar to be orthodox, and thus strangle any new growth, while others ignore the new or put it on the back burner until they can or have to deal with it.

    At issue is secondly the assertion “we are able to grow by allowing for change, different input etc” The first question is “Do we have the confidence to be vulnerable, and thus be able to trust the process of letting go in order to gain new growth?” Most conservatism doesn’t or can’t do this.

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