FILE: MINDY SCHAUER , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
A book revered, but not read
Americans who consider the Bible sacred:
2014: 79 percent
2011: 86 percent
Read the Bible at least three times a year:
Age 18-29: 40 percent
Age 30-48: 53 percent
Age 49-67: 57 percent
Age 68 and older: 66 percent
Agree with the statement: “The Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life”:
All adults: 50 percent
Age 18-29: 35 percent
Source: American Bible Society, State of the Bible Survey, 2014
What is the Bible?
It’s a straightforward question. But for Christians these days, it turns out there’s no straightforward answer.
Not even for evangelical Christians, who for centuries have remained near unanimous in their belief that the Bible is the authoritative word of God – until now.
At a time when fewer Americans than ever read the Bible or even regard it as sacred, even evangelical Christians are beginning to ask whether their historic embrace of Scripture has become too rigid, too simplistic and too alienating in an increasingly pluralistic society.
“We’re in a moment of history where things are shifting,” said Rob Bell, a best-selling evangelical author and former megachurch pastor who lives in Laguna Beach.
Bell is one of several prominent evangelicals who in recent months have published books or extended online essays questioning traditional claims that the Bible, as Bell put it in all capital letters in a blog post, “IS THE INERRANT TRUTH ABOUT WHICH THERE CAN BE NO COMPROMISE.”
In churches, seminaries and online, evangelicals are asking whether the Bible was directly inspired by God; whether Scripture truly condemns homosexuality; and whether strict observance of biblical rules is even possible given the complexities of language, history and culture inherent in biblical interpretation.
“The Bible is complex and, while influenced by God, it is not dictated by God,” prominent megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton told the Religion News Service in May.
Hamilton was speaking about a book he published in March that encourages Christians to abandon overly literalistic approaches to Scripture.
Also urging Christians to re-evaluate their Bibles is a 24-year-old gay evangelical from Kansas named Matthew Vines, who leads a national network of evangelicals dedicated to promoting tolerance of homosexuality in churches.
“Bible passages” appearing to condemn homosexuality “have been misinterpreted,” Vines wrote in a book he published this year called “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Marriage.”
“You can affirm same-sex relationships and uphold biblical authority,” Vines said.
Karen Winslow, a Bible scholar at Azusa Pacific Seminary, said evangelicals are re-evaluating their approach to Scripture for several reasons.
First, she said, a younger generation of Americans is growing up with less biblical knowledge than ever before, requiring pastors to start from scratch when teaching in church.
A study this year by the American Bible Society found that nearly 40 percent of Americans under age 30 never read the Bible, while 16 percent of young adults consider the Bible “the actual word of God.”
At the same time, Winslow said, America is becoming more religiously diverse, with rapidly growing numbers of Muslims and other immigrant faith groups with their own sacred texts.
Sports, technology and popular entertainment also compete with biblical precepts for Americans’ allegiance.
Surrounded by so many conflicting voices, a growing number of evangelicals “have been frustrated by the fundamentalist approach, and they do feel liberated” to read Scripture in new ways, Winslow said.
For Bell, that frustration has taken the form of a 59-part online essay on the website Tumblr called “What Is the Bible?”
Bell, who is 43, began the series last year and published the latest entry, on sin, in April.
Bell did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But in an interview with the Register last year he expressed dismay at what he termed evangelicals’ tendency to enshrine the Bible as a “graven image” of black-and-white rules dictated by God.
“My wife calls it ‘Bibliolatry,’” he said.
In his Web series, Bell offers an alternative view of Scripture as a “library of books written by humans.”
Those writers, Bell says, were inspired by God. But their writings often contradict one another. And they often tell stories and use metaphors and images that can’t be reduced to simple interpretations.
“If you let go of the divine nature of the Bible on the front end and immerse yourself in the humanity of it, you find the divine in unexpected ways, ways that can actually transform your heart,” Bell writes in the first post in his series.
Jeff Tacklind, pastor of a medium-sized evangelical church in Laguna Beach where Bell sometimes attends services, said his congregation embodies the complex evolution of evangelical approaches to Scripture.
“There are different streams that coexist in our church, the whole gamut from liberal to conservative,” Tacklind said. “The diversity becomes a beautiful challenge to listen to each other.”
To meet the needs of congregants with divergent views, Tacklind said he rotates preaching assignments between church staff members with varying views.
Preachers, Tacklind said, include “a conservative evangelical borderline fundamentalist,” a former professor at the California Institute of Technology, and a veteran of the Vineyard movement, a network of churches emphasizing direct experience of God’s presence over rigorous biblical study.
Tacklind, 43, said he was raised in a conservative Christian family but he’s since moved closer to Bell’s understanding of Scripture – though not as far as Bell himself.
“I try to delicately walk this line as a bridge builder,” he said.
Not all evangelicals are enthusiastic about the new interpretive experiments.
“I understand there are people saying different things, but I’m of the belief that the Bible is exactly what it says, and it is clear,” said Jane Rockley of Santa Ana, who attends Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa.
Rockley, 63, said obsessing over biblical interpretation can cause Christians to miss the fundamental reasons for reading Scripture: To get to know Jesus and to learn God’s principles for living.
“One of the things I have found the Bible doing for me is giving me an incredible centeredness,” Rockley said. “I know who I am in Jesus Christ. I know what God has said and I have boundaries that order my life.”
Rockley said she often attends multiple Bible studies each week at Calvary Chapel, joining classes of “several hundred.”
She said she once attended a service at a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles during which the pastor told worshippers they couldn’t trust everything they read in the Bible.
“My question about that is, it’s confusing. How can you know anything is true?” she said.
Other evangelicals have criticized Bell for ignoring or downplaying key biblical passages that contradict his arguments.
Vines, too, has drawn criticism from prominent conservatives, including the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who published an entire e-book in April rebutting Vines’ claims about the Bible.
In his interview with the Register, Bell said he had an answer for critics.
“What I think is happening is they’re trying to make the Bible into the book they wish we were given, and we weren’t given,” he said.
“Instead of fighting that (human) element of the scriptures I embrace it. … It then really can become a source of life. Now it speaks to you in a whole different way.”
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
—-> Maybe I could recommend to Rob Bell to read several passages from Scripture that would give you a better view of Scripture: