Many people in Western, particularly American, Christianity are given an idea that the Bible is a single book of codified behavior that tells us all the best way to live our lives and all the theological answers to every single problem we could encounter in life is found in the wisdom of this single book.
One of the first things you learn in seminary is how to actually read and approach the Bible. As I have become more skilled in theological approaches, I have become more and more frustrated with the churches I grew up in who presented the Bible in toxic and authoritarian ways.
The Bible is not only a compilation of various writings, letters, stories, and poetry from vastly different ages, a lot of it is not law or rule at all. A significant portion of the Bible is storytelling and lessons taught in story form.
What most people call the “Old Testament” is more correctly called the Hebrew Bible and even more specifically called the Tanakh. These scriptures are based in familial identity, in identifying the lineage of the Jewish family tree, in telling the stories of hardship that helped build the identity and character of the Hebrew peoples, and in generating a sense of societal structure. This structure codified laws that helped identify the unique attributes of these people to differentiate them from other people who lived in the same region.
The New Testament is a series of letters, stories, missives, and general information that consists of the Gospels and the Epistles. The Gospels are the stories of Jesus’ life and death and the Epistles are letters of instruction and belief of the early church that were chosen to be included in the making of the Bible.
Like any edited book, the Bible is a series of various writings that have been edited, clarified, sometimes redacted, and joined together to look like it is a cohesive series of stories and historic events. This was not the original intent of any of the writers and, as such, there are many inconsistencies and edits to these documents that can be noticed by anyone trained in literary theory.
Approaching the Bible differently is scary to many people. They have spent their lives afraid of God because the Bible has been used as a weapon against them. They have had the Bible interpreted to them by authoritarian preachers, priests, and pastors who have told them that they are wrong or bad and who have threatened them with Hell if they do not believe a certain way.
It is at this point that I will let everyone in on a truth too many forget: Jesus was Jewish. His context was taught as a Jewish man who taught other Jews. The Hebrew Bible does not have a concept of Hell anything close to what Christianity later added to its belief system. It also does not have the concept of original sin, an idea that was also added later by Christians.
If we are to dismantle the toxic theology spread around, it takes being brave enough to realize that the Bible is humankind’s attempt to understand the Divine. It is stories, poetry, cultural ideals, and a lot of people failing to care for one another in meaningful ways.
That doesn’t make it less valuable, it makes it more valuable because it means that God is accessible to each of us still, to learn from the mistakes of the past and use these stories in the ways they were meant to be, as parables, as lessons, as ways of learning to be better people in this world. Nobody deserves to be abused, religiously or otherwise: Regardless of your beliefs, you are valuable and you are loved.