Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Why bother to read the Bible?
Tony Windross

There's some pretty odd stuff in the Bible! In fact, some of it is so odd that you wonder how it got in there in the first place. Part of the reason why it seems so strange is that it was written at a time when people thought very differently from the way we think today. 

Their understanding of the world was different, and their cultural practices were far removed from anything we would recognise. In acknowledging these differences, a wise person once said that no one should ever read the Bible. You should either study it or leave it alone.

The Bible is a collection of writings, mostly by unknown authors, with the earliest ones being written over 1000 years before the later ones. People often have a very black or white attitude to the Bible and seem to think that the only choice is between accepting it all in a literal sense or rejecting it all. Given that some of the stories are clearly impossible (such as Jonah living in the whale for three days), they reject the whole thing. 

But they don't have to. There's so much good stuff in the Bible, that we need to reclaim the initiative from those whose approach to it is both unintelligent and unimaginative.

There's no getting away from the fact that the Bible is a very human book. It was not written by God, it was not edited by God, it was not translated by God. In the beginning it wasn't written down at all. Most parts of the Bible started life as sayings or stories that were handed down from generation to generation as part of an oral tradition and doubtless became embellished in the process. 

Eventually they got written down, which tended to fix them a bit more, but before the invention of printing they were handed on by being copied out, and inevitably mistakes were made. And when they were translated from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, they suffered still further alteration because translation can never be exact.

The Bible is often referred to as containing or being the "Word of God", but it's not clear what such an expression actually means. Do Christians claim that God dictated the words that unknown Bronze Age inhabitants of the Middle East then spoke and that eventually became parts of the Bible? Or is it that God somehow thought the words into the heads of people who then spoke or wrote them? Or what? 

The whole idea makes little sense to many people, but the Bible is so central to the development of Christianity that we need some way to mark it off as being special. Perhaps we can continue to call it the "Word of God", so long as we are clear that such a phrase is being used metaphorically rather than in a woodenly literal sense.

Sir Alec Issigonis - the designer of Britain's beloved little motor car, the Mini - once famously commented that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The Bible is a bit like that. It's a book (in fact, a whole series of books) edited over the centuries by a committee (in fact, a whole series of committees, from Hebrew scholars three hundred years before Jesus to leaders of the Christian Church in the fifth century of the present era) who decided which of the enormous numbers of religious writings in circulation were to be included.

Just as the camel is a curious beast, so the Bible is a curious production. Some books (such as Revelation) might have been better left out, while other books might usefully have been included. It's all a matter of judgement - human judgement. We're the ones who decide which authorities we follow. To say that a particular text is "inspired by God" is simply to say that we happen to regard it as uniquely authoritative.

Many people find the miracle stories a major problem, in rather the same sort of way that people find the creation story a problem. This is because they strike at the heart of our scientific understanding of the world. Miracles seem to involve a suspension of the laws of nature, while creation seems to deny the theory of evolution. Of course scientists get things wrong (if they didn't, science could never progress), but there's something a bit desperate about fundamentalist Christians trying to hang onto the literal view of the creation story in the face of all the evidence to the contrary.

Many thinking people find this anti-intellectualism the strongest possible reason to have nothing to do with Christianity, which is why those of us who are perfectly happy to go along with the scientific view of the world need to make it clear that it is possible to take both the Bible and the modern world seriously.

The Bible is a magnificent book with a huge list of characters, a strong central plot, and plenty of intrigue, betrayal, love and hate. Drama and poetry and bits of history are all mixed in, some uplifting stuff and some very peculiar stuff. But provided we use our intelligence and don't try to read it all in the same way, the Bible contains enough inspiration and challenge to last anyone an entire lifetime.

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