Good Questions: Is the Bible inspired? or even true?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

If we revere the Bible or harbor suspicions about it, we have Good Questions with No Easy Answers. Is the Bible inspired? Do we read it literally or symbolically? Are all those stories in there true? Aren’t there conflicts? Why these 66 books and not others? Can the very words and translations be trusted?

The Bible never brags about its own perfection. God is perfect, but his book needn’t be. Just as it’s full of flawed people, there are flaws in the book about the flawed people trying to understand God. Since the highlight of the book is God becoming human, we expect the book about him to be human. Critics spot errors? I’m glad: they can spot them in me, and in the mirror.

There’s no hint that this is an unbiased documentary. The writers are so biased! They are huge fans of God, and write so you will be one too.

Although the Bible was written centuries before we kept good records or had video or fact-checkers, most of the facts are surprisingly spot on. Naturally, some dates, names and places get jumbled. I do the same if you ask me to replay my 17th birthday party or what happened in 1993. No slick editor fixed the booboos, but let them stick, as if that’s part of the charm.

Are all these stories true? True to life, yes. But factually? I don’t believe that Jonah got swallowed by a fish and then was vomited up – alive! – three days later. No fish big enough have ever inhabited the Mediterranean Sea. Lacking gills, with his skin corroded by digestive acid, Jonah couldn’t have survived! It smells like a made-up story, one with a beautiful point, like Pinnocchio, Beauty and the Beast, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

If skeptics scoff and say Bible stories are ridiculous, I’m glad. They are ridiculous – which is the point, like the Ewoks defeating the Rebel Alliance, Frodo destroying the ring or Arya killing the Night King. If I get to heaven one day and God says there really was a fish that swallowed Jonah, I’ll say Okay. Salvation doesn’t depend on whether you think Bible stories were factual or made up. Jesus made up true stories.

So what’s factual and what’s fable-like? Even children can spot the signals. When my girls were little, I read to them one night about the death of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They fought back tears. The very next night, I told them that their great grandmother Stevens had died. More tears. As little girls, they understood the difference. Aslan was a storybook character; Mrs. Stevens a real person whose funeral we’d attend.

Besides, we know that fundamentalism, the hard-headed insistence that you’d better take it literally, turns mean and dangerous, not just in Christianity but all religions. Humility, listening carefully, using your intelligence, considering options yield richer results. And we always test whether we’re like the man in the old Charles Schulz cartoon telling his friend, “Don’t bother me now. I’m looking for a verse of Scripture to back up my preconceived notions.”

Is this book inspired? In-spired means “breathed into.” I need first to exhale, to blow out my preconceptions and wishes, and then breathe in a new, surprising, life-giving thing as I listen. A book that’s a hodgepodge, with historical booboos and flawed people: it might be better not to think of the Bible as somehow divine, as if radioactive, heavenly dust is speckled on its pages. And it’s better not to picture each writer with a divine muse or a Holy Spirit dove perched on his shoulder dictating.

Instead, God’s creative breath of life, which made a world and blew life into Adam and Eve and all of us, somehow breathes into the whole process of what happened: how those who experienced God remembered and reflected on it, passed it along verbally, then somebody wrote it down, it got copied, found its way into the collected books comprising the Bible, translated, bound – and then today you read, wonder, listen, notice something crazy but hopeful, a light bulb pops on, and you’re an inch or a mile closer to God. God inspires all of that. Nothing rigid, puzzling to be sure, weirdly promising.

I promise I’ll get back to which books were left out, and if translations are accurate…