By Rev. Kelly Dahlman-Oeth

Fact or fiction. True or false. Right or wrong. All or nothing. Some of us want the world to be made up of binary choices. We like absolutes. When others suggest an alternative world view, our response can range from amused incredulity to moral outrage. 

This is especially true of the two taboo topics at many holiday family gatherings: politics and religion. Indeed, righteous religious fervor lead to polarizing political pontifications: “Greedy capitalists are unchristian,” and “Ungodly socialists want to destroy the country.” 

Religious absolutism often leads to similar hubris. Believing that we hold the “one true” understanding of faith engenders a self-righteousness that allows us to dismiss any and all who would challenge our claim of orthodoxy. If you don’t agree with my belief system, you are either ignorant or evil. Regardless, you are wrong and I am right. 

Such certainty can be as self-comforting as it is divisive. When it comes to faith, some of us have been taught that uncertainty is unfaithful; ambiguity is the enemy of the “true believer.” That is the crux of the matter when it comes to biblical interpretation. Indeed, just the idea that there could be more than one interpretation is anathema. 

“The Bible is either true or it isn’t.” “It’s either the literal word of God or it’s just a bunch of made up stories.” “You can’t pick and choose what you want to believe.” These are the verbal absolutes we often hear (or say) when someone doesn’t agree with something we’ve said related to our faith tradition. 

Yet, most of the biblical heroes were skeptics and doubters. Standing in front of that flaming flora, Moses had the nerve to challenge the divine “I am”: “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say?” Gideon wanted some proof that the voice on the other end was who it claimed to be: “If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me.” 

John the Baptist’s geriatric father couldn’t believe that he and his aged wife were really going to be parents: “Zacharias said to the angel, ‘How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.’” On several occasions, Jesus described his disciples as those “of little faith.” Wherever we came up with the notion that faith and doubt are incompatible, it probably wasn’t the bible. 

In other words, if we’re going to try to read the bible “literally,” we need to get comfortable with the idea that such a task may not be possible. As A. A. Jacobs wrote about his Uncle Gil in the introduction to his book, The Year of Living Biblically, “At some point along his spiritual path, Gil decided to take the Bible literally. Completely literally. The Bible says to bind money to your hand, so Gil withdrew three hundred dollars from the bank and tied the bills to his palm with a thread. The Bible says to wear fringes on the corners of your garment, so Gil bought yarn from a knitting shop, made a bunch of tassels, and attached them to his shirt collar and the ends of his sleeves. The Bible says to give money to widows and orphans, so he walked the streets asking people if they were widows or orphans, so he could hand them cash.” 

Many Christians who claim to take the Bible literally will immediately dismiss these practices as silly because they are in the Old Testament, “before Jesus abolished the law.” Instead of listing dozens of commands in the New Testament, I’d just ask how many biblical literalists have made it their daily mission and practice to, “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” 

I certainly don’t intend to throw the Bible “out with the bathwater.” For the record, I believe the Bible is true, in that it contains truths about God and how we as humans are to live in the world. I believe there are golden threads of Truth throughout the First and Second Testaments, one of which is most certainly that we are called to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves. 

After all, there have to be some things that we can count on, but I could be wrong. As I recently heard someone say, “I’m not sure, but I may be the most indecisive person I know.”

Kelly Dahlman-Oeth serves as pastor of Ronald United Methodist Church in Shoreline, Washington.

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