Before we look at this week’s subject, I want to begin by commending the Netflix docu-film called “Pray Away”, which is about the ex-gay movement in America, but which is also very active in the UK. It is a truly sobering 100 mins if you view it as a Christian. At the conclusion of the film, the statistic is quoted that “a national survey (US) found that LGBTQ youth who experienced conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to commit suicide”. Are we as Christians truly going to continue to support Conversion Therapy in any form? I know the Evangelical Alliance and many of the Evangelical aligned churches will. I have to ask: Really? Are you really going to stand before the throne of God and attempt to justify the hurt you caused, and the lives lost, because of adherence to a discredited dogma? I find myself in a strange place because I have always instinctively identified myself as an evangelical Christian, although these days I find their stance on sexuality and a number of other issues differs markedly from my own stance. I guess they would label me as a liberal, but that is not right either. When I was young in the seventies (and the theology isn’t good!), Buzz Christian magazine wrote in an article about labels: “If we go up when we die, the labels fall off, but if we go down, they’ll burn off!”
Moving on to today’s theme, reading the Bible can be very confusing at times, so how can we make sense of it? For example, when we open the Bible at the beginning of Genesis, we read how the world began, and then in the very next chapter we read a second version of the Creation Story which has significant differences. Some would call them contradictions! They are only contradictions if you take a literalist stance of what is written. In Genesis 2: 4-7 we are told Adam was formed BEFORE vegetation was created. However, in Genesis 1: 12, we read that the land produced vegetation, and this was the Third day. Adam (and Eve) weren’t created until the Sixth day (Gen 1: 26-29). So, what do we make of that? Before we have read the first two pages, we have a major discrepancy, so what chance have we got for the rest of the Book?!
One of the basic things we need to understand is the genre of writing being used. A question: In this passage in Genesis, are we looking at a scientific paper, a historic record, or something else? We can quickly conclude from the style of writing, that it is written in much more in keeping with a poetic fashion and is not a historical or scientific document. In fact, if you look at the layout of the text from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 verse 3, you will notice it is different from Chapter 2 verse 4 onwards. Bible translators have always recognised its form when laid out in English, should be as poetry – hence the inset paragraphs. It can’t be scientific, or historical record, because things are provably wrong. Let me quote from page 23 of my essay:
The Genesis creation story talks about light and darkness being created on the first day, but the Sun and Moon weren’t created till the fourth day. We only understand what light and darkness are, because of the Sun and Moon. … And if we are talking about the concept of light and darkness being created, there weren’t any people around to notice the concept anyway! And if God has been around for eternity past, he would already know what light and darkness were, wouldn’t he?
To follow that narrative a little further, in Genesis 1: 4-5 (NIV) we read: 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
The Orthodox Jewish Bible is very similar: 4 And Elohim saw the light, that it was tov (good); and Elohim divided the ohr (light) from the choshech (darkness). 5 And Elohim called the light Yom (Day), and the darkness He called Lailah (Night). And the erev (evening) and the boker (morning) were Yom Echad (Day One, the First Day.
Again, I would use the argument that we only know what a day and night is because of our relationship to the Sun and Moon – Earth’s 24-hour spin around its axis, while facing our star. And yet, although light and darkness / day and night are created on Day One, the Sun and Moon aren’t created till the Fourth Day! What light comes and goes regularly to mark day and night when there is no Sun, Moon and stars? I read several online attempts to explain it – most were unconvincing wriggles around the subject, but one argument I read suggested Jesus was the “light” as he is the light of the world. (https://www.genesisandgenetics.org/2017/08/21/sun-and-vegetation/) That is a wriggle and a half! It is also totally wrong, because theologically Jesus is Eternal, like his Father, not called into being at the Creation of the world (“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”). If Jesus was the “Light” in this instance, when night fell, did he hide under a bushel? Did He turn Himself off?! Okay, that’s a quip, but there’s a serious point behind it. As a reminder, when Genesis was originally written, everyone without exception, believed the earth was flat, and the writing reflects that. They had no concept of the Earth being a sphere and that it was our speed of rotation that determined the length of our days and nights, and our rotation around the Sun that determined the length of our year.
It really doesn’t make much sense, as a historical record or a scientific paper, does it? I therefore conclude that what we are looking at is a poetic piece of writing showing us that God is the source of the whole of Creation and that He is in ultimate control. Nothing is made without Him calling it into existence, and that when it is created, it is perfect. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As the Cretan philosopher Epimenides said, which was quoted by Paul in Acts 17: 28.
In writing that first section you can see I used several sources: a recent docu-film, my essay, the NIV Bible, the Orthodox Jewish Bible, two other versions which I read but felt didn’t add anything, a Bible concordance (Biblegateway.com) to look up the Epimenides quote, and my own lifetime of casual learning and interest in and about historical traditions, along with science/Cosmology.
So, what tools can we use to help us understand what we are reading more clearly? Firstly, as I’ve illustrated, I would suggest reading a passage in a different version of the Bible to what you have been used to – in fact I would probably suggest reading it in several different Bibles. When I was a teenager, this was much more difficult than it is for you today: we had fewer versions of the Bible available to us. I grew up with the Revised Standard Version, and the only alternative was the King James Version (aka the Authorised Version), and that wasn’t much fun! Eventually we got the Good News For Modern Man in 1966, and this was updated 10 years later and became the Good News Bible. In the meantime, Kenneth Taylor’s the Living Bible came out in 1971, and through the rest of the Seventies, various other translations. I also have a bit of a soft spot for the Amplified Bible which came out in 1965, because it was a very useful tool to get a sense of reading “around” the various meanings a phrase could have. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and was no use for reading publicly, but was very useful when trying to get to grips with a strange verse. I rarely use it nowadays, because of the wide choice of Bibles we now have. When I was growing up, buying a different version of the Bible was far more expensive than it is today, and you had to be sure you were really going to use it. Ten/Fifteen pounds forty years ago was so much more expensive than it is today. Nowadays, you really have no excuse for not doing a bit of comparative reading because there are scores of English language versions available to freely use on the internet.
Biblegateway.com have over 60 English language versions (and dozens more in many other languages like Maori, Indian, Russian, and so many others – look for yourself!), a few of which will just be New Testaments. Then there is Bible Study Tools which has just shy of 40 versions. (See https://www.biblegateway.com/ and https://www.biblestudytools.com/). You can also carry any and all versions of the Bible around on your phone with the app, You Version (www.YouVersion.com), as well as using its Bible Study notes.
A further valuable tool would be a paper-based Study Bible (ideally NIV/NRSV) this will be a huge benefit, because you will have a lot of explanatory notes at the foot of each page. When you use a different Bible, I would also suggest that you take a look at the Introduction/Preface/”Word to the Reader”. They often explain the background to the translation, and why certain words have been used or replaced. Also look out for cross references because many Bibles will use a superscript number or letter (1a) against which other Bible references will be listed in the margin for interest, or for you to compare with, as they will be a parallel verse to what you are reading. Once again this can be helpful, but I have only really used these references if I have been preparing a Bible Study, or if I have been investigating something of interest, and even then, not that often, so don’t feel you must use them, but just be aware they are available as a resource.
I would highly recommend both Biblegateway.com and Bible Study Tools, because they not only have many different versions but other tools like concordances and commentaries, but what on earth are those?
To answer that, firstly what is a concordance? Here I need to quote from https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-concordance.html
A Bible concordance can be a helpful tool for studying the Bible. A concordance contains an alphabetical index of words used in the Bible and the main Bible references where the word occurs. A Bible concordance is useful in locating passages in the Bible. If you can remember just one word in a verse, you can often find what you’re looking for.
Most Bible publishers place a short concordance among the back pages of the Bible. Longer, more thorough concordances, such as Young’s Analytical Concordance, are available separately. If a concordance contains all the words in the Bible (including “a”, “an”, and “the”!), it is called an “exhaustive” concordance. The classic exhaustive Bible concordance is Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.
Several Bible concordances are found online and are available to use free of charge. You can also buy paper copies of most concordances. Underneath each word entry, you will see a listing of references where the word occurs. For example, in the concordance of the NIV Study Bible, below the word “warrior” are the references Exodus 15:3; 1 Chronicles 28:3; and Proverbs 16:32. Next to each reference is a short phrase from the verse containing the word. Next to the Exodus 15:3 entry, for example, is the phrase “The Lord is a w.” (the w being an abbreviation for the word warrior).
Sticking with the same web site (this time, https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-commentary.html), they describe a commentary thus:
A Bible commentary is a series of notes explaining the meaning of passages of Scripture. A commentary may explain the language used in a section of text. Or it may discuss the historical background. Almost all commentaries attempt to explain the passage in terms of some system of theology. In other words, the commentary is an explanation of how the Bible fits together and what it means. Since a Bible commentary is written by human authors, it will reflect the beliefs and perspective of those writers.
Commentaries are widely used in personal Bible study. The advantage of a Bible commentary is that one can quickly gain perspective on the text’s meaning, as understood by the commentary’s author. One caution concerning Bible commentaries is that they should not be used instead of personal study; rather, they are designed for use in addition to personal study. Since the commentary itself is not Scripture, it’s important for a reader to weigh what he reads against other sources, as well as his own Spirit-led analysis. As the products of fallible people, commentaries are not necessarily correct in every word.
Did you notice that? They say you should use it in parallel with other sources, as well as listening to that quiet voice within you. So, a concordance is useful if you know roughly what a verse says but can’t remember it exactly (as I did at the beginning of the blog, with Paul’s quote of the Cretan poet), whilst a commentary explains what the verse means to that particular author. Emphasising those last few words aren’t intended to downplay or doubt what they have written, because they will know the Bible so much better than you or I do. However, they will have a different nuanced worldview to you or me, which will be reflected in their writings. But if you keep that in mind as you are reading, you will be able to make a lot more sense than you or I currently do. Nowadays, although I have a good New International Version concordance, I can frequently find the verse I want, by simply typing the verse as I think it reads, straight into a search engine like DuckDuckGo or Google, as they are often good enough to not only recognise the verse, but the version as well. The Concordance function on Bible Gateway is okay, as I proved earlier, but you have to know which Bible version the half-formed memory you have is using, otherwise you rely on luck, or it can return no results, which is frustrating.
I do not believe I/we have the liberty to dismiss understandings of scripture verses, based solely on what I/we currently think. However, if we have explored all the options and investigated the conclusions of scholars, and their sources, we may be faced with choosing between two or three alternative understandings, which all have seeming validity. Conceivably, you might also have a differing view to all of them, which again would be valid, providing the view can be verifiably defended, either by using other parts of the Bible or by using an appropriate hermeneutic – ideally both.
For example, I would defend my work on sexuality (being released today as a complete single file/package) on Scriptural grounds, Bible ethics grounds, and by looking at the character and person of Jesus. (I could also add in there that I defend it using science, social justice, and morality, but their link to Scripture is more indirect.) I can’t defend it purely by saying it feels right to me, or for the reason that I don’t believe the Bible can be trusted in it’s pronouncements. This is because I cannot substanciate my views, I have no recognised authority; I am not a qualified theologian; neither am I a Bible translator, or proficient in New Testament Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew. Any pronouncement I make, needs to have verifiable evidence and valid sources to support it.
I could say I don’t believe the Bible is correct when it says x, y, or z, but if it is based solely on whether I like the verse or not, folks would be right not to listen to anything else I say, because it lacks any verifiable evidence. Anything I say must have good and solid evidence to back it up. This is why I have quoted so many trusted sources in my essay.
When talking about commentaries, as the article indicated, a Commentary is only as good as the writer, so sometimes I have seen something in a verse that I wanted help with from a commentary, but because writer has focussed on a different issue, or element, from that same verse – something that has caught his attention, what he has written doesn’t help me – on that occasion. Therefore, it’s worth checking some things from other sources, sometimes even the Internet. But that brings its own problems!
How do I know whether the webpage is reliable and trustworthy? Is the author going to help me, or simply lead me into the outer darkness, where there is weeping, and gnashing of teeth?
In 2020 I did a free training course designed to help folk understand and fact check information they found on the Internet. It was designed to focus on news items, social media posts, and the like, with the intent of helping people like me, sort out the fact from the fiction, the newsworthy from the scurrilous. It was run by the Poynter Institute, and was directed at “seniors”, and helpfully called “MediaWise for Seniors”. It is referred to at: https://www.poynter.org/mediawise-for-seniors/. Right now, they have a new, free, self-directed, start anytimeonline course called “How to Spot Misinformation Online”, which started in July (2021, in case you came to this party in months or years to come. By the way did Covid-19 go away? Did the Earth fry to a crisp?) and can be found here: https://www.poynter.org/shop/fact-checking/how-to-spot-misinformation-online-july-2021/. I don’t know how long it will be available, but at the time I write this, it is running.
Why go on about that? What’s it got to do with Bible study? Well, the principles being taught are essentially the same, and, just as valid when looking at Biblical articles, as they are when fact-checking a news feed, or a Covid-19 scare story, or an anti-vax allegation. The short MediaWise course taught some general browsing principles, encouraging people to ask the following questions at the get-go. The principles were devised by the Stanford History Education Group:
- Who is behind this information? (Do some digging. Are they an expert, or do they gain from influencing you?)
- What is the evidence? (What is the proof? Where are the links to studies, testimonials, photos, and videos?) Is it relevant, reliable/solid, sourced, verifiable?
- What are other sources saying? (Get off the page you’re on and learn what multiple sources are reporting. Do a search on the key words of what you are reading, to see where else they have appeared, and what has been said. Variety in platforms and perspectives will give you great context.)
In addition to that first bullet point, you could also ask, not just Who? but:
- Why? Are they a well-informed credible body, or do they have a hidden agenda?
This next one was referring to Blog/Facebook/Twitter and other postings, but again is valid when reading some articles on religion or theology.
- Does it generate strong emotions? Does it make your blood boil? If it does, distrust it. If you fact-check it, and find it is correct, ask yourself whether it truly contributes to a positive, helpful and productive conversation.
If you come across such pages, I would encourage you to simply walk away, because no good will come of reading articles that are just designed to inflame. As an example, I came across this extract an hour ago: “… is straight out of the pits of hell. This work of heresy is just another IMPOSTER based upon the corruptions of xxx and xxx. Then (sic) proof is in the text. A diabolical attack against the Word of God …”
Clearly, I’ve removed most of the identifiers, though if you are clever…! That could have been written with a great deal more care, and with a greater scholarly/intelligent reflection. The Bible tells us: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Extract from Romans 12:17-19) After simply reading the preview, I decided to simply skip to the next search result, which was written in a far more educated and professional manner.
Even that isn’t a guarantee of reliability. If you aren’t sure, ask someone who has been exploring faith-based issues longer than you, or has an accredited reputation you trust. Or, using the same techniques as you would, when fact-checking a news story, social media posting, or the like, find out what you can about the website and the writer. Are they regarded as reliable and trustworthy? Are they linked to a faith group/church/organisation that has a long-established tradition? Is what they have written, verifiable?
Perhaps the most important consideration I need to draw your attention to, will be:
- Is what has been written in line with the rest of the Bible?
- Is it consistent with the words of Jesus, His actions and His Spirit?
- Is there any conflict with, for example, the Apostolic Creed, Nicene Creed or the Statement of Faith of the church you belong to?
You’ll probably be saying by now, that’s all very fine, but I started looking at John 3: 16 at 7pm, and it’s now midnight and I’m confused and lost in my searching’s, and I can’t think straight. Many of us have been there, done it, and had a rest for a few days!
At the beginning only bite off small mouthfuls, then, as your capacity and curiosity grows, dig deeper. By way of first principles, you have been gifted with a good mind and a good conscience, but be aware of your own prejudices. Your heart will frequently tell you what is right and what is wrong – listen to it. If there is an important issue you need help with, write it down so you remember, and when you get the chance to talk to someone you trust, ask for their help and insight.
Although in my essay, I have come down hard on Christian publishing houses, because of their stance towards the LGBTQ+ community, that issue only represents a fraction of a percent of the pages they print, about what is written in the Bible. I therefore have no problem in recommending people make use of their resources. In the essay I complained about how LifeWay Christian Resources threatened to withdraw from their shelves everything (including his Bible version, The Message) that Eugene Peterson had ever published, if he didn’t affirm what they regarded as the traditional Christian view of marriage. In addition, I also criticised the Christian music industry, radio stations, bookshops and churches who cancelled Vicky Beeching’s contracts, then withdrew all her previous records and CD’s from shelves, and finally removed her songs from church service playlists, after she came out. The same companies had loved her work when they released it. Not one note or word had changed, and yet they binned the lot. Was Rev Peterson’s previous theology wrong? Were Vicky Beeching’s worship songs heretical? The answer to both is of course not, and both should not have had the totality of their past ministry condemned because people disagreed with what they now said in the present. There is gross hypocrisy at work.
That “cancel culture” thinking is ignorant, and we must be better than that. The pattern tends to be that a Christian speaker/performer grows a stellar following, then does something wrong, or perceived as wrong, or loses their faith, and everything they ever did gets binned, even if it was superb teaching material at the time. As an example, a few years ago, probably around 2012, I wanted to make use of some material produced by Rob Bell in his Nooma series, for a Bible study, but was told I shouldn’t because he had “gone away from the Lord”. It took me a while to find out what had offended the Evangelical Christian church, and whilst I don’t agree with Rob’s Universalist stance, that doesn’t taint his previous teachings on other issues. The DVD I wanted to use hadn’t changed, the clarity of the message was brilliant, and helpful, and yet I couldn’t use it. We’ve somehow lost the ability to discriminate the good from the bad, and it’s sad. We like tossing the baby out with the bathwater.
I believe I must apply the same logic to these publishing houses, or I will be as guilty as they are. They may be 100% wrong in their stance on sexuality, but that doesn’t mean they are also wrong on the primary issues of faith and doctrine where they have an expertise. I believe we need to stand taller than they can do.
Look, I have written a lot, but and most of you aren’t going to follow through with more than a small part, but you guys can get yourself to a better knowledge of the Bible than many currently warming the seats of our churches. Won’t it be good to have more LGBTQ+ Bible experts? People who can argue with other church leaders from the Bible and win their respect.
Finally, I would recommend you see if you can buy a copy of the 26-page booklet published by Grove Biblical, by Ian Paul, called “How To Interpret The Bible – Four Essential Questions”. It is currently £3.40 on Amazon and a very useful background tool to help you get to grips with the Bible. There are four chapters: “What Kind of Writing? Reading for Genre”; “What Did it Mean? Reading in Context?”; “What Does it Say? Attending to Content” and finally “What Part of the Story? Reading the Canon”.
There will always be other materials to recommend, and some will be more useful to certain folks and not others, but keep your mind questioning, but not cynical or sceptical. Ask God to help you understand, and listen to those who are trustworthy, and always be open to God’s Spirit as He leads you ever onward.
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In previous Blogs I’ve talked about asking some of my LGBTQ+ friends to tell their stories in future Blogs here. I don’t know how quickly these stories will be submitted, but I’m hoping to get one or two shortly. I’m also playing with the idea of doing one or two in the fashion of a conversation, possibly as a written, loose transcript. Who knows how they will turn out? I’m hoping to move to a monthly blog model, so the next one will be due on the 25th September and thence on the last Saturday of each month.
I don’t think I want to leave the website to gather dust, so if you want me to continue to write blogs, tell me what you would like me to look at. I might also write occasional blogs about what LGBTQ+ stories are currently in the media, trying to look at them with a Christian perspective.
As I frequently say, I always enjoy receiving helpful comments, so please feel free to get in touch. You will have a different experience to me, whether you identify as straight or queer. We all have different backgrounds and different ways of understanding, and different influences. Do your insights agree with my own writings? Where do we differ? What do you think? Have I missed something important? Tell me about your own experience, or your story. You can use the Contact page or email me on: firstname.lastname@example.org,