Four non-literal readings of Holy Scripture

These authors want Christians to consider new ways of understanding old texts

Biblical Amnesia, Scott W. Gustafson, Infinity Publishing, West Conshohocken, PA. 2004. 173 pages, soft cover. $19.95. 877-289-2665, www.buybooks

Christianity Without Fairy Tales, Jim Rigas, Pnevma Publications, 2420 Landwehr Rd., Northbrook, IL 60062-6921. 2004. 473 pages, soft cover. $22.50. 847-564-5633, rigasjim

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus J. Borg, HarperSanFrancisco. 2001. 321 pages, soft cover. $14,95.

Rescuing God from Christianity, Sven Erlandson, Heliographica, 2261 Market St., # 504, San Francisco, CA 94114. 2004. 210 pages, soft cover. $15.95.

During the 1920s and 1930s, R.C.H. Lenski taught seminary students at the Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio, (and also wrote in his multi-volume commentary on the New Testament) that there is no detail in all of Scripture which cannot be harmonized with every other detail.

By 1960, Lenski’s spiritual descendants in churches which became the ELCA were at a very different place. Bible faculty in Lutheran seminaries of the former ALC and LCA were introducing their students to historical biblical analysis, exposing them to insights (and, in some cases, theories later to be successfully challenged) set forth by European Scripture scholars, most of whom were Lutheran. They emphasized the diversity, not the unity, in the 66 Bible books.

(Seminary faculty at the LCMS’ St. Louis seminary flirted with some of these ideas in the 1960s, precipitating a split in the denomination, with the “progressives” eventually joining what became the ELCA.)

While ELCA — and most mainline Christian — clergy have known for at least 40 years that a literal, harmonized reading of the books of Scripture is problematic, the laity in most congregations have not become aware of the arguments until recently — in part, thanks to the assertions of a project called “The Jesus Seminar.”

Two other realities, however, have propelled mainline Christian lay people toward finding non-literal ways of understanding the Bible. One is the steady departure of young (and some not-so-young) people from mainline congregations. Among other things, they maintain they can’t reconcile Bible teaching with ongoing scientific discovery.

The other factor is the rise of right-wing, conservative biblical religionists in the U.S., evidenced by the dynamics that helped bring in the current government. This has alarmed some folk.

A steady stream of recent books have addressed the question, “Can we make sense out of the Bible without reading it literally?” Four recent titles answer the question with a resounding Yes!

Scott Gustafson, Jim Rigas, Marcus Borg (a member of the Jesus Seminar), and Sven Erlandson all believe there is no real future for Christianity if believers are expected and required to take everything in the Bible at face value. But their approaches are quite different, one from the other.

Rigas and Erlandson take an aggressive, almost combative approach to “biblical literalists.” In some ways, they almost foster a take-no-prisoners mentality. Rigas, the only writer of the four who lacks formal theological training, wants to reconcile Scripture with science. His hefty tome (in actual page count, a bargain at the price) draws on his training as an engineer to suggest how God may have spoken through writers who were scientifically pre-literate.

Erlandson has a controversy with conservative religionists who swagger about and set conditions on how people might be saved. An ELCA pastor’s son, his book is a fairly strident critique of what he sees to be fundamentalist naivete. The subtitle of his book says it best: “A closet Christian, non-Christian and Christmas Christian’s guide to radically rethinking God stuff.”

By contrast, Gustafson and Borg take a pastoral approach. Both clearly love the church but want to prepare it for what they see to be a radically challenging future. Gustafson borrows a concept from theologian Walter Bruggeman and uses it as the template for his entire book. He argues, in many ways persuasively, that there are two groups in culture — those who dominate others and those who refuse to do so. He sees Jesus, Paul and the prophets as models of the second option, and calls the church to imitate them.

Borg wants his readers to “take the Bible seriously but not literally.” He writes out of the context of a religion professor teaching in a secular university. He says his students identify Christianity with right-wing fundamentalism (which they almost universally reject). His writing is patient, almost gentle, calling Christians to read the Bible with new eyes.