Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Christian Smith's 'The Bible Made Impossible' - Review by Rachel Held Evans

... I want to spend a few weeks with Christian Smith’s excellent book The Bible Made Impossible.
As important as it is to seek out better ways of reading the Bible, I think we have to start by deconstructing a bit, and Smith does a good job of addressing what has become a troublesome hallmark of American evangelical culture—biblicism. 
By bibliclism,” writes Smith, “I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Different communities within American evangelicalism emphasize various combinations of these points differently. But all together they form a constellation of assumptions and beliefs that define a particular theory and practice. My argument as follows does not question the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible. Nor am I here discounting the crucially important role that the Bible must play in the life of the church and the lives of individual Christians...What I say here is simply that the Biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.”  (viii)
Biblicism falls apart, according to Smith, because of what he calls “the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism.”  
Even among presumably well-intentioned readers—including many evangelical biblicists,” he explains, “the Bible, after their very best efforts to understand it, says and teaches very different things about most significant topics...It becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant, for instance, when, lo and behold, it gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters...My argument focuses on the fact that the Bible contains a variety of texts that are problematic in different ways and that Biblicists (among other) readers rarely know how to handle. Some are texts that frankly amost no reader is going to live by, however committed in theory they may be to Biblicism. Others are texts that need explaining away by appeals to cultural relativity (although no principled guidelines exist about when that explanation should and should not be applied). Some are passages that are simply strange. And some are texts that seem to be incompatible with other texts.” (xi)