Saturday, June 7, 2014


I’m an early riser and a regular at my local Starbucks.  The baristas start pouring my coffee as soon as they see me walk through the door.  But I’m not the only regular.  Among the others are a couple of small groups of middle-aged men who I see almost weekly.  The men are generally studying books together.  I have never wondered what they are studying, because I already know: They are studying the Bible.  And they are very serious about it.  They pore over verses, sometimes making notes or consulting other reference material, conferring with one another.  I also know that these little study groups are not unusual.  There are groups, large and small, everywhere that regularly get together for Bible study.  And of course there are millions of other Christians who study the Bible on their own, as a daily devotional.

I believe that for many Christians the Bible is a—and in many cases the—primary source they look to for an understanding of their lives and their world.  The Bible is a massive book.  With nearly 800,000 words, it’s the size of 12 average-length novels.  So there’s a lot to work with.  And, in some ways at least, the Bible is diverse.  It was written by 40 or so different men over a time period of perhaps 1,200 years.  It includes a collection of traditional stories, genealogies, history, prophetic writings, poetry, biography, and philosophy. 

But how good is the Bible really for how it is viewed by the millions of Christians who study it regularly—as a fundamental source for making sense of the world, for coping with the human condition?  If one assumes, as many Christians do, that the Bible was inspired by God to serve as life’s guide, not just for the time it was written but for all time, how well did God do?  My conclusion is, frankly, not very well.  In fact, I think I could have done a much better job.

First, I would have made the Bible clear and direct rather than being filled with supposed hidden meanings and obscure references.  If my goal was to make sure everyone understood the salvation story so that there would be no confusion about what they needed to do to be saved, why not spell it out clearly and without apparent contradictions.  So much of the Bible is, at best, obscure, for example, in the Old Testament prophets and in the book of “Revelation” that seem largely to be describing one bad dream after another.  If my goal were to encourage humans to accept me as God, why not include some information that would demonstrate my divinity?  I’m not talking about some ambiguous statements that might be construed as prophetic or clairvoyant like some sort of carnival palm reader who cunningly states generalities that seem to fit their customers but really fit everyone.  No, I‘m talking about prophesies or insights that are unequivocal in their meaning and unmistakable in their prescience.  That just doesn’t happen in the Bible.  I know the C.S. Lewis argument that faith can’t be made too easy.  But why should careful thinkers be punished for their skepticism?  After all, it has been the demand for objective evidence that has driven the discoveries we have made in science, including the advances in medicine and health care that have alleviated suffering.  Why should things be different in any other field of knowledge?

Second, I would have made sure the Bible was informative.  This is a tricky requirement because what might make sense to us today, with our more advanced knowledge of science and technology, would have been beyond human understanding at an earlier point in history.  Still, wouldn’t it have helped to let humans get a head start on an understanding, for example, of the microbiological nature of disease and of the need for public hygiene?  Those simple ideas could have saved an enormous amount of pain and suffering.  Even more fundamentally than that, why not provide clear instructions for employing rational thought and the scientific method so that we could have accelerated our understanding of the world on our own rather than spinning our wheels on the advancement of knowledge for so many centuries?

Third, I would have made the Bible interesting.  Actually, parts of the Bible are pretty entertaining, at least a number of the Old Testament stories (although it isn’t always clear what they have to do with the Bible’s supposed primary purpose).  I especially like the books of Job, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon.  But there are other parts that are dreadfully boring, genealogies and rules and regulations for the tribes of Israel, for example.  And much of it is repetitious.  Why not cut out a lot of that boring, repetitious stuff.  Much of it no one really reads anymore (except for those who are committed to reading their Bible through cover to cover, though my guess is that they are mostly thinking about other things as they pass their eyes over a lot of the genealogies in Genesis or the archaic rules of conduct in Leviticus).  Instead, I would make sure the selections are lively and relevant.  And why not inject a little humor, something the Bible is totally devoid of.  I realize that humor is difficult because so much of it is culture-dependent.  But humor that relates to the human condition can be timeless.  Witness Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

Fourth, recognizing that history is critical to establishing a foundation for understanding the human condition, I would broaden the historical components of the Bible to include more than just the struggles of one of a number of Middle Eastern societies in the fifteen hundred years or so leading to the birth of Jesus.  There were other societies developing at the same time—competing Middle Eastern tribes, as well as cultures in other parts of the world, including Asia and the Americas.  Why limit the historical parts of scripture to the Hebrews?  Were they really “God’s chosen people”?  Perhaps more importantly, why should the historical account stop at the period shortly after Jesus’s death?  Civilization didn’t stop its development with Jesus’s death; in many ways it was just getting started.  And in terms of the marketplace of ideas, I would surely have included a discussion of the great classical philosophers both before and after Jesus’s time.  Think Plato, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, and Hume.  Even if I thought them to be misguided, wouldn’t it have been appropriate to have included their ideas anyway?  Either I could have indicated where they went astray or I could have left that up to the reader to sort out.

Fifth, I would keep the Bible up to date in all respects.  There would be two easy ways to do this.  One would be simply to continue to select (aka “inspire”) writers in subsequent generations.  It was always a mystery to me why divine inspiration stopped with Jesus’s generation.  There have been those claiming to be latter-day prophets, but those individuals have never been accepted as such except by their own band of followers.  (Come to think of it, that was generally true for the Biblical writers as well.  Hmmm . . . .)  Alternatively, I could establish the Bible from the beginning as a work that would be under continuous revision as humans developed their scientific understanding and cultural development.  Encyclopedias serve as a model for this approach.

Well, the Bible is none of these things.  It is, instead, confusing, contradictory, misleading, boring, incomplete, and out of date.  It might have been “state of the art” two thousand years ago, but it’s fully obsolete at this point.  And yet Christians continue to spend enormous amounts of time attempting to puzzle out its meaning as if it contained some kind of secret intelligence, the answers to life’s enigmas, if only one could discern them.  I just wish those same individuals who pore over the Bible on a regular basis would devote their efforts instead to a broader, more current and more practical intellectual pursuit.

Among my fondest memories of when our children were growing up are those of reading stories to them before they learned to read on their own.  One of my favorite authors was Dr. Suess, of course, because he had something to say not just to the kids but to the adults.  I especially liked If I Ran the Circus because it spoke to that sense that we all have from time to time that we have the superior idea, that we could do things better if only given the opportunity.  Well, that is how I feel about the Bible.  If I wrote the Bible, I’m confident that I could have done a much better job than God.

© 2014 John M. Phillips


  1. Sam Harris often says that we can build a better religion than Christianity. Similarly to your analysis of the Bible, the whole of Christianity is huge and complicated and, more often than not, a big bag of pick-and-choose your justification for your immoral behavior. A better religion? Two commandments: 1) Love each other and 2) learn science.