CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Deconstructing the Bible, Again

Apr 10, 2008

Good intentions are seldom sufficient in and of themselves. Often a person can mean well, but still end up doing a lot of mischief. Consider the attempt by an Anglican vicar in the UK to make Bible stories more “accessible” to modern readers. His new book, Must Know Stories, which appears tomorrow, takes ten popular bible stories and updates them for the contemporary reader.

One press account gives us an inkling of what this will be like: “In the nativity story, Jesus is born in an overcrowded house instead of a stable, amid family conflict as Joseph’s aunt deals with the fact that he and Mary are not even married.” Harrison says that it’s “better to tell the story controversially than not at all.” Thus, as the press report continues, “Goliath is a celebrity binge drinker, Eve is a sex-obsessed man-eater and Noah’s wife wants to kill him . . . welcome to the updated Bible.”

Said Harrison, “There are some stories which, in every culture, people need to know. These wonderful ancient stories are not known by a huge proportion of our society, and they need to be told.” So far so good. Nothing wrong with taking biblical stories and seeking to get them out to newer and wider audiences.

And nothing wrong with a bit of contextualisation and modernising of certain things, such as language, and maybe even to an extent, more contemporary settings for these old stories. But of course we already have both modern language translations and paraphrases of Scripture, as well as various culturally-sensitive renderings of the Bible.

But what is really worrying is when Harrison makes this remark: “”I wanted to write a book that tells the most important Bible stories in a way that relishes them rather than tries to make any particular religious point. After all, who knows what the point is?”

Uh oh. This is where we get into deep trouble. Just what is the good vicar implying here? He seems to be suggesting that these are simply stories, maybe even myths, just like any other story, and they have no real meaning or purpose, or at least we cannot know that meaning. So let’s just enjoy them, like we might enjoy the Odyssey, or Peter Rabbit. Whatever meaning I might derive from them is as good as anyone else’s meaning or understanding

Now if that sounds vaguely familiar, it should be. It is all the rage on Western university campuses these days. It is known as deconstructionism, part of the bigger postmodernist project. The idea is that we can never really know what an author (or artist, or song writer, or the creator of any other cultural artifact) intended by his or her work. Authorial intention cannot be known, and all we can do is bring our own meaning into the text (or play, or song, or work of art, and so on).

Harrison seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker for this deconstructionist demolition job. As Kevin Vanhoozer put it, deconstructionism is “not so much a method of interpretation as a strategy for undoing interpretations”. This is something all students of Scripture should avoid like the plague.

Thus Harrison is actually helping no one here, certainly not the person who really wants to know what the Bible says and teaches. For these stories are not just feel-good myths or fun things to read to children at bedtime, but in fact are part of God’s inspired word, and appear there for a purpose.

Most of these stories are about actual historical events, which the biblical writers intended to use to convey actual theological truths. The stories are written for a purpose in mind, and it is not up to us to just read into them anything we like.

Indeed, any first year theology student will learn that the basic rule of good hermeneutics is exegesis over eisegesis. That is, as we approach the biblical text, we must be careful to exegete the passage, to seek to dig out of the text the author’s intended meaning. But we should never engage in eisegesis, that is, read into the text something that is not there.

And since most of these stories deal with real historical situations, such historical context is vital in understanding the author’s intended meaning. Thus classes in biblical interpretation will teach students how to learn about the historical, cultural and linguistic background of a given biblical story or teaching.

Since this book does not go on sale until tomorrow, I of course have not read it yet. But given what the press reports have said about this book, I don’t think I will be rushing out anytime soon to grab a copy. And I certainly will not be recommending it to any spiritual seeker or new Christian to help them better understand the Bible and its message.

Ripping a Bible story out of its historical and cultural context, and implying that no one can know what it really means, is not the way to help those who want to become acquainted with God’s word and get the full benefit out of it. It will simply lead one into epistemological relativism, and to a deconstructed – and therefore useless – Bible.

[870 words]

26 Responses to Deconstructing the Bible, Again

  • Bill, how do these ivory-tower academics get away with terms like “de-construction”?

    It seems to be all Humpty-Dumpty stuff (it means whatever they want it to), instead of the common understanding that to de-construct something is the opposite of “constructing” it.

    And the other meaning from “construe” (to understand the meaning) is likewise the opposite of what these people are on about.

    It seems they are dismantling everything, and then discovering that there is nothing left – no meaning, no content – a bit like the scientists who peered inside the atom to discover it wasn’t really solid!

    In the same way that Jesus is the One Who holds the entire Universe together (Col 1:16-17), He is the One Who gives every story it’s True Meaning.

    John Angelico

  • It fascinates me that the deconstructionists rely on people understanding their reasoning in order to promote their philosophy. Can the reader put his own meaning into their text?
    Debunking reason through the use of reason seems insincere to me!

    John Nelson

  • can I ask the simpler, more obvious question? Why is this man a vicar?

    *shakes head*

    Mathew Hamilton

  • Bill,

    As you love literature you would know that all good literature that is universal in its acceptance has a point to it. Yes, even ‘Peter Rabbit’. And that is why generations of children (and their parents) love it. If there was no point as constructionists would have it, there would be no demand.

    The decontructionists can not have it both ways. I was serving a school principal in our restaurant one day and they entered into discussion on decontructionism. I took their orders, and dearly wanted to serve them Vegemite sandwiches as my interpretation of their orders to make a point. However I valued their custom and could not afford to lose the income they as frequent customers brought to us. Also I thought they might throw them at me. Coward, eh?

    Thanks for making your point again about decontructionism. As a literacy teacher we have a fight to get children to read fine literature.

    Greg Brien

  • Bill,

    Thank you for an excellent review of postmodern deconstructionism. For a solid refutation of deconstruction ideology, I highly recommend Kevin Vanhoozer 1998, Is There a Meaning in the Text? Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

    Elsewhere Vanhoozer has asked: “The obvious question, of course, is how the church knows what God is saying through the Scriptures if what God is saying does not coincide with the verbal meaning” (2002, First Theology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, p. 210).

    Don’t you think that it is about time that pastors and Bible teachers were addressing these issues from the pulpit or running classes for high school and university students who may be overwhelmed by these emphases in many campus classes.

    Spencer Gear
    Hervey Bay Qld.

  • I agree with Bill, the Word of God is precious!
    Molly Cheong

  • Thanks Spencer

    Yes my quote from Vanhoozer comes from the 1998 book that you mention.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • In response to Mathew’s comment as to “Why is this man a vicar?” I recall an episode of Yes Prime Minister where Jim Hacker had to appoint a bishop from a choice of two – one being totally unacceptable to make his choice ‘easy.’

    Sir Humphrey said that the preferred candidate was a ‘modernist’ and on being asked by Hacker what that meant, basically responded that it meant that he didn’t believe the Bible. Hacker then said, “But doesn’t that make him an atheist?” to which Sir Humphrey responed, “Oh, no, Prime Minister. If he was an atheist, he wouldn’t be able to collect his salary.”

    At least with this vicar, it’s easy to see where he stands. What is more disconcerting are the vast number of Christian leaders who do not accept the Bible as truth but are more subtle in the way they express their disbelief. It’s amazing that the original temptation, “Did God really say…?” is still working today!

    Roger Birch

  • Bill,

    What also is disconcerting is that this Harrison book is published by Scripture Union Publishing. What is Scripture Union up to in the UK?

    Spencer Gear

  • Heh, the Bishop’s Gambit is one of my favorite episodes in one of my favorite series:

    Sir Humphrey: “The Church is looking for a candidate to maintain the balance.”
    Master of Baillie College: “What balance?”
    Sir Humphrey: “Between those that believe in God and those that don’t.”

    Sir Humphrey: “Bishops tend to have long lives. Apparently the Lord isn’t all that keen on them to join him.”

    Sir Humphrey: “The PM never thinks it is silly to appoint people who are vain and incompetent. Look at the Cabinet.”

    Sir Humphrey: The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England.”
    Jim Hacker: “And what about God?”
    Sir Humphrey: I think he is what is called an optional extra.”

    “Getting the PM to choose the right bishop is like a conjuror getting a member of the audience to choose a card. With the Church of England the choice is usually between a knave and a queen.”

    “We cannot leave the appointment of Bishops to the Holy Ghost, because no one is confident that the Holy Ghost would understand what makes a good Church of England bishop.”

    “Theology is a device for helping agnostics to stay within the Church of England.”

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Although this might make this pill even more bitter, I have to point out that this is happening a lot in the U.S., and churches are doing it as often as are the 90 lb. atheists that sit on their parents’ computer all day. Unfortunately, there is a type of U.S. cultural norm that all beliefs should be feelings-based, whatever makes you “feel good” is what constitutes a true belief. And churches often engage in this practice by giving sermons that use personal ancedotes, out-of-context Bible verses that reinforce American cultural values (including values that directly contradict those in the Bible), made up moral stories, ramblings about personal life, ect. that all essentially create a personal Christianity. Of course, the technical word for this is eisegesis, and at its best, it’s moronic. At its worst, it’s malicious. Of course, what this “vicar” did goes incredibly far beyond what I mentioned here, which begs the question: How can a person that stupid and moronic even function as a living organism? Maybe that’s ad hominem, but it’s not intended to be. I would think the vicar, if he were a living organism with a functioning brain, could see the so obvious self-defeat of and self-contradictions in his belief system there. That is, why believe in and promote Christianity if you firmly believe it isn’t true?
    And also, I should point out that it shows that this vicar, like so many people world wide (but especially in the U.S.) these days, has very little scholarly and objective bent. Geez, I wish people cared about having intelligence.
    Daniel Holcomb

  • Daniel H.,
    People are very good at holding inconsistent and contradictory belief systems.

    Michael Mifsud

  • Why is there even a need to ‘update’ bible stories to make them relevant to contemporary culture? I grew up being told stories straight from the Bible. Even as a child I could understand and relate to them. If the Bible can still be relevant, after 2000 years, to a child growing up in the nineties it can relevant today. This vicar’s book is just another example of the church falling prey to post-modernism. Millions of lives have been changed by the simple truth found in the Bible. It’s not impossible to understand truth when viewed in context, even a child can understand it when explained to them. I think the good vicar should be aware of the danger of corrupting the simple truth from these stories and give us the benefit of understanding scripture without elaborate illustrations.
    Amanda Horn

  • There is nothing wrong with making the Bible more relevant to the world today, but that does not include changing the meaning of the stories and the words written to better relate. As the moment we change these, is the moment we lose the saving message of the Bible.

    There are many creative ways that Bible stories and the teaching of the Bible, can be presented in such a way that engages the intended audience, whatever the age, so that they may fully understand the teaching of the scriptures.

    As Amanda said, millions of people’s lives all over the world have been changed by the truth in the Bible, a testimony to its relevance over thousands of years, why should that suddenly change?

    The message of the Bible, the message of Christ is still as life transforming now as it has been, the method chosen to present it may have developed and modified depending on the culture and society, but the same message is the one that saves people’s lives!

    Rachelle De Losa

  • It’s statements like the vicars that create unnecessary doubt and confusion about the reliability and divinity of the Bible, and essentially, God. It sounds like he has embraced the post-modern culture’s view that all truth is relative and there is no absolute truth. Such statements are a violation to his own faith; Christianity is all about truth.
    The problem with our post-modern culture, and now what seems to be seeping into Christianity, is making our own decisions about what the Bible means. Christianity is about faith in Jesus Christ, not faith in ourselves. The vicars’ post-modern mindset needs to be challenged.
    Teagan Russell

  • It is deeply concerning when a vicar writes a ‘contemporary’ book about something he clear states has no point. My question is then why publish such rubbish and in the process devalue the real authority that is contained in those Bible stories. Harrison is a classic example of what not to do with God’s Word! Harrison’s intentions were not to write a book ‘that tells the most important Bible stories’ but to make a financial profit from his deconstructionalist views. If he was a true man of God he would know the severity of taking God’s Word out of context and he would also understand that every single page of the Bible was written with a clear intended meaning behind it. In my opinion Harrison’s book will only ever be worthy of being used to start a fire on a cold winters night!
    Mel Davies

  • It seems Mel Davies has really hit the nail on the head.
    What really is Harrison’s motives?
    Well maybe I could run with some random thought, or belief that by publishing this book he is aiming to take over the world? What? I’m in titled to my own opinion, and this is my thought on the matter, after all, no one really knows the original intent of Harrison.
    Is this not a wise way to come to a conclusion? Ok then, I will consider the facts instead.
    1. Harrison is a Vicar. Yes a Vicar, well then surely this is the title of a man who believes in God and believes Jesus is Lord. Indeed, an Anglican vicar would be a follower of Jesus’ teachings? And Jesus, being the Word become flesh, surely he believes in all the Bible’s teachings. And when the Bible speaks about the writings all being inspired, and not to be changed, any good vicar, or any follower of Christ would surely respect and accept this? Woops my mistake I guess not
    2. “After all, who knows what the point is?” well there is our evidence of Harrison’s beliefs? Well it seems dear Harrison is sounding like he’s loosing faith in God’s inspired, powerful teachings. He may want to take the time to read Rev 22:18-19 where it makes clear that God’s word is inspired and to “add to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life.”

    Harrison might want to reconsider if he is a follower of God and what the Bible teaches. Because right now it seems his motive might just be money making. But hey, I don’t know what you’re going to take away from this blog, because you might not know my original intent, and you might just read what I’m writing in your own perspective. Oh well.

    Matthew Law

  • I just can’t believe that a vicar of all people thinks that this is a good idea and that it will make a good difference. These stories from the Bible are not just stories they are historical facts.
    Which also teach as great things about good values and about God character and His deep love for you. And can be used to teach children some of the basic foundations of Christianity.
    Joanna Lancaster

  • The point this UK vicar is seemingly trying to make is that he wants to reach out to todays modern generation and give them the bible in a way that they can understand it. The negative however, is that he is changing the powerful meanings of these stories, and claiming that no one can truly know what the point of these stories are! I have to ask then, what his motivation is…Why is this vicar trying to get the bible out to todays generation, if he believes that there is in fact no real point to any of these powerful historical stories? What point is he really trying to make? Is it just so he can get his name published? Because his purpose is obviously not to bring people to the one true God, the God of the Bible.

    Jessica Kerr

  • Though the vicar may have “good intentions” in writing his book, he really needs to re-evaluate his faith. AS a vicar, you would hope that he would have a clear understanding of God’s divine word. He has distorted God’s message for example, by associating Eve with being a “sex-obsessed man-eater”. How is that biblical??

    Yes there are many cultures that need to know God’s message, BUT there are much more productive ways to contextualize these historic stories. It seems his motives are inwardly focused and only edifying his “creativeness” not giving God the praise and glory he deserves.

    Olive Oliverio, Vicco

  • The concerning thing about deconstructionist is its effect on people. Many people have every belief of theirs attacked, and are then fed a new idea; a new philosophy – most commonly the naturalistic world view. This force should rightfully be met by Christians, and humbly challenged as people ask questions relating to your belief.
    Jesse Lyte

  • What an unhappy experience to read all that you have written about me. How sad it is that not one of you has expressed the possibility that I might be trying, as best I can, to follow a path that I believe – in faith, hope and love – that God has called me to take. And what a shame that in all the condemnation (and God knows there is plenty in my life that is deserving of it) there is not mention of our Lord’s forgiving love.
    Whether or not my book glorifies the Word of God, you will not know unless you read it. You may or may not be reassured to know that the Biblical text for each story is also printed so that readers can see for themselves how I have retold the stories.
    All that has been written in this blog is based on a article from one of England’s sex-obsessed tabloid newspapers.
    I’m quite sure, that if you apply your literary skills to that fact, you will remember that tabloid journalism is not one of the world’s most reliable sources of information, particularly when applied to matters of faith.
    As a fellow Christian, I ask for your love and your graciousness. How would it be if you were having this conversation together in a room and then realised that I was in the room with you?
    I leave your room with a very sad heart. I have not found the love of God here. I’m sorry about that.
    Robert Harrison

  • Thanks Robert

    Thanks you for taking the time to write. It is of course not my intention to unnecessarily offend or hurt another believer. I apologise if I have. In fact my intention is the same as yours: “trying, as best I can, to follow a path that I believe – in faith, hope and love – that God has called me to take.”

    I too am aware of how journalists can distort things. It had happened to me on numerous occasions. And of course there was no book to read when my piece was written. I am not even sure if it is available here in Australia. If you thought it worthwhile, you might send me a copy, and I can see how things square with the press accounts.

    But that is the real question here. Are you saying that the press accounts are completely wrong, and that all of the quotes attributed to you are not at all accurate? If that is the case, I will of course publically apologise at once. But you have not clearly stated that this is the case in your comment. Indeed, you have not denied any of it thus far.

    So let me, in all due respect, put it to you most candidly: Does your book make Eve out to be some sort of sex-obsessed man-eater? Does it portray Goliath as a celebrity binge drinker? Do your stories suggest that Noah’s wife wants to kill him?

    And did you in fact make this statement?: “I wanted to write a book that tells the most important Bible stories in a way that relishes them rather than tries to make any particular religious point. After all, who knows what the point is?”

    Again with all due respect, can I suggest that if you did state this, then it is a most curious thing indeed for a vicar – or any shepherd of Christ’s flock – to say. I would have thought that it is your job to know – as much as possible – what the Word of God is teaching, and not treat it like some grist for a deconstructionist mill.

    The biblical stories are in fact seeking to make a particular religious – indeed a particular theological – point. God is expressing real truths through the narratives found in His Word. I would have thought that all Bible-believing Christians understood this.

    If I had penned a book for public consumption, I would expect other believers to assess it from a biblical point of view, and share their concerns if they had reservations about what effect my message was having on the public receiving it. Indeed, I would take it that they have an obligation as believers to admonish when necessary, even as we are instructed in Scripture.

    I did begin my article by stating that the best of intentions may well have gone into this. I still say that. But good intentions by themselves are not our measuring stick. Being true to Scripture and the message of the Gospel is what we should be seeking for. Should we not follow the biblical command to test all things, and make sure that what we are teaching in fact lines up with sound doctrine?

    Again, if none of the things said about you and the book by the press are true, I apologise in advance, and ask for your forgiveness. But if they are true, or are even mostly true, then my concerns remain, and I question how helpful your book will be in an age where truth is already under attack, and the Bible is seen as just another set of stories, no better or no worse, no more true or no more false, than the suras of the Koran, the plays of Shakespeare, or the fables of Aesop.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Robert,

    We have Anglican vicars in Australia who are modernist, postmodernist, liberal or evangelical. On which side of the theological spectrum do you place yourself?

    The Anglican church down the road from where I live has a well lit sign out front. This week’s message is, “Jesus is our Prozac.”

    Sincerely, Spencer Gear, Hervey Bay, Qld.

  • Dear Robert,

    I do apologise if my comment has hurt you. I know it was not our main agenda to attack you as such, but simply to make a point. It does make me sad to know it made you very unhappy. But please see it from our point of view too.

    Yes, we are all not perfect and the God we serve is a forgiving God. There is SO much joy that comes from the mercy of God. His mercy is with us everyday…and boy don’t I know it! But we should not take the responsibility and the honour to deliver truth lightly.

    I hope by now you have found some peace. With love

    Olive Oliverio

  • I note Robert Harrison didn`t reply.
    I find many Christians are rewritting scripture, even if they never get to read scripture themselves, it seems like ” I feel God would be saying…” all too often, and it doesn`t always add up with what the Scriptures say.
    The Bible doesn`t need any of us to rewrite it to fit into 2000`s culture and expectations.
    Johannes Archer

Leave a Reply