While the Bible has for centuries been called “The Good Book”—a moral and religious text that guides us into a relationship with God and shows us the right way to live—it nonetheless contains elements that can be considered disturbing and alarming. How should we make sense of these difficult passages?
Bible Gateway interviewed Dan Kimball (@dankimball) about his book, How (Not) to Read the Bible: Making Sense of the Anti-Women, Anti-Science, Pro-Violence, Pro-Slavery and Other Crazy-Sounding Parts of Scripture (Zondervan, 2021).
How can reading the Bible lead some people to become atheists?
Dan Kimball: If you pay attention, you’re increasingly hearing the phrase “the fastest way for a Christian to become an atheist is to read their Bible.” That’s due to the fairly correct assumption that most Christians have not read or know their whole Bible too well. The thinking is that when they do read it all, they’ll see disturbing things they didn’t know was in there and leave the faith. Sadly, there are an increasing amount of stories of this exact thing happening.
Most Christians have been taught the nice sounding Bible verses about God’s love for us and the command to love others. They likely know the stories about Daniel in the Lion’s Den or David and Goliath or Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.
But when the whole Bible is read, the claim is that many become atheists or agnostics when they see the not-so-nice-sounding Bible verses like:
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters..” — Ephesians 6:5
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: “…go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy[ all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants…” — 1 Samuel 15:2-3
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission… If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” — 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
The Bible is more and more being accused of being anti-women, anti-science, pro-violence, pro-slavery, exclusive and divisive when these types of Bible verses are being pointed out. There’s an intense amount of effort being made to bring attention to these difficult and disturbing sounding passages through clever graphical memes online, web sites, YouTube, and there’s a massive amount of talking about them on TikTok. With the rising amount of deconstruction of faith stories also being told, they often include mention of these very difficult parts of the Bible as part of the reasons for it happening.
So, it’s a very real thing happening all around us today when you start paying attention. But the good news is that there are responses to these understandable tough questions about the Bible and this is what I address in the book.
Doesn’t every generation have issues with the Christian faith?
Dan Kimball: Yes, and we always will have generational style differences. But this is entirely different. In the past, the complaints about church and Christianity generally were about relevance and style. The music was backwards, the preaching was dull, or the church building felt like grandma’s house (as I heard one person say). Those aren’t the issues anymore, as most churches have caught up to these things culturally. Most of the stories I hear of those leaving faith are coming from very contemporary churches with great music and felt-need preaching and parking lots all figured out. So, it’s not about style or relevance of their church with this generation, it’s about what they’re seeing in the Bible.
What once seen as the “good book” is now even being seen as an “evil book” which allegedly advocates misogyny, slavery, violence, and is non-inclusive causing shame and even hate. Now I know the Bible doesn’t do those things, but I can understand why people think it does who often haven’t been taught the full Bible storyline and Bible study methods.
I believe addressing this is an urgent matter. For church leaders, youth workers, parents, grandparent to be paying attention to what’s being taught out there and proactively show how to respond to these difficult and disturbing sounding things in the Bible.
What do you mean when you say, “Never read a Bible verse”?
Dan Kimball: It means when we read any Bible verse we should instantly be trained to think of its context, who it was originally written to, why it was written to the original recipients, the genre used, and its place in the Bible historical timeline. Extracting a single Bible verse and then jump immediately to apply it in our lives like so many of us do can lead to major misunderstandings of what the verse is about. So, as apologist Greg Koukl says (where I got this expression from), “never read a Bible verse” so we don’t get misled to believing in wrong conclusions about a single verse on its own.
We’ve been somewhat guilty of often cherry-picking the single nice-sounding Bible verses and putting it on a coffee cup or shirt and have them apply to us. Which isn’t bad if the verse is very clear on it’s own, but that’s not good Bible study methods, as many verses really need to be looked at in their context and genre. We like the nice happy sounding verses, but we don’t see on coffee mugs or the theme verse for women’s retreats Isaiah 34:2-3 where it says, “He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will stink; the mountains will be soaked with their blood.“
Does the Bible demean women?
Dan Kimball: I certainly can see why it seems like it when you read Bible verses with heroes of faith like King David who had harems and practiced polygamy (2 Samuel 5:13-16 and 1 Chronicles 14:3-5). Or verses like when it says that women should submit, be silent, don’t speak in the church and ask your husbands questions at home (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). At surface reading, it does seem like that.
But, take the time to look deeper and you’ll see the trajectory in the Bible that actually lifts women up in respect and equality in what was a patriarchal culture. God didn’t create anti-women culture, but he worked within what sinful human beings created to elevate women and make change. We see the Bible pointing out great women prophets and leaders like Deborah (Judges chapter 4), Miriam (throughout Exodus) or Huldah (2 Kings 22) or Junia (Romans 16:6-7). We see Jesus and Paul doing very revolutionary things in that culture to show women are of equal worth.
I understand seeing Bible verses which on their own seem to demean women like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, but “don’t read a Bible verse.” There’s obviously more going on there, as just 3 chapters earlier Paul is telling them to pray and prophesy which means he couldn’t mean them to be “silent.” Also, you have to consider all that was going on in that specific church in the city of Corinth at that time period and the context of all of what was happening to make more sense of verses that seem anti-women. They aren’t! But you have to study and read beyond a surface read of single verses put on memes with women who have their mouths taped shut. It looks convincing on a meme, but it isn’t when you study further.
Is the Bible anti-science? How could a loving God command violence in the Old Testament and then command love in the New Testament? Does the Bible endorse slavery?
Dan Kimball: All of these questions are really, really important ones. Some are easier to answer than others for sure. But they all have responses to show that what seems so negative with criticisms against the Bible looking at a verse or two, is not quite true when you go beyond the surface. In How (Not) to Read the Bible, I show there are responses to these questions when you look at where they are in the Bible storyline. And then looking at what God was saying to the original audience. It’s so easy to assume our culture and the terms we use today are the same as what was happening in the times of the Bible.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Dan Kimball: It’s hard to pick a single passage as a favorite as I love the entire Bible. But a passage (after I do look at their context, genre, who the original recipients were and their place in the Bible story) that I find myself appreciating is Acts 17:11-12 where the Bereans were commended for checking out teaching and doing research to see if what was being taught is true. I love that questioning things is seen as a positive trait. And the result is people putting faith in Jesus.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Dan Kimball: I use Bible Gateway every single day. I’m always thinking of a verse and typing in a few words to find it. When I prep sermons it’s Bible Gateway I’m using to cut and paste the verses to the slides I prep. My primary Bible is a NIV printed Bible as I have colored pencils I underline things with and I doodle images a lot in my Bible so I can remember where things are that I read. But Bible Gateway is there on my phone or laptop at all times and it’s a regular part of my day-to-day life.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dan Kimball: For Christians, please take this very seriously, as it impacts everything. For church leaders, I really plead with you to make sure you’re teaching about the difficult things in the Bible as well as the nice things. If you’re a parent, I’d make sure your kids hear about the difficult and disturbing parts of the and how to understand them before they’re caught off-guard and hear about them from sources that are trying to discredit the Bible. The good news is there are responses to these disturbing sounding things and these aren’t new or suddenly added in. We just have to be thinking, thoughtful Christians all the more in today’s world and really read the whole of the Bible and understand it more. We don’t have the luxury not to today and we miss out knowing God all the more by knowing the whole Bible.
How (Not) to Read the Bible is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Dan Kimball is the author of several books on leadership, church, and culture, including They Like Jesus but Not the Church, Emerging Worship, and Adventures in Churchland. He is on staff at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California. He also is on faculty with Western Seminary and leads the ReGeneration Project which is encouraging theology and mission to be part of younger generations lives and churches. He enjoys comic art, Ford Mustangs, and punk and rockabilly music. His passion is to see the church and Christians follow and represent Jesus in the world with love, intelligence, and creativity.
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