Dear 20 year old me, one day you'll see the Bible in a whole new way.
I wrote a letter to a past version of my Self, preparing me for the upcoming shift in how I think about the Bible.
Dear 20 year old Colby,
You’re not quite ready to admit this yet, but two of your favorite things in life are when you know the right answer to something, and then when you receive validation and admiration from others for knowing the right answer.
We can trace this part of you all the way back through your school-going years. It’s part of what made you so successful in that environment. You weren’t driven as much by the actual learning of the information as you were by the affirmation from the teachers when you successfully retained their instruction long enough to show you knew the right answers.
I think multiple reasons help to explain this part of you. To be sure, some of it is just about the puffing up of your ego. You’ve always liked the feeling that you are the smartest person in the room. And of course, you grew up in a system where “smart” was shorthand for, “knowing answers to questions.”
You also craved the attention and affirmation of adults and it wasn’t hard to pick up on the idea that teachers tended to show favor to those who were, quote-unquote, “good students.”
In short, most of your school years were influenced by not just the pursuit of getting the answers correct, but also the enjoyment of being the kind of person who knew stuff. Whereas other teenagers were chasing the high of sex, Coors Lite, and Mary Jane, we were chasing the high of hearing, “oh, go ask Colby; he’ll know.” (Man, we really went wild in High School, didn’t we?)
I remind you of all this because I think it’s important to hold as big a picture as you can of how you got where you are today and why.
You see, looking back now with almost two decades of hindsight, I can see how all your years of pursuing academic knowledge for the sake of being the kind of person who knew the right answers produced a near perfect candidate for becoming who you are right now at twenty years old: The Bible Answer Guy.
Three years ago, if you recall, when we were 17, we had that very real and very precious “come to Jesus moment” at that youth conference up in LA (oh, sorry, for you it would be “down” in LA… spoiler alert: you grow up and eventually live in America’s Finest City.) I remember how that moment was the catalyst for us throwing ourselves into the direction of studying to become a pastor. Over the next few years, you discovered that your personality and propensity for being known as the one with the right answers fit hand-in-glove perfectly with a kind of religious fundamentalism insistent that the goal in life is to possess the correct beliefs. It would be like if there were a kid who grew up in some remote village and his whole life he ran everywhere, all the time, building up massive amounts of endurance and speed just because he loved to run. Then one day his family moves to a big city and he shows up to high school to discover that Track and Field is a thing, and people compete to see who can just, well, run the fastest.
You, Colby, were the kid who grew up running all the time.
And Evangelical Christianity was your 100 meter dash.
In fact, right now, at college, you’re one of the youngest RA’s on campus. Not because you’re necessarily all that great at what it takes to be an RA (no offense) but because you’re still moving through a kind of culture that rewards individuals (especially men) who “know their Scripture,” and can articulate theological concepts with conviction.
My point in bringing this all up is not to make you feel bad or stupid or anything like that. You’re doing your best, and I’m proud of you. But I want to give you a heads up on something that’s coming your way in a few years.
You see, right now your entire belief system rests on a very narrow belief about what the Bible is, and how it should be read and understood. Meaning, you’ve been taught that the Bible is like God’s great and perfect textbook for humanity, containing all the answers we need for all the most important questions in life. And you’ve been throwing yourself these last few years into studying it, knowing it, and learning it, all under this larger expectation that that’s the point: to know the right answers.
And even now, as you hear me say that, I’ll bet your defensive radar is coming online. Because you’ve been well-trained to mistrust anyone who doesn’t see the Bible in the same way that you do.
But buddy, lean in, cause I have something you need to hear…
I don’t see the Bible the same way that you do…
and I am you.
Now, don’t panic, don’t freak out. I know that to our twenty year old mind such a notion will scare the shit out of us (oh, and also, I should warn you: we also swear a bit more frequently these days… I’m not saying that’s directly connected to changing our ideas about the Bible, but I’m also not not saying that, either…).
You see, up until this point you’ve only really ever known one way to read and understand the Bible. You were told it was the only way—or at least, the only real way—but in a couple years you’ll discover some mind-blowing truths about that sacred collection of stories and poems and letters sitting on your nightstand.
For instance, right now you are firmly committed to the idea that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. And yet, I know it seems unfathomable, but one day you will reject both of those concepts as untenable. You’ll see them for what they are: very new concepts, created by evangelical Christianity, with no real anchor or support in historical Christianity.
Think about this for just a moment. You know how lately you’ve been a little underwhelmed at the ways in which some of your professors have suggested handling inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible? Take the four different resurrection narratives in the Gospels, for example. You yourself have observed how many of the details are explicitly different in each account: who went to the tomb, when they went to the tomb, what they found there, how many angels (if any) were there, if Jesus was even there, what Jesus said to do, and to whom, and so on. And you know that sinking little pit in your stomach you get when your New Testament professor attempts to smooth out all those clear differences? Or that voice in the back of your mind that’s like, “oof, that’s a lot of mental gymnastics and looking the other way,” all in this hefty attempt to synthesize these clearly contradictory accounts? Well here’s the thing… Down the road you’ll discover that you don’t have to try and force all those diverging details into one flimsy single narrative. Because you’ll come to understand—among many other things—that each Gospel was written for a different purpose, telling a slightly different variation on the tradition handed down to them, because they had different audiences with different goals in mind.
But let’s not get lost in the weeds. My point is, letting go off something as precious as the inerrancy of Scripture—while I know it sounds terrifying, and synonymous with abandoning your faith—one day the laying down of such unreasonable and irrational expectations of the Bible will be one of the keys to your liberation. To a kind of freedom in the Spirit that right now you don’t really know.
Even more than that, however, while you will certainly experience the death of the Bible as you once knew it, you’re going to come to see it in a whole new (to you) light that—if you can believe it—will make you love and appreciate it even more.
Years down the road, for example, you’ll rediscover the ideas of those 19th and 20th century liberal heretics your Bible professors are warning you against right now. But far from killing it dead like you think will happen, these perspectives will bring the Text to life. You’ll learn about things such as the Documentary Hypothesis (which suggests that the Torah wasn’t just written by Moses, but is actually an edited together compilation of different sources); and you’ll learn not to fear the tools of Historical-biblical criticism, but lean in to the ways in which textual, source, form, and literary criticism enhance your view of the Bible. And I know right now you’ve been told that the Jesus Seminar, and the quest for the Historical Jesus, is nothing but a group of cloaked atheists out to destroy Christian faith, but if you have ears to hear it, one day you’re actually going to lead groups through books by both John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.
This is a lot to take in. I get that. You’re right smack at the beginning of building a vocational arc for yourself that is grounded in the pursuit of studying and dissecting the Bible all so that you might continue to know the right answers, teach others the right answers, and be richly rewarded with affirmation, respect, and ideally a career. So hearing from yourself twenty years in the future that all that is about to be upended has got to be unsettling.
But here’s what I want to leave you with.
Your whole life up to this point has reaffirmed in you the story that people value and respect and admire those who have all the answers. And since you crave admiration as an Enneagram Three (oh, right, sorry… that word means nothing to you right now… don’t worry, one day it will, and your whole life be re-calibrated as B.E. and A.E), since you crave admiration, and since you’re really good at studying complex things like the Bible and teaching other people the right answers, the path you’re on right now makes sense.
But a day is coming when you’ll start to learn that there’s something people admire even more than a person who has all the right answers.
And that’s a person who’s quick to admit that they don’t have all the right answers.
And even more mind-blowing than that, a day is coming when you’ll lay down the idea that God Herself (oh yeah, also, really quick, you’re also going to stop using exclusively Male pronouns for God… but I’ll save that for another letter… where was I, oh yeah), you’ll lay down the idea that God Themselves cares first and foremost about correct belief. The Bible, then, stops becoming a tool to ensure that you and everyone else has correctly cracked the Divine Code of the universe, and instead it becomes a gorgeous guide to how humanity has sought, over the years, to better understand themselves, each other, Creation, and God.
And you will join in on that journey.
You will participate in that exploration.
You will stop looking backward as though everything was figured out already 2000 years ago, and instead you will look ahead and ask questions like,
Where is this Story taking us?
Where do we want to go?
What kind of world do we want to build?
What does it look like to integrate the teachings of Jesus in the 21st century?
How do we pursue restorative justice?
How might we practice radical compassion?
Who are our enemies today that require our love and mercy?
And you’ll find some pretty incredible answers to those questions in the Bible.
Rather than a discarded relic of the past, or a forgotten piece of fabricated mumbo jumbo (the things that right now you believe you’ll think about the Bible if you follow the slippery slope of shifting away from seeing it as this inerrant, infallible, God written textbook), you’ll come to cherish it as part of the ever growing collection of resources you lean on in your continued pursuit of partnering with Christ to work for the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer, “May God’s Kingdom come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
HOW ABOUT YOU?
What might you say to a younger version of yourself about your experience with and trajectory with the Bible?
Would love to hear from you!