As a young evangelical in my late teens and early 20s, my fondest hope was that I could know the Bible so thoroughly that I would think and live in sync with the will of God. Like many evangelicals, I believed that the Bible represents the mind of God, and through it we can know God more fully. In the long run, my deepening familiarity with the Bible led to my rejection of it and all ‘canonical’ texts. This isn’t how it goes for everyone, though, and it forms the basis of a real problem in white conservative evangelicalism in the United States.
The Bible isn’t a single book, but rather a compilation of 66 books (or 73 in the case of the Catholic Bible). Further, it was written across the span of several centuries, and edited at various times for differing reasons. One of the biggest revisions apparently happened during and immediately following the Babylonian exile, which took place from 597 to 539 BCE. The nature and purpose of these redactions is debated among scholars, and evangelicals deny that they happened at all despite enormous evidence to the contrary. I subscribe to the school of thought that the ultimate purpose of the final revision of the Hebrew scriptures was to keep Israel together as a nation, wherever they are in the world. This it has accomplished remarkably well, with the Jewish civilization continuing to this day, while the Babylonians and other nations and empires of the time are long gone.
This becomes troublesome when you attempt to run this ‘software’ without the context of centuries of Jewish tradition on the ‘hardware’ of white Americans. Through Christianity they have adopted the text without the context, and generally apply the passages about the nation being faithful to god in their political thought and discourse. They see the portrayal of ancient Israels chronic infidelity and repeated cycles of punishment and believe that has something to do with a secular, multicultural nation-state between 2000 and 3000 years removed from the events depicted. No wonder their preachers constantly talk about ‘bringing America back to God’ and feverishly dream of getting government-endorsed, guided student prayer back into public schools.
Further, the morality, ethics, and civility of both the Old and New Testament is profoundly regressive, and by adhering to it people adopt positions that can even end up in violations of human rights. We all know about the repeated calls in the Old Testament for genocide, calling for the slaughter of men, women, and children. There’s also the authorization of slavery and other terrible practices, and even prophets delighting in such things as women being raped in front of their husbands as divine punishment for sin. The New Testament is no paragon of virtue either. Recently I read through 1st and 2nd Timothy and found bigotry and sexism in every chapter. The ‘good book’ isn’t really that good.
While I personally enjoy the academic study of the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern writings of the genre, by no means would I suggest anyone base their lives unquestioningly on what it says. Jewish scholars and rabbis have long been willing to question and argue with the text. If someone is committed to using the Bible as a religious source for their life, that could be the best way to go about it. If you treat it as the mind of God revealed, however, you could wind up becoming a devil.