A lot of Christians define themselves as "Bible" Christians. They seem to be contrasting themselves with other Christians, who presumably don't center their faith on the Bible. But what does it meant to place a body of scriptures at the center of a faith? Is being a Christian simply a matter of reading the Bible and obeying whatever is found therein?
Modern American society is dominated by what is generally referred to as the "culture wars". This analysis depends on polarizing society into two camps: conservative Christians and liberal atheists. The former are understood as reactionary, closed-minded fundamentalists and the latter as libertine, nihilist hedonists. As with any simplification of very complex matters, this narrative is wildly inaccurate. But this isn't a post about politics; I want to dig into a specific question: what does the Bible mean? There certainly are fundamentalist Christians, and they would respond simply, saying that the Bible is literally and completely true, utterly inerrant, and that people achieve salvation through obedience to this book, which they often describe as an "owner's manual" to the human soul.
But historians of religion see the Bible differently. Biblical scholars can dissect the text and expose the cultural, political, and economic forces that worked on the writers of the Bible. They can point out contradictions and inaccuracies, which abound: the first chapter of Genesis gives a different account of creation than the second; the major prophets denigrate the sacrificial cult of the Temple while the writer of Deuteronomy makes it a central aspect of Judaism. St Paul and the writer of the Gospel of St Mark seem to understand Jesus as a human being like any other who was elevated or "adopted" by God into divine status at his baptism by John the Baptizer, while the writer of the Gospel of St John describes Christ as the eternal, uncreated Word of God.
If one is honest with oneself, the conclusions to be drawn from Biblical criticism are inescapable. The Bible is a series of documents, written by humans, from their various human perspectives, and is subject to error just like anything else written by humans. Does this realization necessarily mean that Christianity is irrelevant, proven false through modern scholarship? I think to answer this question, we have to ask other questions. What do we mean when we talk about the Bible being "inspired"? How do we understand God as acting in the world? How do writers communicate in their work--is the literal interpretation of a text the only or best one? I'm going to give my own two cents on each of these in posts coming up soon.
Read the first post here: Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible
And the second post here: The Significance of the Bible in the 21st Century: Criticism and Guidance