I was listening recently to a recording of a public conversation between two Old Testament scholars, Dr. Peter Enns and Dr. Stephen Chapman, held at Duke and advertised as Is the Bible Ever Wrong? It is a fascinating conversation – well worth the time. At one point during the evening Dr. Chapman was reflecting on the difficulty of the Old Testament in the evangelical church and evangelical scholarship and asked if it is too strong to suggest that there is a conspiracy of silence in our churches. We all, especially scholars and pastors, know that there are serious issues and questions, but most of the time we dare not talk about it because the topic is highly threatening and controversial. Textual criticism, archaeology, history, science, – all of these subjects have made it difficult to read or study the old testament, except in isolated bits and pieces.
Last year I was having coffee with a pastor, a man who was a campus pastor when I was an undergrad and had helped me a great deal at that time in my life. The conversation came around to one of my favorite topics – how should Christian colleges prepare college students, especially science students, for the intellectual challenges that will surely come in graduate study and the professional world? This pastor reflected that one of his sons came home after his first term at seminary and asked why his dad had never told him, never talked about, the issues and questions he was learning at school. The answer of course, was that there are some things that a pastor simply cannot talk about in church, he dare not raise the question much less provide scholarly answers.
I contend that this conspiracy of silence does as much, perhaps more, damage than good.
First: brushing the problems, “the blue parakeet texts,” under the rug means that evangelicalism cannot develop a robust and defensible view of scripture.
Second: the lumps under the rug are not really hidden. We simply all agree to pretend that we cannot see them. The OT becomes a book we avoid rather than a heritage we embrace. For 20 years I found it difficult to read the OT except in carefully selected verse sized fragments – because it simply is not what it is supposed to be. A fact that is painfully obvious, even to an educated layperson.
Third: the science, the historical study, the textual criticism, none of this is going away – ever. We have to deal with it honestly.
Fourth: it becomes a stumbling block that contributes to loss of faith for many and prevents many more from ever even considering the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So I have two questions for pastors and others in ministry:
Is there a “conspiracy of silence,” and if so is it a pastoral necessity? How should we deal with these issues in our churches?
How would you deal with an educated layperson with very real and very deep questions about the nature of the Bible?
The answer by the way to the question “Is the Bible Ever Wrong” is no according to Enns and Chapman – but we sometimes ask the wrong questions and have the wrong expectations of the Bible.