"One of our biggest debates," I said, "and maybe the most important, is the whole Bible thing. In the conservative evangelical churches that I grew up in, our view of the Bible was the most important element in our identity. Many of our churches were in fact called 'Bible Church' or 'Bible Chapel,' and our summer camps were 'Bible camps,' our higher education institutions were 'Bible colleges,' and our experiences of fellowship took place in 'Bible studies.' Our arch-opponents were the 'liberals,' the people on the other end of your line, whom we fought against because they didn't take the bible 'literally,' as we felt they should. How do you see us transcending that level of discourse, Neo?"
"You like to start with the tough ones, don't you, Dan?" he quipped. "One of my mottoes in life is that people are often against something worth being against but in the process find themselves for some things that are worth being for. I think that's the case with both sides of the battle about the Bible. The conservatives are against reinterpreting ancient wisdom in light of contemporary fads or moods, and they are against in any way weakening the strong, unchanging backbone of the faith, fearing that we'll be left with a kind of jellyfish spirituality if the liberals have their way. Meanwhile, the liberals are against pitting faith against honest scientific investigation and turning faith into and ant-intellectual enterprise. They're against the obscurantism-the resistance to free inquiry-that is so common in conservative circles. And they're against the privatization of faith. They feel that conservatives have retreated to the private sphere, worrying only about their own personal salvation, leaving the world at large to go to hell ecologically, culturally, in terms of social justice, that sort of thing. So I think we have to begin by saying that both sides are against something worthy of being against. They both have a point." I interrupted. "OK, Neo, but still, the issue is pretty important. I don't think you can just wish-wash around the middle and say nice things about both sides. There's a lot at stack. Evangelicals would say that the Bible is the foundation of everything, so if you tamper with the foundation, the whole structure is in danger of crashing down. It seems to us evangelicals that liberals kind of sort through the Bible and throw out anything that doesn't appeal to them."
"Yes, and you evangelicals tend to be unaware that evangelicals themselves do the same thing. But I won't get into that."
I interrupted, "No, I'd be interested in what you had to say about that."
I responded: "I think you're being unfair there, Neo. It's not some arbitrary grid. We avoid applying some passages literally because other passages teach us not to. For example, Jesus set up a kind of revolution in how the Old Testament law would be read and applied, and the early apostles clarified the difference between living under grace as opposed to law."
Neo stopped walking and faced me. "Well, let me ask you a question. You're aware of how conservative Christians in the United State just 150 years ago used the Bible to defend slavery, just as they did in Jamaica? And now you'd say those chaps were dead wrong, would you not?" I was nodding my head slowly, realizing that this issue was affecting us in different ways. "How can you be sure that some of your ironclad interpretations today aren't similarly fueling injustice?"
I protested: "Neo, I never said that my interpretations were infallible. I'm just saying that the Bible itself is." He responded, "Well, I'm wondering if you have an infallible text, but all your interpretations of it are admittedly fallible, then you at least have to always be open to being corrected about your interpretations, right?" I was nodding again. Yes. Of course. Neo kept talking: "So the authoritative text is never what I say about the text or even what I understand the text to say but rather what God means the text to say, right? So the real authority does not reside in the text itself, in the ink on the paper, which is always open to misinterpretation-sometimes, history tells us, horrific and dangerous misinterpretation. Instead, the real authority lies in God, who is there behind the text or beyond it or above it, right? In other words, the authority is not in what I say the text says but in what God says the text says."
At this point, I wasn't sure what to say. Neo continued, "Our interpretations reveal less about God or the Bible than they do about ourselves. They reveal what we want to defend, what we want to attack, what we want to ignore, what we're unwilling to question. When Judgment Day comes, God might ask a lot of us how we interpreted the Bible-not to judge if our interpretations are right or wrong but to let our interpretations reveal our hearts. That will be telling enough."