Tim Beal on the “death” of the Bible . . .

This is so last month, I know, but I I think this article warrants mention. TimBeal posted an op-ed entitled “The Bible is Dead; Long Live the Bible” at the Chronicle website. This is a brilliant piece, and I resonate with much of it. I’m actually strongly considering having my intro students read it as a discussion piece for our sessions on what the Bible is (or, “how to read the Bible without throwing your brain in the toilet!”).

Here are a few notable quotables from Beal’s article, to give you a flavor, along with some brief commentary. He is, in my view, right on the money:

But you can’t fail at something you’re not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so. That’s a false presumption, rooted no doubt in thinking of it as the book that God wrote. On the contrary, biblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. Ultimately it resists conclusion and explodes any desire we might have for univocality.

[ . . . ]

Given how many hands have been involved in so many contexts over such a long time in the history of this literature, can we honestly imagine that no one noticed such glaring discrepancies? Can we believe, for example, that the seam between the first and second creation stories in Genesis, as well as the many other seams found throughout the Torah, were not obvious? That if agreement and univocality were the goal, such discrepancies would not have been fixed and such rough seams mended long ago? That creation stories would have been made to conform or be removed? That Job would’ve been allowed to stand against Moses? That Gospel mix-ups concerning who saw what after Jesus’s resurrection would have been left to stand? That Judas would have died twice, once by suicide and once by divine disgorge? And so on. Could all those many, many people involved in the development of biblical literature and the canon of Scriptures have been so blind, so stupid? It’s modern arrogance to imagine so.

[ . . . ]

The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument—even, and especially, when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all their answers. The Bible interprets itself, argues with itself, and perpetually frustrates any desire to reduce it to univocality.

[ . . . ]

Attachment to the cultural icon of the Bible is similarly debilitating. It’s a false image, an idol. If you see it, kill it. The Bible is dead; long live the Bible. Not as the book of answers but as a library of questions, not as a wellspring of truth but as a pool of imagination, a place that hosts our explorations, rich in ambiguity, contradiction, and argument. A place that, in its failure to give clear answers and its refusal to be contained by any synopsis or conclusion, points beyond itself to mystery, which is at the heart of the life of faith.

These lines get at what I think  is one of the most important points I try to communicate to my students: the Bible is a conversation. It doesn’t “say” anything (at this point early in the semester I turn my Bible sideways, ask the class to be very quiet, and proceed to open and close the Bible repeatedly, showing that indeed it “says” nothing). The Bible does not settle the conversation; the Bible invites us into the conversation, asks to hear our voice, and presses us to wrestle with the topic and its complexity. The conversation is what is important. Indeed, the Bible is a “library of questions,” and to wrestle with them–and by extension with the very essence of who we are as individuals and as communities–is a supreme act of fidelity, not only to oneself, but also, I believe, to God.



3 thoughts on “Tim Beal on the “death” of the Bible . . .

  1. Roy Garton says:


    You know my perspective aligns with many of these quotes. The question I’m facing as I gear up for another semester of Christian Scriptures is “Can these bones live?” Last go around I was fairly successful — at least as far as I can tell through evaluations — at exposing my students to the Bible’s plurality of perspectives. But the efforts I made toward challenging my students to wrestle with the issues, to live the questions for themselves, left several of them wondering where to go from there. The above rhetoric is insightful in this respective, but only as a general target. If I were to give it to my students at the beginning of the semester, most would likely dismiss it without so much as a second thought. They need to arrive at some of these conclusions on their own, but the question is “How?” After shooting down the false images of the Bible, can the bones be made to live again by the end of the semester? And what is the simplest path by which to lead the majority of the class to this self-discovery? … Just some of my thoughts.

    Hope all is well!

  2. John Anderson says:

    @Roy: An interesting question. I have found in teaching this material (though not with Beal’s piece) that the students are not quick to accept it all. Some will hold out until the very end, and do so in very intelligent fashion (as evidenced by some of the final essays I’ve read). But I feel affirmed, even in those papers, that they emphasize the importance of asking questions and wrestling with this material rather than simply accepting it blindly. That is what I’m after. I often tell my students, when I am always asked about the questions I am raising being in disproportion to the number of ‘answers’ I provide I simply affirm three things: 1) I don’t have the answers; 2) I’ve been wrestling with these questions for the last 10 years, and I feel that the wrestling, the questions, are a sign of faith and fidelity; 3) I’m not interested in the students walking out of my class as religious clones of me . . . I instead want to equip them with the tools to arrive at their own faith (or non-faith if that may be the case) perspectives, to have a faith that is truly their own. So in the sense that I have felt encouraged by the number of emails I’ve received and the responses in various papers across the semester that stress they have realized things are far more complex than they originally thought.

    In essence, I don’t look at it so much as crushing idols (the shock and awe treatment is terribly irresponsible and unhelpful, in my view) as I do setting them up for the exploration. It would be presumptuous of me–who again is still wrestling with these questions, many the same, and many which have spawned new and more robust questions, for the last ten years–to think that this is a journey they will complete in one semester. I most remember (fondly!) those teachers that pushed me to think and live outside the box; that’s what I’m trying to encourage the students to do. And so while some will no doubt dismiss things such as myself and Beal will say automatically just because it is in dissonance with their conventional understandings, this does not mean that I cannot and do not–be it by attrition or not!!–do my best to equip them to be the best wrestlers with the material that they can be. And I invite, and often receive, further communication even beyond the semester.

    Hope you all are well, also!

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