Many years ago, as part of my freshman orientation during the first week of college in inner-city Philadelphia, someone from the school took out a map and showed us all the “rough neighborhoods” surrounding the campus so we would know the places we should avoid if we wanted to stay out of trouble. These were the spots, they said, that smart people never traveled through.
Many Christians don’t really want to talk about the fact that the Bible has some pretty rough neighborhoods, too; scores of verses and passages that are confusing, shocking and downright dangerous as we seek to understand and comfortably fit them within a tidy belief system.
Christian pastors, authors and speakers understand this all too well, and as a result, many of them carve out a comfortable career path through only the clear, simple and easily explained stuff; heavy on Jesus and the Psalms, along with Paul’s less controversial letter excerpts; sprinkled here and there with some heavily edited character sketches from the Old Testament (the PG-13 versions), and some go-to, cherry-picked verses that “preach well.”
But take a quick survey of the Scriptures just outside these popular, well-traveled safety zones, and you find some stuff so sexually charged, it would make Miley Cyrus blush—and violence so brutal, it would challenge Quentin Tarantino’s aesthetic sensibilities. Our sacred text features apparent moments of God-directed genocide, rampant Patriarchal polygamy (Esau, Moses, David, Solomon, etc), excused rape, God both participating in and perpetuating violent war, bizarre and punitive purity instructions, women treated essentially as currency or property in marriage, and all sorts of seemingly unchastised misconduct among the leaders of God’s people—murder, sexual assault and racism to name a few.
Believers come to this library of writings from an incredibly diverse set of roads. Contrary to what people outside of Christendom think, there is a vast continuum of opinion regarding Scripture. Not all those who follow Jesus have the same understanding of just what the Bible is or how to interpret it—not by a long shot. So when we all arrive at these very difficult passages in the Bible, our responses vary greatly too.
For some, unfortunately, these challenging areas of Scripture actually serve as the doorway of their departure from the faith, when they cannot reconcile or make peace with or explain away aspects of the Bible. For them, this closer look yields a separation—sometimes a permanent one.
The diversity of opinions about the Bible underscores just how vast and complex a library of writings we’re dealing with here and why it all matters as we pursue God. We don’t need to deny the troubling and complicated areas that exist and we don’t have to hide all the stuff that doesn’t make for nice needle points and coffee mugs.
Faith is not a simple pursuit, though we might wish otherwise. Instead, it is the pursuit of a God who is as sprawling and enigmatic as the words written about Him. Some mystery can and always will remain, no matter how much we study and how deeply we pray, but that shouldn’t dissuade us.
Too many Christians prefer a blissful ignorance regarding these tricky spots in Scripture, never getting too close to the dangerous areas of the Bible and hoping that by not reading or talking about them that they can sidestep the difficult questions from within and without that they birth. It’s a sort of “don’t ask-don’t tell” spirituality where they stay in the sweet spot of what they can explain and understand, and what seems right to their modern eyes and sensibilities. It’s safe there, but not entirely real either. It’s the religious equivalent of a gated community.
Here are some healthy ways to approach the intimidating, confusing or scary stuff we might encounter in Scripture:
Separate the Creator from the Creations.
The Bible often make claims about the character and nature of God, and other times it speaks of a flawed and failing humanity. These are important distinctions to make as we read and reflect. Often, it is helpful to view the problematic passages of Scripture in this light, stopping to notice whether there is specific commentary or warning offered regarding human behavior, or whether this behavior is simply being described. In one instance, Scripture may be telling someone’s story so that we have context, and other times it may be using that behavior as a teachable moment.
Diversify Your Influences.
Depending on our view of the Bible and our faith tradition in general, most of us have a certain comfort zone of authors, pastors and theologians, and we usually stay there exclusively as we read and study.
Dare to move outside of the small set of voices you normally allow to speak into your life, even purposefully listening to those whose opinions might really rub you the wrong way. It may give you a richer, more balanced, multifaceted understanding of Scripture and of the incredibly complex God it speaks of.
Read, Reflect and Return.
Often, we happen upon a passage or book that brings us to an impasse. Something in it angers or confuses or bothers us, and we decide we’re done with it for good. However, one of the beautiful mysteries of the Bible is the way it continues to speak as we grow and change and learn. It is important to continually revisit those challenging passages and doctrines, allowing ourselves to view them with fresh eyes and the wisdom acquired over time.
Instead of closing the book on those areas that have created tension in you, return there again and again, and welcome what a new perspective may bring. The Word is “living and active,” which means there is constantly fresh nourishment to be found within Scripture.
Change Your Agenda.
We read the Bible for all sorts of reasons; to answer nagging personal questions, to bolster a theological position, to gain insight when making decisions, and to learn the history of our faith; yet rarely do we read it simply to hear from God. Intentionally change the intent you approach Scripture with, especially when it comes to the difficult passages. Instead of always reading them to crack a code or solve a religious quandary, simply come prayerfully and open handed and allow God to surprise you. Both information and inspiration are valuable.
I’m not afraid of the controversial parts of the Bible, even when they confound or stretch me or shake me, because there is nothing to ever fear in digging deeper. It will always yield greater proximity to the truth, no matter what we find.
I decided not to listen to the warnings to stay away from those Philadelphia neighborhoods around my school. I purposefully walked down every intimidating street, around every inhospitable looking corner and into every scary alleyway. There, I found the diverse richness of the city; one I grew to love even more because I saw it more completely.
Regardless of your theological stance, may you continue to brave the Bible’s “rough neighborhoods” and find the blessings of a wider, deeper view of God along the way.
is a pastor, writer and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past four years his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said has reached a diverse worldwide audience. A 20-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. He recently released his first book A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.