INTRO BY JIM: With this post today, we continue to reflect on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and its aftereffects. One of those is the lack of an authoritarian hierarchy that resolves for us the tensions we encounter between Scripture and the world—and even within Scripture itself. What should we do with these tensions? Lean into them, says today’s author.
I was a curious kid. I wanted to know about everything: history, art, biology, philosophy, cooking, economics, music, and anything else I could get my hands on. God, Jesus, and the Bible were on the list, too. But I didn’t just want to know about everything; I wanted to know how everything fits together. I still do.
As I was growing up, I heard preachers and teachers argue that the Bible and evolutionary science don’t fit together. They said we should reject evolutionary science because it is incompatible with Scripture. They didn’t just leave it there, though. Some of them offered alternative ways of doing biology and geology that led to conclusions about the physical world that seemed to fit better with what I read in texts like Genesis 1 and 2. Problem solved.
Another problem soon emerged for me. I started reading the Bible for myself. All of it. As I did that, I discovered that it didn’t matter how smoothly someone could help me fit the Bible together with the world around me, because there were conflicts within the Bible itself, too. If you read the Bible (and pay attention), you’ll find parts of it that don’t seem to fit with other parts of it.
Here’s a simple example. Proverbs 26:4-5 says:
So should you answer a fool according to his folly? Good question.
Right there, in a couple of sentences side by side, we find a tension in the text. These two instructions alone don’t give us any idea of how they fit together. And these kinds of tensions in the Bible aren’t limited to a few sentences here or there.
The Bible begins with two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, and if you read them side by side, you’re quickly confronted with how different they are. Once again, the Bible doesn’t really tell us how they fit together. It just gives us these two texts and leaves us to wrestle with the tensions between them.
If we zoom out even more, we find whole books of the Bible that don’t seem to fit with other books of the Bible. The book of Proverbs assumes a cause-effect relationship between virtue and blessing. Whether we’re talking about money or relationships or speech or any other area of life, the more righteous you are, the better off you’ll be.
But the Bible has another book, Job, that tells the story of a righteous man who suffers terribly, and it’s his righteousness that actually provokes his suffering. He loses his family, his servants, and his herds. He gets so sick that his body is covered in boils. He’s so miserable that he takes a jagged shard of broken pottery and uses it to scrape his skin. This story will wreck you with its absurdity. It subverts the idea that righteousness and blessing exist in a cause and effect relationship. And yet the Bible doesn’t tell us how to make it fit with the operative assumptions of Proverbs. It just places Proverbs and its logic alongside Job and its (contradictory) logic, and leaves us to wrestle with the tension.
We could keep going, making a long list of all of the things in the Bible that don’t seem to fit with one another. In fact, these tensions are so pervasive that you can find huge books written to resolve them, attempting to show how all of these different parts of Scripture actually fit together perfectly. At one time I found those books helpful, but eventually I began to suspect that something else might be going on. If we have to work so hard to resolve the tensions between these texts, maybe they weren’t meant to fit together perfectly in the first place. What if those tensions aren’t such a bad thing?
It’s like we’re treating the pieces that don’t fit together like math:
Uncomfortable with two things we can’t reconcile, we’re tempted to change the factors to make them fit. Maybe the point of Job is to teach us that Satan causes all our suffering. Maybe Proverbs doesn’t really apply anymore because it belongs to a different “dispensation.” When we do that, though, we end up diminishing or dismissing the real power of these texts. And as a lover of the Bible, I don’t want to do that.
What if there’s another way to think about these pieces? Instead of approaching them like math, what if we could approach them like music?
In math, when presented with different factors, our job is to resolve them.
1 + 3 + 5 = 9
Now that we have 9, we can leave 1, 3, and 5 behind and get on with our day. Problem solved.
But in music, 1 + 3 + 5 = a major chord, like a C, E, and G forming a C major chord.
Even better, 1+ 4 + 5 = a suspended chord. (You know when a hymn ends with everyone singing the a-men, and the a gets held out for a bit? That a is being sung with a suspended chord.) Consider what happens when we shift from a math approach to a music approach in understanding Scripture.
First, in music, you can carry with you more than one thing at a time. (The 1, 3, and 5 don’t get collapsed into 9. They remain distinct but unified in a major chord.) If we treat the Bible like music, then maybe our first move doesn’t need to be an attempt to reconcile Proverbs with Job. Maybe we need to carry both of their big ideas with us.
Then, in music, you don’t shy away from tensions. You press into them. Any good music teacher will teach her students that, when they encounter a tension in the music (like the suspended chord that forms the a in a-men), they should press into it. Make it louder. Feel it more. This is actually how you honor the music, because a skilled composer would have intended the performers to accentuate the dissonance. If the Bible’s a bit like music, we should press in on these tensions in the text, not be afraid of them.
Watch what happens when you turn up the volume on Proverbs and Job and let them interact: it’s a plain fact of everyday experience that, like Proverbs assumes, doing the right thing often leads to greater fortune. Disciplined people tend to do better in life than undisciplined people. People who can delay gratification end up succeeding more than those who can’t. Humble people don’t open themselves up to the liabilities that hubris creates. It’s good to hold onto the wisdom of Proverbs.
However, if you hold the Proverbs view without pressing into the tension created by the story that Job tells, what will you do when the best people you know suffer? What will you do when you see bad people enjoying good things? Will you have the spiritual imagination that can stretch around both of these big ideas, giving you the capacity to live with the wisdom of Proverbs while being sobered by the story of Job? Together, with their tensions blaring, these two texts can help us live more fully in a world where virtue is often rewarded, but where that formula is sometimes absurdly disrupted. Pressing into the tension that exists between Proverbs and Job can form us in our devotion to God with a kind of nuance and dexterity that won’t come if we treat the whole thing like a math problem that needs to be solved.
I point all of this out because some people seem to be assuming that God would never give us a world that reveals things that are in tension with what God reveals in the Bible. I don’t know where that assumption comes from. In fact, if we find these tensions within the text, we probably shouldn’t be surprised to find tensions between the text and the natural world. And if the Bible works better when we press into its tensions instead of forcing them to fit neatly together, could the same be true when we encounter tensions between our reading of the Bible and our understanding of the natural world?
There are real issues that emerge when we listen closely to both the Bible and evolutionary science. Like, what do we do with death that precedes human sin? Does Paul’s teaching on Adam and Christ hold together if Adam wasn’t a single original human? I don’t think we should be intellectually lazy about these questions (for the record, it’s hard to make good music without a little bit of math). But it’s precisely because of the way I see the Bible using the tensions within it that I think a lot of good can come from the tensions between it and science, too.