Why is the Bible Great?

The bible has been and continues to be one of the best-selling and most-read books of all-time. It is a book that more than a billion people (and arguably more) look to for comfort, advice, and stewardship. Based on this, even for non-Christians, it is hard to deny the greatness of the Judeo-Christian Bible.

Why is the bible great?

This is not an idle question as, in my view, it has implications on how we read it and learn from it.

The common argument on why the bible is great is because it is the word of God. Through Jesus, the prophets, and the many wise men of the past, God spoke through them and, in so doing, the humans could learn how to “share the good word.” Another argument is that the Bible is great because it includes so many incredible stories and parables that are understandable to us mere mortals and, through these stories, teach us how to be “good.” These ideas are not necessarily in conflict as, through parable, God teaches us the meaning of being good. These ideas are linked because God has the wisdom to realize that his creations, humans, learn best through story and parable. At the core of this argument is the belief that the Bible is good because God ordained it to be so.

There’s a well-recognized issue with the Bible though:

It contradicts itself… a lot.

This seems rather strange if the Bible were the word of God. Why is God so contradictory? Why did God seem to suggest that we do things that today seem inappropriate, unethical, or worse (for an interesting read that really drives this point home, see The Year of Living Biblically).

What if the Bible is great because it is contradictory?

This might sound a bit crazy, but let me explain.

I’ve been getting really interested, and, indeed, perhaps a bit obsessed, with the concept of intersubjectivity. Intersubjective ideas are those ideas that are created by humans and that, when enough of us agree to them, they become true. Money is a prime example of this. It exists because we have all agreed that it should exist (if you want to hear a compelling argument to this point, listen to a podcast of This American Life exploring “What is Money?”).

The crazy thing is this: most of the things that greatly impact how we live, work, play, and exist in the world are intersubjective ideas, such as corporations or nations along with values and ideals such as truth, justice, liberty, freedom, equity, diversity or fundamental human rights.

So, what does this have to do with the Bible?

I think the Bible is great because it is a beautiful collection of contradictory subjective ideas offered through stories and parables, that together, provide a beautiful intersubjective web that can guide a person to being moral.

As I think about these intersubjective ideas, I think about what grounds them. As the name implies, intersubjective ideas are grounded in subjective experiences. Strong subjective perspectives, such as major historical figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and many others, along with strong stories that provide context and detail to challenges, such as 1984, Catch 22, The Brothers Karamazov, Atlas Shrugged, Frankenstein, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and many others are the foundation of eventual intersubjective ideas. For example, Wollstonecraft’s pioneering work became a seed idea that grew into intersubjectively agreed upon ideals, such as the importance of equity and equality between genders.

This brings us back to the Bible and the importance of stories as parables. The bible is literally chock full of stories of people who work through complex experiences. These stories are told to illustrate a moral belief or principle that could be used to guide ones’ life. This is easily illustrated with the classic Christian bumper sticker, “What would Jesus Do?”

If we think about the Bible as an intersubjective tool used to guide moral decisions, then contradictions are no longer a problem and, instead, the contradictions are the secret sauce.

The bible forces each of us to think through contradictions and, in so doing, come up with a stronger sense of what we believe is the right way to be a good person.

Returning to why this is important, if the Bible forces us to understand and work through contradictions, it also forces us not to see the Bible as fundamentally true and full of “facts.”

Instead, it is a beautiful collection of parables that guide us far more effectively than any simple fact of the time could have (particularly if you think of the “facts” that were “known” when the Bible was written).