I have often wondered--quietly and usually to myself--what would happen if we could edit the Bible. After all, textbooks get edited and publishers bring out new and improved versions that are more in tune with how things are, instead of how things were. Wouldn't it be good if some ecumenical committee could go through the Old Testament and take out all the language about stoning people to death for breaking various rules? Or maybe soften that passage where the Psalmist talks about bashing the heads of the babies of his enemies against the rocks? We could also fix some of those New Testament misquotes of the Old Testament.
Suggesting this is heretical, of course, but it seems to me that it would be better, in some ways at least, to edit the Bible than to ignore it (as we do when it speaks of stoning or divorce), or to reinterpret it beyond all recognition (when we suggest that social justice is anti-Christian), or to selectively lift out phrases that serve our selfish interests (when we preach that God wants us all to be rich but first we have to donate to a televangelist). An editorial process would at least be upfront about what was going on.
This problem is especially acute for Protestants who don't have a tradition of companion theological reflection--what the Roman Catholics call the magisterium--to place the Bible in a larger context informed by ongoing reflection and dialog with our changing understanding of the world. In extreme--but broadly accepted--cases, we hear claims that the literal statements of the Bible trump all other forms of knowledge, even in science. By these ancient lights, the world is ten thousand years old and humans were contemporary with dinosaurs.
The "science" in the Bible poses especially difficult problems that call out for editing, or at least supplementary reflection. I put the word in quotes because there really is no "science" in the modern sense in the Bible--science was born in the 17th century--but the Bible, like most ancient documents, does refer to the natural world. And when it does, it creates serious problems for those millions of Christians who want to interpret it literally, or are unsure how the interpretative exercise works.
The creation story in Genesis, to take the most important example, is embedded within an ancient worldview that contains primitive scientific ideas that we have rejected. The account says, for example, that a great dome or "firmament" resides in the sky and holds back the waters that fall as rain. The stars are attached to this dome. It states that humans were contemporary with all the animals, which would include dinosaurs that we know went extinct long before we arrived. The first verse of the Bible - "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" -- claims that the earth was created at the same time as the "heavens." We know, however, that the universe is billions of years older than the earth. Humans were created within a few days of all other life-forms according to Genesis, but we know, for example, that life existed for billions of years before we arrived on this planet.
Many biblical ideas don't fit with our contemporary scientific understanding. Unfortunately, as we have seen all too often through the previous century and into the present, many Christians insist that we have to accept all the details of the biblical story of creation. The Creation Museum in Kentucky contains, among its many exhibits, beautiful dioramas of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with friendly dinosaurs looking over their shoulders--a delightfully impossible scene, but one implied by the Genesis story.
Millions of Americans love the strange story told in the Creation Museum. Polls show that about half of all Americans--and most evangelicals--accept these ideas. However, young people raised to believe this story are leaving the church in droves, according to recent surveys, when they discover, usually in college, just how untenable these views really are.
In my newly published Seven Glorious Days I explore this question of what the Genesis story of creation would look like, if we updated its ancient science to match what we know today. Interested readers can engage the subject on at Patheos.com.