Christian Smith is a professor at Notre Dame and a prolific author. Smith shares an accolade with F.F. Bruce, N.T. Wright, and Scot McKnight. Each author has written books that made both my 100 Best Christian Books Ever Written and my 100 Best Academic Christian Books lists.
A double threat!
And one of the best books on how Christians should approach the Bible is Christian Smith’s new volume, The Bible Made Impossible.
I heartily recommend both books to every follower of Jesus.
What I like best about Smith’s newest book is that it argues for understanding Scripture through a Christological lens (i.e., employing a Christocentric hermeneutic). When my next book is unveiled later this year, you’ll better understand why I appreciate Smith’s point so much. 🙂
What follows is my interview with Christian Smith. He talks about his new book, answers critics, and unveils his writing routine.
Frank: What motivated you to write “The Bible Made Impossible?”
Christian Smith: The simple fact that Biblicism is widespread and yet impossible, that it cannot really function as it claims to. I don’t think it is good for believers or the church to be trying to operate with theories about the Bible that do not add up, which require various forms of exegetical gymnastics and smoke and mirrors to seem to make work.
If Christian faith is true, as I believe it is, then it has to be reasonably sensible and defensible, not built on impossibilities. My sense is that very many people are vaguely aware of the problems of biblicism but don’t really know how to put their finger on it and what to possibly do about it. So I wrote to help people express an uneasiness they probably already feel.
Frank: Tell us about the title (“The Bible Made Impossible”) . . . what does it mean and what does it not mean?
Christian Smith: The key word is “made.” The Bible itself is not impossible. I am clear in the book that the Bible is God’s inspired Word written and should and does function as a central authority in Christian life. The impossibility comes in when biblicism as a theory is applied to or imposed upon the Bible, as an account of how the Bible ought to function.
I notice that many people confuse the Bible with biblicism, they’re literally unable to distinguish the two. But biblicism is not the Bible itself, but rather a (human) theory about the Bible. And, while it contains some elements of truth and often has very good intentions driving it, as a larger theory it is deeply misguided and I think over the long term destructive.
So, in short, the human theory of biblicism makes the Bible as God’s authoritative written Word impossible to function as the theory demands that it does function. We can and have to do better, and that requires moving into a post-biblicist world.
Frank: In simple terms, define what you mean by “interpretative pluralism” and what does it suggest to us primarily?
Christian Smith: Interpretive pluralism means that (I presume usually) well-meaning, well-educated, smart, serious Bible readers come away from studying scripture believing that it teaches many different things on most theological topics imaginable, both small and large. Everyone says scripture is divinely given to provide the reliable basis for truthful knowledge about Christian faith, church, life, and practice.
But those same people disagree into various camps on most issues about what the Bible actually teaches. That itself undermines the claims to scripture’s authority. How can it be an authority if on nearly every topic we go to it to learn about people say it teaches many different things?
I also argue in my book that this interpretive pluralism is not constrained or marginal, but “pervasive.” It is everywhere on nearly every theological issue imaginable. Often only at a surface level do many people agree, but when it comes down to the real meaning of biblical and theological claims, people end up all over the place, claiming mutually exclusive positions. It is easy to agree that “Jesus saves,” but when it comes down to interpreting the Bible on the hows, whys, whos, etc. then we have pervasive interpretive pluralism. The specifics of this are all spelled out in almost-overkill detail in the book.
Frank: As someone who has written books that challenge the status quo myself, I can easily identify the tool of misrepresentation that people pick up when trying to dismiss a paradigm-shifting work. Given the nature of your book, I’ve seen it misrepresented by some who are threatened by its message. What are the 3 main objections (or misrepresentations) of your book among evangelical Christians, and what are your responses to those objections and/or misrepresentations?
Christian Smith: Before I published this book, a sympathetic and insightful pastor told me, “You know, when people’s basic epistemological paradigms are threatened, even the smartest, most well-meaning people can become irrational, be ready for that, especially if they earn their livelihood by relying on biblicism.”
His prediction has certainly become true. I’ve been very amazed and disappointed by some of the reviews of this book. Some are simply amazing. I have decided strategically to push back on them in most cases, however, to not let them get away with saying crazy and unfounded things simply because they do not want to like the implications of my argument.
One major criticism has been that I am attacking a straw-man, that biblicists are much more sophisticated than I suggest, that only the most extreme simpleheads would believe what I present. On the one hand, my response is: If the shoe fits, wear it, otherwise, what’s the big deal? But I find it telling that people feel the need to defend a theory that they say they do not believe. If my characterization of biblicism is so off, then why do they not simply dismiss and ignore what I write?
I think the response tells that it is not so far off. I think the shoe often fits very well. In which case, the “straw man” charge of simplification and greater sophistication is a diversion. It is a standard rhetorical move in various fields when one has no real reply, to simply object generally, “Well, we’re much different than that, much more sophisticated,” but then never really produce evidence of the greater sophistication. Of course there are more or less sophisticated versions of biblicism, but that itself does not make biblicism as I have described it not a problem.
A second major response to my book has been to attack the second half’s constructive proposals, most of which are oriented around a strongly Christocentric approach. Ironically, some critics insist that they are obviously already highly Christocentric, that any dunce knows that, and then other critics insist that a Christocentric approach is unrealistic and unhelpful. Well, I wonder, which is it? Can’t have it both ways.
My sense is that many critics know that they should be strongly Christocentric and to some extent are, but not consistently and resolutely so. A strong and truly Christocentric reading of scripture requires backing off some other biblicist claims and sensibilities, which feels threatening and raises the anxiety level. So there again I have touched a nerve and so evokes the odd responses I have gotten. A third major criticism I have gotten is that American evangelicalism simply is not so fragmented and divided as I claim it is, that most people mostly agree on most things of importance.
My answer is: bunk. That’s empirically false. It’s just avoiding the facts. So what I’d like to know is this: if evangelicals are really so unified in their biblical and theological views, then why are they so fragmented organizationally? Why the need for literally thousands of different denominations, conventions, associations, etc. etc.? Historically these grew because of doctrinal disagreements.
Given what scripture clearly says about unity and fellowship and agreeing, if evangelicals really agree so much, then why are they so divided? In the end, I find most criticisms of my book unconvincing. Many are simply evasive, diversionary, and reality-denying. In truth, I expected better and have been disappointed by the quality of much of the engagement. It is actually somewhat embarrassing to me that so many evangelical critics have offered such lousy arguments against my book. I would like to have been confronted with better.
Frank: Three cheers on your answer. I’m all too familiar with how some people react to a book they feel threatened by (or haven’t read carefully), and the uncanny extent they will go to misrepresent it. I quickly spotted this after reading some of the reviews on your book, “The Bible Made Impossible,” and that was one of the reasons that provoked me to do this interview with you. That said, when someone finishes your book, what do you want them to walk away with knowing or feeling? What are the big “take aways”?
Christian Smith: I would like readers to fully, honestly confront the fact of pervasive interpretive pluralism and to see that those facts make biblicism an impossible theory to hold, to understand that one can only be a serious biblicist (as I define it) by being intellectually dishonest.
My hope is that this will motivate change. I do not feel the need to be in charge of the change. But change is needed, of one kind or another. People need a better, more realistic, more evangelical, in fact, account of what the Bible is and how it functions as an authority. My hope is that when the change happens, Jesus Christ will shine out from scripture more clearly and forcefully than biblicism tends to allow.
Frank: Anther reason why I’m promoting your book is because I deeply believe in and advocate a Christological approach to the Scriptures. It’s a keynote of my entire ministry. I’ve noted, however, that *many* Christians assume that they look at the Bible Christologically (as if it were a given), when in reality they do not. I know you’ve observed the same thing. Talk about this a bit. What are the benchmarks of an authentic Christological reading of Scripture?
Christian Smith: Yes, this is an important point, as I mentioned above. It has to be said first that I am professionally a sociologist, not a biblical scholar or theologian. However, reading Karl Barth and finally really getting his approach has transformed by understanding of the Word, and scriptures relation to Christ. My personal and scholarly observation is that for many believers the Bible is actually the most real and holy authority there is.
They would never say this, but how things really function is not always how they are admitted and professed. I suspect that for many Christians (despite what they say) God actually seems far off, Christ is a great idea and person and savior, but what seems most real, most accessible, most reliable (and, unfortunately, most controllable) is the Bible. This can easily slip into idolatry. The Bible then becomes for us a “How To” book, when in fact it is a “Who Is” book—telling us who Jesus Christ is, and therefore who God the trinity is, and therefore who we are and what the rest of reality is.
It was not until I studied Barth with a group of great friends for a few years that the light here finally went on. Jesus Christ is the final reality, the ultimate truth, the complete authority. Scripture’s main job it to point us to Christ, like John the Baptist pointing to Jesus. It is of course more than that, but that is centrally what its function is. To say this of course only scratches the surface of the implications and meanings. But it is truly a paradigm shift. And it really, really changes the way to read scripture, once the full force of the idea hits home.
As to benchmarks, it would require a lot more than this venue allows to explore that adequately. But in essence, every reading of scripture must be through the lens of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, of the fact that God is reconciling the world to himself in Christ. Every imperative (“You shall (not)…”) must come after and be more fundamentally grounded on The Indicative, namely, the reality of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, it all goes out of whack very quickly.
Frank: Looking at the initial sales of this book, how does it compare to your many other titles? (I ask because sales numbers are a good measure of interest in the subject.)
Christian Smith: It’s too soon to say. My sense is that it has gotten a lot of attention and is selling well. The ranking on Amazon.com is good. But I have not yet seen any concrete sales numbers yet. That said, I hope it gets widespread attention and close reading.
Frank: As a writer myself, I’m particularly interested in this question. Talk about your writing routines. What does a normal day and week look like in your writing?
Christian Smith: Some writers are “chippers” (they write a little bit every day, chipping away at the project) and some are “bingers” (they don’t write until they have big blocks of time and inspiration, then they write like mad). I tend to be both a chipper and a binger. Normally, I will spend some years reading, thinking, and talking out the ideas of a book, then set down and start writing. Even so, much of my thinking is not really worked out until my fingers are on the keyboard. I think best when writing, not in the abstract. Exactly how this all plays out depends upon my school schedule.
Some semesters I teach a lot and can write very little. Others I have more free time and write a lot. I also write a lot during summers and holidays. Once I have an idea that I think is worth publishing and people need to read it, that pushes me very hard to get it done. I also go in phases when I “submerge” myself in writing and don’t pay much attention to anything else. I even let those I work with know that I’m “going under” for some time but will resurface in due time.
But then there are other phases when I can only devote an hour or two to a writing project. In short, chipping does not provide enough time and attention for me to get things done. But binging is too uneven and “lumpy” to really make sustained progress. So I try to do both.
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