Working in an IT environment, I focus a lot of my time on how data is structured. At first blush, it might seem straightforward, but it can get messy very quickly.
Data is generally stored in tables, not unlike what you might recognize from an Excel document. As transactions take place, data is added or modified to a table across a variety of fields. If you were purchasing something from Amazon, I’d imagine they probably have a transaction table with elements like customer name, item cost, credit card number, and more. Because it’s not technologically feasible to store all data in one table, it’s very common to have data tables around specific data subject areas and to relate those tables by using some sort of special identifier.
Because of this structure, data quality is very important.
Data quality is basically this concept that you want all your data to be clean and uniform because most computer systems aren’t smart enough to make heads from tails on certain pieces of data. For example, if I had a data record associated to me with the name “David Hundley” and another data record associated to me with the name “David K Hundley”, the computer doesn’t understand that all too well. You and I both easily make that connection, understanding those two records relate to the same person (me), but again, the computer just ain’t that smart.
To pre-mitigate data quality issues, then, it’s common to prescribe “allowed values” for a specific field. That means instead of freeforming it, the data field can only contain specific stuff. So if you had allowed values for US States, they’d be things like IL, IN, OH, and more. Or for multiple choice tests, your allowed values would only be A, B, C, or D.
A big problem with the allowed value philosophy is what do you do when that list needs changed? Gender is a great example here. Where data tables for gender have historically been the binary male and female, companies are now looking to address non-binary concepts.
And if your systems aren’t set up in a good way, that can be really, really difficult to do, which is why some systems seem to be held by bubble gum and shoe strings.
Okay, what’s this all got to do with the subject of this post?
The Bible is like those data tables with poor data quality. Over time, people have made adjustments to the system to make it work for their time, and we as modern folks haven’t done a good job at understanding how those adjustments affected the raw, original “data” of the Bible.
Think back to the “David Hundley” vs “David K Hundley” example. We know those both refer to me because you have first hand knowledge. But let’s use a biblical figure, like Mary.
I hope you see the issue right away: which Mary am I referring to?
And that’s the thing: over time, the church has made pronouncements about who each Mary is. Most people agree there are at least two Mary’s: Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the latter gets a lot of cloudiness around her. Some separate Mary Magdalene into two different people, and some label her as a prostitute where others like Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code call her Jesus’s wife.
As if the mystery surrounding the Mary’s wasn’t bad enough, that’s probably one of the lighter examples I can think of. The doctrines of Trinity, inspiration, revelation, and more have all been debated over time and iterated upon throughout history.
And that’s where a plain reading of the Bible today may be really misguided. We think we are reading it as if they are plain facts, no bias involved at all, but we may be totally wrong about that. How do we know what we think about the Bible is how the Bible intended it and not something that came out of a doctrinal statement in the 1500s?
The Bible doesn’t tell us that, of course.
Now, let me say two things. First, I do believe it is important to read the Bible because it is the foundation of so many discussions throughout history, and it’s as close to the “authoritative source” (aka God) as we’re gonna get. And second, I do not at all think the church is totally wrong for practicing what it does today.
But I’m also not sure that it’s totally right. For example, I still can’t bridge that connection between the Bible and why I have to stand through 4 rock and roll praise songs every Sunday, facing a stage much like I would at a Blink-182 concert.
(I hope I got a chuckle there. This post has been more dry than I’ve hoped it to be!)
That’s why I’m spending a lot of time outside the Bible and why I’m reading a lot of books like Dr. Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. It’s sad to admit how woefully ignorant I am.
Friends, I’m a normal guy with lots of doubts, but my heart is still inclined toward God. I’m not at all on a mission to destroy God but instead want to live a deeper life through him. I don’t know, maybe I’m nuts for having that inclination. I have to be honest about that.
If there’s one thing I can say, though, it’s this: I’ve not found nearly enough to bury God as some modern philosophers would say. From scientific to psychological to philosophical ways, I still see a lot of credence toward the existence of God, and that gives me hope.
I pray it gives you hope, too.