Ripping the Rug Out: How I’ve Come To Understand the Bible and the Atom

Sixth grade was bulky desks, black tops, and best friends, cool teachers, commanding yard duties, and cheeky principals.  Sixth grade was the year we figured out homework actually sucked and parents weren’t cool.  Our ideas about reality began to change and everything was magical.

Sixth grade was discovering atoms.  Do you remember the first time you heard about the tiny particles flying around everywhere?  I sure do; it felt like I was let in on some massive secret.  Everything was made up of really small things we couldn’t see!  Our elementary school curriculum didn’t teach us much more than that; it was good enough for us to know that atoms were out there.

Then came Junior High with its skating shoes, lockers, and solar-system atomic model.  Atoms were no longer the smallest things in the universe, but were made up of neutrons, protons, and electrons.  Neutrons and protons hung out in the center of the atomic system, just like the sun, while the electrons orbited like the planets.  We dusted off our 3rd grade hanger-and-string planet projects and smiled as we turned them into 7th grade atoms.


But this analogy didn’t explain everything.  We quickly swapped our solar system out for an onion; valence electrons and their energy levels demanded a resketching of our atoms to include spherical layers.  This is where we began to feel sophisticated, educated.  Did you know that atoms had valences?  Did you know that the valence electron is the particle in the outermost shell of the atom? It was hot stuff.

As upperclassmen we again found ourselves watching teachers destroy our notions about the atom in order to build up improved ones;  in chemistry and physics we were told that the whole thing more closely resembled ordered chaos, that the nucleus is bathed in an “electron cloud.”  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle chuckled at our confident assertions about positions, orbits, and trajectories of electrons.  Weren’t we foolish.

I didn’t go on to study sub atomic particles, but I’ve read the occasional news story here, talked with the occasional geek there, and what I’ve gathered is that the traditional three particles in an atom aren’t the smallest.  They are made up of things called hadrons and hadrons themselves  are made up of quarks and someone somewhere is blowing the lid off of those concepts.

Our perception changes as we continue to study and progress in education, it’s part of the learning process.

And many of us study the Bible… at least we go to Sunday school classes and Bible studies, listen to preaching on and from it, and believe it plays a significant role in our lives.  Some of us have been at this since we were kids.

Back when the flannel graph dominated our conceptualization of ancient history.  Our understanding of Jesus included velvety robes and one dimensional sheep.  Fantastic stories were told with cloth cutouts; Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Wale, Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors.  I love how cheerful these stories were; the bewitching magic of the flannel graph could cute-ify any decapitation, natural disaster, or forced slavery.  It was good stuff.

As we grew up, we started to realize that the Bible made claims about life in the here-and-now.  It’s content was applicable on the playground and spoke of a God who existed in the present.  Our understanding moved beyond stories of the past and evaluated the content of Scripture in light of our relationships.  Things took on an entirely new bent when our understanding of the Bible led to conflicts with other ways of seeing.

The process of translation, interpretation, setting, and genre weren’t major players at this point, we merely looked at the things written in the Bible, assumed their meaning was plain, and passionately put them into practice.

Then came High School with its language arts classes, novels, and rather eccentric English teachers.  For all of their oddities, or perhaps because of them, we learned how to dissect and understand the meanings of texts, conjecturing possibilities behind them.  Prose and poetry, narrative and metaphor, the didactic teaching and the red herring, all began to shape our view of the Bible.

With a little push from the science department, many of us dove head first into apologetics; trying to defend the veracity and authority of Scripture against the onslaught of things like evolution and cult belief.  Reading the Bible, then, became about its historical authenticity.

But we didn’t quiet understand how we got it in the first place.  Either the Bible came out of the sky one day on golden leaflets, or a stork carried it from the heavenly hatchery where sacred texts are born, or perhaps it came sliding down on a rainbow.

The Bible was a wholly divine book without the distinct marks of humanity.

Private Christian college had pretty much the same to offer us.  We consistently learned answers to strange questions, methods for winning debates, and finely tuned arguments to support what was supposed to be our understanding of the Bible.  We learned fun stuff like historical background information, dates, and the process of canonization.  Our professors taught us how to defend a literal seven day creation with things like “yom” (the Hebrew word for “day,” which only refers to a literal 24 hour day every time it is used with an ordinal, with the exception of a non-narrative passage in Zechariah), convinced us to accept Matthean priority while dismissing the Synoptic Problem as “no problem at all” (the level of literary agreement between the Synoptics is expected when each of the writers are led by the same Spirit!), and called us to defend the inerrancy of Scripture without exposure to any array of criticism.

Certain books played a huge role in shaping our thoughts about the Bible, often filling in the holes that our college education left.  Books like N.T. Wright’s The Last Word reminded us that the “Word of God” was more than just Scripture; it was like a reservoir that prophets tapped into and the Bible was a unique expression fully formed by the reservoir, but not fully containing it.  God operates authoritatively both inside and outside of the Bible.

Biblical education beyond college introduced us to things like source criticism where we examined the transcribed documents that make up our New Testaments, identified the similarities in the gospels, and recognized the influence of philosophers and other religions upon the ideas that compose them.  Our golden leaflets turned into scribes and we caught glimpses of our storks flying from the directions of Rome, Greece, and Egypt; not just the clouds.  Some of us began to see Scripture as a library instead of a simply level book and started to interpret sections of that library through the specific lenses of other sections.

As our understanding of the Bible expanded, some of the things we once held dear no longer seemed important and some of the things we once feared would erode the Bible’s credibility became loud voices arguing for its importance.

I suppose the serious issues arise when entire communities find a comfortable understanding of the Bible and decidedly hang out in that singular dimension without accepting influence from any other. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy for a church to cling to the velvety stories of the flannel graph without attempting to cultivate a deeper knowledge of Scripture?  Is it not a shame when some churches get so passionately involved in progressive biblical education, but every time they pick up the Bible all they have in their hands is a problem to solve?  I believe we all need a healthy marriage of mind and heart in whatever we do, but most certainly in our pursuit of God.

I dearly appreciate the nuances of the Divine and gladly give my life to studying the Bible.  However great my understanding of it grows, I know that someone, somewhere, is preparing to blow the lid off of my neatly packed constructions and ideas about it… which isn’t something to fear, but excitedly anticipate.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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  • “I believe we all need a healthy marriage of mind and heart in whatever we do, but most certainly in our pursuit of God.” Here here! I love the idea of God blowing us out of the water as we go deeper.

  • tanena

    Am teaching my son about atoms today (not included in the lesson curriculum but the lesson really needed it). And I came upon your article. Not included in the lesson either, but what I hope to remember and pass on to my kids about science and scripture 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I love it

  • Anonymous

    I love the atom