“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” Exodus 20:4

No Graven Image


The idea that I might be guilty of idolatry shocked me. I was a Baptist. I had never had
any statues in my home depicting God, and to this day, I still plead innocent to any charge I
might have made fame, wealth, or power my God. No. My idolatry assumed a benign, Protestant
guise. I found it difficult to admit that, for most of my adult life, the Bible was an idol—an
equivalent or substitute for God. To put a name to my error, I thought I invented the
word bibliolatry and only later discovered it in a dictionary.


I believe my journey down this path began when I was a teenager. In addition to being
naïve and impressionable, I was no thinker. I made pretty good grades in school, but I had no
sense of self-awareness. I felt pretty much like a nobody.

Into that vacuum rode my older brother and his wife. They took me to a small Baptist
mission church they had joined. It was a warm, friendly group, and I felt accepted. The church
became a second family to me. Adopting their ways, their beliefs, their theology was a step I
took without question. Allegiance to the Bible bound us together.

When I left home to attend a Baptist college, I changed very little except becoming more
deeply invested in a Bible universe. In discussions in the men’s dorm, we assumed we were
“closer to the Bible” than any other sect. If someone proved us to be in error in some minor
point, we would change immediately and still be closer to the Bible than others.

My subsequent involvement in the Baptist world extended to founding two churches,
graduating from a Baptist seminary, working professionally in Baptist churches, and being
elected to leadership positions in denominational life. I received denominational acceptance by
moving from a small church to a larger one, then to a larger one. That’s the way the system
worked. All these things transpired without ever questioning what I thought about the Bible,
God, church, or religion in general.

Every particle of our church life involved the Bible. Every sermon, Sunday school lesson,
and summer church school focused on what the Bible said and what it meant. I never saw that
interpreting a Bible passage is only necessary if the meaning is not clear.


Through the years, the Bible was to my Baptist life as the sun to the planets. We
defended tasks we attempted, supported, or opposed, using verses, passages, or ideas we found in
the scriptures.

The Bible was our source of knowledge about God. We found out how to worship,
customs to follow, ideas and activities to promote and support, structure for our church life, and
standards of conduct in the Bible. The Bible spoke with the voice and authority of God.

We carried New Testaments in our vest pockets, handling it carefully, reading, and
marking important passages. We treated it with reverence, just as we would act towards God if
God were present. If someone attacked the Bible, we rose to its defense. When a passage seemed
impossible to understand, my favorite stopper was: “We don’t understand it, but it’s in the
Bible.” A Bible citation supported every argument. My world was marked by a devotion to a
literal interpretation of Scripture unless the passage indicated otherwise.


I began to see things differently when I left the professional ministry. If I had not
changed professions, I would have been unable to change my thinking or perceptions. I was too
invested in my Baptist world. I resigned after one year on the staff of one of the flagship
Southern Baptist churches in California. My wife was teaching public school, and I got a parttime job with the Westinghouse Learning Corporation. I finished a teaching credential in the
space of one year.

Becoming a public school teacher, including teaching English as a Second Language
(ESL) for seven years, was another step. Working in a public school, I interacted with people
whose lives and philosophies differed from the culture where I grew up. Teaching classes
populated entirely by students from other countries, languages, and cultures opened my eyes.

While I left the professional ministry, I continued in Bible study. In fear and trembling, I
questioned traditional Baptist beliefs, like the Trinity, the atonement, baptism, the church, and
other doctrines. I asked questions, and no one threw me out of Christian groups. I received
encouragement to explore from Presbyterians whose church became mine by default.

Then I stumbled upon a group of late 20th century scholars, called the Jesus Seminar,
who devoted years to studying the sayings of Jesus. I found solace in learning qualified scholars
were asking questions similar to the questions I had been asking. There was more than one way
to look at the Bible.

The inspiration of the Scriptures is a critical doctrine to Baptists. While “inspired” means
different things to different Baptists, there could never have been a discussion about the Bible
without that word or its equivalent. It labeled the Bible as an authority. The Bible spoke for God.
Most Baptists believe God preserved it intact through the ages.

However, a historical study of inspiration of the Scriptures reveals more holes in it than a
sieve. Church leaders did not agree on the 27 writings included in the New Testament till 350
years after the death of Jesus. Since there was no New Testament for a writer to refer to, any
Biblical references to ‘inspiration’ had to refer to something else. The Bible, like an arrow,
cannot point to itself. Apparent contradictions in the scriptures produced a frenzy of rhetorical
maneuvers to maintain the fiction that the 66 books were one unit with one theme from one

Do I believe the Bible is inspired? Yes and no. I love the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my
shepherd, etc.” I have gone to that Psalm many times for comfort. I feel it is inspired, not
because it got included in a book with a black cover but because it speaks to me. The Sermon on
the Mount is inspired. It speaks to me. But the pages and pages of genealogies citing who begat
whom, line after line, fail the test. They mean nothing to me. To me, those pages are not inspired.

Any writing that speaks to the heart and mind of a person is inspired. The words might be
a psalm of David or a poem by Robert Frost. Their source is almost irrelevant, whether from the
Quran, the sayings of Confucius, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson,
Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, or the Bible.

Did I trash the Bible? I don’t think so. I still love and admire the Bible as literature, but I
do not worship it or consider it a substitute for God.

The most liberating change I have had on my journey is also the most difficult to
describe. For lack of a better term, I call it GodPresent. It means experiencing God in every
aspect of life, from the most mundane to the most esoteric, from the sublime to the
base. GodPresent, in the circumstances and events of every day and every hour, has meant for
me a whole new way of looking at life.

The God I knew in my earlier days would have cared if I have a correct belief.
But GodPresent is not threatened by a person who believes “incorrectly.” Why should God care
how we split theological hairs or double-dog dare anyone who holds a different view? Was God
thrown into a tizzy when I was an idolater? I doubt it.
Am I more pleasing to God now than I was before? Probably not. I can live with a simple

If God is concerned about anything, I believe it must be that we be good people. Be
thoughtful. Be merciful. Be forgiving. Be generous. Just be nice. I think that might please God.