How much of the bible can a Christian write off as not relevant before they are literally making up their own religion, taking a bit they like from here and another bit they like from there and relying on this or that writer or scholar's interpretation of some other bits?
Who said anything about "not relevant?" "Not literal" and "not relevant" are two very different things. For example, I think Genesis 3 is a highly relevant story for understanding Christianity, but I do not take it literally.
That being said, the theoretical answer is "all of it." Christianity is about following Christ, not believing literal words in a book. In a more practical sense, belief in Christ is likely to result in acceptance of at least some of the Bible. Some more conservative Christians are comfortable declaring who is or isn't a "True Christian," but I am apt to accept anyone who claims to be one and purports to follow Christ at even the most basic level.
Yet, no Christian who uses the bible as a basis for their beliefs can give us the clear rule, metric or guideline for determining:
[. . .]
We here at WWGHA have heard all of these in reference to the stoning of misbehaving children, giving away wealth to the poor, dietary rules, Sabbath rules about work, and who gets their prayers answered.
The problem is twofold.
The first is that there are multiple ways to read the bible, usually 3-4 depending on the source you read. These form the basis of biblical hermeneutics and exegesis. I'll use the four I was taught:Literal
- What does the text actually say?
This is the most basic level of reading and understanding, and is the foundation upon which the others are built. This is the level where things like accuracy of the translation and contextual reading (avoidance of quote mining) come into play. Things like parallel bibles (such as the Online Parallel Bible) help with the former, and Biblical commentary can help with the latter, but on the whole this level is pretty straightfoward.
More conservative Christians tend to be more interested in this area for non-spiritual understanding of a passage, with literalists asserting that this is the only way to gain such understanding
- What did the author mean to say?
This is the next level up, and the one that requires the most detective work. It's the one where things like genres, figurative language, social/political contexts, historical events, etc. come into play. The goal here is to take oneself out of the perspective of 21st Century 1st-world English speaker and place oneself into the perspective of the person who wrote the text. You (and many atheists) reduce this to "literal vs. metaphor," but that is a rather shallow approach that doesn't really get to the core of it.
This is an area of much scholarship, and has grown in popularity over the past century. Like many fields, there are different areas of study and different trends, such as the recent trend to view some miraculous Biblical accounts as the writer's spiritual interpretation of natural events
. As such, entire courses are taught in this area, and people spend entire careers studying it, secular and religious alike.
The average Christian tends to have a working knowledge of some of the more common themes and builds from there. It's not really practical or necessary for the average Christian to have mastery at reading at this level, though I think it enriches one's understanding quite a bit. More conservative Christians tend to minimize this level of reading to the most obvious examples or disregard it altogether out of concern that it detracts from the more de facto understanding gained from the literal level of reading.Religious
- What does the text mean for believers?
This is the level that is most important for building religious communities, and is really the meat and potatoes of Biblical reading. This is the level from which dogmas/doctrines are drawn, the level at which preachers deliver sermons, and the level of mainstream scriptural interpretation. This is also the focus of a lot of Biblical commentary, cross-referencing, and using scripture to interpret scripture. This is where doctrines of faith, morals, and divine commands are read.Spiritual
- What does the text mean for me?
This is the most personal level of Biblical reading, and the one that is mostly out-of-reach for nonbelievers. It's the level where one interprets a passage towards relevance in one's own life, often along with prayer and reflection. Discussions between believers and sermons touch on this area a bit, but really this is more subjective for each individual person. It's also the area for deepening one's own relationship with God.
Which level is most important? For non-believers, it's top-down. For believers, it's bottom-up. That's a barrier. Sure, it may seem like believers spend a lot of time discussing the top of the list, but in just about every case said discussion involves something secular. That's not the core of Christian belief; the bottom two are. Yet the spiritual interpretation is something I've never discussed with an atheist (I rarely even discuss it with fellow Christians), and most atheists only really seem interested in the third if it appears to them to contract itself or to contradict something in the first two levels.
You can see this in a classic critical response: "If you say that story is metaphor then you're basically just throwing out sections of the Bible you don't like." Well, no. That response lumps the first three levels of reading into the same thing and rejects them all: if the literal level is not taken as factually accurate than the story gets thrown out. If there was no literal Eden then then Christianity has no basis. And so on.
Of course, that's not how Christians read Genesis 3. We read The Fall at literal face value to see what the text says. We look at the genre (myth), current scholarly opinion on the historical background (Babylonian exile), the figurative language employed (allegory), and the events of the story to determine what the authors likely meant by including it. We look at the theological message the story reveals and its role in Christian theology. Lastly, we internalize it and look at how it relates to our own lives and understanding
. In this sense, the story is highly relevant and is in no way "thrown out," even though it is not taken literally.
The second part of the problem is that there's no single metric for determining the exact sociohistorical meaning of a passage. Furthermore, those involved in these discussions are almost never experts and thus have more of a working knowledge than expertise. Lastly, the critics tend to oversimplify by lumping everything into "literal" or "metaphor," and usually go a step further by equating "literal" to "true" and "metaphor" to "untrue." But that's not really accurate at all. "Metaphor," "allegory," "myth," "poem," "hymn," "psalm," "chiasm," etc. are all distinct from each other
, and it doesn't really fit to confuse one for the other. Genesis 1, 2, and 3 are all myths. Genesis 1 contains poetic language; Genesis 3 contains allegory; the reductionist calls them both "metaphor" though the term really isn't even accurate.
But I digress. My point is that there's not really a cookie cutter way of saying "this verse is historical, this verse is not." Instead, you start with a working knowledge of the basic structure of the Bible, its historical background, the culture of the writers, the most common genres used, and you work from there. If you want to delve in on a specific passage, you can look up commentary. You can discuss with others. You can listen to sermons. You can take a course. It's a process of discovery, not a dry formula. It's not something that's going to easily be explained in a few sentences in a single post on a forum, which is likely why very few even bother.
And that's ok, because again whether or not the literal and sociohistorical levels match is not really integral to Christian theology. Genesis 3 means the same thing to Christians who take it literally as it does to those who take it allegorically. Which is exactly why I can say that I'm generally not very concerned with pinning down which events are completely historical vs those that are only partially historical or not historical at all, yet still consider the Bible as an important part of Christianity. Because when I read the text, I'm not reading at only a literal level; I'm reading at multiple levels.
So, take these OT stories: Adam and Eve; Noah and Ark; Abraham and Hagar; Moses and Pharoah. Do any of them fit into any of the above categories? Or are they something else? Biblical filler?
The bold highlights exactly what I said above. I take Abraham and Moses as historical figures, yet would not be highly concerned if they turned out to be non-historical. I take Adam, Eve, and Noah as mythological figures, yet would not be highly concerned if they turned out to be historical. I regard none of those stories as "filler."
I am waiting for: "If you read the bible with the right attitude in your heart, god will speak to you and you will be able to tell."
That's spiritual level. It's not for you.
And holy shit, I spent way too much time on that post. Ok, I'm off to bed an hour and a half ago.