To all the people who say that you love the bible, have you read it lately?
I’m about halfway through reading it from front to back, in canonical order (not a method I would necessarily recommend, by the way) and to be honest, there’s an awful lot I don’t like very much. For instance, the great patriarchal stories in Genesis reveal that our so-called heroes of faith were lies, cheats, and scoundrels. The moments when they shined — and those are the stories we’re most likely to read communally — are overshadowed, at least in number, by the times when their behavior was anything but heroic.
I get to Leviticus and I read how a man can potentially have his wife stoned for nothing more than his own jealous suspicions. And how if someone needs to get sold, the male is worth roughly twice the female, unless the human commodities are either old or young and then the female worth a little more by comparison, all the way up to three fifths of the value of the males.
Ok, I know I’m coming to this party late. A lot of you have asked the same questions and you have figured out your own way to hold it all together. In my late middle age, I’m just now trying to figure it out.
A little background. I grew up in a conservative Lutheran home. My parents were both church workers. We held the bible in high regard. I learned the stories in both school and Sunday School. When I was in 8th grade, my pastor told me that no one could call themselves a Christian if they didn’t regularly read their bible. It was that important!
I went to a conservative seminary where the historical-critical approach to the bible was eschewed for what was called the historical-grammatical approach, a fancy way of saying “We interpret the bible literally.” A lot of time and paper were spent trying to convince us of how it all holds together.
Since then my theological journey has been long and circuitous, and I have embraced fully a more honest way of approaching the Jewish and Christian sacred writings, a way that acknowledges the contradictions and how the bible was the product of a specific historical context. I have embraced the bible as the vessel for a word from God to the human family, and I embrace the fuller revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, a revelation contained in the bible.
Still, I am troubled. There is some really nasty stuff in the bible.
It’s ok to say that. To make that admission doesn’t detract from the place of the bible in my own faith life or in the life of the community I serve. It’s honest.
The vast majority of American Christianity doesn’t talk about these troubles in the bible. I don’t mean that to be condescending or self-righteous. I’m pointing the finger at myself as well. If we talk about the troubling stuff at all, its by the professionals among themselves; my impression is that it happens very little by pastors with their people. Consequently, we operate with an unfortunately simplistic understanding of the bible. The church would be far better served to bring these troubles out of the shadows and into the light and talk about them. Acknowledging the troubling parts of the bible and struggling with them might, if nothing else, make us a little more humble about making cocksure pronouncements about what the bible says.
Why does it matter? It’s not just theoretical. If we could be more honest and conversant about the troubling parts of the bible, then it just might be possible that we could be more conversant and less contentious about allowing the bible to speak to some of the more divisive issues in the church and in our society, those issues where people come to very different conclusions even though both sides claim the bible as their basis.Too often we decide what we think and then go to the bible looking for justification for our point of view. The charge is often laid against one side or the other that Christians are capitulating to culture when they change their views about what the bible says, never seeming to acknowledge that culture has had a pervasive role in establishing that norm in the first place. Culture always influences how we hear what the bible has to say; no position is free of bias.
If we could take off our rose-colored glasses about the bible and struggle with the difficulties and the apparent contradictions, it might make it easier to be honest about the biases we bring not only to our reading of the bible, but the ones we bring to those divisive issues. If we could at the very least acknowledge that the bible is a hard book and acknowledge the cultural goo that we all walk around in, it just might set the stage for good, honest conversation, even when we disagree. It is hard work, and I’m not sure we do it very well, me included. Honestly, it’s about time.