Misadventures in Bible Land
A number of conversations and experiences over the last few days have me thinking about the Bible and how we use it. Maybe “lamenting” would be a more appropriate word. The Bible is, regrettably, a book that has throughout history proved eminently usable and abusable.
Last Friday, I had coffee with a university student wrestling with, among other things, the question of how Christians have misused Scripture to mistreat First Nations people in Canada. Then, on Sunday morning, the question of fidelity to Scripture came up in a couple of contexts—the first in a question of how to think Christianly about other religions, the second in a more informal conversation about the role of women in the church.
Yesterday, a few more comments came through on a post I wrote a while back called “God Loves Women Too, Right?” It has been fascinating (and very sad) to track the comments on this post over the past few years. So many women relating experiences of mistreatment and pain as a result of how men in their lives have understood and applied the Bible. And then, today, someone stopped by the office to drop off an article from the Wichita Eagle, which told the story of Megan Phelps-Rover—the granddaughter of the infamous Westboro Baptist “pastor” Fred Phelps. It seems that young Megan is keeping the family tradition of hate and judgment alive and well.
So many stories, so much judgment and hate, so much confusion and ignorance, so much bad behaviour somehow underwritten by this troublesome book called the Bible.
There are times when I think we should, for Christ’s sake, start a Bible confiscation program. Or temporarily prohibit the use of “because the Bible says so” as a response to a controversial issue. Or maybe Bibles should come with a warning sticker on them: “Attention: Extracting Isolated, De-contextualized Statements From These Pages and Using them to Abuse/Condemn Those You Don’t Like or Who Disagree With You Will Not be Tolerated!” Or perhaps we should institute a system something like the “learner’s licenses” we have for young drivers. Here in Alberta, you can drive a car when you’re 14, but only under the supervision of a more experienced and responsible driver. Maybe we should do the same with the Bible.
Of course, I’m being (mostly) facetious. There are people who have read and continue to read the Bible well—people who read and live God’s redemption story in life-giving and restorative ways. But there are just so many who don’t. So very many. So many people use “the Bible says so” as a kind of trump card that settles the issue (not surprisingly, in their favour). So many people treat it like some kind of a timeless “correct propositions bank” from which to extract principles, edicts, and judgments. So many people equate “my understanding of the Bible” with “what the Bible says.” And the results are so tragic.
In truth, there are few, if any, issues which can simply be settled for Christians by “just” looking at what the Bible says. If things were that simple, we wouldn’t have much controversy would we? The Bible says many things, after all, and can be (and has been) used to justify almost anything. Slavery and homophobia? Sure, there’s verses for that. Patriarchy and xenophobia? We can find a few passages for you there. Hatred and judgmentalism? Yup. Warmongering? Check. Exclusivity and isolationism? We’ve got it covered. Just let us know what you’re looking for.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that the Bible justifies any of the nasty practices above. Far from it! Interpretations of the Bible can be used to justify a wide variety of behaviours, but the Bible itself does nothing without an interpreter. The thing to do is to actually be honest about what kind of document you understand the Bible to be, and how/why you are interpreting this book/passage/verse in this way. Few people actually do this, in my experience. But it’s desperately necessary—as my brief tour through “how not to use the Bible” land over the past few days has once again made plain.
So, perhaps I’m just feeling unusually cantankerous after reading about the tragicomedy of the Phelps family, but what I want to say, to each of the offending parties in the situations described above is something like this: For God’s sake—actually, check that, for God’s and your neighbour’s sake—try to read and interpret the Bible in a manner consistent with the story it claims to tell.
Try to read and interpret the difficult parts, the parts you don’t understand, the parts that offend and embarrass you (or, perversely delight and excite you), through the parts that you do understand or that seem relatively unambiguous. Perhaps consider how others have interpreted the passage that you’re quite sure speaks with transparent clarity. Maybe consult a commentary. Or check to see if the Bible might say something elsewhere which could modify, expand upon, complicate, or improve your interpretation. Or maybe just say you’re not sure. Please.
Most importantly, try to read and interpret the written word of God through the life and teaching of the word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Ask yourself, does my interpretation of this passage on this or that issue fit with who I understand Jesus to be? It won’t solve every riddle or magically present the solution to every exegetical and/or ethical dilemma, but it’s a good place to start. For God’s sake. For your neighbour’s sake.