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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.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    This is the dilemna that all evangelical (low protestant) expressions of the Christian faith suffer from, no legislative body interpreting text, defining a right cultural stance and imposing discipline upon errant interpretations and behaviors. The evangelical model has never come to terms with the anarchanistic, cultic, self professed messianic models that it propagates. Christian terrorism, such as it exists, lives within it’s ranks and it seems unable to respond.

    A stern Catholic view might conclude that this will always be so. How does heresy deal with heresy; what perversion of faith can be deemed heretical by the heretic? And yet surely the Holy Spirit abides within it’s ranks. Surely many faithful men and women call these churches home.

    On an intellectual/leadership level I would like to see more forceful criticism of reformed theology. If there is any credibility at all for hateful Christian apologetics it can be laid at the feet of Jean Cauvin. Calvinism itself must be thoroughly illuminated and discreditied. Rob Bell’s next book should have the courage to fight the fight where it ought to be fought. Not with mysterious post it note people who opine Ghandi is in hell or a grandmothers living room portrait that shows an eternal conscious torment for the many, but rather with hateful interpretations of the faith that inspire such callous and unloving responses.

    As for the individual cases, I think your analysis is spot on. Talk to those who would project fire and brimestone and ask them if they think Jesus would approach sinners in this manner. Sometimes WWJD is a right first response.

    I thought the article about Megan Phelps-Rover was at least fair in that it made effort to present her in her humanity and not simply as some caricature of all that is wrong and hateful about Christians.

    November 22, 2011
    • “Perversions of faith?!” “Heretics?!” Those are pretty broad strokes to be painting all of us non-RC’s… Good thing there are no “stern” Catholics around here :). I’m glad you are willing to concede that the Holy Spirit might even make an appearance amongst your low church brethren :).

      Re: the benefits of an authoritative legislative body, it’s true—it would solve a lot of the problems I identified in the post—assuming the legislative body in question was correct (an assumption many are, obviously, unwilling to grant). Of course, some might not look with too much longing at how the Roman Catholic church has historically “imposed discipline” upon those who deemed to have “errant interpretations and behaviours.” There are problems with authority just as there are problems with the free-for-all that Bible land sometimes seems like.

      November 22, 2011
  2. Gil #

    Not to overly inflame Reformation passions here but it seems to me that interpretive problems Ryan mentions have far more to do with human sin than with the absence of a “legislative body” that can tell us exactly what the right answer is.

    November 22, 2011
    • It seems that way to me, too :).

      November 22, 2011
      • Tyler #

        One of the many problems of language.

        November 23, 2011
      • Tyler #

        There really needs to be an edit function on WP. Accidentally hit enter after writing on sentence.

        I meant add:

        Interpretation is always an aspect of language and a legislative body only adds another layer to this. A legislative body truly has no more authority as an interpretation than any other.

        November 23, 2011
  3. Tanya Duerksen #

    Amen. Preach it Brother Ryan.

    November 23, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    🙂 The Catholic formerly known as stern has learned a lot from his Anabaptist brother….so take your bow 🙂 but gird your loins. Any way you soften me I’m still the son of Scottish hardheads, underneath!…

    …”There are problems with authority just as there are problems with the free-for-all that Bible land sometimes seems like.”.

    Agreed.

    Yet who would deny that collective communal governance, in principal, isn’t the preferred option to individual writ. One still has the issue,as you point out, as to what constitutes good governance but how can individual writ lead to anything other than incoherence and anarchy. Something about a “house divided against itself” as the Scripture goes. Even if we hold to Catholic failures as the model of communal governance, and there have been many, we still find that almost always the corrective measures required to remedy error/sin were self contained. That is to say, Catholic authority provides the legislative means by which it may alter it’s own course, may self correct so to speak. By what measure is the independant preacher held acountable? Solely his or her own discernment and discretion?

    Perhaps the term “legislative body” is innapropriate, a secular term better suited to wholly political institutions. Let us then speak of presbyters, elders the bishopric and like terms then. Clearly our history as people of God has always (almost always?) been mediated through an ecclessial class.

    Broadening the discussion again, I wonder what civilized advancement was rendered other than through an organized and regulated system of governance. Who in modernity would advocate the political and social free-for-all that “Bibleland” can be?

    Interpretive pluralism and all the chaos and contradiction born from it seems to my mind the only logical conclusion to draw from wholly independant and individual discernments of the word. God is rendered incoherent and contradictory, as is truth.

    The Christian faith’s most logical social pre-disposition is servitude, not individual independence. God’s fundamental law would not at the same time call us to love one another in the absolute while ministering to us in wholly independant and contradictory ways.

    One God. One people. One church. I am thoroughly convicted.

    I agree wholeheartedly also with the supposition that, “human sin” is the culpable agent. My response though is that it is holier and accords greater glory to God, for me to believe that the Holy Spirit has and continues to animate one coherent and consistent response to sin, through one holy Catholic and Apostolic church, rather than the plethora of responses born from the reformation.

    November 23, 2011
    • James #

      Maybe it’s a minor point, Paul, but “community hermeneutic” is an Anabaptist given. To us the Catholic structure does not look like “collective communal governance”. Community hermeneutic is our response to individualism. It of course has also has its own blemished track record to defend but I do think that is the Biblical model and that it needs to be worked and re-worked in each era and society.

      November 23, 2011
    • It seems to me that you are taking a few unpleasant examples of how not to read the Bible and making them representative of the entire non RC world, Paul. There are bad examples, certainly—many more than I would prefer. But there are also examples of communities of faith sitting together with/under Scripture and collectively engaging in the work of discernment. As James says, this is our response to the problems of individualism.

      Re: which approach is holier or accords God more glory, I don’t really see what you’re getting at here. Anabaptists would certainly see their own approach to faith, biblical interpretation, etc as one that is coherent and consistent with the New Testament witness.

      November 23, 2011
      • Paul Johnston. #

        Sorry If I’ve implied that my criticisms are intended to indict “the entire non RC world”. First off I would never confront the EO in this manner, 🙂 and sincerely I do stand by the Augustinian concept, generally articulated in an earlier response, that many who are in are out and many who seem out, are in.

        I do firmly stand by the notion that God’s church be one. Singular in body and ecclessial organization. There is only one “Israel”. Protestantism then, seen in this light, and in spite of the spiritually legitimacy of many of its proponents, becomes an anathema. Christian culture, led by the “Spirit that is with us always unto the end of the age” cannot devolve into a multitude of conflicting and contradictory interpretations. This may provide mankind with a false material peace but to my mind it is an irrational and frankly unholy representation of the Kingdom on earth. What kind of God has any moral or rational legitimicy when the proponents of his faith are a cacaphony of competing and conflicting ideas?

        Somewhat paradoxically perhaps, given my sometimes insufferable defense of all things RC, I am more open to the suggestion that Roman Catholicism is errant and in need of further developement and discernment so that it might more fully reflect the truth, than I am able to agree to the idea that contradictory Christian messages are somehow consistent with the teachings of our beloved Jesus.

        Hope that helps.

        November 25, 2011
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I don’t think the point is minor, James. Though, as you imply, the gulf between what is legitimate communal governance, one group to another, can be substantial. In any case, like you, I do believe the biblical model is communal and I am most suspicious of Christian fellowships that trend towards isolation and individual leaderships.

    November 23, 2011
  6. Ken #

    Re: “try to read and interpret the Bible in a manner consistent with the story it claims to tell.”

    I have yet to find a denomination or church that does this, even while each claims to do this, whether liberal or conservative. We did attempt to do this at the university. Christianity as a whole has always taken great liberties in this respect, if this is indeed a liberty.

    I do believe the Bible is much more fascinating to read if one can read it outside of Christian traditions, as can happen in the university. This kind of reading can, however, leave one’s faith in tatters. It certainly heightens one’s awareness that much in the Bible is morally offensive to modern sensibilities.

    The Bible’s reality and morality are not ours. Christianity is virtually fraudulent to the extent it claims consistency with the Biblical story.

    As for me, I begin with nature, rather than the Bible, even while I greatly enjoy the Bible, just as we read it in the university, and even while I want more than anything to be loved the way God loved Israel. Surely, though, I am a heretic.

    To me, the Bible reflects all of our human passions, whether or not moral by modern standards. We try to manage them and keep them in bounds, but they always break loose again. In the end, if we are loved as God loved Israel, nothing else matters.

    November 23, 2011
    • I think that the Bible does more than reflect human passions, although it certainly does this. I think the Bible confronts us. It presents us with a complicated God and a complicated story and asks us to align ourselves with this God and this story. It gives us the hope that we are loved by God and invites us to give our lives in love.

      Christianity surely has many sins to atone for, but to say that it is “fraudulent to the extent that it claims consistency with the Biblical story” strikes me as strange indeed.

      November 24, 2011
      • Ken #

        Our understandings of what the Bible is and what story it tells are quite different, I imagine, as is the difference between the Roman Catholic understanding and that of protestantism and that found in other parts of the world.

        Re: “It presents us with a complicated God and a complicated story and asks us to align ourselves with this God and this story.”

        That is not how it seems to me at all. It is a simple story with a very human-like God. It asks for no alignment. It is, instead, something more like the justification or explanation of the ways of an ancient people.

        November 24, 2011
      • I think our understandings of Scripture are similar in some ways, different in others. You seem to see it as, perhaps, something of a historical artifact that may yet offer hope. I also see it as a collection of documents that are profoundly a product of their time and place, but one in which God has seen fit to make himself known. We may not always approve, we may not agree, certain descriptions and prescriptions may offend our modern sensibilities, but I believe it is, nonetheless, the story of God, in Christ, reconciling all things to himself. In that sense, you are right—the story is a simple one.

        I’m not sure how you can say that the story asks for no alignment. One can hardly turn a page in the Hebrew prophets or the Gospels or the Epistles without some exhortation to the people of God to live according to the pattern of the one who has called them. Of course, one is free to disregard these exhortations or to interpret them as the projections, insecurities, etc of primitive peoples, but it seems to me that it is difficult to read the story without coming to the conclusion that a response of some kind is expected from those who encounter it.

        November 24, 2011
  7. Ken #

    In the case of the prophets It is because the same passages can be read as explaining why the people of Israel were in exile. In the case of the epistles it is because they can be read as offering encouragement rather than exhortation.

    Overall, my sense is that the scriptures are justifications of power. These stories have been taken out of historical context and distorted to justify power in contemporary contexts.

    Re: “one is free to disregard these exhortations or to interpret them as the projections, insecurities, etc of primitive peoples”

    I don’t regard them as that. When I use the word “ancient” I do not mean primitive. In addition, when I think of culture (or religion) as evolving, I don’t think of that evolution as progressive. I think of evolution as merely one thing after another, as change, not progression, just as Darwin did. In addition, I do not tend to think of religion in psychological terms – neither today, nor yesterday.

    November 24, 2011
    • Leaving aside the explicit exhortations contained in nearly every genre of the biblical texts, I think that embedded within any explanation for exile is the call to “return.” Certainly in the case of the prophets, to explain is to exhort. To explain exile with reference to the Deuteronomic blessing/curse formulas is to exhort Israel to renew their commitment to YHWH, Torah, etc. I don’t see how it would be possible to hear, “You are suffering because of your failure to live according to the covenant” without understanding, “therefore, you ought to repent/adjust your behaviour.”

      November 24, 2011
      • Ken #

        Certainly, in ancient Israel, the prophets called on the kings to stop worshipping other gods, for example, and to worship only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And during the exile, prophets told the people that if they worshipped that God that he would restore their blessings.

        And the apostles promised Gentiles that they would enjoy the kindgom of God if they turned to him.

        I don’t think this story “asks us to align ourselves with this God” or to follow the ways of ancient Israel or the Christians. I think that even those today who think it does ask for alignment are selective about what they believe the alignment entails.

        In the PCUSA, at the seminary I attended, few people believed that Jesus really rose from the dead, or believed that God ever spoke to Moses, or even believed that God is real, but they found in the ancient text justifications for their preferences in politics and ethics.

        Certainly, the mass of Christianity agrees with you and not with me, even if like my peers in seminary they do not believe God is something real.

        As for me, it appears that the Bible offered an explanation to the people in exile why they were in exile and different from those they lived among, and that it gave them hope that someday they would have their own nation as their ancestors did. Aligning themselves with the teachings of Moses and other prophets was a kind of immediate remedy for their despair and a way of maintaining their unity as a people in exile.

        Christians have recycled or appropriated that hope for themselves. Rome adopted Christianity for the sake of order in the empire, for the sake of the great power of the emperor. Today, perhaps the exile is experienced in the alienations associated with modernity. Our generations have appropriated it or recycled this pattern to alleviate the meaninglessness. It helps keep the workers aligned with the powers of the age, or it gives hope to those who rebel against those powers.

        As for me, I just hope we are loved as God in the story loved Israel. That is different from believing as you do that in scripture “God has seen fit to make himself known.” Sometimes I do think I am seeing the words of God when I read scripture, but mostly I just see a great story, one that makes me love the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and wish that it were true along with the claims Christianity makes about it.

        There are two ways to read Genesis 12, God’s promise to Abraham. One way is that says “through Abraham God would bless everyone.” The other is that is says, “everyone will want to be blessed as Abraham was.” I read it that way. I do want that. I don’t think that requires any special alignment on our part. As I understand you, you do.

        November 24, 2011
      • Yes, we read some things very differently.

        November 25, 2011
  8. Paul Johnston. #

    Ken, do you mean to imply, as I sometimes read you, that the love stories that inspire us and the love relationships that sustain us, are simply the imagined longings of our current evolutionary state?

    November 25, 2011
    • Ken #

      I can see how that implication is there, but I don’t mean to imply or conclude that.

      I believe that the natural world of which we are part implies that we are loved the way in the Bible God loved Israel. Sometimes I fear it is not true, but mostly that is the impression I get from the natural world. And I do wish that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the one I sense in the natural world are one and the same. If this sense and wish come from evolution, then blessed is evolution. To someday find out that they are indeed the same, would fill me with inexpressible joy.

      I think Ryan and I mainly differ on what we believe the Bible is and on the idea that what Ryan has called “alignment” matters. Ultimately, I think our hope is the same in kind if not in expression.

      November 25, 2011
      • Paul Johnston. #

        Thanks, ken. I suppose that there is disagreement on particulars between us, but like you I am convicted that the Bible story is first and foremost about a love relationship between God and His Israel. It is my hope that fellowship within His Israel extends beyond our human imagination and polity.

        To the hearts that love, may we all find our destiny in His kingdom.

        November 25, 2011
      • Ken #

        Paul, re: “It is my hope that fellowship within His Israel extends beyond our human imagination and polity….To the hearts that love, may we all find our destiny in His kingdom.”

        It is such a beautiful hope and prayer.

        November 25, 2011
  9. Jayson Giesbrecht #

    Hey Ryan, I appreciate your insights and the passion this evidently brings out of you. You must feel some sense of responsibility, as a pastor, to be a significant interpreter. That’s a very vital role that the preacher can play, and makes a lot of sense to me when you have a level of training that most do not. My uncle said something interesting to me recently regarding reading scripture, and that is that a Christian reads the bible in a Christian way. That we see all scripture through the lens of Christ’s life, words, and activity on earth. Where other scripture seems to contradict what Christ did, we believe the model we see in Christ. In a way its so simple but to me seemed profound. On a slightly different note, he offered that asking the question WWJD, might be the wrong question to ask, but rather WDJD (What did Jesus do?). These seem to offer some nice framework for life.
    Jayson
    PS. Do you mean to say I cut my hair short for nothing; that it wasn’t shameful after all?

    November 25, 2011
    • Thank Jayson. I don’t know if I see myself as having some unique interpretive role as a pastor or not—perhaps my role is simply to move the “fence” of interpretation in or out depending upon the circumstance :).

      I like what your uncle said. You’re right—simple, yet profound. As Christians, I think we can and should unapologetically read Scripture Christocentrically.

      (You cut your hair?! So sad… As one who is, shall we say, “follically challenged,” I am grieved to hear this….)

      November 25, 2011

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