It’s (Too) Easy for Me to Be Offended By the Bible
I’ve been thinking about Richard Beck’s piece from yesterday about how being offended by the Bible seems to be the unique province of educated, liberal folks, and about how those “on the margins” seem not to be nearly as scandalized—even by the really nasty parts. I’ve been thinking about this in no small measure due to the fact that our church has spent a bit of time in “nasty” texts in our preaching and worship this summer (Leviticus and Joshua, for example), and I have, on occasion, found myself almost apologizing for the Bible, almost assuming people will be offended by it. I know that people in our church struggle with the Bible. I struggle with the Bible. It this merely a function of my/our social location?
Beck doesn’t claim to fully understand the reason(s) for the correlation noted above, but he threw a couple of potential options out: 1) Perhaps a certain level of education is required to be (properly?) offended by some of the really horrific stuff in the Bible. Maybe there is something about a liberal education that makes us more highly attuned to moral issues, the abuses perpetrated in the name of this or that text, etc.; or 2) Perhaps those on the margins are already familiar with the brutality and harshness of life and aren’t surprised to see it reflected in the Bible. They already know life can be ugly. Why wouldn’t life in “Bible times” be just as bad? Why wouldn’t we expect God to be involved in the mess?
I think there are merits to both of these arguments, but I have found myself thinking along two somewhat different tracks over the last day or so.
1. The Bible probably isn’t quite as bad as we (like to) make it out to be
The Bible is, obviously, a product of the time period in which it was written, so we ought not to be too surprised to see violence and bizarre cultural practices and rituals drip off its pages. Virtually every text written during the vast period spanned by the books of the bible contains at least some violence and/or practices/beliefs we find bizarre. One of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith is the incarnation—the idea that God enters and works in the midst of the ugly, bloody, violent, disgusting, perverted, racist, sexist mess that we have made. This is the soil from which redemption springs. God does not exist above the fray, as it were, but right in the middle of it. And if we expect the written record of God’s interaction with his world to reflect the social realities in which it was formed, and if we believe that there is a mixture of divine inspiration and human agency in its composition, we should not be surprised to see some nasty stuff in the Bible.
Additionally, it’s worth pondering just how this “violent,” “primitive,” “barbaric” text might have played any role whatsoever in producing the moral/cultural vantage point from which we now sit in judgment upon it. We are not the first people to notice that the Bible contains unpleasant stories, after all. These stories didn’t all of a sudden appear in the 21st century West, nor are we uniquely gifted in “discovering” them. Somehow, this text—with the nasty bits and the awe-inspiring, transformative bits—has played a crucial role in the formation of Western culture, with out commitment to equality, human rights, justice, education, etc. These things (and our commitments to them) did not drop fully formed out of the sky in the 21st century West. They were and are part of a long religious and cultural trajectory in which the story of Scripture has played a huge and formative role.
2. We aren’t quite as morally superior to the Bible as we like to think
I wonder if, perhaps, white, liberal, educated people tend to overestimate their moral superiority to those “horrible” bible stories. This week in liberal, tolerant, well-educated Canada, for example, we were treated to the spectacle of a “frosh week” chant at a university pep-rally, which trivialized and celebrated non-consensual sex with underage girls (otherwise known as “rape”). We could also think of the pathetic vulgar-ification of pop culture in general with songs that repeatedly glorify the dehumanization of women as little more than sexual playthings (and then, in a cruel twist, manage to hold up the ridiculous ideal to women that embracing these roles is somehow an expression of “liberation”). Hmm. Not so enlightened.
Or we could look at the incalculable relational, familial, and societal costs that we seem willing to sacrifice to our commitment to individualism and personal expression/fulfillment. We could think of the costs that we make the most vulnerable among us bear in our haste to jettison old, boring, irrelevant words like “covenant” and “commitment” and “fidelity” from our vocabularies. Again, not exactly a mark of moral progress, in my view.
Or we could think about violence. What percentage of the national budgets of western, tolerant, liberal democracies is spent on funding state-sanctioned violence? What sorts of films and television programs and video games do tolerant, liberal, well-educated westerners pour jaw-dropping sums of money into each year? What heroes do we look up to on our big screens? There are exceptions, of course, but we tend to make millionaires out of those who give us exciting stories full of brutal violence that make the book of Joshua seem pretty tame by comparison.
Perhaps we liberal educated folks just prefer our degrading, irresponsible sex and horrific violence at a safe distance, where it can entertain and titillate us, but it can’t be part of any kind of a broader narrative that might critique these things or demand something of as both capable of and responsible for moving the story forward.
I’m not trying to downplay the difficult parts of the Bible. I struggle with these. I really do. But in my experience, while these texts can represent a legitimate crisis for people of faith, they can just as easily represent an excuse for people to refuse to engage the Bible on a deeper level and, perhaps even more importantly, to refuse to look in the (ugly) mirror that the Bible holds up to every culture.