Okay, so before we get started we have to make a deal. I am going to say some things right at the start that may turn you off and make you want to not read further. I need you to read further because I am going to clarify those things in the body of this blog and I don’t want you to think I’ve hit my head on something hard or had some kind of psychiatric crisis and just not read on. Thank you!
I love the Bible.
I hope you are still with me, because what I most definitely don’t love is the way the Bible has been abused by biblical literalists for not quite the last two hundred years. The truth is that before about 1850 nobody ever had the crazy-assed idea to read the Bible literally. Also around 1850, what has evolved into responsible modern biblical scholarship began in Germany. It was as if the great stream of tradition that was the Bible suddenly forked. One branch developed rich tributaries and clear water, and the other turned into a waste water reservoir than most resembles a brackish dung pool.
When I was in fourth grade (if memory serves) the Congregational Church presented us with Bibles. Revised Standard Version Bibles, to be precise, with many of the words printed with little pronunciation marks and dashes between the syllables like in dictionaries – a practice that has always been problematic for me because while all of those marks might be quite wonderful for helping you pronounce words they absolutely destroy my concentration when trying to read to myself and so constitute a deposit of detritus on the page that renders me pseudo dyslexic. I tried to read it, but it may as well have been written in Cyrillic script.
When I was twenty-four I became an Episcopalian in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I went to a Bible study led by our Rector, The Rev. Roger Cramer. We used The Jerusalem Bible, and he taught us contemporary biblical perspectives and scholarship. I fell in love with the version of the Bible and still occasionally bring it out today. One thing led to another, I moved away from the area, and Bible reading took a back seat to my life as a yuppie until my life came crashing down around me at age thirty-one and I started seriously reading the Bible – actually, devouring the Bible. It was a Life Application NIV Study Bible, complete with evangelical footnotes that I can’t even bring myself to look at today. The important thing was that I saw myself in those pages, saw my life in there, saw in the faith journeys recounted there the truth that my life wasn’t nearly as jacked up as many of the people I read about in those pages. A few years later I learned about contemporary biblical scholarship in-depth and my understanding of the Bible changed.
When I went back to school to finish my undergraduate degree I chose to dual major in psychology and biblical theology – at Wisconsin Lutheran College. My professors and I both shared a high view of scripture even as we interpreted it differently in some places. I learned about the historical context of the Old Testament prophets, started being able to connect what was going on in history around the time these men wrote – and suddenly their concerns, struggles, successes and failures made sense. Perhaps more importantly, I started to see that many of the questions they dealt with are questions we still deal with today – perhaps the most prominent one being “Why do bad things happen to good people?” When I went on to graduate school in Religious Studies I again took some biblical classes and learned even more about contemporary moderate to progressive biblical scholarship.
The biggest benefit of all of this formal study of the Bible was that I was able to understand the origins of the arguments carried on today around biblical issues – whether or not I agreed with them. I could see, in my mind, the folly in believing that everything you need for living is in the Bible – particularly for people who drive automobiles, have heat in their homes, own anything electronic, and have indoor plumbing since none of those things are mentioned in the Bible. I learned that the Bible can never be understood as a twenty-first century newspaper account or history book because it wasn’t written in the twenty-first century. Even the books of the Bible that are history books were not written with the same rules that contemporary history scholars write contemporary history. More significantly, I discovered that when you strip away all of the mistakes in interpretation – both accidental and intentional – that have perverted the biblical record you are left with a document that speaks to human’s lives across the centuries.
Do we not know people who have had to deal with their fifteen year old daughter becoming pregnant and not quite being sure who the baby’s father was? What about people who have encountered dynamic, charismatic leaders who have encouraged them to change the course of their lives, drop their current career, and head off on a new career path with an uncertain future – did they hesitate or not? Who among us hasn’t done something of which we are embarrassed or ashamed and come across a figure who had the power to shame us more or restore our dignity – and we had no idea which they would choose? We have certainly seen the poor, the sick, the excluded – and at times we, too, have looked away and pretended not to notice. Is there anyone over the age of thirty who has yet to discover that sometimes life isn’t fair?
I love the Bible because I see my life in it. I see the life of my friends in it, as well, alongside the lives of the people I find difficult. When I encounter people who misuse the Bible by literalizing it and turning it into a rule book or a weapon, I am angered. When they turn it into some kind of paper Pope, an infallible (or so they think) tool by which they can argue or beat people into submission I wonder how miserable someone has to be to inflict their own pain on others that way. When I see the people who so distort such a beautiful, sacred text believe they have found in it marching orders to inflict their perverse politics on the world in the Name of God, I know I cannot sit by idly and let them carry on without being a strident voice presenting another view.
In the Bible one can find no small amount of irony and more than a little reprehensible behavior. I suppose that, too, is the human experience – we all do have our shadows, and when we try to reject them they come out at the most inconvenient times and in the most inconvenient places. Perhaps the biggest biblical irony is that those who make the biggest show of carrying their Bible and claiming to live by it seem through their actions to have very little idea of what it says. I’m not willing to surrender what has been such an important book throughout my life – through thick and thin, good and bad – to ill-behaved, manipulative charlatans.