Don’t look at the finger, look at the moon

Here is Eric A. Siebert, saying the thuddingly obvious:

The basic premise of my recent book, The Violence of Scripture, is quite simple: the Bible should never be used to harm others. One might imagine such a “profound” truth to be self-evident and hardly worthy of a book length treatment. But the sad reality is that the “good book” has been bad news for far too many people.

This is not a new or novel observation. Believers have been saying this, and writing this, since at least the 6th century BCE. And for just as long, other people have been responding with exactly the sort of denial and condemnation that Siebert is now being subjected to by the gatekeepers of the white evangelical tribe.

This argument has been going on for millennia. So the rest of Siebert’s essay ought to sound familiar:

The Bible has been used to inflict enormous pain upon others and to endorse all kinds of evil. It has been used to hurt and even kill people. Specifically, it has been used to justify warfare, oppress women, condemn gays and lesbians, support slavery, and legitimate colonization, to name just a few of its troubling legacies. When the Bible is used for such evil ends, there is no mistaking the fact that something has gone terribly wrong.

Most Christians would attribute this misuse of the Bible to faulty interpretations and misguided  interpreters.  And this certainly is part of the problem. But, unfortunately, the problem runs deeper than this.  It runs right through the pages of Scripture itself.

To put it bluntly: not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us. I realize this may sound blasphemous to some people and flies in the face of everything they have been taught to believe about the Bible. When the Church grandly proclaims the Bible to be the Word of God, it gives the impression that the words of Scripture are above critique and beyond reproach. We are taught to read, revere, and embrace the Bible. We are not taught to challenge its values, ethics, or portrayals of God.

But this way of reading the Bible is problematic, to say the least. At times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept. Rather than seeing this as a sign of disrespect, we should regard engaging in an ethical and theological critique of what we read in the Bible as an act of profound faithfulness.

Also all-too-familiar is the utterly predictable response from the tribal gatekeepers. How dare you? They rant and rave. They accuse people like Siebert of setting themselves up as God or as the judge of God.

The response to Siebert’s piece has been exactly the same — sometimes verbatim — as the response to Steve Chalke’s long, thoughtful argument earlier this year in favor of the church affirming the marriages of same-sex couples.

Ansel Adams, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”

The Bible, Chalke argued, confronts us with “a hard choice; a choice between the current dominant view of what Scripture tells us about this issue and the one I honestly think it points us to.”

I’ve often written of that choice in terms of the proverb/koan about the finger and the moon. The Bible is like a finger pointing at the moon. Some of us are focused on the moon. Some of us are focused on the finger.

This argument has continued for so long because the opposing sides do not agree on the nature of the dispute. People like Siebert and Chalke (and me) propose one approach to dealing with conflicts in the Bible, places where particular passages or specific laws or clobber texts contradict the larger themes of the whole of scripture. The other side of this argument does not simply disagree with our approach to such conflicts, it denies that any such conflicts do or can exist.

And so round and round we go in this never-ending argument. The particulars change, but the pattern is always the same whether it’s Eric Siebert talking about violence, or Steve Chalke talking about same-sex relationships, or Jonathan Blanchard talking about slavery, or Paul talking about circumcision, or Peter talking about unclean Gentiles, or Jesus talking about the Sabbath, or Isaiah talking about feast days.

We’re looking at the moon. They’re shouting, “How dare you take your eyes off the finger?”

 

 

  • Foreigner

    I confess I did once use a Bible to cause harm. It was a very large spider, though.

  • Hexep

    No thought worth expressing has ever, yet to this day, been prefaced with the phrase ‘how dare you.’ Fred Clark has graciously rounded up a cadre of chuckeheads who prove that the rule remains solid.

  • Magic_Cracker

    The particulars change, but the pattern is always the same whether it’s Eric Siebert talking about violence, or Steve Chalke talking about same-sex relationships, or Jonathan Blanchard talking about slavery, or Paul talking about circumcision, or Peter talking about unclean Gentiles, or Jesus talking about the Sabbath, or Isaiah talking about feast days.

    All I want to say is I love it when you use this rhetorical device. It’s like a boxing combination where each blow creates the opening for the next and is more devastating than the last. Clobber verses indeed.

    (Yes, I am aware of the irony of comparing Fred’s ultimately inclusive and peace-loving position to a blood-sport — just as I am aware of my ironic use of “clobber verses” — but if you’re gonna fuck with a shepherd, you’re gonna get shorn.)

  • AnonaMiss

    I disagree.

    “How dare you foreclose on a house that you don’t even own?!”

    “How dare you speak about black people that way?!”

    “How dare you say that just because I’m a woman, I won’t last at this job?!”

  • Vermic

    No thought worth expressing has ever, yet to this day, been prefaced with the phrase ‘how dare you.’

    How dare you treat my friend so shamefully!

    But yeah, if the speaker isn’t a singing, dancing stop-motion skeleton king, it might come off a little silly.

  • other lori

    I’ve worried about a couple of my study Bibles–as well as the Riverside Chaucer and a few Norton anthologies–causing one of my children serious injury if they were to be shaken off their shelves. But not worried enough to move them. Plus, there’d be something ironic about a child being concussed by a falling Bible, and sometimes the pleasure I take in hypothetical irony supercedes my concern for my child’s hypothetical safety.

  • P J Evans

     I tend to put stuff like that on the bottom shelves. More likely to keep the shelves from going over. (Handbook of Chemistry and Physics!)

  • Carstonio

    As someone who isn’t religious, I admit that I don’t understand what Seibert means by “engaging in an ethical and theological critique of what we read in the Bible as an act of profound faithfulness.” The phrase sounds short on specifics to me, and I might assume that it means Fred’s point about focusing on scripture’s larger themes.

    But that’s a minor quibble. No disagreement with either writer on the general ethical principles they’re articulating. I translate them into secular terms – no ideology should be used to hurt others, and no ideology should be exempt from questioning.

  • Carstonio

     Q. Is TV harmful to children?
    A. Only if the set falls on them.

  • AnonCollie

     Fluttershy: “How dare you… How dare you! Listen here, mister! Just because you’re big, doesn’t mean you get to be a bully!”You’re arguing against cartoon, pastel-colored equines, friend. You might want to rethink that. Or you’ll get the stare.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    In a similar vein:
    I don’t like sex on TV, as I keep falling off.

  • Carstonio

    Did you see Daffy Duck rehearsing the phrase in “A Star is Bored,” where he was Bugs Bunny’s stunt double?

  • http://www.jasonknox.weebly.com jasonknox

    It
    seems like you are saying two things:

    1)
    We must allow the larger themes of the Bible to correct certain
    verses that contradict those larger themes.

    2)
    Those who claim that the Bible has no verses that contradict the
    larger themes are “the other side” and wrongly prioritize their
    reading of the Bible (the finger) over God (the moon).

    Therefore
    what I am hearing is you say is that the Bible (when properly
    understood according to its “larger themes”) has the authority to
    correct.

    “At
    times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we
    must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept.”

    If
    it can correct particular verses then surely it must also have the
    authority to correct values held by people, acts committed by people,
    and people’s portrayals of God. I don’t have to be one of the people
    you label “on the other side” to suggest that sometimes the Bible
    has to correct us. “The other side” will argue that the Bible
    must always correct us and never the other way around, but it seems
    as though your side would agree faithfulness looks like engaging the
    Bible in such a way that at least some of the time it corrects you
    (and some of the time you correct it).

    However,
    is it not then possible that you have defined the “larger themes”
    of the Bible based on your preconceived values, acts, and portrayals
    of God? If your values, acts, and portrayals of God lead you to
    misinterpret “the larger themes” of the Bible then isn’t there
    the danger that you are looking past the wrong finger and therefore
    looking at the wrong moon? Isn’t there a danger of being so sure that
    you are looking at the right moon that you become unwilling to glance
    back at the finger and therefore you have become unwilling to be
    corrected?

    The
    Bible is a large book and therefore the “larger themes of the
    Bible” really do have to be pretty large not simplistic. If “the
    larger themes” is something as simple as “God is love” then I
    can’t imagine that theme is borne out of intensive study but rather
    the elevation of a few favorite verses that someone refused to check
    against the actual larger theme.

    This
    is perhaps still a little too simple, but I appreciate James
    Hamilton’s attempt to boil down the larger themes of the Bible:
    Displaying God’s glory in salvation through judgment.” It seems to
    me that that allows for some degree of “harm” or judgement to
    come against everything that is opposed to that Glory. How can you
    truly love something and not hate that which seeks to destroy it? The
    Good News is that God uses judgment in order to save and thereby
    bring glory to himself.

    I’m
    assuming that you know what Mark Driscol was shouting “How dare
    you?” at –  he was angry at the men (boys, he would call
    them) who are abusing the women in the church. To love the women of
    his church he has to hate that which seeks to destroy them. 
    Also,
    the finger and the moon analogy assumes that the Bible is of
    different origins than the moon. The finger is on earth and is
    pointing at the moon. Statistically, it would be impossible to aim
    and hit something that far away in space from the earth (and therefore, if true, you would be right to be wary of the finger). I consider
    the Bible to be an arm reaching down from the moon to give us a hint
    of what the moon is like and then becomes a true and straight line
    back to the moon. I get that not everyone will agree with that and I
    supposes that’s ok.

  • Victor

    (((But the sad reality is that the “good book” has been bad news for far too many people.)))

    I hear ya folks! Why must you live this way Victor?

    http://www.francetudiant.com/videos/the-lost-trailers-country-folks-dmyXzBqdMOA

    STOP “IT” sinner vic NOW!

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theanchoress/2013/02/07/benedicts-profound-talk-on-creation-freedom-sin-love/

    Sorry Victor :(

    GO FIGURE NOW! :)

    Peace

  • OriginalExtraCrispy

    Do you have a tip hotline email address? I occasionally see articles that look relevant to your blog, but I’m not sure if I should send them, post them here, or just assume you probably already saw it or have enough to talk about.

    “Pastor apologizes for praying alongside Muslims, Jews at Newtown vigil”
    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/02/07/pastor-apologizes-for-praying-alongside-muslims-jews-at-newtown-vigil/

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Especially the new flat-screens.

  • Foelhe

    “However,

    is it not then possible that you have defined the “larger themes”
    of the Bible based on your preconceived values, acts, and portrayals
    of God?”
    Jason, everyone worth hir salt asks those kinds of questions. You should question your values and you should take stock of your life. But if people go from “I don’t know if I’m right” to “I guess I can never know! Oh well, never mind,” then they are idiots.

    Life is about examination and exploration. That’s true for a person grappling with the bible just as it’s true for a person grappling with real life. Personally I look at the bible, and the fundamentalist view of God makes very little sense. I look at reality, and the fundamentalist view makes even less. That doesn’t mean I’m definitely right, it means the opinions I’ve got fits the evidence I’ve got to the best of my ability.

    If you want truth, seek it. And a big part of seeking truth is examining what’s real. Nobody should have to explain this to you. If you refuse to examine the world around you, but you claim to be a truthseeker, then you are lying. This is why we criticize people who refuse to ask questions and then claim to be bearers of the truth.

  • Mark Z.

    This isn’t about “correcting particular verses”. It’s about correcting a narrative point of view that encourages us to identify with the perpetrators of murder, rape, theft, and exploitation.

    Let’s put it this way, Jason: The book of Joshua says that God ordered Joshua to go and annihilate another tribe and take their stuff.

    Do you believe that that’s consistent with God’s character?

    If so, how does this fact influence your attitude toward God?

    If not, then what’s it doing in the text?

  • Fusina

     Rev. Rob Morris needs to leave the Missouri Synod for the other bunch of Lutherans. We had a Lutheran Chaplain (Air Force, IIRC) who did services for us (Episcopal church of NA) when our reg. priest was out of town, only then he got stationed elsewhere. We still miss him and his wife. They are awesome.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    If your values, acts, and portrayals of God lead you tomisinterpret “the larger themes” of the Bible then isn’t therethe danger that you are looking past the wrong finger and thereforelooking at the wrong moon?

    Short snarky answer: Yes, you’re right, when the Bible commends and commands “Genocide, slavery, concubinage, atrocities, slaughter and pillage,” maybe that’s just God being God, and God’s just so much worse than any human can ever hope to be. Does that work for you?

  • SisterCoyote

    Agreed, entirely. I would add, though, that in light of this ongoing questioning, one’s answer about the nature of the Bible leads to answers that harm others, directly opposing the open and unambiguous teachings of Christ… much as it bothers my inner existentialist, you’ve moved out of the grey area and are objectively wrong.

  • The_L1985

     Quite frankly, I think part of the problem is that people mistakenly believe that the Bible is a book.  It isn’t.

    The Bible is dozens of different books, written by dozens of different people.  To ignore this blatant fact, and treat the Bible as if it were one book and had always been one book, is to do the text, its authors, and the God of which it speaks, a grave injustice.

  • The_L1985

     I don’t know, the old CRT ones were a lot heavier.

  • Andrea

    The flat-screens comment was in response to the “sex on TV” joke.

  • EllieMurasaki

    is it not then possible that you have defined the “larger themes” of the Bible based on your preconceived values, acts, and portrayals of God?
    (1) Everyone does.

    (2) A book that has umpty-hundred lines about helping the poor and six (or fewer, depending on what ‘arsenokoites’ actually means) about gay people sex being bad can safely be assumed to have more to say about helping the poor than about gay sex.

  • Victor

    Believe “IT” or not Ellie, Victor had to look UP the word  http://www.bing.com/search?q='arsenokoites'&pc=conduit&ptag=A08DA6EB46A3943DB8DF&form=CONTLB&conlogo=CT3210127&ShowAppsUI=1

    I don’t know why ya all put UP with this little redardo soul of his who also won’t take the time to know”ME”!?

    Give “IT” UP sinner vic cause you’re no god! :(

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVMiZaL4t9A

    Hey Victor, stop being so silly! Help U<S (usual sinners) bottle "IT" and we'll become Filthy rich in the spiritual comedy world! :)

    Peace 

  • Victor Savard

    How did we miss the rest?
     
    Hey Victor, stop being so silly! Help U<S (usual sinners) bottle "IT" and we'll become Filthy rich in the spiritual world! :)
     

    Peace

  • Victor Savard

    Whow these hack hers are good! :)

  • LL

    It seems that some people are not reading the Chick-fil-A Biblical Family of the Day posts. 

    They illustrate what Fred is talking about here. It’s really very simple to understand, if you want to understand it. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667708632 Kenneth Raymond

    The phrase sounds short on specifics to me, and I might assume that it means Fred’s point about focusing on scripture’s larger themes.

    At least to the best of my interpretive ability, he’s saying, “The Bible has problematic, even unethical and immoral stuff in it, and we should call it out as such. We’re told that calling it out is disrespectful, but it’s actually more in line with the spirit of Christianity to challenge the very real problems with our own sacred cows.”

  • The_L1985

    Ah.  Right on, then.

  • Eminnith

    “If “thelarger themes” is something as simple as “God is love” ”

    I can’t help thinking you don’t know much about love.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     You can just send them to Fred’s email address.   (It’s under ‘about’.)

  • Foelhe

    At a bare minimum – because I’m too generous for my own good – you’ve got a huge swath of Jesus’ teachings that you’ll need to explain pretty carefully to keep from tripping all over yourself.

    A lot of what Jesus taught was wrapped in parables and interpretation, but in Matthew he is flat-out asked what the most important rule is, and he speaks pretty plain. First, love God. Second, love your neighbor. Of course, conservatives love trying to think of ways the first rule somehow trumps the second, as if Jesus only threw the second one in to pad for time. As if “like unto it” somehow means the two are totally separate.

    So yeah, I almost never say someone’s objectively wrong until they have a chance to defend their ideas, but we’ve seen the mental gymnastics people use to justify harm, and it never goes anywhere.

  • Foelhe

    My first thought was, “At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?” The phrasing may be different, but the spirit of it seems the same.

  • Hexep

    Oh-ho-ho, you cut me to the quick!

    When those thoughts have been genuinely expressed at other times, my heart tells me that they were not done as ‘how dare yous.’ It’s like the phrase ‘slap in the face,’ when used as metaphor; it’s a convenient shorthand for ‘I got nuthin’ to say here.’

  • Tricksterson

    Really Missouri Synod?  Really?

  • Tricksterson

    Actually Victor I rather like you as you are.

  • reynard61

    A certain pony might disagree: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvLU1RqB_oI

  • Keulan

    There are definitely bad “how dare yous” and good ones. AnonCollie already mentioned my favorite of the good kind, but I feel like it needs to be seen in it’s full awesomeness.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvLU1RqB_oI

  • Hexep

    Yes, but it’s the phrasing that makes all the difference. I think that for any native English speaker, we’ve seen the ‘how dare you’ construction used often enough in fiction by people we do not sympathize with – ‘how dare you wear white shoes after labor day,’ that sort of thing – that anybody who uses it must be subconsciously undercutting their own position, because they don’t really believe in it. Or because they’re trying to channel that nonsense outrage.

  • Hexep

    Ehhh, arguing with Fluttershy wouldn’t be so hard; I could probably intimidate her into acquiesence. Now, if Rainbow Dash were there, that might be a different story, ‘cuz Dashie never backs down. But Fluttershy? A good hard scolding and she’d be done for.

  • Guest

    It sounds like a good book and it’s a noble enterprise to try to eliminate the harmful parts of the bible, but a part of me just thinks, why bother? Why not just stop reading it and derive your morality from somewhere else? You obviously already can. If the bible is not inspired by god and it doesn’t lead to an above average morality, what good is it, really? 
    but then, I’m already an atheist.

  • Hexep

    May I counter with this?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGLO8OZU1zs#t=15m25s

    Since the thumbnail won’t show, it’s from I, Claudius. It’s the ‘Caligula in Germany’ episode.

  • Hexep

    People don’t just choose what to believe, homeslice. You can’t wake up one morning and consciously decide, ‘hey, I’m going to take this pool of evidence and experience that I have, and interpret in such a way that once I concluded X, but henceforth conclude Y.’

    You believe what you believe based on your experiences; absent new experiences, you can’t just change that.

  • Victor

    Don’t be silly Tricks her son cause Victor is nothing but a spiritual reality  Canadian clown who wants all of you American to learn to “Get “IT” In” and if you’re not careful, he’s going to convince sinner vic to send you a  snow job  that “MAN” Don Cheeries invented in the North.

    High Victor! Don’t be Angry with U>S (usual sinners) cause we’re learning to “Get “IT” In”, then we’re going to pass “IT” on to “The Cold Bear Report”.

    WHATERVER sinner vic cause “I’M” a little tired and “UP  SET” right NOW! :(

    Don’t be like that Victor! Just learn to “Get “IT” IN”! :)

    Peace


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