Of clobber-texts and anti-clobber-texts: The Bible is not a card game

In a recent “Smart people saying smart things” post, I quoted from Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s recent Christian Feminism Today piece “There Is More Than One Christian View on Homosexuality.” That post is taken from a 2005 talk Scanzoni gave at a “Faith Beyond Boundaries” interfaith conference. I suppose  describing it as a sermon might make it even less appealing than describing it as an address from an interfaith conference, but really that’s what it is — a sermon (a good one) on Micah 6:8.

When I was a kid, riding to church (twice on Sundays and on Wednesday nights) we’d usually get stuck at the light on West Seventh Street and from the back seat of the car I’d read the words from that verse carved on the wall of the synagogue there:

DO JVSTICE · LOVE MERCY

WALK HVMBLY WITH THY GOD

The full verse is just as good: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I love the blunt simplicity of that. This isn’t complicated, Micah is saying, here’s the whole deal in a nutshell. Boom — that’s it. The rest is just details. More can be said, but no more needs to be said. You could preach on that for a year and still not be done with it, but if you preach for a year and never arrive there then you’ve probably been wasting your breath.

This is good stuff, is what I’m saying. The best stuff.

Yet I fear that when Letha Dawson Scanzoni invokes this passage in direct response to a specific challenge, the person making that challenge still won’t be satisfied. It’s a far better answer than what he expected, but because it’s not shaped like the answer he expects to hear, I doubt he’ll be able to hear it.

Here’s her description of the challenge she was presented:

People for the most part appear to subscribe to a proof-text approach. Thus, after a favorable review of the book I wrote with Dave Myers appeared on an Internet blog, one reader entered this comment in response to that review:

“Please, if you could, give me a verse or passage in the Bible that plainly casts homosexuality in a positive light. Just give me one. Because, when Leviticus calls homosexuality an “abomination” I have a hard time seeing the pro-homosexuality biblical argument. If one wants to make a secular argument, fine, go right ahead. But when you try to establish a “Christian” case for being in favor of homosexuality you’ve left the realm of Christianity entirely.

“However, if you can, please cite me a passage that displays Yahweh’s affection for homosexuality. It should be fairly simple if it’s there.”

Referring to the subtitle of our book, he went on to say “there is no ‘Christian case’” and had some harsh words to say about those of us who think otherwise. Nevertheless, today I am going to take him up on his challenge. I am going to suggest that “one verse” that I think we people of faith can use in applying our faith to this topic.

The “one verse” she cites is Micah 6:8, and she goes on to build a convincing case as to why this one verse, even all by itself, compels her to advocate for the full equality of LGBT people (read the whole thing).

Artwork from Kelly Stephens’ Etsy shop (click for the link).

But the problem, in her inquisitor’s eyes, is that this passage is not itself a clobber-text. He reads the Bible like a child playing the old card game of “War.” He puts down his card — a clobber-text from Leviticus. And now it’s her turn to play her card. If she doesn’t have a corresponding clobber-text that trumps his, then he wins.

The idea that maybe the Bible is more than a collection of clobber-texts is beyond his imagination. The idea that a text could be anything other than a clobber-text is not a possibility that he can accommodate. Scanzoni’s argument, like Micah’s, is about cutting through distracting side issues to get to the core of what matters most: What does the Lord require?

But “what does the Lord require?” was not the inquisitor’s question. His question was “Do you have an anti-clobber text that overrules my clobber-text?” Like the prophet Micah, I think that’s a dumb question. It’s the wrong question — a question as irrelevant to everything as any possible answer to it would be. It’s a question that can only serve to distract us and to help us hide from ourselves the question that does matter — the question that the prophet asks and answers in Micah 6:8.

“But that verse isn’t about homosexuality!” the inquisitor protests.

Really? So there are certain subjects or realms or “issues” for which justice, mercy and humility do not apply?

I used to run into this weird objection when I spoke in churches or at conferences representing the Evangelical Environmental Network. My standard talk for the EEN was based on Galatians 5:22-23:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Every once in a while someone would complain that this passage isn’t about the environment. That’s narrowly true, I suppose. St. Paul did not say, “Don’t dump mercury in the river because poisoning your neighbors doesn’t demonstrate love, joy, peace, etc.” But surely this passage is obviously relevant to matters like mercury pollution, or to climate change, conservation, recycling, waste, etc.

It took me a while to realize what this complaint really meant. They were disappointed that I hadn’t recited an environmentalist clobber-text. Without a specific clobber-text on the specific topic in question, it seemed, they were unable to regard anything in the Bible as meaningful.

If forced to do so, I can recite a host of “environmental” clobber-texts, but while those might help these folks to win a hand or two in their games of Bible War, that won’t address the larger, deeper problem, which is that they remain unable to think of the Bible as anything more than an anthology of discrete, unrelated clobber-texts addressing various subjects.

And as long as that is how they read the Bible, they will never be able to ask Micah’s question. And they will never be able to hear Micah’s answer.

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  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    And Lawrence of Arabia was far more recent, and therefore much easier to understand. Most of the Bible was probably written at least a couple millennia ago.

    I used to wonder if God had been trying to reach people to expand on the Bible for the last couple thousand years, but people had been refusing to hear Her.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Eternal Fight Club, maybe?

  • Sandbur

    Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were
    hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that
    anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries
    another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If this is the
    situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus
    replied, “Not
    everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.
    FOR SOME ARE EUNUCHS BECAUSE THEY WERE BORN THAT WAY; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Matthew 19:8-12

    Also

    For thus says the LORD,
    “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
    And choose what pleases Me,
    And hold fast My covenant,
    To them I will give in My house and within My walls a
    memorial,
    And a name better than that of sons and
    daughters;
    I will give them an everlasting name which
    will not be cut off.“–Isaiah 56:4-5

  • dpolicar

    Lovely.

    So, back at the beginning of this thread, AnonymousSam characterized Deuteronomy 5:17 as “Kill no one,” and Wednesday replied that Deuteronomy 5:17 is actually an injunction against murder, which is not the same thing as killing. She then characterized “don’t murder” as “don’t kill people _unlawfully_ (in this case, the law being the at-the-time Jewish law and its definition of murder**).”

    You replied:

    Yeah, but come on. A law that says “Don’t kill people unlawfully” doesn’t strike me as a very useful law.

    From which I inferred that you were claiming that Deuteronomy 5:17 wasn’t useful. But now it sounds like you agree that “don’t murder” is a useful thing to say, and is a different thing to say from “don’t kill”, so if I assume you haven’t changed your mind about anything anywhere along the line, I have to conclude that I’ve missed your point altogether.

    I apologize for that misunderstanding.

  • Alix

    Well, except I don’t think it’s so much declaring what forms of killing are unlawful as the reverse: some killings are declared lawful, and “don’t murder” is saying you don’t get to go beyond that. It’s saying “no killing with these exceptions,” really.

    Whether or not that fits with things like the genocide passages and others is left to the individual, but “don’t murder – and by murder we mean no killings we haven’t explicitly allowed” is … pretty standard for legal codes, actually.

  • Marshall

    Thomas said that the people who think Leviticus is a meaningful guide to life are “illiterate assholes”. I didn’t suppose that Thomas was deliberately being anti-semitic, but the statement that Jews who take the Torah seriously are a class of “illiterate assholes” is … at least careless and bound to be hurtful to innocent people.

    My point is that people shouldn’t cherry-pick verses as moral authority for condemning classes of people, be they Orthodox Jews or Quiltbaggers. Assuming you are interested in raising the quality of discourse, to be sure.

  • Marshall

    Thanks for the clarification. Words are loaded, please use them carefully.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    To be fair, back in that era one thing people probably had only the vaguest understanding of was how urinary tract infections got started and transmitted.

    One can regard it as an admonition to safe and sanitary sex practices which, given modern condom manufacturing techniques, means the risk is cut down to near zero with proper usage of condoms.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I sense that you are attempting a derail.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Did you seriously call the biological mechanism of sexual reproduction “heteronormative”?

    There is a marine species a friend of mine told me about in which the male and female interchange at will as needed to reproduce.

    There is some funky-ass shit that goes on in the exchange of genes that is part of the successor generation creation and I don’t see how you can call that heteronormative unless you specifically chose to focus only on the “humans” part of FearlessSon’s statement.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I was focusing on the ‘sexuality is immortality’ part of it. Baby-making sexuality may be immortality, but any other flavor of sexuality? Not so much.

  • Matthias

    Do you ever look stuff up before posting? Because the state churches of northern Europe are conducting same sex marriage. The church of Swedens for instance started to provide same sex marriage in October 2009

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    And soap. But that’s always true for women. We just have to be extra careful about washing after anal penetration, but it’s not like vaginal penetration has no pitfalls when it comes to cleanliness.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    There’s such a thing as baby-making sex, but is there such a thing as baby-making sexuality? Maybe the Duggars.

    Also, baby-making sex isn’t always between a heterosexual cisman and a heterosexual ciswoman.

  • EllieMurasaki

    So I was supposed to let the ‘sexuality is immortality’ remark fly past even though it’s patently bullshit to anyone who isn’t someone who has [potentially] baby-making sex?

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Exactly my point. I wondered why they have significantly “moderated”, that is, have become so moderate/liberal/progressive. Do you ever read comments before replying to them?

  • Wednesday

    I totally get that. I will note, however, that the person you responded to with your definition of murder wasn’t trying to use Deuteronomy 5:17 as a clobber verse against abortion.

    Oh, certainly. I was just explaining why, as a general rule, I emphasize that said commandment is one against murder as defined by OT law, not against killing in general.

    I just have a problem with the idea of there being a law for or against it being the deciding factor.

    Ah, see, I thought you were saying it was functionally useless to have laws against killing people unlawfully, either because of the redundancy of the phrasing, or because of something else I wasn’t understanding. This being the Slacktivist commentariat, I assumed that for all but trolls there’s pretty much universal agreement here that Because It’s Against The Rules is not the primary factor in determining morality of an action. :)

  • Wednesday

    It’s worth noting that there are actually several species of whiptail lizards that reproduces via parthenogenesis. These species are all female, and in order to trigger the hormones to start producing eggs, they need to have sex with other lizards of their species.

  • Elizabeth Coleman

    From what I can tell of Judaism, (I’m speaking as an outsider) there is a lot of latitude and even encouragement to enter into a dialogue with the text, with G-d, and with each other. It’s like the opposite of the literal-minded fundamentalists.

  • http://www.owlfolio.org/ Zack Weinberg

    That’s definitely the way it was in the religious education I got as a child (mainstream American Conservative Judaism). I have the impression that there are ultra-Orthodox sects that are much more literal-minded, but I don’t know nearly enough about them to make any kind of comparison to Christian fundamentalism.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Fun fact: “Ye”, in that context, is “The”. There used to be a letter called thorn, which looked quite a bit like y, and was sounded as “th”.

  • octopod42

    Oh dear, just looked it up in “Hudibras”. You’re not kidding. O_O;; I mean, the phrase is obviously intended as a reference to the Proverb; but in context, Hudibras is imprisoned in the stocks after some fool-ass stunt and I think this lady is trying to convince him to let her whip him as a show of penance and self-discipline before she lets him out.

  • octopod42

    And that’s why it’s important to thoroughly debug your holy writ.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Actually not that much. But as luck would have it, only when used in the word ‘the’, there was a convention of writing the ‘e’ directly over top of the thorn to save space, and when you crush a thorn to make that fit, it makes it look more like a ‘y’.

    The use of ‘y’ for thorn stems from the fact that during the elizabethan era, printing presses were all made in Germany and Italy, and therefore didn’t have the Wacky English-Only Letters.

  • swbarnes2

    Isn’t there enough data in the world, enough experiences of people to assimilate and wrestle with?

    Have you finished all that, that you have time to wrestle with a text too?

  • kwdayboise

    Read shallowly, the Bible is prime fodder for both fundamentalists and, oddly, atheists. I think that’s probably why many “liberal Christians” eventually their up their hands in frustration and walk away. Even if we do win a game of Bible clobber, or at least get close enough to make the other person uncomfortable, the game changes to name-calling.

  • kwdayboise

    But again, Laura, it’s a shallow read of the document. The Bible, taken as a whole, illustrates an evolving understanding of the human relationship to God. And some of the most loving and caring passages in the Bible exist in the old testament, many of which were highlighted and developed in Jesus’ teachings.

  • Arresi

    I’m not sure I understand your question. Are you asking for the historical factors behind the shift in position? Or are you asking why some branches of Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism have adopted the contemporary liberal position on various social issues while others have not and/or adopted the contemporary conservative position?

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Who the fuck is Laura?

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I don’t see the bullshit in this case at all. I don’t have potentially baby-making sex, except by the standards of the Catholic Church’s “twist into a pretzel, close your eyes, and wish real hard cuz Sarah” ridiculousness. My husband cannot impregnate me. Also, when you say it’s “heteronormative”, there’s an assumption that heterosexuals have baby-making sex and non-heterosexuals don’t. Which is, er, patently bullshit.

    Sexual reproduction is how our species propagates itself, thereby leading to a sort of biological immortality. There are other kinds of ways we could talk about immortality, but baby-making makes perfect sense as one of them. That some people do not make babies does not mean that it’s not a kind of immortality for the people who do.

  • Николай Крутиков

    It’s easier to find out what a particular verse meant to its author, though.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Let me try rephrasing my point. In any discussion of sexuality, either all sexuality is meant or there is some qualifying factor involved. Not all people who have sex have potentially baby-making sex. Therefore, if baby-making sex is immortality, not all sexuality is being discussed. So the statement ‘sexuality is immortality’ still gets a bzzt. ‘Heteronormativity’ may be the wrong word to explain the bzzt, but it’s the closest single word to what I’m thinking.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    The former, although both seem like aspects of the same question to me.

  • http://hummingwolf.livejournal.com/ Hummingwolf

    Was the letter used actually thorn (Þ or lowercase þ, which sounds like the “th” in “thorn”) or was it eth (Ð or lowercase ð, which sounds like the “th” in “this”)? I don’t know enough about English pronunciation at the time to know how “the” was pronounced then, but I certainly use the voiced eth-sound now.

    Thorn and eth are both still used in Icelandic, which I learned way, way back when I bought this record.

  • Nick Gotts

    Yup, that understanding definitely evolves: in the OT God just kills people he doesn’t like; in the NT, he plans to torture them forever.

  • Arresi

    Wow, that’s a really broad question. Ok. I’ll give this my very best guess, before I head out. I’d say where liberalism caught hold, it probably did so out because of a need to reconcile contemporary knowledge with the text, and a general desire to avoid religious conflict.

    For example, how do you reconcile “all men were created equal,” “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” chattel slavery, and the Bible? You either declare some men not equal, or you declare chattel slavery immoral, and this is going to both depend on, and be influenced by, how you read the Bible. But how you read the Bible impacts a whole lot of other things. A reading that lets you say slavery is immoral is a reading that later lets you say that women should have the right to vote, and that gays should get married. (Simplifying considerably.)

    (This isn’t precisely unique to religion – people do science in much the same way. Look at how Jefferson and Jared Diamond approached the question of “Why did Europe take over the world?” There’s more than two hundred years between them.)

    In the case of state churches, the moderation is usually a response to years of religious conflict, I think.

  • Fanraeth

    I got into an argument once with someone over Sodom and Gomorrah. Despite me amply laying out evidence from the Bible itself and Jewish tradition for why the cities were destroyed, he continued to insist that the Christian interpretation was actually true, despite having no evidence to back it up other than one verse in Jude (aka that book no one remembers or cares about until they need a gay clobber verse).

  • Patrick

    You’re right that the Bible is “a work of thousands of years of oral history mashed into narratives and automatically contradicts itself over and over.”

    You should stop there.

    Anything further is no longer exegesis.

    Which is fine, I suppose, as long as you don’t claim to be engaged in exegesis.

  • Kagi Soracia

    Crying now. That has always been my favourite verse, partly for this very reason. It sums everything up. But my family would never hear it in an argument either.

  • kwdayboise

    Someone in my fucking autocorrect. Made more dominant by my Kindle hiding the text as I write.

  • kwdayboise

    Deep reading. Thanks for sharing.


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