Should the Bible be Relevant?

Over at HuffPo, the biblical scholars Richard Elliot Friedman and Shawna Dolansky are kicking off a series explaining what the bible really says about the big hot-button issues: The Bible: As Relevant (and Misunderstood) as Ever. I’d certainly agree with the second half, but I’m wondering about the first.

Friedman and Donalsky don’t make a very clear case for the relevance of the bible. Of course, most folks would say they shouldn’t have to. Our current culture is saturated in biblical references. But when Friedman and Donalsky do make an argument, it seems horribly weak

“The Bible is a source of human experience and of wisdom, and wisdom is something we need.” Fair enough. It’s such a pity that humans stopped producing wisdom in the second century. But obviously we have no philosophers, scientists, psychologists, theologians and so forth trying to pass on wisdom today, so we’re stuck trying to mine the wisdom left to us by the ancients.

“The Bible’s value, above all, is as a guide to lives.” Yes, there’s nothing like a rousing story on ancient Canaanite warfare to help me work through the sticky ethical issues of modern society.

What the Bible Really Says

Pullquote: “We use historical-critical methods, philological and literary analyses, text criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, anthropological perspectives, archaeology and ancient languages (Hebrew, Greek, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic) … ”

So let’s look at this wisdom. So what does the Bible say about the modern issue of homosexuality? Exactly nothing. At the time the Gospels were written, there was no word for “homosexuality” nor was there any understanding of a homosexual orientation. (I believe those date back to the Victorian era.) Sex, marriage and sexual identity were all understood in a different way than in modern times.

You can try to extrapolate from what some of the Biblical authors wrote about their own issues, but that way lies all sorts of pitfalls. Friedman and Dolansky list nine different tools and sub-disciplines that they feel are necessary to understand the text. Given that kind of complexity, the opportunities for getting things wrong are enormous.

And really, what is the point? Unless you’re a sectarian believer who has already assigned some great authority to the Bible, it seems like a lot of work for a very marginal reward. Certainly not an effective use of our time.

The Book

So the Bible has little to say to us that we can’t get more easily from somewhere else. I suspect that this is where Friedman and Dolansky would get pragmatic. “The Bible matters to people, ” they say. The Bible is important because a lot of people consider the Bible to be important. Best to make sure they understand it, rather than use it as a prop for their own prejudices.

It reminds me of the Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action, where the Enterprise finds itself dealing with a culture that has based itself around a book that was accidentally left to them, titled Chicago Mobs of the Twenties.

No doubt Chicago Mobs contains wisdom. I suspect you can learn a lot about human nature from studying the gangs we’ve formed. I suppose you could use that wisdom as a “guide to lives.” That’s not the intent of the author of Chicago Mobs, but it’s not the intent of the authors of most of the Bible either.

But is Chicago Mobs relevant? The book is a history about an entirely different planet, so I wouldn’t think so. But the culture decided that the book is sacred, and it changed itself to conform to the book. Now the book is relevant. So I think the question becomes, should the book be relevant?

Like Chicago Mobs, the Bible is a book out of its place and time. It is relevant to us because we force it to be. Unlike the culture of Sigma Iotia, where they change the culture to fit the book, we change our interpretation of the book to fit our culture. We insist that the Bible comment on issues that would be completely alien to its authors, and we twist the text until it says what we want. In doing so, we waste time and ignore sources of wisdom that are much closer to our modern dilemmas.

So the Bible is relevant, despite itself. We should stop forcing it to be so.

At the end of A Piece of the Action, Kirk notes that Starfleet will try to shift the culture of Sigma Iotia towards a more civil society. Presumably this will mean weaning them off the book Chicago Mobs.

Just the same, Hector Avalos has suggested that part of the purpose of biblical studies should be “de-privileging” the Bible. Unfortunately, it looks like Friedman and Dolansky are planning to perpetuate the forced relevance of the Bible.

Where the Fire Comes From
Bob Cargill on the Holy Grail
You Can't Keep a Bad Man Down
Atheists in the Evangelical Mind
  • trj

    The Bible is important because a lot of people consider the Bible to be important.

    The Bible is the Paris Hilton of books.

    • JohnMWhite

      I would say it is more the Pippa Middleton of books – people obsess over it en masse despite it being nothing to do with any of us, and are particularly fond of the bit towards the back.

  • non integrable

    Depends on what you want it to be relevant for. Jesus teachings are in no way a bad example to follow on this modern age. The old testament could have made sense in another historical context, although some people make the mistake of blaming it all on God, which shows a clear misunderstanding of what the christian god is, nothing more than a father, and we are not slaves but free beings who can ignore a fathers command. The war on religion should start from the roots an dogmas it sustains with, not on the holy books

    • UrsaMinor

      Jesus’ applicable ethical teachings boil down to the Golden Rule- a concept that predates the Bible by many centuries and has been formulated independently by many diverse cultures. When you take the Golden Rule from the Bible, you get all that other irrelevant and dangerous baggage.

    • Yoav

      and we are not slaves but free beings who can ignore a fathers command.

      When you are given the choice between “obey without question” and “get tortured for eternity” are you really free to choose?

    • Duke York

      the christian god is, nothing more than a father, and we are not slaves but free beings who can ignore a fathers command.

      This is an admirable sentiment, but it shows a deep ignorance of what the bible actually says. The Christian god commands us to kill those who fail to worship him. Start with Deuteronomy 17 and read the text.

      I know you want the bible to say what you believe, but you can’t just ignore ignore the text and claim it says things it doesn’t.

      • non integrable

        I don’t agree with many many passages from the bible, I cant expect anyone to think it can make sense and that should be treated as an unified text, I don’t believe it was written out of divine inspiration either. The only thing I consider relevant are the teachings of Jesus. I just consider it a legit manifestation of the golden rule

        • JohnMWhite

          What makes that particular manifestation ‘legit’, particularly if you do not agree with much else the exact same compendium of wisdom has to say?

        • Duke York

          Yeah, I’m all for the Golden Rule, too, even though it didn’t originate with Jesus.

          You’re still cherry-picking, though. Jesus said some pretty crazy things that no one ever really obeys any more. Read the Sermon on the Mount. “Take no thought for tomorrow”? Does anyone do that? No; even the most devout Christians are busy planning.

          Or how about “If anyone does not hate their father, their mother, their brother, he cannot be my follower” (or something like that). Who does that now? Apart from cullts, that is.

          • Sajanas

            Honestly, I’m sad that I never realized as a child the fundamental hypocrisy of a person who teaches you to turn the other cheek, and to love your enemy, but damns all of his enemies to hell forever. Gospel Jesus’s firm belief in eternal torment undermines his loving image just as much as Yahweh’s kill frenzies undermine his image as a just and fair ruler.

        • Bill

          Let’s forget for a minute the fact that we don’t really know if the “teachings of Jesus” in the Boble are an accurate transcription of what he said. (Hell I’m not even sure the person really existed.) Let’s pick a random “teaching” and maybe you can explain why it’s “relevant.” How about this one:

          “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

          -Matthew 5:29

    • JohnMWhite

      “The war on religion should start from the roots an dogmas it sustains with, not on the holy books”

      Where do you think that dogma comes from? True not all dogma has direct scriptural precedent but it is exactly where the religious go to justify absolutely anything they want to believe. Want to treat homosexuals as sub-humans not deserving of the simple right to marry someone they love? Look for Leviticus. Want to pretend that Jesus was a capitalist who would want grandma to die because her health care was taken away to pay for more tax cuts for the rich? Find a parable about a man investing his money wisely. The holy books are the foundations for today’s religions, particularly Christianity, since they see it as their direct line to god.

    • vorjack

      The war on religion should start from the roots an dogmas it sustains with, not on the holy books

      I don’t regard this as an attack, just a statement of fact. You would find it unexceptional if I were to suggest that the Hittite archives, the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Enuma Elish were not relevant to our modern ethical problems. I am merely being consistent.

    • Thin-ice

      people make the mistake of blaming it all on God, which shows a clear misunderstanding of what the christian god is, nothing more than a father

      Have you chopped the OT out of your Bible?? Because the christian god is exactly the same person as the OT God. If you deny that God in the OT was angry, jealous, vengeful and literally ordered the extermination of vast populations of non-hebrews – including women and babies – then you are either ignorant of what the OT says or you are a liar.

      What, did He have therapy and counselling before Jesus was born, and decide to turn over a new leaf? No, in your holy book he is one and the same, unchanging from eternity to eternity.

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Personally, I see the Bible like any other book, it has some passages that resonate with me and some that I have no use for. It definitely has more of the latter.

  • dantresomi

    its a great book of fiction like any work of Shakespeare. It has its moments but overall, we shouldn’t look at it like its the end all be all. I dig Romeo and Juliet and sure I learn a few lessons from it, but its not a book I should hold above all else. i think we should approach the Bible the same way. the same way we might look at a young, brash couple and think “Romeo & Juliet,” we might use some references from the Bible as well. But as a guide to life? I don’t think so. There are other books, some fiction, some not, that are better guides to life.

    • Noelle

      life lessons from R&J:

      1. A reliable postal service is vitally important.
      2. Don’t let your friends fight your battles.
      3. Comparing praying hands to kissing is a killer pick-up line for a young religious girl.
      4. Be prepared to marry her quickly if you want to go beyond kissing. (hmm, might be less relevant today)
      5. When the dude at the poison store tells you not to drink something, listen to him.
      6. In-laws are a pain in the ass.
      7. Deep sleep doesn’t equal death. Get a medical consult before burial/entombing/rash suicide.

      • Yoav

        4. Be prepared to marry her quickly if you want to go beyond kissing. (hmm, might be less relevant today)

        May I refer you to a recent tread regarding a certain movie.

        • Noelle

          May I refer you to a much more active thread off same video, different blog? (see LRA argue. 78 comments so far :) )

          sorry, not computer savvy enough to put link into a clicky phrase like you. My computer training ended with BASIC in 1993.

          • Custador

            Using pointy brackets instead of square brackets, [a href=""]See LRA Argue![/a] becomes See LRA Argue!

            • Noelle

              awesome! That officially counts as the only new thing I’m learning today. Thanks.

            • LRA


              Yes, I do like to make contrary points. Does that count as arguing?


            • Noelle

              I think it’s the definition.

              Place would be pretty dull without you over there to rattle cages. Been awhile since we’ve had a good Kirk Cameron thread.

      • LRA


        You forgot that when a priest comes up with a hair-brained scheme involving poison, faked death, and burial, just say no.


        • JohnMWhite

          Poison, fake death, burial? Hmm, what was on that hyssop stick, I wonder…

        • Noelle

          Well, gee, Juliet, that is a predicament. For disapproving parents and accidental cousin killing, I recommend some poison and sending off a note so Romeo will know you’re not really dead. I don’t see where this could possibly go wrong.

          What would Shakespeare be without overly-complicated schemes and hijinks? If Hamlet had been all, “Screw this! I’m getting a job and my own apartment!” Where would all the entertaining blood-shed and passive-aggressive makes no sense play within a play to tell your mom you disapprove of her doing your murderous uncle be?

          lessons from Hamlet:
          1. Quoting Shakespeare is often a great way to woo the ladies, but not if you tell your unstable gf to find a convent. Girls don’t like that.
          2. When a ghost tells you to avenge a murder, you are hallucinating. Go get on some antipsychotics.

      • bondgrrl

        This is the greatest comment in the history of the blogosphere. May I quote you on the life lessons of Romeo and Juliet?

        • Noelle

          Hey thanks. Go right ahead.

          • LRA

            It was a pretty rad comment…


  • messiestobjects

    The Harry Potter series has more wisdom and is a better guide to living in modern society than the Bible.

  • superaction80

    Harry Potter has more wisdom? Meh. Harry Potter isn’t exactly a shining example for good behavior. You could probably say that if he had followed all the rules and also come to Dumbledore with his concerns from the very beginning, that there would not have been much of a story at all. Come to think of it though, that may actually be better than the Bible…

    • messiestobjects

      I was talking more about tidbits such as “The world isn’t split up into good people and Death Eaters” and making choices between “what is right and what is easy”. But yeah, the learning process Harry goes through is written from a fairly wise perspective.

      At any rate, I wasn’t really trying to geek out this thread, just appreciating and reinforcing the point of the post, that the Bible is not only terribly outdated but also not actually full of all that much wisdom.

      • runty_cactus

        I totally agree with this. I always wonder how many racists read HP and think, “HOW can you discriminate against Muggles just because they were born without magic???” and then stop reading, and continue on their own merry discriminating ways.

    • Sabrina

      I dunno about other people, but I can’t read the HP series now as an adult without going “holy crap, this series is kind of all about the holocaust now innit?” particularly the later books in the series. It’s terribly striking – kill all the half-bloods and the muggles and the unpure so that only those of the pure blood can survive, complete with government propaganda and implicit acknowledgment. As a teenager, I didn’t read that much into it, but I sure see it now.

      So yeah, the kids sometimes break the rules and get into fifty different kinds of trouble, and people die, but they always learn something from it. It has strong ethical lessons to it, and anyway, it’s far more enjoyable to read than the Bible.

  • Hamish Milne

    I’m pretty sure the bible does say stuff about homosexuality:

    Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
    Leviticus 20:13
    ‘If a man has sex with a man in same way as with a woman, they have committed an abomination. They are certainly to be put to death. / Their blood is on their own heads.’

    That leaves little room for interpretation, however, that is only a couple of lines from one book of the Old Testament. There are other references ( but they are often quite vague, or even positive, and you have to assume that ‘sodomite’ === homosexual, which is only assumed. If one were to take the attitude that each line of the Bible is the absolute truth and should be defended with full force, then we should be seeing a massive campaign about not touching women on their period …

    • Yoav

      Fundie jews take the whole a woman on her period is unpure and you will get contaminated if you touch her crap very seriously.

      • Hamish Milne

        I love the way it never elaborates, you are simply ‘contaminated’, ‘unclean’ etc.

    • JohnMWhite

      That is not homosexuality, that is sodomy the bible is referring to. As the article said, the authors of Leviticus likely had nothing like the concept of sexual identity that people in the West have today. Where you stick your parts is not the be-all, end-all of sexual orientation.

      • Hamish Milne

        Absolutely, I’m just saying that you can’t tell fundies “the bible doesn’t talk about homosexuality”, because it clearly states ‘if you have sex with a man you should be put to death’, twice. I agree that there is the whole gay culture aspect, however the general tone of the bible, and of fundamentalist Christianity, is the suppression of deviant groups. You can’t say “there’s more to being gay than having sex with men, it’s about X Y and Z” because they will probably be against all 3 anyway, and find various scripture passages to ‘prove’ it.

        Think about it: the gay community exemplifies pride, freedom, partying, wearing bright colours, men having sex with men, all of which are condemned in the bible (I think…). This is completely at odds with the ‘ideal’ Christian culture: husband-wife-children families, humility, submission to authority, plain clothes, celebration only of religious holidays (and even then sparingly) and conformity. Add some religious fervor: various acts of violence against ‘sinners’ in the bible, belief that ‘souls must be saved’ etc, and it’s a wonder they haven’t torn each other apart, only that the gay community also tends to be very pro-peace, pacifist (also against fundie Christian culture).

        Going back to the original post: of course the Bible isn’t relevant (not counting for purposes of analysis of it’s believers, of course), it was written nearly 2000 years ago. Not 100 years ago it was acceptable to shoot someone for cowardice, we change our values every couple of decades. If everyone categorically accepted all the values in the Bible, we would remain stuck in the 2nd century. Fundies want that to happen: we want to prevent it.

        • JohnMWhite

          The fact that fundamentalists who look to the bible for answers cannot be told that there’s more to being gay than having sex with men and will refuse to acknowledge or understand any more nuanced explanation is basically a distillation of the very point the original post was making.

          • Hamish Milne

            Really? I thought it was mainly talking about how people use the Bible as a guide for life, the homosexuality part was just a paragraph in the middle. I was simply elaborating.

            Anyway, I wasn’t saying that they “refuse to acknowledge or understand any more nuanced explanation”, they probably would acknowledge it, but still oppose it, if you know what I mean, for the reasons I explained before.

            • JohnMWhite

              By ‘refuse to acknowledge or understand’ I mean precisely that they would oppose it, because they would not give it any credence or validation as they would rather allow their lives to be governed by the hard and fast rule of “don’t bugger each other, guys” which, as the article was pointing out, is largely irrelevant to our modern understanding of sexual identity. That is why I said this was a distillation of the idea of the original post – the original post is all about how an irrelevant book is applied to modern complexities of life. I never said it was all about homosexuality, that is just the example you decided to pluck out to try to imply the author was a complete moron who somehow failed to notice the Book of Leviticus, whereas vorjack appears to have been very deliberately implying that differing sexualities and sodomy are two very different things and the bible cannot account for that due to its radically different historical perspective.

            • Hamish Milne

              First off, I didn’t mean to insult Vorjack or anyone. I don’t see how we can have proper discussions if no-one is allowed to question or dispute anyone’s ideas.

              Secondly, the very definition of religion is illogical hard and fast rules, of which homosexuality is an example. I’m not disagreeing with you here, just pointing that out.

              Thirdly, like it or not, who you are sexually attracted to is a fairly large part of sexual identity, by definition if nothing else. One cannot be gay without being attracted to other men/women.

              Homosexuality and sodomy are indeed different things, I never suggested they were the same, in fact I disputed it in my first comment. Just out of curiosity, what is your opinion on sodomy (oral and anal sex, right?)

              Finally, we’re both on the same side here. I hope we can part as friends :-)

  • Roger Paige

    “Hector Avalos has suggested that part of the purpose of biblical studies should be “de-privileging” the Bible. Unfortunately, it looks like Friedman and Dolansky are planning to perpetuate the forced relevance of the Bible.”

    As if any academic spending their career studying some subject is going to go about “de-privileging” said subject.

  • Noelle

    I don’t watch much sci-fi, but I like that Star Trek reference. My cousin’s a youth minister. I kind of want to find it for him and see if he’d use it as a lesson plan. He might. He’s one of them progressive types. To each his own I guess.

    Anyway, keeping with topic and not giving Shakespeare all the attention, Biblical life lessons, New Testament edition:

    1. If you’re not sure what to name your baby, check the Bible. There are a lot of great names in there. Or maybe an angel will drop by and tell you.
    2. Everyone appreciates it when you break out the best wine at a party.
    3. Be on your guard if one of your friends suddenly tries to kiss you.
    4. People are more likely to stay and listen to you talk if you feed them.
    5. Making a big deal about people’s kids scores huge bonus points, if done in a non-creepy way.
    6. It doesn’t matter where you’re born. It’s where you go and what you do with your life.
    7. Birthdays should involve presents.
    8. Only so many people are gonna buy the I got pregnant without having sex story. But enough that it’s worth a try.
    9. Tax collectors are people too.
    10. No one will understand you if you insist on speaking in parables.
    11. You fight authority, authority always wins.
    12. Only the good die young.
    13. Prison is an excellent place to catch up on letter writing.

    I better stop at 13, or I’ll never stop.

  • Sayingwhatneedsaying

    The question should be….. Has the bible ever been relevant?