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.

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