A More Complicated View of the Bible

A More Complicated View of the Bible September 18, 2013

Fred Clark has posted about Evangelical defenders of slavery and what their stance in a bygone era tells us about their approach to the Bible. In the process, he writes:

The white evangelical opponents of slavery thus adopted a “more complicated view” because biblical literalism was inadequate — incapable of offering wisdom, guidance or truth. As an approach to reading the Bible, it was not profitable for doctrine, for reproof or for instruction in righteousness.

What they required, sought and found, was some way to account for and weigh the competing claims of contradictory proof texts…

The white evangelical theology of biblical literalism is a device that functions to allow white evangelicals to claim a reverent devotion to biblical literalism while simultaneously refusing even to look at huge chunks and huge themes of the Bible. It is a mechanism that does exactly what it was designed to do: provide an excuse for “neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” It allowed people like Rice to make a “biblical” defense of “serving their own interests on their fast day and oppressing all their workers.” It is a tool that is used to defy, deny and disrespect scripture. That’s what it’s for. That’s why it was so effective as a defense of slavery and later as a defense of segregation — defending injustice was its intended purpose all along.

If you love the Bible, you cannot love a theology designed to distort, deform and disrespect it.

A recent post of mine on the Bible has also generated a lot of discussion. Some of it came to focus on whether the Bible is of divine origin, whether in whole or in part, and also on the instance when Jesus is reported to have said that Moses gave the law regarding divorce as a concession. Here is what I wrote in a comment in that discussion:

I don’t think that any of the Bible is “from God” in the sense that conservatives use that language, as though it were something that can be shown to have originated outside of the minds of the human authors. It may or may not have done, but I don’t think that anyone can demonstrate that it did. And so I treat these texts as the work of ancient human beings directing attention to transcendent realities and values. And I see Jesus in this instance using the Bible in a manner that is in keeping with that – playing one text off against another, in the interest of protecting women from an approach to divorce that left them extremely vulnerable in this patriarchal society. I follow Jesus’ example in this, not because I can show it to have a supernatural origin, but because I believe it to be a contextual example of doing the right thing, defending the powerless and disenfranchised.

What unites both these posts is the conviction that a more complicated view of the Bible – one that rejects inerrancy and acknowledges contradictions – is required by the Bible itself, as is standing for justice even when there are prooftexts that could be piled up against your stance.

A good example is one that came up in one of my classes today. We were talking about Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, and the nature of morality. Students agreed that rape is an example of something that is always wrong, and yet the Bible treats it as something that is appropriate in the case of women in a captured enemy city, and a minor offense against the girl’s father that can be rectified by the payment of a fine in a different sort of circumstance.

Yet all it takes is the Golden Rule – empathy – to recognize that just as no one of us would want to be violated by another human being against our will, so no one should violate another human being.

Principles vs. passages. It comes down to that time and time again. And the question of whether your use of the Bible is in the interest of justice or a self-serving attempt to maintain your own power, privilege, and possessions.

On this topic and related ones around the blogosphere, see also Marc Cortez’s discussion of the pathologies of Evangelicalism, Defeating the Dragons’ continuing treatment of fundamentalism, Jeri Massi on the fundamentalist use of emotional manipulation, Brian Bibb on Bible translation and theological bias, Carol Howard Merritt’s decision not to use the term “mainline” any longer, Libby Anne’s post about Debi Pearl’s response to criticisms, Larry Behrendt’s ongoing discussion of the distinction between what a text meant and what it means, David Hayward’s cartoon and post about Christianity as one religion among many, Lothar Lorraine on the inspiration of the Bible and other books, and Unreasonable Faith on early Christian fandom.

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