The Bible used to get a lot of things wrong

The Bible used to get a lot of things wrong December 18, 2014

Amanda Marcotte writes at Salon about “10 things conservative Christians got horribly wrong.”

Looking over the long history of people claiming to be speaking for God’s wishes, it quickly becomes evident that Christians are frequently on the wrong side of history. Here are 10 things that American Christians of the conservative stripe got completely wrong when they were so sure they were speaking on God’s behalf.

I realize that Marcotte is both an atheist (gasp!) and, even worse, a feminist, and thus she’s not someone that conservative Christians are inclined to listen to. So let me point out that many politically conservative white evangelical men would agree with her on at least some of the items in her list.

For example, the first item on Amanda Marcotte’s list of “things conservative Christians got horribly wrong” is slavery. Southern Baptist spokesman Russell Moore agrees with her. Here’s what Moore recently said on that topic:

The founders of the Southern Baptist Convention were wrong and wickedly wrong on the issue of human slavery. And the problem wasn’t just that they were on the wrong side of a social issue; they were on the wrong side of Jesus and the gospel when it came to brothers and sisters in Christ made in the image of God that they treated with injustice.

Moore would probably (I think) agree with about half of Marcotte’s list. I’m guessing he’d also agree that conservative Christians who defended segregation were “horribly wrong.” And I’d guess he would agree that Prohibition was a mistake, and that opposing women’s suffrage was wrong (but not opposing women’s ordination). And I’m pretty sure he would say now that evangelicals’ hostile anti-Catholicism during the 19th and most of the 20th centuries was something that shouldn’t have happened.

But he would likely disagree — strenuously — with the other half of Marcotte’s list, which includes things like evolution, official prayer in schools, contraception and marriage equality.*

On all of those points, of course, Moore and his fellow “conservative” Christians would insist that their own opinions aren’t the issue here. What matters, rather, is what the Bible clearly says. It’s not that “conservative Christians” reject evolution, but that the Bible insists it’s wrong. And same-sex marriage is anathema not because “conservative Christians” think so, but because that is what the Bible clearly teaches. And contraception is wrong because the Bible clearly says so (right there in … um … I’ll have to get back to you with chapter and verse on that one).

These conservative Christians would object to Marcotte’s assertion that they are wrong on these matters. What she’s really saying, they would say, is that the Bible is wrong about such things.

The problem with that argument is that this is exactly what those earlier conservative Christians said about slavery, segregation, women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and the Papist Menace. If Russell Moore’s Southern Baptist predecessors had been confronted with Moore’s claim that they were “wrong and wickedly wrong on the issue of human slavery,” they wouldn’t have defended their opinion — they would have said it wasn’t about their opinion, but about the clear teaching and inerrant authority of the holy Word of God. And then they’d have viciously attacked Moore for his refusal to accept the clear and unambiguous authority of scripture.

"You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you ..."
“You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you …”

This isn’t speculation about how they would respond. This is what they actually did. Those pro-slavery Southern Baptists were — regularly and repeatedly — accused of being wickedly wrong about slavery. And their response — documented in thousands of volumes — was always to attack their accusers for infidelity to the clear teaching of the Bible.

Anti-slavery Christians, in response, insisted they weren’t criticizing the Bible itself, only the way that pro-slavery Christians had chosen to interpret the Bible. The problem isn’t with what the Bible says, they argued, but with how the pro-slavery Southern Baptists were reading it and misusing it.

But that response only made those pro-slavery Baptists angrier. There can be only one way to read the Bible, they insisted. There can be only one way to interpret it. More than that, really what they were arguing was that the Bible didn’t need to be interpreted at all.

That claim is the identifying characteristic of the people Marcotte identifies as “conservative Christians.” They all share this idea that the Bible is uniform and unambiguous — that despite being a diverse collection of ancient texts written over a period of centuries in diverse contexts for diverse audiences, it never displays a diversity of perspectives. The Bible, they insist, never contradicts itself and never presents opposing views, and thus requires little interpretation for a contemporary reader.

Unfortunately, while this view of the Bible is horrifically misleading, it’s also widely accepted not just by conservative Christians, but by many of their critics. Thus we see things like Marcotte writing “the Bible clearly has a positive view of slavery” — uncritically accepting not just the illiterate anti-hermeneutic of the fundies, but even their favorite thought-suppressing adverb (“the Bible clearly …”). 

The Bible does, in fact, contain a great deal of material that endorses various forms of slavery. That is undeniable. Slavery is, in various parts of the Bible, commended and commanded. In some places in the Bible, an abundance of slaves is presented as evidence of God’s blessing.

But the Bible also does, in fact, contain a great deal of material that attacks slavery. That is also undeniable. Slavery is, in various parts of the Bible, condemned as contemptible. In some places in the Bible, an abundance of slaves is presented as evidence of wickedness, disobedience and rebellion against God.

Such contradictory arguments can be bewildering if you haven’t got some way of determining which part of this biblical argument is the winning side. (Jubilee, people, it’s always about Jubilee. All of it.)

But there’s no way of doing that if you’ve decided ahead of time that such intra-biblical disputes cannot be allowed to exist. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. Refusing to acknowledge their existence doesn’t make them vanish in a puff of smoke — no matter how much “conservative Christians” wish that it were so.

This is a huge problem for 21st-century white evangelicals. Like Russell Moore, they’re mostly convinced — now — that white evangelical support for slavery had been a terrible mistake. Yet they still want to cling to the pro-slavery Christians’ insistence that the Bible is uniform and unambiguous and that no interpretation is necessary to understand what it clearly says.

So while they’re pretty sure those earlier, pro-slavery Christians were wrong, they’re not able to explain how or why they were wrong. And thus, today, they are also unable to explain how or why they themselves are right about all the things they claim “the Bible clearly says.”

If those early Southern Baptists were wrong about slavery, then they were wrong about the Bible — wrong about how to read the Bible. They were wrong about slavery because they were wrong about how to read the Bible.

Contemporary white evangelicals want to retain the same approach to reading the Bible, but not the same conclusions about slavery. That doesn’t work.

If you want to retain the anti-hermeneutic of the early Southern Baptists while rejecting their pro-slavery views, then you can’t say, “The founders of the Southern Baptist Convention were wrong and wickedly wrong on the issue of human slavery.” You have to say, instead, that the Bible itself used to be wrong and wickedly wrong on slavery, but somehow isn’t anymore (even though it never changed).

If you’re not willing to reject that anti-hermeneutic, then you have to say that the Bible itself used to be wrong about a lot of things.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I’m a bit worried about mentioning item No. 4 on Amanda Marcotte’s list:

4) Pain relief for childbirth. The Bible explicitly lays out pain in childbirth as Eve’s punishment for sin, so unsurprisingly, that’s what many Christians in the 19th century believed had to be so. Once reliable pain relief in childbirth began to be developed, therefore, there was a lot of resistance to it from Christians who feared it defied God to let women have some relief. … Eventually, the argument that women owed it to God to suffer through childbirth faded to the fringes of right-wing Christianity.

It’s true that this was once conventional wisdom — a widespread argument that shaped common practice. Childbirth was seen as something that ought to be painful, because Eve. Today, though, that argument is a mostly forgotten relic of history.

But today we also have a reflexively polarized religious right that trips over itself in a rush to oppose anything and everything that we evil liberals and baby-killers view approvingly. Just by mentioning stuff like this, we may be giving them ideas. If Amanda Marcotte approves of reliable pain relief in childbirth, that probably means that Barack Obama does too. And Sandra Fluke and Rachel Held Evans and Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi and Brian McLaren and Planned Parenthood. Probably even Rob Bell.

And once they realize that, they’re likely to start angrily opposing such pain relief as another evil symptom of women’s lib and the sexual revolution. After all, if bearing children isn’t as painful and dangerous as it was back in the Golden Age, then it’s like we’re giving these wanton hussies permission to go out and do the sex without the fear of pain and suffering that God intended to accompany such filthy behavior, etc., etc.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, keep in mind that this is exactly what has happened in recent years when it comes to the abruptly newfound white evangelical opposition to contraception — a position that has surged to prominence without any credible biblical, ethical, scientific or logical argument to support it.


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