Jul 06 2005

“The Bible says…”

One of the things I benefited most from once being an ordained lay preacher was having to study the Bible in a fairly formal way. The Bible is a fascinating book, and studying it in some depth reveals treasures that might be missed by those who just pick outs bits here and there.

For example, I discovered that some of the books of the so-called “minor” prophets of the Old Testament (Jonah and Amos were my particular favorites), when taught by scholars, make for great reading and are full of insights into the human condition. The Bible also has passages that astound you with their poetic beauty and precision of thought. Take, for example, this verse from Ecclesiastes (9:11) that addresses the seeming disconnect between ability and reward, and the general randomness of life:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

And we are constantly reminded of how indebted we are to two sources (the Bible and Shakespeare) for so many of the phrases that we use in everyday language.

But another benefit of studying the Bible is that I am immediately on the alert when someone says “The Bible says X” in order to support some position. My first response is “Where exactly does it say it?” Quite often, they cannot quote a supporting verse and you realize that they simply think the Bible should say that, because they strongly believe it. It has become part of folklore.

So when someone says “The Bible says X”, always ask for supporting evidence.

The second point is that even when such people actually have a quote to back up their assertion, you can often point to other quotes that contradict their position or puts it in a different light or context. This is because the Bible says a lot of things. It is an immense book with many authors, written over a long span of time, in more than one language, and from the perspective of many different cultures. There is also the fact that (as some of commenters to this blog have pointed out previously) the translations of ancient Hebrew and Greek and other texts into English involves the introduction of some unavoidable ambiguities. The Bible is by no means a clear statement of beliefs and values that can be easily inserted into modern day political and ideological battles, and it can be claimed to be so only by deliberately cherry-picking bits and pieces to serve an agenda. When, in the Merchant of Venice (act 1, sc. 3), Shakespeare has Antonio saying “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” he is right. The Bible can be quoted to support a vast range of positions, some of them truly bizarre, so arguing on the basis of Biblical texts, taken literally, is rarely conclusive.

I remember one time some years ago when Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my house to sell their magazine and to try and convert me. I am usually friendly to them, since I admire their devotion to their cause and they are invariably polite (a quality that I like), but I try to tell them as gently as possible I am not interested. But one of them tried to pique my interest by pointing to the feature article in that month’s magazine, which argued that AIDS was God’s punishment on homosexuals. This definitely got my attention as I happen to think that that is one of the sickest ideas ever conceived, and thus got drawn into an argument. They produced the usual Biblical quotes against homosexuality. I argued that one had to interpret the Bible in the context of when it was written and the mores that existed at that time, and that the Bible’s message could change with time.

The Witness flatly rejected my contention, saying that no re-interpretation was possible. The Bible’s message was universal in scope and unchanging with time. I then mentioned Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which he seems to have urged Philemon’s runaway slave to accept his position and return to his master. Did that mean, I asked, that slavery was acceptable? The Witness (who was black, which was why I had chosen this particular story) was taken aback and said that we had to interpret that story in a sophisticated way in order to understand its real message. I then asked why we should do that for slavery and not for homosexuality, and of course, there is really no answer to that. In fact, the Bible asserts that God does and condones the most appalling things, actions that are truly monstrous. There is no way to resurrect a belief in a loving God without some serious textual criticism, re-interpretation, and re-evaluation of these passages.

The third thing you often find about people who glibly assert “The Bible says…” is that they rarely quote from Jesus’ actual words, which is odd if you call yourself a Christian. For Christians, Christ’s teachings are supposed to be the final word, and yet many Biblical fundamentalists seem to prefer to quote the Old Testament, the letters of Paul, or Revelations. Could this be because Jesus preached a far more tolerant message than many who now confidently claim to speak in his name? Jesus was constantly hanging out with those whom we would consider low-lifes, prostitutes and the like, and was not judgmental about them. He was more likely to be critical of those who sat in judgment on others.

For example, the Plain Dealer in its issue of Saturday, July 2, 2005 (page E3) had one of those inane features where the responses of anonymous people to some question. (What is the point of such features? To let random people vent their spleen?) The question this time was: “Would you want your religious leader to bless same-sex unions?” One respondent said no because “the Bible says to speak out against sin, and homosexual relations are a sin (1 Corinthians 6:9…I could never understand how one could be considered a Christian and be an unrepenting homosexual.” To this person’s credit, he/she gave a citation to one of Paul’s letters. (Paul is the go-to guy in the New Testament if one is looking for support for intolerant views.) But if you look up the passage, this is what is says in full (in the authoritative [UPDATE: After the comment by Mark, I realize that I have been guilty of sloppy language and should have used the word 'familiar' instead of 'authoritative' since I am not really a competent judge of the latter] King James version): “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God..” So rather than being a particularly outrageous sin, homosexuality is not even mentioned but being effeminate is said to be evil. In some translations, ‘effeminate’ is replaced with ‘homosexual’, but the two words are clearly not equivalent. (The Living Bible, which is a modern (1971), much looser, translation with an evangelical tilt, gives the list as: idol worshipers, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, abusers, and swindlers.” Note how “fornicators” have been dropped and how “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” have been changed, showing significant distortions in meaning. For this reason, serious Biblical scholars do not recommend its use.)

Whatever one’s religious beliefs, one can learn a lot from the Bible. But what you learn may not quite be what you expect.


Steve Perry, the Editor of the Minneapolis/St. Paul weekly newspaper City Pages, is to my mind, one of the shrewdest observers of the domestic national political scene. Last week’s Free Times had a cover story by him (Gagging Dr. Dean) that explains why the Democratic Party seems so reluctant to fight for the kinds of policies that its rank and file might want. For those of you who missed the article, you can read it here.

In an earlier essay written in 2002 titled Spank the Donkey, Perry is more cynical and argues that the Democratic Party may be beyond salvaging, so beholden has it become to its big-money contributors.

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