one might imagine that mclaren is describing my own childhood, with daily readings of bible stories instilling in me a love for the scriptures that reaches to the core of my being to this day:
I love the Bible. This love goes back to childhood for me, to warm memories when my parents would read me Bible stories, either directly from a big, black, leather-bound, red-letter King James Version or from a children’s illustrated story Bible. (David held special appeal to boys like me because of that cool slingshot he had.) In my teenage years, I began to read the Bible for myself and found treasure buried on every page. (David became even more interesting at this stage, for other reasons.) I began journaling my responses to what I was reading, and followed several different schemes for reading through the Bible every year or so. I even memorized long passages, a practice I still cherish…and I’ve never tired of the Bible through all these years. The more I’ve asked of it, the more it has yielded to me. So, yes, I love the Bible. I’m in awe of it. At this very moment.
But my quest for a new kind of Christianity has required me to ask some hard questions about the Bible I love. There will be no new kind of Christian faith without a new approach to the Bible, because we’ve gotten ourselves into a mess with the Bible.
i love the bible too. but i’ve got to agree with mclaren.
one well known and highly misattributed quote to various people (including albert einstein, mark twain, and benjamin franklin) is this:
the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
the traditional use of scripture (read as a constitution) has permitted christians over the centuries to defend all sorts of embarrassing, ignorant, and even atrocious ideas and behaviors, in both the past and the present: we’ve vigorously defended erroneous beliefs about science (e.g., that the earth is flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth, an utter denial of evolution typically paired with a zealous embrace to a young earth theory) and have gone to the point of torture and even death for those who would not recant these ‘heresies’; we’ve stifled women’s rights (and still do, to a lesser-though-not-less-significant extent within our churches and homes); we’ve rationalized genocidal killing, war, torture, and violence; we’ve ignored our responsibility as stewards of the earth God has created and entrusted to us holding instead to a desperate, dispensational, annihilationist theory to the end of the world; we’ve mistreated our brothers and sisters to the point of slavery — all while using the bible, read as a constitution, to defend our actions.
in studying a pro-slavery novel entitled Nellie Norton: or, Southern Slavery and the Bible: A Scriptural Refutation of the Principal Arguments Upon Which the Abolitionists Rely: A Vindication of Souther Slavery From the Old and New Testaments published in 1864, mclaren asks the question: how can so many Bible-reading, Bible-believing, Bible-quoting, and Bible-preaching people be so horribly wrong for so terribly long?
in the book, a character points to leviticus 25:44-46 noting the placement and punctuation of the non-restrictive clause “which thou shalt have” in the king james version, seemingly rendering slavery nothing short of a command. other characters in the novel joyfully cite passages woven throughout both the old and new testaments (exodus 21:2-6; deuteronomy 15:16-17; genesis 9:26-27; ephesians 6:5-8; titus 2:9-10; and colossians 3:22-24). no wonder then, mclaren points out, does a character in the novel conclude:
In the catalogue of sins denounced by the Savior and His Apostles, slavery is not once mentioned… not one word is said by the prophets, apostles, or the holy Redeemer against slavery… the Apostles admitted slaveholders and their slaves to church membership, without requiring a dissolution of the relation.
As I reread these lines of reasoning, a sick feeling gnaws in my stomach. This way of using the Bible is indistinguishable from the way I heard the Bible used today on Christian radio and the way I saw it used today in blog discussions. I’ve seen this way of using the Bible employed in countless sermons and books all my life, up until today. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox could all be found proving points by referring to Scripture in exactly the way the proslavers did. In fact, I myself have used the Bible in exactly this way in more sermons than I want to remember.
indeed, we have gotten ourselves into a mess with the bible. mclaren also articulates these well:
First, we are in a scientific mess. Fundamentalism — whether in its Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Pentecostal, or Orthodox form (for it exists in all streams of the Christian faith) — again and again paints itself into a corner by requiring that the Bible be treated as a divinely dictated science textbook providing us true information in all areas of life, including when and how the earth was created, what the shape of the earth is, what revolves around what in space, and so on.
…Many pious people deny our environmental crisis by quoting Bible verses and mocking science. Just as they were the last to acknowledge the rotation of the earth and its revolution around the sun, they’ll be the last to acquiesce to what science is telling us about our growing ecological crises.
Second, we are in trouble in relation to ethics. The Bible, when taken as an ethical rule book, offers us no clear categories for many of our most significant and vexing socioethical quandaries. We find no explicit mention, for example, of abortion, capitalism, communism, socialism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, systemic racism, affirmative action, human rights, nationalism, sexual orientation, pornography, global climate change, imprisonment, extinction of species, energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, genetic engineering, space travel, and so on — not to mention nuclear weapons, biological warfare, and just-war theory.
[…we are stuck…] largely paralyzed in solving major life-and-death-of-the-planet issues and largely obsessed with narrow hot-button feuds that end up being little more than litmus tests for political affiliation.
…Third, we are in deep trouble relating to peace. As much as we love the Bible, many of us are afraid that the Bible is becoming a box cutter or suitcase bomb in the hands of too many preachers, pastors, priests, and others. When careless preachers use the Bible as a club or sword to dominate or wound, they discredit the Bible in a way that no skeptic can.
…It’s an old and tired game: quoting sacred texts to strengthen an us-versus-them mentality that, in today’s world, could too easily lead to a last-tango, nuclear-biochemical kamikaze Crusade jihad.
…This triplet of troubles presents us with corresponding moral obligations, I believe. We must find new approaches to our sacred texts, approaches that sanely, critically, and fairly engage with honest scientific inquiry, approaches that help us derive constructive and relevant guidance in dealing with pressing personal and social problems, and approaches that lead us in the sweet pathway of peacemaking rather than the broad, deep rut of mutually assured destruction.
how we approach, read, and use the scriptures affects our foreign policy, our view of eternity (and therefore our view of the present), our ability and willingness to destroy entire communities, people groups, and faiths.
as i stated in an earlier post, we ALWAYS interpret the bible. it’s unavoidable. i, along with mclaren, would suggest that we have traditionally approached the scriptures in the same way — as a constitution. we have viewed the bible as a black and white, authoritative text — as a divine doctor’s prescription for how we are to live, what we are to do in specific situations, our rules for ethics and morality, our booklet for political involvement or affiliation, our guide to understanding the sciences, and so on. yet when we (as we traditionally have) interpret the scriptures as a constitution, we are damned to repeat the same mistakes we’ve historically made — with increasingly damning consequences.
In short, we read and use the Bible as a legal constitution. It shouldn’t surprise us that people raised in a constitutional era would tend to read the Bible in a constitutional way. Lawyers in the courtroom quote articles, sections, paragraphs and subparagraphs to win their case, and we do the same with testaments, books, chapters and verses.
[…but} before the Bible can serve as a constitution, it must be interpreted as one, which renders amazing authority to those interpreters.
we ALWAYS interpret the bible. it’s unavoidable.
what is avoidable, however, is repeating the same mistakes we’ve made for centuries by interpreting it in the same way we always have. again, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
we need different results.
i would suggest, along with mclaren, that we need a new, more responsible and mature approach to the sacred scriptures.
if we expect to engage with our culture in a way that points towards the reconciliation of humankind and God, one another (indeed, all of creation and its Creator), then we must both admit and correct our misuse and abuse of this sacred text.
We have no desire to descend a slippery slope into moral compromise; rather, we admit that we slid down the slope long ago, Bibles in hand, and we need to climb out of the ditch before we are complicit in more atrocities. Repentance means more than being sorry — it means being different.
the difference mclaren suggests, as i mentioned in an earlier post, is to view scripture as a library instead of a constitution. in our next post at the WayWard follower we will take a closer look at what that means.