Our old, flat, and uninformed way of reading the Bible has become at best an unhelpful burden, at worst a liability. The church’s insistence on handling the Bible as a singular and consistent whole rather than a library of diverse voices continues to stifle and sabotage our ability to grow and learn. Worst of all, it has built an echo chamber of tepid and contradictory religion where the radical voice of Jesus can no longer be distinguished or heard.
Simply reporting that “the Bible says” this or that isn’t helpful in itself and can actually be detrimental and misleading. Yet this continues to be this basis for authoritarian Christian claims, often over the lives and fates of others, and not just inside the walls of the church. If “the Bible says” something, it must be true, and it must be prescriptive at least for the lives of Christians if not for all humankind. This elevates the texts of the Bible to a dangerous and impossible level of authority, consistency, and relevance. It also relativizes and neuters the subversive teaching of Jesus.
Context is Everything
If one day your spouse or roommate announced, “The library says that April is the cruellest month!” and then proceeded tearing out calendar pages and barricading doors, you might think they were nuts, or you might even join their strange crusade. But if you knew that those words were written in the early twentieth century by the English poet T.S. Eliot in a poem about death called The Waste Land, you could calmly engage them in a conversation about what those words might mean to them personally.
Context reveals the subjectivity and humanity of a text, which is precisely why Christians interested in an authoritarian Bible ignore it, and want others to ignore it too. They simply expect the “clear meaning” on the face of the text to be unquestioned and obeyed. The problem is, apart from context, the only “clear meaning” is the one imposed upon the text, explicitly or by way of unspoken assumptions. And when we do allow context to illuminate meaning, the shape and application of that meaning is often not as clear and straightforward as we’d like it to be.
Some Things “the Bible Says”
Here are just a few examples off the top of my head of things “the Bible says” that are not as straightforward as they seem.
- The Bible says that the earth was created in six days. (Genesis 1)
Actually, the book of Genesis opens with a song celebrating nature. It uses a distinctive seven-day schedule as an orderly and easy-to-understand framework in which to explain creation, often in contrast to the chaotic and violent creation myths that were popular in that ancient world. We know a lot more about the cosmos today, so what kind of language might we use to describe the fundamental integrity of the universe?
- The Bible says that the punishment should fit the crime, i.e. “an eye for an eye.” (Leviticus 24:20)
Actually, while some Torah laws appeal to this principle, later dubbed lex talionis, others call for harsh punishments and even execution. Elsewhere in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his followers to forfeit all retaliation and to confront evil with nonviolent resistance. Does this perhaps represent a trajectory away from violence and retribution? How do we approach questions of justice and punishment in our own time and culture?
- The Bible says that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. (Exodus 20:5; Numbers 14:18)
Actually, this is a common claim in some portions of Torah and some prophetic texts, but it also openly rejected in the writing of Jeremiah and the teaching of Jesus. How does it change our understanding of history and our view of the future if we get past the idea that God punishes us for the “sins of the past”?
- The Bible says that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. (Luke 16:19-31)
Actually, Jesus adapts a very common Greek fairy tale as a parable about the subversion of wealth and class in the kingdom of God. How might Jesus reconfigure some of our best known myths and stories to demonstrate our inside-out values?
- The Bible says that there can be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood. (Hebrews 9:22)
Actually, the unknown author of Hebrews says that “according to the law, there could be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.” It’s part of a complex and often strained argument for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. How would we as Christians respond to this kind of argument today?
- The Bible says that wives must submit to their husbands. (Colossians 3:18)
Actually, the apostle Paul wrote letters to his first century congregations teaching them to organize their relationships according to mutual love and respect. Language of “submission” was commonplace in that ancient world, but Paul’s point was about reciprocal love rather than strict hierarchy. How should we approach family relationships today in a way that reflects our understanding of Christian love?
- The Bible says that women cannot teach or lead men. (1 Timothy 2:12)
Actually, the author of Timothy (probably not Paul) wrote a rant against a particular group of women who were apparently stirring up trouble in one of his churches. What do the contents of letters like these reveal about the evolution and struggles of the earliest Christian churches? What issues in our own day might correspond to those faced by the ancient churches, and how might we respond to them? And while we’re here, does the controversy about the authorship of Timothy and Titus have any bearing on how we read and interact with the Bible, or on our concept of “biblical authority”?
- The Bible says that the world will end in Armageddon, a cosmic battle between good and evil. (Revelation 16)
Actually, the book of Revelation is not a prediction of the sorts of things that will or must happen in the future. It was a creative apocalyptic response to a specific first-century crisis, the martyrdom of Jewish Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire. The author was attempting to reassure suffering people that Rome would fall and God’s kingdom would be established, and images of dragons, plagues, and war were his way of condemning Rome’s oppressive regime. What does the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire say to us as modern Americans? How does our view of the future change if holy war is not a foregone conclusion?
Each of these biblical statements represents the work of a subjective human author, and each invites us into a world of thought and imagination. There are a thousand conversations to be had, fresh in each generation, and always new voices to be added. It is never enough to simply throw “the Bible says” at someone, as if these texts were objective axioms from the very mouth of God, and as if our own humanity and the humanity of the Bible’s authors never entered into the equation. If there is truth and value and glory in the Bible, we will find it together through humility and listening, by embracing honesty and subjectivity.