Friday, June 01, 2012

Mid-life Lesson #27: If it weren't for the bible, I'd give up on the bible

Let's say your only exposure to Scripture were quotations you have read second-hand in letters to the editor in our local paper. You'd be left to conclude one of the following:

1) Scripture is a giant, angry, and irrational tome that condemns homosexuality (and by implication affirms heterosexuality, ipso facto. *see footnote).

2) Christians sit around all day reciting to themselves the two or three sentences in Scripture that actually address something like what we call homosexuality today--on all other issues, they make arguments from reason or experience and leave the bible silently on the nightstand.

The bible, in this scenario, becomes a kind of enforcing document for social practices the authors of the letters disagree with, perhaps even find disgusting. In the meantime, they go ahead and eat pork (Deuteronomy 14:8), borrow and loan money at interest (Leviticus 25:35-37), and fail to return property to its original owners every fifty years at the jubilee year (Leviticus 25:10-54).

Or if these examples seem too ancient and Old Testament-ish (not that there is anything wrong with that), consider the failure of most Christians, especially the ones who write angry letters to the paper (or myself, in posting this blog perhaps), to welcome those who are weak in faith (Romans 14:1), even "put up" with the failings of the weak (Romans 15:1).

I just keep waiting for the day when someone writes to the paper and complains that a Christian leader (I could easily be the target) doesn't kiss the members of his or her congregation enough. I mean, clearly the bible tells Christians to kiss each other (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). By my count, the bible says five different times that Christians should greet each other with a kiss--why doesn't our failure to practice this make it into the letters to the editor section of the paper more frequently?

Everything I've said so far is, as it were, kind of like plucking low hanging fruit. It's the easy response. "Look at these Christians who are more like biblicists than I am, watch me out biblicize them. Nana nana booboo!"

I don't want to stay there, although it's worth at least saying something like what I've already said, if for no other reason than to offer a somewhat wider picture of what is actually contained in Scripture. Slightly adapting Hamlet's analytical assertion to Horatio, "There are more things in the bible, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

So try this. Quoting the bible to support our arguments is problematic because a) we typically only go looking for bible quotes that support rather than challenge our assumptions, b) frankly, there's way more in the bible than most of us can keep track of, and c) we tend to make the leap to the bible says from I come to the conclusion based on my reading of the bible that... In other words, we typically assume the bible is saying what we believe it is saying, and conveniently forget much of what is there that would challenge us rather than others. We assume the meaning we make out of our reading of the bible is what the bible actually means. That's a big, unethical and dangerous step.

In classic terms, this is the danger of eisegesis. The good and healthy warning, however, is that everything is always eisegesis. There is no pure exegesis. And until we recognize this, it is rather dangerous to move forward, and certainly problematic to use select bible passages to bolster our politics or social activism.

All of which leads me to this precipice: I kind of feel like giving up on the bible

Seriously, if this is all the bible does, all it is good for, if this is how the average non-Christian experiences the bible as it is used in Christian community or quasi-Christian culture, then I want nothing to do with it. I'd rather leave the bible dusty and aging on the shelves it typically occupies, and move on. At this point I sympathize more with the agnostics, atheists, and post-religious.

What pulls me back from the precipice: The bible is just so damn interesting.

For one thing, just to name one thing, if you read the Old Testament, and then compare it to other near Eastern literature, you'll find out the God portrayed in those ancient texts, the one that spends so much time working a really difficult relationship with the Israelites and offering up a host of laws as part of the covenant this God makes with God's people, has genuine concern for the poor, the marginalized, the foreigner, the child, the weak. It's remarkable, because this God, the God on offer in these texts, cares about stuff the gods of most other faiths of the time and place would never condescend to concern themselves over.

Or this Jesus that we meet (to name one other "thing"): we get four gospels about him, and by the time those are read, along with the other letters and writings that were collected together with them to form the New Testament, you get a rather knotty but fascinating portrayal of a "Triune God," the "very kind of God we need for sinners, the poor, and the dead and forgotten to have half a chance" (from a friend, private correspondence).

I think we keep the bible at arms length in our culture and lives for good reason--it's holy. Not holy in the tired sense of that term, as in "this book is holy and so you have to listen to it, and listen to me when I tell you that the bible is completely clear and comprehensible and understandable and I as a reader who knows it is clear am here to tell you why it affirms my own worldview and condemns others who think differently than me." No, the bible is holy in another sense--it is wholly other, and so subverts us, convicts us, changes us. It is holy in the sense of, "Watch out, get too close to that thing and it might burn you."

We like to ignore the very hard sayings in Scripture that would, if we listened to them and then acted on what we heard, would have to change our entire lives. We love to pay very close attention to the hard sayings of Scripture that don't apply to us directly but do censure others. We like to foist the burden of the holiness of Scripture on others. We seldom take on the yoke of the holiness of Scripture in our own lives.

Mea culpa. You-a culpa. We-all-a culpa.

All of which leads me into a philosophy I attempt to live out in other contexts: when challenged, lean in. Don't bail on the text because it is misused. Remember that's a logical fallacy. Abusus non tollit usus. The abuse does not negate the proper use. Don't bail on the text because it is holy. In spite of the burning danger, this is the kind of refining fire that cures and heals and makes whole.

Instead, lean in. Get close to it, see what these holy words might do. Stop assuming the bible means something and you--you of all people--have any clue what it means. Instead, make meaning out of your reading of the text, with humility and humor and heat. There is a world of difference between these two modes. The first is idolatry, the second is faith, and never the twain shall meet.

* Nevermind that the bible cares very little about either of these decidedly modern psychological inventions. For more on this, I highly recommend as a summer read Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, by Dale B. Martin


  1. Have you read Dale Martin's Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal?
    I know I need to read Sex & the Single Savior, but I'd rather read Pedagogy. :)

  2. Once again, thanks!
    I appreciate your last paragraph that we convince ourselves that we (singularly or in homogenous groups) could be the ones to finally "get" the ultimate meaning/truth of any given text.
    I'm curious, though, because in the past couple of years, there has been localized conversation in study about "irredeemable texts" that are contained in the canon, and what can/should or can't/shouldn't be done with or about them. Some choose to dismiss them, or just say the bible is "wrong" about things, or we should perhaps open & redact the contents of the canon. (This very likely applies to confessional documents, as well). Any additional thoughts or have I misread/misapplied your intent?

  3. Goo stuff, Clint. I gave this a link over at my little blog.

  4. Bill C, that certainly is something we have to wrestle with, and in fact we functionally do what you are describing even if we won't admit that we do. However, my direction is slightly different than this, emphasizing meaning-making on the reader side of the equation.

    Yes, John, we should both read that other book also. :)

  5. For the sake of people who have to look it up and haven't yet, Eisegesis is a formal theological term that describes process of misinterpreting a text, or portion of text, in such a way that it introduces one's own presuppositions, agendas, and/or biases into and onto the text. I suspect that the most common form of Biblical "eisegesis" is "proof texting" -- which is using isolated quotations from Scripture out of context to establish a "truth" or proposition that actually runs counter to the spirit of what the Bible writer is trying to convey. I believe that the greatest contribution the Lutheran tradition contributes to the rest of Christianity and the world is our willingness to wrestle with Scripture according to what it actually says, given the best information we have about the context in which particular parts of Scripture were first expressed. Martin Luther's lofty goal was to express what the Bible conveys to us about God and faith as a whole while remaining true to what it actually says. And he did it by acknowledging that there are truths conveyed by the writers of Scripture that on their own appear to conflict, yet are meaningful and helpful because they reveal that a Godly life is a life lived in tension -- just like our own experience of life if we are honest about it. For example, God's "laws" convict everyone as sinners who deserve to be punished and at the same time God created everyone out of love and offers justice, mercy, and love to all. This is true according to Scripture, but not very easy for humans to grasp even on their best days. So one might say "Homosexuals are sinners in the eyes of God" according to the Bible and the answer is "yes". And then turn right around and say "Heterosexuals are sinners" according to the Bible and also respond "yes". That's because the Bible reveals a greater truth when considered as a whole. Luther's exegesis was flawed in many ways because he did not have the knowledge we have today to help discern the context of those who wrote down the words found in the Bible. However, his genius was to distill the Spirit that flows from the Bible in a holistic way that is remarkably authentic to the message the original writers wished to convey. To grasp that Spirit means that one has to accept that a Christian life means living with paradox -- "both/and" -- as it was explained to me in Catechism. That's how one can come to the conclusion that, for example, BOTH homosexuals and heterosexuals are sinners in need of God's grace, AND God loves homosexuals and heterosexuals equally, providing through Jesus the same mercy and grace to all. Holding all of that together takes real faith -- not the fake stuff.