People do some funny things with the Bible. Apart from using it to cover stains on the back seat of the car, and place between Rob Bells latest book and the coffee table to stop a portal to hell being scorched into it’s surface (if hell really exists, that is), the Bible is also widely used to support a whole range of views and opinions, ranging from the sacred to the obscene. The thing with the Bible is that unlike books written by authors who are still alive we can’t ask the people who wrote it what they really meant when they said stuff. However, I think their absence is not sufficient licence, poetic or otherwise, for the amount of liberties Christians can take with scripture sometimes.
I think many Christians like to make reading the Bible seem much harder than it really is. I’ve found that many regular people not claiming to be Christian or religious don’t seem to have as much trouble working out what the Bible is about as most Christians think, or would perhaps prefer, they did. I know people who just picked up the Bible one day and started reading, and didn’t have any real issues understanding it as a work of literature, as a spiritual guide, or as a historical document. And don’t we just hate that. We’d like the Bible to be special, something only we Christians can understand and appreciate. I think a lot of the readings we make of scripture are really just designed to make ourselves feel superior and other people feel excluded, which is kind of the opposite of what the Bible is for in the first place, when you think about it.
Now, I’ll admit that some parts of the Bible are more difficult to read than others. The supposedly deeply symbolic chapters like Revelation are certainly open to deep and interesting interpretation, as can those which might act as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the church (the sexy bits) like Song of Solomon. Sure, these particular chapters can, and perhaps should, be exegeted several ways. But Christians are prone to smirk that people reject the Bible because they haven’t got the special spiritual beer-goggles for it, you know, the ones you get when you “become a Christian”. We’ve told people that the Bible says God loves people, but some more than others. I’ve found a lot of people reject the Bible not because of what they think it says about them, but actually because of what we Christians tell them we think it says about them.
In my experience, many not-Christians who have read the Bible largely reject it not because they don’t understand it, as we’d like to think, but because they find it 1) largely irrelevant (they don’t see is as having much practical use in their lives) 2) strangely incomplete (they find out that lots of books were considered for inclusion, but didn’t make the cut, and they don’t understand how Christians can accept this without question) and 3) has been over-interpreted to the point of distortion largely by people who have concluded that God only loves the people who think, act and read the Bible the same way they do. And I think they’d be pretty much right on all three counts.
I think we Christians have been guilty of making the Bible into a kind of exclusive handbook for churchies, complete with secret codes, rules and complex initiation ceremonies, like a kind of spiritual Sandlot-Kids secret society manual. When we can’t find in the handbook exactly what we’re looking for, we just find a way to make it say what we need it to say, usually to exclude someone we don’t like or are afraid of. Don’t like tattoos? Found a bit that supports that. Misogynist pig? Found some supporting evidence for that also. Hate homosexuals? Oh, big fat check on that. Believe, perchance, that God wants to give you everything your little heart desires, regardless of how trivial, materialistic, selfish or stupid it is? Well, duh. Of course the Bible says that.
Christians deny they ever take liberties with scripture. But we do, regardless of the fact we’ve said that scripture is God-breathed, inerrant and eternal. If we agree with the distortion, we call it a revelation, and the prophet said to be anointed. If we don’t agree, it’s an apostasy and the utterer is a heretic. While Bible scholars might argue that we can never really know what that intended meaning was, there are surely instances when we can be pretty certain we are not using scripture the way the author intended. I think we can be sure we have used a scripture out of context when the twenty or so words that appear before it, and the twenty or so words that come after it, mean exactly the opposite of the twenty or so words we’ve plucked out of the middle to support our particular position. A lot of very well qualified pastors I know in real life use passages from scripture in fairly erroneous fashion. So ambivalent and creative are their interpretations one wonders why they bothered to use the Bible to support their statements, when your basic, everyday, high-quality supermarket catalogue might have served the same purpose, with much less confusion.
Ben and I visited a church once we were thinking of attending (we’d just moved to town) and, isn’t it always the way, that morning the pastor was delivering the exciting new plan for the church building project. He was encouraging the church to not feel that their very ambitious and expensive building was out of their reach technically or financially, and exorting them to believe that God himself understood they could achieve their goal and would support it. His scripture reference? Genesis 11:6. “Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them!” However, this passage comes from the story of the tower of Babel. In the preceding scripture, God has come down to check out a huge idolatrous monolith the people are building, in the following one, God supernaturally confuses their language so they can’t understand each other, and the building project ceases. The people are then scattered across the face of the earth. If the church had been a little smaller than the five hundred or so people present that morning, they might have heard me laughing, but they might have just confused that for hilarious giving.
Whilst I certainly advocate for scripture reading that isn’t brain surgery, surely we can do better than this proverbial psycho-style stab in the dark.
Apart from this kind of outright decontextualisation of scripture, there are those faithful old chestnuts we’ve pulled out the Bible for everyday, albeit incongruous, use. There’s that all-time Pentacostal classic, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, a particular favourite of my husbands. It’s his favourite because he always gets a belly laugh at the various ways people use it usually to support things Christians want very much to do but find themselves unable to. Like parking anywhere they want without getting a ticket, or beating someone they hate at a game. This particular passage is generally used to support Christians view that they have to them available via Jesus an unending supply of mental, emotional and attitudinal fortitude for all occasions in which they find themselves uncomfortable. “I can do all things through Christ” has come to mean “I’ll be able to do whatever its takes to get myself out of this present situation, which I find intolerable, with Jesus help. Because He wants for me the same thing I want for myself – to be rich, comfortable and never have anyone argue with me.” However, a closer reading of this particular part of Phillipians reveals that Paul is actually talking about being able to make himself content within, and able to tolerate, all manner of human tribulation, through his faith in Christ. Rather than saying “This is crap, I’m blasting my way outta here with my special, Jesussy super-powers”, Paul actually says “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, and boy, is Jesus a big help with that.” So as it turns out, his own propensity for discontentment, and not the problems irritating him, is actually the big problem he needs Jesus’ help with. Funny, that.
Another example, just today on Facebook. By a pastor. Ephesians 3.20. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…..” Aha! See what God is able to do for us? More than all we ask and imagine! So, what have you imagined? What have you asked for? Unfortunately, the next part of the sentence was missing from this pastors exuberant status update, the part about “….be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” We are encouraged to perceive Paul’s blessing here as being about “more than what we ask or imagine!” i.e.: what God can deliver to humans, and not the “ be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus, throughout all generations, for ever and ever.” i.e.: what humans can deliver to God. Convenient, though not if you’re God, I imagine.
The Bible isn’t stupid. If you thought it was, can I just say it’s not God’s fault you do, and that Christians in my opinion have a case to answer. I think it’s time Christians faced the fact that sometimes we don’t know exactly what the Bible means, as clearly demonstrated by our changing it around an awful lot to make it say pretty much whatever we’d like it to. Christians must also admit that the Bible was far more likely given us to help us understand who and what God is, and not merely to indicate where He stands in relation to our own wants, our own plans, our own problems and our own ambitions. In other words, the Bible is not always about us, people. We can still appreciate the Bible, even if we can’t completely understand it, because it’s not actually as complex as we’ve sometimes been led to believe, but I believe it’s neither as shallow as others seem to want me to think. If God gave the Bible to the world, as we claim He did, it’s my belief that He was forward thinking enough to make it accessible to everyone with enough wherewithall to read it. Myself, I find my Bible mystical enough to convince me people must have needed God’s help to write it, and shallow enough that I am assured He didn’t lower himself to say many of the stupid things Christians claim He did.