Friday, November 06, 2009

Taking the Bible too seriously to take it literally

Interesting series of comments on my recent local news gig -- interesting to me because the discussion ended up being less about the merits of marriage equality than it was about biblical hermeneutics.

It included this comment:

"At all Saints Pasadena we believe in the Constitution not the Bible"

My response:

Thanks for the chance to say -- one more time -- that in point of fact we at All Saints Church do NOT "believe in" the Bible. We don't "believe in" the liturgy, either. Or the "institutional church" for that matter.

What we do -- to the best of our ability and some-days-better-than-others -- is what Our Lord called us to do: TO FOLLOW HIM. To serve the last, the least and the lost in His name. To heal the broken, to bind up the wounds of the oppressed and marginalized, to liberate the captive and to bring hope to the hopeless.

And this follow up from another commenter:

I'm trying to parse the phrase "believe in the Bible" and figure out just what it means.

To believe in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, of course, means to believe that something exists when it does not. I think the atheists apply that same logic to most of us. Believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, then, must not be the same thing as believing in the Bible, because the Bible does exist. I've seen it with my own eyes. In fact, I've got one right here and I'll bet there are more than a few copies to be found at All Saints Church in Pasadena. Using this analysis, it seems pretty clear that the folks at All Saints Church "believe in the Bible.

Maybe then, to "believe in the Bible" means to believe in what it teaches us. I'm not 100% sure what the Easter Bunny teaches us, but it has been argued that Santa Claus (or St. Nicholas) teaches us about the spirit of giving that we see in God's gift to us in Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas. So, if believing in the Bible means believing in what it teaches us, we need to decide just what that is, and I suspect this may be where the problem begins.

Since it seems to be the literalists who toss around phrases like "believe in the Bible," we should ask them what they think believing in the Bible teaches us about the genocidal scorched earth policy God commands in 1 Samuel 15:3? Or, what the Bible really teaches us about the treatment of women, especially in light of the seeming approval given to the way the old man solves his dilemma in Judges 19:22-30. We know some of our literalist brothers and sisters think the Bible teaches us that women should keep silent and submit to their husbands, as Paul admonishes, but does it really teach us that slavery is OK, and slaves should be content to submit to their masters, even the cruel ones, as encouraged in 1 Peter 2:18? I could go on, but I think the point is made.

Maybe it's just because I'm so ignorant of what literalists believe that I think they could be so ignorant, but if we're going to cherry pick chapter and verse and then take each bit literally, why can't we start with John 3:16? Let's see: "...whosoever believes in him ..." To me that sounds like the Bible is teaching us that everlasting life is available to anyone who believes. Anyone. Even if we can't all agree on what it means "to believe."

I think I can believe in that.

Me too, Bruce! And here's what more I have to say about that:
Over twenty years ago now, as a young mother going through lay reader training in the Diocese of Los Angeles I had the privilege to be part of a session led by then Bishop Fred Borsch. He used an antique, brass spyglass as a "prop" -- telling us (as I recall):
"If you look AT the spyglass, it's a lovely and interesting artifact. If you look THROUGH the spyglass you can see things differently than you can through your naked eye. The same is true for the Bible. .If we only look AT the words -- take them literally -- we limit the ability of Holy Scripture to be for us the Living Word of God. When we look THROUGH the Bible -- when we take its words too seriously to take them literally -- we find eternal truths about love, justice and compassion that call us and empower us to follow Jesus in our own context the way the disciples did in theirs."
So there it is. Twenty years later it still works for me.


Philip Lowe, Jr. said...

I agree with you Susan. If I might add a thought to this discussion. All of us bring ourselves to Scripture when we read it. Our reactions or lack there of at times, what is going on with us, what we would like we tend to bring to our reading of the Bible. However, one thing we can forget to do is let the Bible move us from where we are into a relationship with God who through Jesus wants to be in relationship with us, as we are, who we are and where we are. I like to equate it with taking a long walk through a long hall way and having Jesus and me meet at some point for a genuine conversation about what's going on between us. There is the story God is telling and it's my listening to what God has to say to me. But I can't just see it literally, I have to look through it with the use of reason (the other pillar of Theology we Episcopalians use to interpret scripture).

We can see how Scripture carefully speaks to our culture through what was happening in the culture of the times of those who are interacting in the Biblical stories. While culture, history and even certain rites have passed into the past, the message of salvation has not. While we understand things differently now than we did even 20 years ago, we still acknowledge Jesus Christ as God's Son who saves us, and calls us to love one another as he loved us. One message that is continual through out the ministry of Jesus is to reach beyond ourselves into others and listen to God speak to us through them. I think that is sometimes the hardest thing.

I do a daily blog of my own based on the daily Gospel as used from Forward Day by Day. I welcome you and other readers to become followers if you wish. I'd like to share the link through this blog comment. It's .

God bless everyone.

Thank you so much for your ministry Susan.

MikeC said...

Very well said. Madeline L'Engle said something to the effect: "The Bible is far too important to be taken literally." If anyone has the exact quote, please reply.

Mitchell said...

This reminds me of my Literary Criticism class, in which we examined works through different perspectives,e.g. Freudian, Feminist, Reader-Response,etc.

As a student of philosophy I am still unhappy. Philosophy is about getting clear. Things are still unclear: Was Christ divine or just a man? Or was there even a historical Jesus? What about the Bible? Is it fake history or does it have some claim on reality. Is the Bible just a great literary work like "Moby Dick" or is it divinely inspired.

Herman Melville however profound, would not say that his books contained divinity.

Maybe Susan your just like one of your heroes JOHN SHELBY SPONG, you know I like him too.

Mitchell said...

What do you think?? I am dying.

MarkBrunson said...

Well, if Susan's not answering, I'll give you my take. Philosophy makes a rather artificial answer that "makes things clear." I think it's a great pastime, but not much else.

Unfortunately, reality is a great deal messier and blurry around the edges. There's no such thing as objective human observation, as there is no such thing as human objectivity. As long as we have a body, a history, etc., we can't have objectivity. Consensus, perhaps, but not objectivity.

I would disagree on two points:

1) Herman Melville was not so much profound as paid by the pound;

2) Just because a work is fiction doesn't mean it's not divinely inspired.

Misunderstanding of divine inspiration is rife in religion and those who oppose it: it is not divine dictation, still less divine authorship, but sleeting particles of inspiration that catch hold and have to be translated to a symbolic form of communication - all language is, you know - through the particular matrix of the non-objective entity which has received that inspiration particle. That "corrupted" (if you will) symbolic communication is assimilated into further non-objective entities in which it becomes broken down into individualized understandings of that symbolic representation, and further "corrupted" in being symbolically-conveyed to other non-objective entities. A "meaning" may be arrived at by consensus and expressed through a synthesization of symbolic representations, but the internal reality conveyed to each individual entity is necessarily different in direct (non-symbolic) apprehension. That direct apprehension "sets" the reality of the individual, whereas a consensus "sets" the reality of the group. That is the way in which even fiction may become reality, or contain reality, and, in that way, divine inspiration is limited, not only to the original symbolic representation, but to the reception of that symbolic representation.


Mitchell -- For the record, this is a blog ... not a live-chat site.

As for your questions, those are what Karen Armstrong would call "logos" questions being asked of what is essentially a "mythos" record of the power and presence of God's transformative love in the lives of the faithful down through the ages.

I can't recommend Armstong's "The Case for God" more highly to contextualize the challenge of faith and the "case for God" in the 21st century. Check it out.

RonF said...

... we should ask them what they think believing in the Bible teaches us about the genocidal scorched earth policy God commands in 1 Samuel 15:3? Or, what the Bible really teaches us about the treatment of women, especially in light of the seeming approval given to the way the old man solves his dilemma in Judges 19:22-30.

Jesus gave us a very specific lesson on this. Take Leviticus 20:10 as an example (I just like the sound and flow of the language in the KJV, I'm not selecting it for any supposed theological purity):

And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

So, God commands us to stone adulterers and adulteresses to death. That seems clear. It looks just like a lot of the passages that folks cite in support of this kind of argument. Jesus dealt with the application of this particular passage in John 8:1-11 in this way:

1esus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

So Jesus stopped the crowd from stoning the woman. But He also told the woman to go and sin no more - he did not tell her that what she was doing was not a sin and that it was O.K. to do it.

And if you want to comment on where the adulterer was in all of this and why he hadn't been hauled up in front of Jesus, fire away.

I've always wondered what Jesus was writing in the dirt?

MarkBrunson said...

So, all you can tell us - again - RonF, is that you don't know, it depends, it's all down to what happened when it happened. It's very evident, from Scripture and Tradition, that this god of the conservatives who "does not change his mind" has changed it over and over again!

So, you have no more authority in teaching than we do, and no better answer than we do. The difference being, we err on the side of compassion and mercy, you on judgment and self-preservation.