Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How Do Christians Read the Bible?

Well, Proposition 8 passed. That’s not what I wished for my state, but I can’t muster too much outrage about it. The rule of law means more to me than gay marriage rights, and as I explained in my last post, the people of California must be able to correct what they believe to be erroneous readings of the constitution by our supreme court. I’m aware that there are some novel arguments being advanced against the legality Proposition 8, but I haven’t had a chance to look into their legal footing on my own, so I’ll refrain from commentary until then.

What I really want to talk about today is the Bible, and how Christians like me read it. I say “like me” because the church is vast and contains more schools of thought than I am well acquainted with. Nevertheless I think what I say in this post will go for most Christians, and in particular for most Christians who believe in the “authority of Scripture” or would identify as “fundamentalist” or read the Bible “literally.” How do people like us actually read the book? By what principles do we declare one passage binding upon us and another not binding? Are there even any principles?

This is an issue that I think is of critical importance for American civic discourse. Obama once said in a speech that people of faith have an obligation to present our views in ways that one does not have to be a person of faith to understand. That is certainly true, and important. But it is equally true and important that people not of faith have an obligation to present their views in ways that one can be a person of faith and still understand.

I am of the opinion that for most of my lifetime Americans have generally failed on both these points. It is a scathing indictment of our educational philosophy, I think, that Americans grow up without the slightest attempt at teaching them the hermeneutics of the world’s major religions. As a matter of civics, it is deeply important to understand the different worldviews in one’s society. Yet when an American screenwriter wants to present a fundamentalist Christian as a bigot and a hypocrite, it’s a common trope to present that character with one example that “the Bible says” is verboten (e.g., same-sex sex), followed by five more commonplace examples of things that “the Bible says” which are not followed by that character in everyday life (e.g., eating shellfish, wearing cloth woven of two threads, the Levitical criminal code, a woman having short hair). Invariably the Christian is caught flat-footed, his or her belief system exposed for the farce it is, reason and tolerance triumphant.

I’d be tempted to dismiss this sort of thing as a farce, except that it shows up in surprising places. The West Wing, a show I normally associate with witty and well-educated writers, has stooped to this one. So has Barack Obama (the shellfish example), himself a Christian who I’d think ought to know better. I know personally friends whom I consider thoughtful, intelligent, and in other respects well-educated, who have either articulated this line of argument before or confessed their ignorance as to how people like me deal with it. The unspoken assumption (or perhaps fear) is that we haven’t thought of these issues before.

For those who fear, we have. For those who assume … really? You think that? I don’t mean to sound too sarcastic, so I’ll just note that this issue has been around for 2,000 years.

Of course, before I get too high and mighty, I should acknowledge that most Christians probably haven’t thought about this issue explicitly. But that doesn’t mean that the church hasn’t, or that the unquestioned assumptions of most Christians aren’t informed by our very old tradition of analyzing this question.

But enough of that. How do we read the Bible? M’lakMavet has phrased it well, I think, so I’m going to crib his words:

1. What does the text of this passage require me to think, do, or believe?
2. What does the context of this passage tell me about its intended meaning?
3. What does the rest of Scripture have to say about this?

That’s it. That’s the process whereby we decide what is and isn’t binding on us as Christians, even those of us who read the Bible “literally.” There are two popular substitute processes which deserve mention, because they are popular, although I wouldn’t (and I don’t think any theologian would) recommend them. Those are:

1. What does my [spiritual authority of choice] say?


1. Is this passage culturally relevant? If so, I shall think, do, or believe as it says.
2. If not, what does it tell me about the unchanging character of God?
3. How can I implement that "spiritual principle" in my thoughts, actions, or beliefs?*

But back to the way we actually do it, or the way we are actually supposed to do it. A couple of things about that process deserve pointing out. One is that probably all Christians are not capable of going through that process, because most Christians (I would guess) haven’t read the entire Bible.**

But (and this is the second thing that deserves pointing out) it isn’t rocket science. Oh, it isn’t always easy to read multiple passages against each other and figure out the result in a way that is true to all passages concerned. But the process really is within the mental capacity of the average person. This is something anybody can do.

The third thing that deserves pointing out is that the result of this process is not fixed. There is room for debate. As a church, we debate all the time, and if the public cannot see or appreciate it, perhaps it’s because the public was never taught the rules and never cared to figure it out.

Of course there are some Christians who simply will not debate, either because they’re stupid or (more likely) because they’re scared. But I think most of us would welcome as a refreshing change a serious debate with a non-Christian as to whether or not Scripture really says what we think it does.

In some cases of course the text really leaves very little room for debate. The shellfish debate (Leviticus 11:9-12) is pretty conclusively answered by Romans 3 and passages like it (growing up in America not knowing that Christians consider themselves not bound by the Mosaic law is only one step more defensible than growing up in America not knowing that Christians consider Jesus their savior if you ask me, but whatever).

But of course nobody actually cares about shellfish. They care about issues like same-sex sex, or gay marriage, or abortion, or non-marital sex. And on those issues the analysis is considerably more involved (and, correspondingly, more interesting). I don’t mean to say that it’s all a gray area and no firm conclusion is possible. But the analysis is complex enough that there’s room for genuine discussion. By corollary, to one degree or another, reasonable people can disagree on most of the “morals” issues people actually care about today. And I think most Christians would agree with me when I say that’s perfectly okay. If you can come to a reasoned, good-faith, internally consistent belief that Scripture says something different than what I think it says, taking into account all the evidence and all the arguments, then you are still in my conservative fundamentalist opinion submitting yourself to the authority of Scripture, and I can ask no more from you.

When was the last time you had a debate with a Christian friend about those sorts of things on the Bible’s own terms? Or when was the last time you really sat down and constructed a proof for yourself of why you believe Scripture says what you think it does about one of those issues?

* Of course there’s nothing wrong with gleaning spiritual principles from the Bible; I don’t see how you could answer the question, “What does the rest of Scripture have to say about this?” without doing so. But it is decidedly dodgy to have a branching analysis where the decision to activate one procedure over the other hinges on a question as subjective as, “Is this culturally relevant?”

** From a faith standpoint that’s actually “okay.” I think it’s dumb for several reasons, but you can indeed get by holding onto your faith without ever peeking under the hood, so to speak, to see the intellectual structure that supports it - as long as you don’t want to deal with anybody outside your faith, in any way, ever.


jefe said...

I've always taken the "shellfish" argument to be a rebuttal to a specific kind of argument that's made (pretty frequently) by people who aren't thinking very clearly about how they read the Bible.

A says "The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination (Leviticus 18.22). The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it."

B replies: "Look, the Bible says eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 11.12). But you think the story about shellfish is more complicated than that, don't you? So clearly the passage you cited doesn't really settle that matter either."

In this context, B's rebuttal is completely on point. The upshot is not that there is no kind of sensible hermeneutic that treats the Bible as "literally true" (in a sufficiently nuanced sense). Rather, the upshot is just that A wasn't doing that. A was using transparently bad hermeneutics in order to make her case look a lot stronger than it really is. We Christians shouldn't let that kind of thing go uncorrected.

Natalie said...

That's very true, and I don't mean to get on my high horse about the big bad atheists preying on us poor defenseless believers. What saddens me about that kind of argument is that so often (it seems to me) neither A nor B can articulate a hermeneutic A should have been using instead. B can offer a hermeneutic based on his own worldview, perhaps, but rarely is B in a position to suggest how A, as a Christian, could have reasoned better and still stayed true to A's own beliefs. And often (sadly, and this is a great defect in the American church), neither is A.

jefe said...

Of course, B may be a Christian too (as Obama is, as well as the character in The West Wing you mentioned).

But you're right that there's something tragic about the exchange. The tragedy is not that B makes the argument he does (it's a good rebuttal to A's point), but rather that the matter is allowed to rest there. At this point in the discussion, neither party has said anything that comes anywhere close to settling the issue—and they may both be at a loss as to how the discussion ought to go forward from there. (Or if they do go forward, the fact that the conversation no longer consist of snappy one-liners may discourage anyone else from paying attention.) And that really is a shame.

Natalie said...

Well said.