A Battle of Two Drunks

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One night decades ago I looked out my study window to see two very drunken men swinging wildly at each other, neither coming even close to landing a punch but both staggering after each roundhouse swing and nearly falling to the pavement. I find in that memory an analogy for the present conflict over the Bible.

The rise of scientific method and its impressive successes at making sense of our world set off a furor that unleashed the backlash of biblical fundamentalism. The more scientists suggested alternatives to Medieval assumptions and verities, the more adamantly fundamentalists hunkered down on supposedly absolute truths lifted uncritically from the Bible in ways that were not faithful to the Bible itself. As fundamentalism fought to justify itself, it became increasingly authoritarian and cruel. That combination of absolutism in its truths and cruelty in its unyielding judgments upon people caused a double backlash from the other side: (1) the increasing absurdity of fundamentalism’s insistence upon “facts” which were not facts but literalistic misreadings of the Bible set up fundamentalism as an easily discredited straw man some modernists attacked as though discrediting Christianity as a whole, and (2) the cruel judgments upon people in which the Bible was used to bludgeon the “sinners” drove from the churches people who were at least learning tolerance if not full-blown respect and compassion.

Yes, the paragraph above offers a very rough sketch of the series of backlashes by which we have been buffeted into our present situation with regard to the Bible, the former “Good Book” which is now alternately weaponized and demonized into either a collection of absolutized truisms (with scarcely any message left except divine authority not to be questioned) or a compilation of silly superstitions and petty prejudices. Ironically, modern critical (meaning analytical, not unfavorable) study has opened the Bible for us in ways that can enable us to understand it better than ever and to hear its truth for leading us to God and each other, to healing, reconciliation, freedom, wholeness, and life lived with hope not only for ourselves but for our endangered earth with all its people and its non-human creatures as well. Sadly, the opportunity to hear the biblical witnesses more clearly has been largely ignored by the Bible’s opponents and rejected vehemently as satanic by its fundamentalist defenders. So, now we have biblical ignorance on both sides of the battle, one side erecting absurd facts which must be accepted “on faith” and the other side knocking them down with scientific facts which are irrelevant to the actual meanings of the biblical witnesses the two sides are disputing. Hence I am reminded of the two drunken men swinging wildly at each other in the night.

So it is that people who favor science and people who favor faith continue to battle over Adam and Eve, Noah and the Great Flood, miracles, and harsh regulations in the Holiness Code within the book of Leviticus as well as some of the opinions and foibles of the apostle Paul and his successors. Meanwhile, the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, of the Great Flood, and of the Tower of Babel (to name some examples) continue to offer profound insights into our human condition in our broken relationship with God, our often denied and violated relatedness to each other, and our anxiety about ourselves, but who is listening?

More to come. I’m especially concerned about current abuses of the Bible in the service of power.

“Read your Bible!” Authoritarian Bullying

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Printed in white paint, along with some Christian symbols, on the tailgate of a dark pickup truck:

I Corinthians 14:34
WOMEN shall be SILENT
and SUBMISSIVE
READ YOUR BIBLE

Beyond noting that painting this message on his truck suggests an emotionally and spiritually insecure man, I’ll leave it to psychotherapists to explain what might motivate him to so abuse the Bible in this pitiful attempt to bully women. Decades ago I heard some women’s reactions to a man who, Bible in hand, had delivered a similar message in an adult church school class, and as I listened to them, I realized he had done more to arouse feminism than anyone could have done with a feminist message. So maybe if the guy with pickup truck were trying to awaken in more women new opposition to being bullied by the abusive Bible quoting of authoritarian Christians, he might have achieved some success.

The downside (in addition to the sadness of the man’s so publicly airing his insecurities) is that his attempt at bullying reinforces the false notion that the Bible is an authoritarian book intended for use as a club for beating down people who don’t know their (supposed) place in a soul-crushing hierarchy. I notice the sign says, “your Bible” not “the Bible,” I suppose because the assumption is that everybody has one. But whose Bible is this that so readily serves as a club for bludgeoning people? Not mine.

I have been studying Christianity’s Bible since childhood and without it would not be who I am or have the life I have lived, but this fellow’s “your Bible” is not my Bible at all. The Bible is foundational and crucial to my hopes, thoughts, values, and indeed to my whole way of striving to live, but it is not a weapon for me to use against people to subjugate them to my will under false cover of divine authority. Neither is it legitimately an authoritative way to make my opinions and prejudices sound as though they were God’s very own. So, while I’ll continue to read and study the Bible as long as I have eyesight and my wits about me, I will not be instructed or reprimanded by this man’s Bible.

Does the Bible not challenge my thinking, actions, decisions, and ways of relating to other people and to the rest of creation? Yes, it sure does. I do not expect what I read in it to reassure and comfort me when what I need is to be confronted, challenged, and changed. True, there is much in the Bible that offers comfort and reassurance, but even in such green pastures beside calm waters, it is seldom telling me that everything is “well with my soul” and my life. Even its proffered consolations confront me with the truth of an understanding and compassion that burn away pretenses and self-deceptions. Even at their best, my ways are not God’s ways, and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts.

As a Christian, I need to be reminded frequently that Jesus, whom we call the Christ, is never just what the world wants, just what the churches want, or just what I want, either. There is some continuity between my desires and God’s grace, but there is also discontinuity, and if I am going to hear what the Bible’s various witnesses to God’s truth-with-us have to say to me here and now, meeting me as I am and where I am in life, then I must hold the continuity and the discontinuity in tension, realizing that sometimes I need to hear one more strongly than the other.

Picking Bible verses to prove myself right and my ways godlier than someone else’s is an exercise in self-deception. Using carefully selected verses to clobber other people is not only misguided but sinful. The Bible challenges me and my life, not by laying down authoritarian rules, but by confronting me with the truth of God as a self-giving, redemptive love far greater than anything within me.

I have written before about the disconnect between what I have called the two different bibles Christians read and also present to the world. Book for book and word for word, the two are the same, but in effect they differ drastically. I call one the vindictive bible, the other the salvific bible. I’ll not rehash here what I’ve already posted, but for anyone curious, here it is:

I do not know the man in the truck, his hopes and fears, disappointments and experiences of shame, or what has happened in his life to move him to broadcast from the back of his pickup such anger and need for control over women. I do know his painted message bears hurtfully false witness to the truth of the Bible he seems to prize as well as to the liberating and life-giving truth of the Christ he apparently claims to serve.