Why this use of the Bible is problematic in practice…

[In my previous post I described how the dominant approach to the Bible I have seen in Christianity is problematic, if not outright impossible, to use given the development and the nature of the Bible.  In this post I want to look at some practical reasons why this approach fails when it is attempted.]

Despite the problems with the “Truth mine” approach to scripture that I have seen from the text, this approach is still the dominant approach to the Bible I have seen.  If this approach is problematic in its nature it is even more problematic in practice.  I just want to highlight a number of the practical problems I have seen with this approach.

1. Few Christians read or understand the Bible:  Many Christians have not read the entire Bible, nor have they deeply studied or thought about what they have read.  The most common situation is that Christians have uncritically read a handful of select passages from the Bible themselves and beyond that they trust authority figures to teach them the rest and tell them what the Bible says.  Authority figures can be their local clergy, teaching resources or the general consensus around them.

The issue: If the Bible is a Truth mine, many Christians are apparently farmers by trade and could not find the right mine to save their life.  Most Christians uncritically accept the spiritual truths taught to them by the religious leaders over them or what is the general consensus of their specific community, regardless of the actual merit or truth in these beliefs. Practically speaking, anytime such power is concentrated in the hands of a few, and people go along with the dominant view of those around them, abuses and half-truths exist, if not flourish.

2. Christians read and use the Bible inconsistently and selectively: Christians very selectively read their Bibles and then inconsistently apply the “Truth mine” approach to what they decide to read. Passages that suit their pre-existing beliefs are read and treated as timeless truths for all time. Passages that would challenge their beliefs are ignored or begrudgingly accepted as part of the Bible but then explained away in some fashion.

Scott McKnight wrote an entire book, Blue Parakeets, dedicated to show how all Christians “pick and choose” which verses to apply to contemporary life. I would greatly encourage any interested in examining this issue further to read this book. I have attached a few examples of my own of this issue at the bottom of the post.

The Issue:  In practice, it is Christians, not God, who decide which parts of the Bible are diamonds of eternal and divine truth to be obeyed today and treasured forever and which parts of the Bible are to be considered the dirt around the diamond to be discarded and ignored. Practically speaking, Christians find statements in the Bible that support their positions, and then suggest their position is the only “biblical truth” on the subject.

3. Christian interpretation of the Bible is highly subjective: There are many factors (such as one’s culture, one’s own life experiences, one’s religious upbringing, etc.) that impact one’s interpretation of the Bible. This means that two Christians presented with the same passage from the Bible will interpret it differently.  Most people are unaware of these factors, and even when they are examined and explained, they are often equally valid. This makes it difficult, if not impossible to determine whose interpretation is correct.

The Issue: If the Bible is a “Truth mine,” it seems that the timeless truths are subject to change depending on a wide variety of factors that have absolutely nothing to do with the text.

4. Morality and ethics change over time: The Bible, read literally, contains passages that explain, encourage and endorse slavery, sexism, racism, and a variety of other social and individual practices that by contemporary standards are immoral or unethical.  We ignore many of these passages. For example, the Bible commands that if a man rapes a woman he has to pay money to her father and then marry her.  I think most people would be horrified if they were told the “biblical truth” regarding rape was that the raped woman would be forced to marry her rapist.  The reason they are now considered immoral and unethical is that morality and ethics change over time. Morality and ethics change over time because what is moral and what is ethical is determined by the dominant culture.

The Issue: How can divine and eternal rules about morality and ethics be mined from the Bible and applied when the morality of culture changes? The Bible commands people to kill witches. Now some might suggest that the fact that morality and ethics are changing is the sinful encroachment of culture upon “biblical morality” or “family values.” This is incorrect on two levels.  First, morality and ethics have changed for the better, not just for the worst.  I am glad slavery is now widely regarded as wrong. Second, the morality and ethics of the people of God also change over time. From which era do we extract “biblical morality” or “family values” from?  Is it when polygamy was okay or when monogamy was the norm? Additionally, what do we do when commands in the Bible are immoral?

[So the “Truth mine” approach to the Bible is problematic from both the development and nature of the Bible itself and anyone can see the practical problems with this approach.  So why do we keep using it? In my next post I want to suggest at least three reasons I suspect this fundamental approach to the Bible persists. (ignorance, fear, power)]

P.S.: I mentioned I wanted to add some example of inconsistent uses of the Bible. I want to bring out these examples to show how gravely problematic these issues can become. Here are three.

1. As McKnight points out in his book there are certain Christian traditions that require women to dress a certain way to be modest and preclude them from having any authority in the church or fulfilling any leadership role. This is all to be obedient to the Biblical commands found in 1 Timothy 2.  However, McKnight points out, none of these traditions require men to raise their hands in prayer, “without wrath and dissension,” a command that is located literally a sentence before Paul begins to talk about women.  If one command is to be taken literally in a letter, should we not take all the commands from the letter literally?

2. In a blog that was recently promoted on Fuller’s website, Rev Mary Naegeli, a Presbyterian minister, condemns homosexuality from the handful of passages in the Bible that refer to it. She talks elsewhere on her blog about how rogue elements in her church have hijacked it and they have done a dramatic about-face on the issue of homosexuality and gone against centuries of tradition and scripture itself. However, I assume Rev. Naegeli is grateful that her denomination, a break-off branch of Presbyterian church, did a dramatic about-face on the issue of women in leadership, breaking with centuries of tradition and scripture itself.  If the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality is for today, why is the Bible’s prohibition of women in leadership not for today?

3. I want to take this moment to thank the homosexual community for bringing out our inconsistent reading of the Bible when Proposition 8 hit here in California, especially in regards to our use of certain Old Testament passages.

Like Rev. Naegeli, many Christians would support the condemnation of homosexuality, at least in part, from a passage in Leviticus.  However, a broader reading of Leviticus will reveal many commandments that Christians are ignoring and not claiming to be authoritative for today. Another blogger has brought up many of these. No one seems to be clamoring to enforce these clear commandments from scripture today or suggest that because we no longer follow them, evil secular culture is eroding our morality.

These three examples are but a few examples of how Christians cherry-pick passages from the Bible, with no explanation, to support their positions.

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About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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2 Responses to Why this use of the Bible is problematic in practice…

  1. Pingback: Is Homosexuality a Sin?: Intro « Speak Faithfully

  2. Giauz says:

    That blog you linked to makes me feel terrible on so many levels. Why must we curse at each other (I ask especially because I curse in anger often…. or for other reasons. Does it matter that I feel sick about it or am I just a hypocrite?)? I wish none of us would have picked up these at times hurtful at others almost a speech tick (seriously at a factory in my hometown very few people I worked with didn’t precede and follow every single word invariably with f###ing or mother######) habits and not been so easily amused. Being an adult in a world that just might be tearing itself apart sucks.

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