Watch how you use the Bible

After (now) many more years of critical thinking than those earlier years of unthinking devotion, the Bible is still a source of hope and inspiration, a steadfast message of the justice of God – which is always stained with divine mercy, a message of the complete adequacy of love – which prevails over hatred, a message of challenging surprise – that brings “enemies” together as neighbors in a strange and wonderfully-shared community.

I suppose I am not unlike many folks who were raised in my part of the world – raised in a wonderful, solidly conservative, protestant church, Bible teaching was a staple in my diet. My childhood fascination with the amazing stories of the Bible was later conditioned through a thorough education by what some religion-scholars call a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” This is just a fancy-pants way of saying we ought to learn to read the Bible with a critical eye. Fortunately, I learned to read “suspiciously.” Just as fortunately, I never quit loving the Bible.

I learned enough about human finitude and frailty in reading it carefully, however, to believe that humility is always the first word in reading – and always the first reason never to make the mistake of making a billystick of this “double-edged sword.” (It always cuts both ways!)

After (now) many more years of critical thinking than those earlier years of unthinking devotion, the Bible is still a source of hope and inspiration, a steadfast message of the justice of God – which is always stained with divine mercy, a message of the complete adequacy of love – which prevails over hatred, a message of challenging surprise – that brings “enemies” together as neighbors in a strange and wonderfully-shared community.

This true community exceeds any we have ever been able to build, but especially as we continue to shatter relationships, deriding and disrespecting one another one Tweet at a time, that vision becomes all the more powerful and important. (As the late G.K. Chesterton once noted, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has rarely ever been tried.”)

There are, of course, many reasons for the failure of community, but as one who believes the responsibility for creating community is at the heart of our Gospel, I see the failure of community (in expressions large and small) as a particular failure of the Christian Church. If we cannot stop the self-inflicted bleeding, our demise will be as deserved as it is foreseeable. So much of the failure of the faith community to actually create community has to do with the unfortunate proclivity of religious people to quote the Bible without really understanding it.

Like all great literature, the Bible is hard to read. Like all great literature, if you want to understand it, you have to study it, not just read it. Faithfulness to the Bible doesn’t just mean “believing it.” Nor does the one who can quote it most frequently necessarily have an understanding of it.

Recognizing this problem and the unlikelihood that the masses will ever really give themselves to a course of study (involving literature and language and culture and the politics of the prophetic word), the sometimes controversial, always challenging Stanley Hauerwas stirred the pot prior to the turn of this last century. The former professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School suggested the best thing we could do for the viability of Christianity in the 21st century was to take the Bible out of the hands of the common folk.

Not that Franklin Graham is “common folk,” but his recent use of the Bible goes a long way to suggest Haurwas might have been on to something. I’m not surprised Graham’s message was anti-LGBT. There’s a vigorous and legitimate (though sadly repressive) conversation within and without the Christian community about human sexuality. Unfortunately, I’m also not surprised Graham would use the Bible in such a defamatory, inflicting way. It is particularly disappointing, however, because the Bible itself rejects Graham’s oft-quote idea.

It’s a commonly misunderstood reference, but someone of Graham’s stature owes it to the world to be a better student. He recently misinformed the world that the “sin of Sodom and Gomorrah” was homosexuality. Such an egregious misreading is almost unforgiveable, especially when the purpose (or at least the result) of that misreading is the continued castigation, alienation, broad-brush judgment against all of our homosexual family members, friends and neighbors – and the pain and violence that often accompanies such condemnation.

On the contrary, ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE, those now-infamous biblical cities were destroyed not for any of the sexual expressions of its inhabitants. The prophet Ezekiel understood what an uncritical reading cannot: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16.49).

I have no doubt the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah had witnessed their share of sexual indiscretion, but according to the Bible their sin was arrogance, gluttony, wealth, and a lack of charity for the poor. Any honest reading invites us, rather than casting stones, to consider the stinging observations about the real sin we share with these ancient societies.

It’s easy, and it appears sadly enjoyable for some people of faith to read the Bible in a way that gives “legitimacy” to pointing the finger at other people. If that is the result of your reading, please, read again. The only legitimate way to read scripture makes us realize the only sin I really need to worry about if I’ve fully understood the message… is mine.

 

(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He is co-pastor, with his wife Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)

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