Martin Luther might have made a huge mess

illuminated bible

 I wrote a post last week explaining how I’m not entirely sure what I think–and believe– about the Bible. I know that what I was taught as a teenager was egregiously wrong, especially since the veneration of the Holy Scriptures included the heresy of biblical docetism— or, taking the Bible as literally, as factually, as is possible. From my experiences in Independent Fundamental Baptist churches and attending a fundamentalist college, the words and the pages of the Bible are worshiped as an extension of God himself.

So I’m trying to back up from that and look at the Bible all over again, and I’m starting from scratch. I’m beginning with the things that I can solidly know about the Bible that are separate from its status as a divine book. It’s an ancient text, a library compiled over centuries, written by men (and possibly women) from all walks of life. They had a purpose, an underlying argument. They had motivations that they weren’t aware of. Their writing was colored by their perceptions– racism, patriarchy– and everything they recorded was influenced by their philosophy and epistemology. Those are things that are true of all books, of all writers. These are things that I’ve been trained to look for, to parse out, and I know how to handle them.

I haven’t really made any progress since my last post– all I have are more questions. But one thing that I’m seriously beginning to wonder about is the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.

I’m not a Reformation scholar, but I think it’s safe to claim that one of the founding doctrines of the Reformation was sola scriptura. Luther believed that the Holy Roman Catholic Church had become corrupt and had been abusing its power; the solution for this was to give ordinary people access to the Bible. If they could read the Scriptures for themselves, they could see where and how the Church had been misrepresenting the truth to them– they could read about justification through faith alone for themselves. Luther– and other men like him– appealed to the authority of Scripture above the authority of the Church, or Tradition.

What I’m wondering about now is the connection between sola scriptura and the saying we hear bandied about quite a bit today: “the Bible clearly says.” Are ideas like biblical literalism, the “plain meaning of Scripture” and proof-texted verses the natural– perhaps inevitable– consequence of sola scriptura?

 Because, as I’ve been digging into what the Bible means to me, one of the things that’s becoming ever more clear is that trying to understand the Bible is difficult. You have to take into account Hebrew and Greek syntax, ancient customs from a culture wholly removed from modern-day America, literary forms of the ancient world, the importance of genre . . . and it goes on.

Take, for example, the Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s traditionally been attributed to Solomon, and it belongs in the “proverbial” genre. However, it has a narrative structure that is very common in other Near Eastern and Middle Eastern texts written in about the same period. The Man Who was Tired of Life, an ancient Egyptian story, has a strikingly similar narrative form: internal dialog. This story is about a man arguing with himself, trying to decide if he wants to commit suicide or if continuing to live is worth it. A straight, simple reading of Ecclesiastes is going to be confusing, because the book is filled with what, superficially, seem like contradictions and tensions. I’ve seen some creative attempts to interpret this book that had zero awareness of the internal dialog happening– and, if you’re not versed in narrative theory and can separate the two voices in the text (which is easy in some places, more difficult in others) you’re going to run into problems.

Many of the “straight-forward, plain meaning, the Bible clearly says” approaches I’ve seen to Ecclesiastes winds up with the preacher going on at length about how everything is vanity and life is miserable– when that is not really the purpose of Ecclesiastes at all.

When you give ordinary people the Bible– well-educated, hard working, conscionable people who love God– but don’t simultaneously give them any tools to understand the Bible as a library of books from ancient times, it seems like you’re always going to run into problems.

Say, for example, someone reads Genesis 19, where God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, but they don’t simultaneously read Ezekiel 16. You might wind up with a bunch of people believing that God sent fire and brimstone to destroy Sodom because the people there were gay– when Ezekiel 16 explicitly says that the people there were greedy and selfish, and they did not care for the poor. Or, even ignoring Ezekiel 16, and understanding that Genesis has a narrative structure just like every other book– and that the story of the angels visiting Lot is meant to be a parallel with the angels visiting Abraham. You place these two encounters side-by-side (which they are), and the story is completely transformed to be about how we treat strangers.

So what does this mean for the Church?

I’m worried about the rampant anti-intellectualism I hear from a lot of pulpits. You don’t need religion. You don’t need Tradition. You don’t need education. You don’t need 6 years of training in church history. You don’t need 6 years in biblical languages. You just need the Bible. As long as you read your Bible, you’ll be fine.

But I’ve been reading my Bible, and when I get to passages like Jesus saying “you’re going to eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6:56) and people responded with “this is a hard saying” (vs. 60), all I can think is no shit Jesus sounds like a crazy person. And, of course, we modern people go, “Oh, he was talking about Communion!” since that’s something we’ve had for 2,000 years and some of us eat and drink it every Sunday, but that didn’t exist then, and we get all pissy with the people who didn’t get it. “See, look at what Peter said! Jesus has the words of eternal life, where else are we supposed to go?” and I’m just gobsmacked because if I’d been there, all I would have been thinking is how it is an abomination to drink the blood of animals– and forget about cannibalism. And was he really talking about Communion? Was this a metaphor for the Passover Lamb? What does it meeaaaaan and I’m internally wailing because it’s a gigantic mess.

And this is me talking. I went to not one, but two, Bible colleges. I’m almost finished with a two-year theology program. I (almost) have an MA in English. I stumbled my way through Advanced Literary Criticism and Theory. And even with all of that, I barely understand the Bible. I certainly don’t understand it well enough to throw hand-picked verses into arguments. Looking back, proof-texting is singularly ridiculous. No one would say that C.S. Lewis believes that we should all go to  strip clubs because he said “You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act– that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage.” (96, Mere Christianity)– but that seems to be exactly what we do to the Bible. A lot.

I’m worried, because I see the Bible being used as a weapon almost everywhere I go. If it’s the only authority Christians are allowed to appeal to– if it’s above our lived experiences, if it’s above our religious heritage and tradition, if it’s above reason and empathy– if it it’s above all of that and then we approach it with our culture, our privileges, our biases, our politics, and don’t believe that it’s necessary to counter any of that . . . it scares me.

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