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Bible

Social Issues

I’m bisexual and still just as objective as you

If you’re a living person in Christian culture, then you’ve run into the following sentiment:

I can agree with much of what she's written and I definitely think that the church has lost its way. But as much as she speaks to the motivations of the authors of the Bible you have to ask how much she's motivated by being "an out bisexual feminist"? When people live opposed to what the Bible calls sin then they will often be opposed to the Bible itself for their own reasons.

The argument goes that because we’re LGBT (or, in this particular case, also a woman who believes in equality), we have “skin in the game” of biblical interpretation. Obviously we’re predisposed toward a particular outcome, so our judgment can’t be trusted. We can’t possibly read the Bible “objectively,” so any argument that a queer person makes about Romans 1 not necessarily being about sexual orientation is intrinsically untrustworthy.

Unlike straight people, who are clearly impartial and unaffected by this issue, so they can read the Bible without being influenced by their feelings. They can come to a clear-headed and open-minded conclusion on whether or not having sex with a similar-gender person is a sin, but a queer person can’t. In short, straights are telling the LGBT community that they definitely have our best interests at heart, and they can totally be trusted not to be wrong about this.

Aside from how incredibly patronizing this attitude is, we also have some fairly definitive proof that straights do not have the best interests of the LGBT community in mind. I know that in their head, they do– I know that they’re probably aware of how their “support” looks to us. They also don’t really care. To them, all that matters is that we’re saved from our sinful lifestyles; if they have to support legislation that will harm trans people, or force destructive conversion therapy on LGB youth, or encourage parents to physically beat their children into being straight, or call for us to be stoned to death … then they will. They have to hold us accountable for our sin, and if they kill us (or encourage other people to kills us) in the process, then no matter.

And even after countless decades of the Christian right condemning our very existence as sin, like this fellow:

Your website says you are bisexual, is it true? Is it not a sin according to God's word?

… we’re just supposed to accept that straights don’t have any possible motivation that could affect their judgment. They don’t have feelings about us that could make it difficult to be impartial. No ounce of hatred, no sliver of fear. No revulsion or disgust whatsoever. They approach LGBT rights and the Bible as a blank slate, with no predispositions of any kind.

Oh, except that’s completely wrong. In fact, people like Thabiti Anyabwile have explicitly argued in favor of Christians depending on their disgust (which is, needless to say, an emotional reaction) to drive their morals and biblical interpretation. Listen to Kevin Swanson and his ilk bloviate for more than two seconds and their hatred of us comes searing through.

Sure, maybe I’m being affected by my desire for love and acceptance when I read Romans 1 … just like any straight person can be affected by their disgust or hatred or fear when they read Romans 1.

The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to the Bible, no one is objective.

I came to the Bible a few years ago, doing my best to be open and honest about what I would find. To be blunt, my thinking at the time was that if I discovered that the Bible does speak on sexual orientations and condemned similar-gender relationships, then I was going to walk away from it all and leave Christianity behind. I knew I was bisexual, and if the Bible was going to tell me that was wrong, then I was done. Obviously, I’m still here, so I must’ve discovered something different. In my opinion there isn’t enough evidence one way or the other to be absolutely conclusive, so I err on the side of loving others and doing no harm. My hermenuetic looks a bit like St. Augstine’s, actually:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.

This argument that only straight people can be trusted to interpret Scripture correctly and appropriately– because queer folk don’t want to be told we’re sinning– doesn’t make any sense. If it were true, then no one would ever be able to agree about any sin. Except we know that it’s possible for greedy people to know they’re greedy and that the Bible vociferously condemns it. Or how about the two sins that almost always get brought up in these conversations: pride and gluttony. I’ve known many people over the years that confessed to gluttony and acknowledged their belief that the Bible says that gluttony is a sin– and the same thing goes for proud people.

If straights are right about the LGBT’s supposed inability to “properly” read the Bible, then how in the world is it possible for anyone to read the Bible and feel challenged by it? Our personal experience tells us that it is not just possible, it happens all of the time. I still experience feeling “convicted,” to use the evangelical parlance, and I don’t even think the Bible is inspired or inerrant anymore.

We all bring our baggage to the Bible. That’s part of what makes our collective experience of it so beautiful. It’s a text we share communally and individually, publicly and privately. We talk, we share, and together we try to build an understanding that enriches our lives, brings us comfort, and helps us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

LGBT people shouldn’t be shut out of this conversation anymore. We bring a different set of experiences, a different way of being, a different way of seeing. When you silence anyone who isn’t white, or isn’t straight, or isn’t nuerotypical, you’re shutting yourself up into an ivory tower. It’s impossible to cut off the parts of us that make us human and still do good and loving theological work.

In my life, being bisexual puts me at a certain distance from the Bible because I’m not deliberately included in it. Because of that, my relationship with the Bible has to be more interrogative than it would otherwise be, because it’s a story we’re supposed to find ourselves in. When it’s not obvious where I fit, I have to do more digging. I’m open to discovering things that aren’t sitting on the surface. In a sense, I can benefit from the fact that I’m not the primary audience– often, I’m an outsider looking in. I can help broaden some of the narratives, bring stories into new lights and next contexts.

I can look a story that we’ve all heard a thousand times and ask questions like is it possible that Ruth is bisexual? When she abandons Moab and aligns with Noami in a speech that is often used in our wedding ceremonies; when she lives with Naomi, comforts her, listens to her, and raises a son with her … do we have to view her character as straight? Why do we assume she’s straight?

Because I don’t have the dominant experience of heterosexuality, I’m better equipped to get at the bottom of some of our assumptions. It’s my first impulse to ask why of concepts that seem long settled.

I lack objectivity. So do you. And that’s a good thing.

Photo by Murray Barnes
Theology

living without inspiration: the Bible and Me

When I was attending Pensacola Christian College, one of the guest speakers that came in for the mandatory four-day-a-week chapel service castigated Christians for not respecting the Bible enough. He compared us to Muslims in order to illustrate how we were failing, explaining that Muslims handle the Qur’an with extreme care, propriety, and piousness. Depending on the interpretation, only those who are formally purified can touch the mus-haf (the printed Qur’an in the original Arabic), and it’s commonly taught that it should always be kept in a safe, clean place. The chapel speaker accused us of being negligent in our reverence for God’s Holy Word and said that most of us probably kept our Bibles on the floor in our classes, or right there on the glossy concrete in chapel.

He was right. Every day I stepped over Bibles that littered the floor on my way to my chapel seat. However, I felt so smug that day because I had been taught to properly respect the Bible. My Bible had never touched the floor. If I had to set it down somewhere– even on a desk– it was always on top of the stack. Even though I took notes in the margins, I was careful to keep them neat and clean. When the bonded leather inevitably started to deteriorate I twinged with guilt at not making sure it had lasted longer. I had been taught to see this book as holy.

And it wasn’t just the physical copy I revered, of course. The Bible was God-breathed, inspired, inerrant. I thought of it in terms that bordered on idol worship. It was how I ordered my life and all my decisions, it was sharper than any sword, it was the lens through which I viewed all information.

Over time, of course, my views have … shifted. You can trace that shift here, even. Toward the beginning of my journey here I said things like “[the Gospels] pass every single test for historical accuracy with flying colors,” which in retrospect is a trifle embarrassing at how naïve that sounds. Six months later I had reevaluated some things, and had arrived firmly at “I don’t know what it means for the Bible to be a divine book, for it to be inspired.” By early in the next year I was wrestling with my conceptualization of the Bible as “a magic book,” and in another six months I found myself barely treading water. In the middle of last year I was asking questions like “if Old Testament characters could be catastrophically wrong in their views, why can’t New Testament writers also be wrong?”

I feel like I’m stuck wandering around the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time, and just when I get something untwisted I have to go back and twist it all up again, all while running around making sure a giant hand of despair and frustration doesn’t come whooshing out of the sky to smash me. Look at my bookshelf and you’ll see a theme– The Bible Tells Me So, The Sins of Scripture, Jesus Interrupted, Whose Bible Is It?, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, What the Bible Really Teaches … apparently I’ve had a years-long interest in trying to figure out what the hell the Bible actually is.

Turns out the fundamentalists were right. Once you give up their concept of inerrancy and really start examining the Bible, a lot of things fall apart on you. In a way I walked through the gate of hell and ignored the sign that read “abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

At this point I’ve given up on concepts like biblical inspiration or inerrancy, even broadly defined. I’ve been through the looking glass, and I can’t really go back. Once I opened the door to concepts like Paul was a man of his time and that means he was a misogynist and very wrong about some things, “biblical inspiration” became a frustrating idea to deal with. Because, at that point, even if Paul was “inspired,” it’s so loose a thing it’s ultimately unhelpful. I cannot believe that “I do not permit a woman to have authority over a man” could ever have been anything but sexist, and I especially abhor the idea that a misogynistic cultural reality from millennia ago should have any effect on how I’m “permitted” to use my abilities.

Paul and Peter and Matthew and Mark and Luke and John were human, and they were bound to get some things wrong. Maybe Paul actually was talking about “loving, committed, same-sex relationships” in Romans 1– it no longer follows for me that means that being gay and falling in love and getting married are sinful because of what some dead guy thought about buttsex.

I no longer accept the Bible as a moral authority. It endorses genocide at multiple points, has laws that treat menstruation as a sin, has prophets that revel in horrific violence and infanticide, views a rapist as “a man after God’s own heart,” includes misogynistic commands to church leadership, tells a man he was wrong for wanting to escape slavery, uses ethnic slurs …  It’s filled to the brim with people doing and saying unpleasant things and getting patted on the back for it– either by the Bible itself, or by theologians for the last two thousand years.

A good story for this moment is when Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac. I’ve discarded the evangelical narrative about it and embraced the Reformed Judaic perspective that Abraham failed his test. I’m allowed to listen to what appears to come from God and reject it, based on my conscience and my belief that God is love. Like Jacob, who became Israel, I get to wrestle with God, to demand things from them. Like Abraham– who learned better, fortunately– I get to argue with them about how I think what they’ve just said is wrong. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman, I fully expect to win a debate with Jesus.

All of this doesn’t mean that I see the Bible as worthless– as the above should show, far from it. I love the Bible now more than I ever have. I love that I can be confused by it, enraged at it, and challenged by it. I love that I am a member of the same faith that brought doubters, thinkers, tricksters, liars, poets, and lovers together to create a sacred text filled with problems and contradictions and arguments it has with itself. James essentially spent an entire letter sub-tweeting Paul: “not going to name names, guys, but faith without works is dead *coughPaulcough*.”

I don’t have to waste time justifying why God commanded genocide– because I’m convinced they didn’t. I don’t have to come up with convoluted reasons for why imprecatory prayers are ethical. I’m perfectly free to ignore that Paul told a man to return to a life of slavery.

I can look at the Bible and, when necessary, say fuck that nonsense.

It’s opened up a whole new world for me. I get to rediscover everything. Did Jesus mean “you should spend all your time witnessing” when he asked the Apostles to be “fishers of men,” or by making a literary reference was he calling them to the task of restoring justice and mercy to Israel? If the Holy Spirit– who is always referred to in the feminine– was the one who visited Mary when she became pregnant, doesn’t that make God just a teensy bit gay? I can read Ruth’s speech to Naomi– the one we use in marriage ceremonies today– and think “yup. That woman is bi.”

The Bible is mine now. I can fully own what it is, and what it means to me. I can turn it upside down and inside out, create headcanons about it, and make perhaps wild, conjecturous, far-flung connections that strain credulity if I want to. I’m finally throwing off the heavy yoke of the evangelical view of the Bible, and embracing the notion that when Jesus said “you have heard it said, but I tell you that was wrong,” he was talking about the Bible.

Photo by Dwight Stone
Social Issues

opening the door to an affirming church?

Where I live, there are no LGBT-affirming churches. Most are outright hostile, and the ones that aren’t still preach from the pulpit that wanting to be in a loving relationship is a sin for a significant number of people. It’s just a deeply conservative area when it comes to religion, and because of that, I’ve been having a hard time finding a church. My politics and my theology puts me squarely outside what’s acceptable here … and occasionally that’s a little heartbreaking. I want so badly to be a part of a church, but nowhere feels at all safe.

Which is one of the reasons why I decided to attend The Reformation Project’s (TRP) Regional Training Conference in DC last weekend. I’ve recommended Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian, and he’s the founder of TRP.  I don’t agree with Matthew on a lot of things, but his theological positions put him in a unique place when it comes to “the gay debate“: he agrees that abstinence before marriage is a requirement for Christians, and he has what conservative evangelicals call “a high view of Scripture.” Those two things enable him to have conversations that a person like me can’t really have with conservative Christians.

And, because of where I live, if I’m going to be able to have conversations with pretty much anyone, I have to be able to have a conversation the way that Matthew would have it. I don’t personally believe the same things about the Bible that the people around me might believe, but what I can do is work with where they are. There’s a way to see the “clobber verses” in a new light– and, personally, I find arguments like Brownson’s and Matthew’s pretty convincing.

I wrote a reflection of my experiences at the conference for Convergent Books, Matthew’s publisher, that you can read here.

Photo by GF Peck
Theology

the New Testament: context and story

bible

Growing up, there were a few things I understood about the Old Testament, although the ideas were inconsistently applied and various preachers and sermons could throw all of these principles out of the window on any whim.

First, I knew that there was a difference between “Ceremonial Law” and the “Moral Law,” and that Jesus had re-established the “Moral Law” in places like the Sermon on the Mount, so that’s why we still think the Ten Commandments are valid, but we like eating shrimp and bacon. Because of teachings like this, I knew that a significant portion of the Old Testament did not apply to my life, and had to be understood as a part of Israel’s history. The “Law,” the word we used for everything that wasn’t the Ten Commandments or a story or a prophecy, applied only to Jewish people and only up until the moment Jesus died.

Second, we were taught that the reason we admitted the Jewish scriptures into our Christian cannon was that the Old Testament clearly pointed to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. It would be impossible to truly understand the mission and purpose of Jesus’ life and earthly ministry without the context of the Old Testament. The writers of the New Testament were also almost entirely Jewish, and referenced the Old Testament frequently in their work. In order to understand what they were talking about, we’d have to be able to follow their allusions and references.

Third, the Old Testament is largely devoted to stories. There’s a few books scattered throughout that have very little narrative, but most of the books are interested in conveying history and parable. We believed that God had given us these stories to illuminate his character and to show us what we are are to do– and not to do. We were to draw larger lessons and morals out of these stories, and what the lesson could be was flexible and contextually based; a single story could have multiple meanings, and that was part of the beauty of Scripture (that this is inherently a post-modern understanding of literature and story . . . yeah, no one mentioned that).

Lastly, the most important thing we had to keep in mind about the Old Testament was that it was very old and you had to be careful with how you went about trying to interpret it. Knowledge about ancient history was important, because you had to be familiar with the cultures and religious practices that the stories talked about. I was given a lot of tools to help us read the Old Testament– maps and glossaries and reference manuals and concordances and chronological histories and lexicons– and told that we had to use them in order to be “rightly dividing the word of truth.”

But it occurred to me the other day that hardly any of those things were true when it came to the New Testament. I was halfway through college before I ever used a Greek lexicon in order to look up the meaning of a word (“touch” from I Corinthians 7:1. It’s ἅπτομαι, in case you were wondering, and its root meaning has something to do with “to set on fire.” That was a crucial part of a discussion I was having).

When we read the New Testament, we were reading for things like “the plain meaning of the text,” and doing our best to take the King James English translation at face-value. We didn’t really throw around statements like “the Bible says it, that settles it,” unless we were using a passage from the New Testament– and probably just the Pauline epistles, since the Gospels got left out of a lot of conversations. In retrospect, I think that Jesus was just a little to commie/free-love for my conservative community.

It’s taken me a long time to really wrap my brain around the fact that I am just as removed from the culture, tradition, and ideologies that the writers of the New Testament were operating with as I am from the writers of the Old Testament. Heavens, the New Testament is almost two thousand years old. If we were reading anything else from the Middle East and the Roman Empire written around the same time, there would be all the glossaries and maps and lexicons all of the time. Instead, we would sit down with our translated-from-a-language-we-don’t-speak-by-people-thousands-of-years-removed-from-its-history and it didn’t phase us.

I’m not entirely sure why this happened, but I think it might have something to do with the fact that the New Testament is largely propositional statements and arguments. We get some of the richest, most meaningful stories in the entire Bible in the shape of the Gospels, but we rarely ever study them the way we go through Galatians or Revelation. Instead, those stories and parables are ignored in favor of what appear to be “plain English” statements about women being silent and forsaking not the assembling of ourselves together.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to view the Bible principally as story, and not in the sense that I think it’s fiction. In graduate school, I was in a lot of discussions about the meaning and power and beauty of “story,” and how we use narratives to shape our lives and help us understand our world. I don’t think the Bible is any exception. And, just like I would study any piece of literature, I try to understand time and place and culture and the possible experiences of the author (if we know who that is, which, shockingly (at least to me), we don’t for most of the NT books).

And, just like I would approach any other ancient text, I have to approach the New Testament with the respect that something so old deserves. I have to admit my almost complete and total ignorance regarding the environment it was written in, and admit that just because something is a propositional statement it doesn’t mean I have any clue whatsoever what it means– because I don’t really understand the motives he or she might have had for writing it that way, and who they were writing to, and what questions they were answering and what their relationship might have been like for their audience. I don’t even understand the language.

I think it would be a huge shift in American evangelical culture if they collectively admitted to this– that our understanding of the New Testament is crippled by the fact that we are so utterly removed from it.

Theology

seeing old stories in a new light

light through trees

I suffer from mild insomnia, and since it takes me so long to even approach something resembling “sleepy,” I usually putter around on my phone– I jot down blog ideas, play CandyCrush, and catch up on my blog reading. About this time last year I was scrolling through blogs in my WordPress app and something I read leaped out at me.

I wish I could remember the name of the blog or enough of the post to find it again so I could share it, but what I noticed had less to do with the topic of the post and more with something that they did. In the last ten years, I’ve gotten used to sort of skimming over Bible passages in books, articles, posts . . . reading the first line is enough for me to recall the entire passage and so I usually just skip it. This time, though, they referenced a passage that I’d read a thousand times before, but what they were applying it to was . . . radically different.

Growing up, going to church, going to Bible college, one of the ideas you hear thrown around quite a bit of evangelical America is how amazing it is for Christians to read the Bible– they can read the same passage over and over again, and every time get something new out of it. It’s one of the things that makes the Bible special, and, of course, they’ll mention the gift of the Holy Spirit as an afterthought. I heard that in my fundamentalist church, as well, but I never really understood it. They talked about it like coming to the Bible each time was something new, fresh, exciting . . . but I had to work at seeing the same passage in different ways.

In fundamentalism, even though they might pay lip-service to that idea of seeing the same verses anew each time you read it, what I experienced was that each passage had a specific interpretation and application– there was a correct way to understand it, to “rightly divide the word of truth.”

We also had a lot — a lot— of passages that were only ever about “The World” or “Carnal Christians.” One of those was Matthew 25:31-46, The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The way it was taught to me, the sheep in this passage were “true Christians” and the goats were carnal people who professed salvation but in actuality were not saved; so, pretty much anyone who wasn’t an Independent Fundamental Baptist. Every time I would read this passage as I was “reading my Bible through in a year,” that was how I interpreted it. There were many people who were professing Christians that Jesus would send to Hell, and those people were probably liberals.

Then I read it again, as a progressive-Pelagianist-errantist, and it about bowled me over:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we seek you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me.”

There are some Sheep who don’t know that they’re Sheep.

What the.

It took me a little while to wrap my head around it, but it was the passage that was the push I needed to start looking into Inclusivism. I’m still not entirely sure where I’ll fall on the Universalist-Inclusivist-Annihilationist spectrum, but wherever I am I’m far away from the understanding I was taught as a child.

But, every time I read this passage now, I’m a little boggled as to how something so obvious was something I completely missed. I know that cognitive dissonance is a powerful influence on us, but wow. Every time I encounter something that makes me think how in the world have I never noticed this before I’m usually simultaneously overjoyed and frustrated, because I wasn’t reading these passages on my own. I had books and preachers and sermon tapes and radio shows all shouting the same things into my head. I didn’t come up with these interpretations on my own– and they were the only interpretations I was allowed inside fundamentalism. Now that I’m out, it’s like my life has turned into a Jimmy Cliff song.

There’s a lot of passages now that have opened up for me– verses I’d once believed only applied to non-fundamentalist Christians I’ve flipped around to apply to fundamentalist Christians and spiritual abusers. Turns out, the Bible actually has a lot to say about how we treat the oppressed, the abused, and the marginalized, and very little input about being a white, cisgender, heterosexual, male, middle-class, college-educated American.

Theology

the magic book

magic book
by Colgreyis

I’ve mentioned before that I’m currently neck-deep in a two-year theology program (“seminary for lay people” is how it’s described). Probably one of the most shattering ideas I encountered was in the Bibliology and Hermeneutics class, when the program’s teachers were talking about how many/most evangelicals approach the Bible: they treat it like a “magic book.”

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what they meant, but as the course went on I realized that there was something stopping me from understanding it:  I thought of the Bible as a magic book. It was an embarrassing realization at first, because I have an MA in English!* I know how to read books! And once I started seeing the Bible as a library, and each book it contains as a whole book instead of something I could chop up into soundbites (seriously, the more I think about how I used to do that, the more and more it feels insane and ridiculous) … I started realizing that my understanding of the Bible being “inspired” or having “divine authorship” had twisted the Bible into something it can’t possibly be.

I’m not trying to say that there’s no possible way the Bible could be “God-breathed,” I’m just not entirely sure what that means. All I know is that being “God-breathed” doesn’t make the Bible immune to the sorts of problems that all other books have– especially books written thousands of years ago.

But, the most dominant way of interacting with the Bible in American culture is the evangelical way. There’s a huge breadth of ways on how to interact with the Bible, especially in the Mainline Protestant denominations, but, unfortunately, those aren’t the ways that most Americans seem to see. When they see Christians interacting with the Bible, they see, largely, people quoting individual verses and occasionally twisting those verses so far beyond their context that they take on a new life, new meaning, of their own. They see Christians walking around with signs that have individual verses slapped on them about drinking, or homosexuality, divorced from their books and the overall argument of their writer. They see us celebrating Tim Tebow and John 3:16. They see references and not their corresponding verses on our bumpers. They hear us casually sprinkle our conversation with half-remembered phrases.

During my Christmas vacation, I was hanging out with a few friends who are not particularly religious. One of them laughingly threw out a phrase that I found hilarious considering it was a Bible verse (“the time has come to set aside childish things”)– and when I laughed “nice Bible reference!” he just sort of  . . . stared.

“That’s from the Bible?”

It was my turn to stare, although I wasn’t starting at anyone in particular. I was just suddenly struck by the number of phrases and sayings that come from Scripture that are now American cliches … except no one has any idea where they come from. Considering the influence the Bible has had on American rhetoric, it’s not surprising that our language is littered with biblical phrasings, but it bothered me because I realized that this isn’t much different from how Christians treat the Bible even when they know they’re quoting from the Bible.

It’s continued to bother me– at times, it outright irks me– as I traverse the internet. I’m a loyal reader of a few non-theist and atheist blogs, and when I’m feeling brave enough to wade into the comment sections, I see this happen over and over again. A Christian and a non-theist/agnostic/atheist get into a debate, and they start throwing Bible verses at each other. Usually it’s the non-theist that starts quoting specific verses, and then the Christian responds with arguments so tired they practically whimper– and they usually have something to do with “you have to take those verses in context!” And it irks me because I feel sure that this earnest Christian probably rips verses out of context on a daily basis– they’re just not usually from Numbers 5.

After the Phil Robertson/A&E/Duck Dynasty debacle, I saw a meme pop up in my facebook feed:

phil robertson

And it just made me shake my head (even as I chuckled) because they’ve done exactly what Phil Robertson did in his original interview– took a verse out of context and even paraphrased it a bit. For starters, Leviticus 10:6 is specifically addressed to Aaron and his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar (and, possibly by extension the Levites), so this is one of those times when a commandment is definitely limited and not meant to be applied to all of humanity— or even the Jewish people, for that matter. But, Robertson was also ripping I Corinthians 6:9-10 out of context and divorcing it from any historical context (not that this is his fault, he was just parroting fundamentalist/evangelical interpretations). ἀρσενοκοίτης, literally meaning “man beds” is a complicated word with an interesting history, and forcing it to mean “homosexuality” when its most common historical meaning was the enslavement and purchase of temple prostitutes is… well, wrong.

But we (evangelicals) do this all of the time.

And we dare to get frustrated when someone on the internet starts doing the same thing to the Bible that we’ve been doing for a hundred years? We dare to become angry with those who learned how to treat the Bible from us and are shocked and dismayed when they are merely modeling how they’ve been shown the Bible is to be treated?

For the last hundred years or so fundamentalism and its daughter evangelicalism have fervently sought to have a “high view of Scripture,” to defend its status as inspired and inerrant. But, in discussing these concepts, one of the common results has been to see the Bible as inherently magical. It’s ceased being a book– it’s become a tool, a sword,  and many Christians have used it to “divide asunder” all sorts of things, including ourselves.

*(full disclosure: I still have to learn French in order to get the degree. I’m working on that.)

Theology

not every verse in the Bible is about you

bible

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

If your religious experience was anything like mine, you might have had this verse memorized since the time you were about six years old. Verses like “And you know you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of human hearts” were used to encourage fundamentalist and evangelical children to memorize as much Scripture as possible. You might have even gone to something like AWANAS, were you were rewarded with fake money and tiny plastic toys for every page of verses you could memorize.

The idea was that the more Scripture we had “written on our hearts,” the more easily we would be able to stand up to the wiles of the devil. After all, that’s how Jesus defeated the temptations he faced in the wilderness– he quoted Bible verses at Satan. It was all tied back to II Timothy 3:16– all Scripture is profitable. None of his words can return void. We couldn’t predict how these verses would protect us, or how we could eventually use them, but it was just a good idea to be prepared.

But, one of the results of this idea– that all Scripture is profitable– is that every single last verse in the Bible can be specifically applied to the circumstances of my life. I’ve owned Bibles that had lists of Bible verses for every occasion, divided up by category. I’ve heard preachers shout from the pulpit, over and over again, the words rumbling in the ceiling rafters, that “if my people who are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray…then I will hear from heaven, and forgive their sin, and heal their land,” and we never talked about how that verse shows up in the middle of II Chronicles and it might not apply to America becoming a theocracy. No, all Scripture is profitable.

Yesterday, Tamara left a comment highlighting this, and it’s what got me started thinking about this idea again:

I saw you speaking of two lies that get fed in too many faith circles here:

2) Every passage of Scripture has an easy application for the average person. (I don’t know why that stood out to me, but when you said the pastor made that passage about a crazy, abusive evil person to be about “problem people” it just made me shudder. Not every passage needs a quick and easy application.)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m in the middle of a two-year theology program. I’m almost finished with it, actually (although, I’m going to need your thoughts and prayers this Sunday, as we’re covering Egalitarianism in the lesson for our course on “Humanity & Sin,” and the video teachers have had “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Waye Grudem” up on the board all past seven lessons). The course has had its ups and downs (obviously), but if nothing else it’s given me to the tools to go do more research on my own. One of the classes was “Bibliology and Hermeneutics,” and  one of the things they emphasizes was how vitally important it is to keep context and genre in mind, and make sure that we’re not forcing something that isn’t about us to be about us.

One of the more frustrating examples, in my opinion, is the homeschool and “fundiegelical” (<–new favorite word) reference to “The Joshua Generation,” their word for millennials. Our parents were Aaron and Moses, leaving the “Egypt” of the God-forsaken public school, and now my generation– the first crop of adult homeschoolers– was supposed to go out and “take back America for Jesus.” It hasn’t worked out in quite the way they expected. But it was an idea that I grew up believing in– I was supposed to be like Joshua.

Except… Joshua was a violent warlord who conquered Palestine one bloody battle after another. Making his story of death and destruction some sort of noble narrative about getting involved in right-wing politics doesn’t quite fit.

But I see this happen pretty often in evangelicalism. We reduce many of the stories in the Old and New Testaments into metaphors and metanarratives that we’re supposed to somehow directly apply to our lives. And, in a way, that isn’t entirely wrong. Stories are there for us to learn from them. But the way it typically gets handled in evangelical contexts is to ignore where the story belongs, how the story is told, and to many times ignore why the story was recorded in the first place. We frequently bend and twist these Bible stories to fit into American evangelicalism and our political and religious ideals that have more to do with being Republican than they do with being a Christian.

I don’t think the Bible works that way, and forcing it to be all about us, “us” being conservative American evangelicals– I think it’s doing incredible damage to the value of Scripture and its ability to work in people’s lives in an organic way. When we insist that individual verses must have a specific application in a modern setting, that Romans 1 must be about LGBTQ people when Paul had absolutely zero examples of what gay and lesbian relationships look like today… we narrow the Bible. We limit it.

Theology

a good tree cannot bear bad fruit

tree

A little while ago, I watched Matthew Vines deliver an hour-long message on all of the passages in the Bible typically use to condemn gay men and women. It was a beautiful message, and I highly encourage all of you to listen to it when you have the time. Hopefully it will be encouraging– and challenging. But, one of the things he said that’s really stuck with me is the way he talked about Matthew 7:15-20. I was practically raised on the Sermon on the Mount, so Matthew 7 is a passage I’ve heard before, many times. However, the way I’d grown up meant that there was only one possible understanding of what Jesus meant by “false prophets” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” A false prophet was many things, but it all essentially boiled down to someone who wasn’t a fundamentalist like we were. And they talked about good fruit and bad fruit, but they never really explained what it meant. I sort of made the connection between good fruit and the Fruits of the Spirit, but “fruit” usually meant “how many people you’ve convinced to pray the Sinner’s Prayer in front of you” . . . so, it was a bit of a tangle, for me.

However, Matthew Vines pointed out something, and it helped the light turn on for me. If the whole of the Law and the Prophets and Jesus’ ministry is Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, then it stands to reason that the difference between good fruit and bad fruit is love. If an interpretation of a passage, if a doctrine that you hold to, does not encourage you to love your neighbor as yourself, then it’s not good fruit.

St. Augustine put it a bit better:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

On Christian Doctrine

This seems like a really good starting place. Love.

And, as I’m working through how I think, what I believe, and how I work with the Bible, figuring out how it should be a part of my life, there’s a few things that I’m reaching for. Yesterday we had an amazing discussion about sola scriptura and how we handle Scripture (seriously, you guys, it was spectacular), and some of you articulated some of the things I’ve been mulling over. There’s one comment in particular I’d like to share, since InsanityRanch put it so well:

First, both Jews and Protestants have what you might call a “democratic” tradition of Bible reading. That is, the Bible is not the sole province of an educated elite. At least in theory (and largely in practice) everyone is supposed to study the Bible . . .

That said, there are some interesting differences as well . . . . [One being that] Jews read Bible with commentary. When I first started reading the Torah, I read it with Rashi (11th c. genius commentator on the Bible and Talmud.) The idea that the text of the Bible is free-standing is profoundly unJewish. There are layers and layers of commentary, so interwoven that it’s impossible to read a Bible passage without also thinking of the various strands of commentary on that verse. One has a sense of the different ways the verse has been read through a long history. Reading in this way makes the text seem very much less cut and dried, less susceptible to a single, simple interpretation.

As a consequence of reading with commentary, Jews have read in community, and the currency of community was questioning. Any interpretation offered for a verse tended to evoke a challenge, with one reader arguing according to R. So-and-so’s commentary and another reader arguing according to R. somebody else. This process made it hard to hold calcified interpretations of textual meanings… though of course, not impossible.

I think the idea of reading in community is paramount, and I think this is something that has been lost– or perhaps never present, I’m not sure– in evangelicalism and some Protestant environments. We gather together in church on Sunday, sometimes we do Bible studies or small groups together, but that’s about all we get in community, and it’s somehow separate from how we read Scripture. It seems that there’s been a strong emphasis in evangelicalism on “reading the Bible for yourself” that the result has been a highly Individualistic approach to Scripture. Somehow, though, instead of this resulting in what InsanityRanch described above, it seems that the Modernism so entrenched in evangelical philosophy results in us putting consensus above all other goals. There’s only one right way to interpret a passage. And, in America, with our individualism and exceptionalism and the fact that the evangelical church is so politicized, we wind up with that “one right way” usually feeding into a really harmful and dangerous status quo.

Being willing to embrace the possibility of not knowing when it comes to our Bibles is discomfiting. But, understanding that the Christian faith is not supposed to exist in isolation, but in community,I think could be a really strong first step.

All of this has somehow led me to re-evaluating a deeply ingrained belief that I’ve grown up with, a belief that seems to be synonymous with Protestantism and evangelicalism alike: that Scripture is the final authority, that Scripture alone is all we need to live our faith. And regardless of how the Reformers originally meant this (since Luther himself believed that some parts of Scripture don’t need to be listened to coughcough James)– what it has come to mean in evangelicalism could be encapsulated in the phrase “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

In the theology course I’m taking, they present a concept called the “Stage of Truth,” which some of you are probably familiar with. Some traditions present this similarly to the Wesleyen Quadrilateral, except the Stage of Truth is more prioritized and hierarchal than that. In Protestant and evangelical sola scriptura traditions, the Stage of Truth looks a bit like this:

stage of truth

Scripture, of course, is at the head since it is the final authority in a Christian’s life. But I’m looking at the other elements on this “stage,” and I’m wondering about a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and I’m looking around at the world around me, and I’m wondering if something like Experience or Emotion doesn’t belong closer to the front.

Because in my lived experience, I’ve felt the horror of Deuteronomy 22 being the final authority in my life. I’ve felt the full, brutal weight of the fact that Scripture doesn’t have bodily autonomy or individual agency well articulated in its pages, and I know what that does to a person. I’ve spent most of my adult life (what little there is of it) struggling under “biblical patriarchy” and having to fight with all of the voices screaming at me that being on my own is rebellion against my father. I’ve been depressed and been told that I must “take every thought captive” and that “perfect love casts out fear” and that I’m just not loving God enough, that’s why I’m sick.

And all of these ideas have come from having a “high view of Scripture,” and believing that what it said had complete authority over my entire life. That I had to force myself into alignment with the “clear teaching of Scripture” because it was the only authority I had. If the Bible had something to say about an idea, well, that was what I had to believe. That was the opinion I had.

I didn’t know that all of that was heavily predicated on interpretation, on the fundamentalism I was raised in, that it wasn’t the Bible but an interpretation of the Bible– but thinking like that was actively discouraged by everyone I knew. Pastors and evangelists and missionaries and Sunday school teachers and professors and Bible study leaders and speakers and teachers all telling me that This is what the Bible says This is what the Bible says and somehow they all sounded the same so I believed it.

And it wasn’t until that I understood that my life matters and my experiences matter and what I feel about people matters that I started re-examining what the Bible so clearly says. When I placed my Bible in tension with my life, and the people I care about, and what I can reason to be true, what so many before me have observed to be true, some things became a lot more simple. It wasn’t until I’d set aside my “high view of Scripture” that loving my neighbor really became possible.

Theology

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.

Theology

I don't know what I think about the Bible

bible

In the fundamentalist church I grew up in– and I have no idea if this is a common stance, but in the area I grew up in, this was– what I was taught about inerrancy strays quite a bit from the more common conservative evangelical understandings of the term. I was taught that the Bible is inerrant– that it is wholly, totally, and completely without error. Any error. Factual, literal, scientific, historic, grammatical. It had no form of error whatsoever. I was taught that everything written in the Bible was factually, literally true, and that it was recorded so that the “plain meaning” was accessible to all people of all times of all nations.

So, my sophomore year in college when I found out that the Gospel of Mark contained numerous grammatical errors, I was shaken. I approached one of my college professors during an open period where we “could ask him anything,” and his response was some nonsensical bullshit about Koiné Greek. I realize now that he wasn’t allowed to answer a question like that one honestly because he could have lost his job, but at the time I was frustrated and upset. It was the first domino to fall in what eventually became a 3-year period when I just didn’t care about God or Christianity.

I also somehow unconsciously absorbed that the Bible’s “inerrancy” made it impervious to deconstructionism– so, in graduate school, when a professor assigned my literary theory class the task of deconstructing Genesis chapter three, it rattled me all over again. Even when I didn’t particularly care one way or the other if God existed or Christianity was true, there was still a basic set of “facts” that I “knew,”– and having those beliefs destroyed during the course of a homework assignment that took me ten minutes . . . it was devastating.

And then, this summer, I started re-imagining what it would be like if I understood the Bible principally as a book that fits within the constraints of literary structures and genres. What if Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are really mythological? What if they aren’t factually, literally true, like St. Augustine believed? Does the Bible have to be literally true? And I decided no, no it doesn’t. Metaphor, poetry, allegory, parable, myth . . . they are all literary forms that human beings have used for centuries in order to communicate larger, almost inexpressible, truths. And while that was a huge adjustment for me, it only resulted in expanding my understanding of Scripture in beautiful, meaningful ways.

But . . . back in April, I made a rather specific claim about inerrancy when I first started trying to figure out what it means. I said that “a proper, balanced, and nuanced view of inerrancy is one of the essentials of faith that I hold to.” What I meant at the time that inerrancy has a place in Christianity, but that it has to be held in tension with the fact that the Bible was recorded by fallible men (and possibly women, as some scholars suggest that Hebrews was written by Priscilla and her husband). That it is important to approach the Bible as a human book first, and a divine book second.

Now, though . . . I honestly have no idea what I think.

The only thing– the only thing— that I know about the Bible was that it was written by human beings– deeply flawed people. It was written by people in the Bronze and Iron Ages. It was written by patriarchal, sexist, misogynist, racist men– in both the Old and New Testaments. They were people who were very much a product of their culture, a culture that was largely based on warmongering and violence. The writers of the Old Testament were primarily focused on recording their history– how it developed from a nomadic tribal culture, to a city-state, to a nation, to eventually a conquered people. The “books” of the New Testament were largely personal, private letters– letters sent to specific churches, to individual men.

I don’t know when these books and letters were written. I don’t know who, specifically, wrote many of them.

I don’t know what it means for the Bible to be a divine book, for it to be inspired. I don’t know what to think about how God may have been involved in the writing and preservation of the canon. We know we’re missing whole books, whole letters– like two of the letters Paul wrote to Corinth. Why do we have the letters we have, and not the others? Was that just some mischance of history? Was it because God was personally involved in preserving what he wanted future generations to read? And, if so, why did he step in and keep a few pieces of paper intact but let thousands upon thousands of his children be gassed and incinerated at Auschwitz?

And if the biblical canon is this complicated, and messy, what does that mean for us on a daily, practical level? I have the middle class luxury of being a stay-at-home wife who has the time and energy to research these blasted things. Most people simply don’t have that ability. It doesn’t make them incompetent, it means that they don’t have the resources I do. I have a master’s level education in literature– I have a lot of the necessary tools to understand literary structures, genre, narrative theory, the interplay between author-text-reader, and most people just don’t have that. I don’t even have a seminary degree, with 4-6 years of training in theology and Church history, or a strong background in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin.

So what does it mean for the church that the Bible is ancient literature, that it follows forms and patterns that we have no understanding of, that it belongs to a culture that we have absolutely no connection to whatsoever?

I don’t know.

All I know, right now, is that I’m trying to figure these things out. But where I am, right now, is that I if can’t get to a point where it makes consistent, logical, rational sense to accept the Bible as divine . . . that if I can’t arrive at a means for discerning the difference between what misogynistic men recorded and what God intended to be communicated . . . well, the Bible as infallible, as divine, as inspired– it isn’t necessary for my faith. I don’t believe that God exists because the Bible tells me so. I can read the Gospels as examples of ancient Greek biography and learn something about Jesus without having to believe that the Bible is inerrant.

I don’t have to end up on the other side of this a Christian.

It’s taken me since April to really come to terms with that. It doesn’t mean that I’m comfortable with the idea, or that this is the result that I want, because it isn’t. I’d really, really like to be able to stay a Christian. It doesn’t meant that I’d stop believing in God or Jesus. But, I have to be open to the idea that the Bible isn’t anything other than rather unique piece of ancient history. And if it turns out that’s all it is, then… well, that’s ok.