Over recent weeks, the world has watched people from all walks of life in the United States take to the streets to protest police brutality after the deaths of two black men at the hands of police.
At the same time, there has also been some Bible brutality meted out as some deeply disturbing messages by Christian ministers preaching God’s vengeance on gay people from the Bible have become very public. These men quote chapter and verse. They condemn us, declare us sinners, ascribe us as filthy faggots and paedophiles and do so in God’s name and they use the Bible to endorse and corroborate their views. I will not name them in the text here for they do not deserve the oxygen of publicity on my blog, but their names are readily available. The Bible verses they use are there plain to see and these homophobic hate-mongers are only too ready and enthusiastic to use them against us. I have watched this happen many times before. You may recall if you are a regular reader of this blog that I have written about homophobia from the church a number of times before and given examples, but I think this time, I have reached my limit. Christian church, it’s time to talk about the Bible. We cannot let this kind of thing be associated with our faith or our sacred text.
I have reached a point in my LGBT activism and in my faith where I cannot stay silent on this matter any longer hoping that things will change over time. I realise that my silence is part of the stasis and so I have determined to speak up and to see if we cannot get the conversation moving faster with a view to ultimate change. I think we need a totally different way of thinking about and talking about the Bible. I also understand fully that I am shooting a sacred cow when I talk about the Bible in a way that challenges traditional models and that the Christian right: fundamentalists, literalists, strict evangelicals and pentecostals of all denominations will be quick to judge. So be it.
I am none of those things and I fit in to none of those categories. I have a different model of how to view faith nowadays and I write from that position. So when the old model of faith and scripture is promulgated as the only view of faith and scripture, the right view, the orthodox view, then I respectfully disagree and would rather suggest an alternate model, one of a number that Christians and theologians around the world today are discussing and elucidating.
What’s Wrong with the Bible?
In the words of the Apollo 13 moon mission, “Houston, we have a problem”. In fact, the more precise quote is, “Houston, we’ve had a problem”. And I think if we are honest, since the dawning of the twentieth century and the rise of both the technological age and the age of Christian fundamentalism in the United States, we’ve been having a problem with the Bible.
It has been handed down to us in its present form such that it can be used for good or ill. Anyone with an axe to grind can pick up the Bible and find in its pages something to augment or cement their particular view. It’s not difficult. The problem is that the Bible has sufficient difference, inconsistency and ambiguity in it that it can be used very easily by cruel people, misfits, the mentally ill, religious nutters, cultists and the ‘we’re right you’re wrong’ brigade (and how many of them are there!).
And Christians are not exempt. Peter Enns, professor of Biblical Studies in both Old and New Testaments on staff presently at Eastern University suggests: “Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual— follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to “defend the Bible ” against these anti-God attacks” (1).
Thus, the ‘Good Book’ has been misused so often and in so many different arenas, including social, family, theological, ecclesiastic, sexual, personal, criminal, legal and governmental, that we would be more than dishonest to pretend that everything is just business as usual with this book, “God’s in his heaven - all’s right with the world” (2). Well, I don’t think it can be business as usual any longer. And we need to own up to this.
Houston, we have a problem, with the Bible. And we need to talk about it.
In one sense, I feel rather coerced into writing this blog post about the Bible, much in the same manner as I felt coerced by my sexuality to look at my faith all those years ago and to see what was working and what was not. If it hadn’t been for my sexuality you see, I am the first to admit that I probably would not have ever questioned the assumptions of my faith and revisited them from different points of view. There’s an even chance I would have turned out an insufferable Christian know-it-all, for that’s the direction I was headed. Had it not been for my sexuality, I do wonder whether by now, I would have either just gone along with the latest ‘God-given’ teaching to hit the church, or alternatively in the context of today’s secular/religious discourse, just given it all away like so many others as some adolescent desire for certainty and easy answers that ultimately turned to ash in the hand as the reality of life interposed itself upon me. Yet it was precisely my sexuality that forced me to take a close look at my faith and to question everything: what I believed, what I didn’t believe, the nature of belief, the nature of faith itself, everything was on the table, including God, the Church and the Bible. It was the ineradicable presence of my sexuality that corralled me into reimagining the nature of my own Christian faith.
And after a lifetime of suffering, at the hands of traditional church teaching around human sexuality, there were two non-negotiables for me if I were to stick around:
- faith had to be real and grounded in the reality of human life in this world;
- faith had to make sense, even where there are no obvious or clear answers.
Mystery is okay, even to be valued. Lack of clarity is okay. Questions are okay. Doubt is okay. But nonsense is not okay. Force or coercion or emotional blackmail is not okay. Absurd authoritarian literalist-based teachings clearly lifted from their ancient world context and foist upon a less powerful church member, not okay. Appeal to emotion or clear illogic, not okay. So, to a certain extent, I feel that same coercion today; not this time about the Christian faith in general, but more specifically about the scared text of our faith – the Bible. And once more, in the light of what has been happening in recent weeks, it is sexuality again that is the driving force behind these questions and observations to start talking about the Bible in a different way.
From the last few weeks, we have had three Christian 'pastors' quoting chapter and verse in order to wreak destruction on gay people; a declaration that we gay people should be put to death or suicide as the consequence of our existence. So no, “wreak destruction” is not over-saucing the pudding.
The first was from a ‘pastor’ in Arizona, quoting the Bible that gay people should be executed. He is totally serious and he thumps his pulpit as he thunders out his vitriol. He quotes a verse in Leviticus that ostensibly suggests that gay people be put to death. It doesn’t of course and I’ve devoted a whole chapter in my book to these verses and others, but this guy is totally, 100% unequivocally convinced without any doubt that the Bible is saying that gay people should be put to death, today. He says that he wouldn’t do it, but like murderers and other serious criminals, the state should execute us. He’s got chapter and verse to back him up. And yes, when read in the manner of this pastor, it’s there.
Here he is on an American news show answering the questions of an incredulous anchorman.
The second guy is a ‘pastor’ from New Zealand who responded to an email sent out to all the NZ churches by a friend of mine who has just released a new book telling of his own LGBT journey through fundamentalist Christianity. The pastor in question wrote back to him thus: "We are not interested in your filthy lifestyle or book. Romans 1 clearly says God has rejected homos and they are worthy of death. You cannot be saved. I pray that you will commit suicide, you filthy child molesting fag" (3).
The third is a young acolyte of the first who is parroting his teacher’s message and uses ‘down home’ homiletic style to engage his congregation, who it must be said, are either uneducated dolts or are just homophobic bigots. It is quite sickening to listen to as he, like his master, calls for the death penalty for gay people and quotes the Bible to add authority and weight to his message of death for his fellow human beings.
Now what I want to say about these latest atrocities of Christian spirituality is this: these guys not only rely on the Bible for their inspiration but quote its verses on which to premise their arguments and to scaffold them. They use the actual words of the Bible to attack other human beings and to pass judgment over us in a way that is so over the top, so lacking in love, so unChristlike, so vicious and so feral, that their use of scripture to condemn us must in all honesty give us pause for considering the worth of the Bible. If that’s what it says, then what the hell is going on?
At the risk of sounding utterly polemic, let me spell this out!
If this book can be used this way, are we right to continue to use it? Do we need to call it out? Is it time we asked the question: is the Bible still worthy to be called the Good Book? If it can be used so dreadfully and in the service of such evil, then what in the world are we still reading it for?
Has it not been used by the Nazis to endorse their sick doctrines of Aryan supremacy and the universal totalitarianism of the Third Reich? Has it not been used by the apartheid regime of South Africa to endorse the untold misery and injustice of racial discrimination? Has it not been used by slavers to justify the keeping of slaves in the United States and to endorse white supremacy? Does not the Klu Klux Klan even today still use the Bible to promulgate that same evil? Is not the Bible used to keep women in submission to men and to endorse the systematic privileging of men in institutions? Does not the Bible tell us to beat our children in order to discipline them? Yes to all of these.
And there are problems with the text itself. It is abundantly clear that there are multitudinous inconsistencies in the Bible. It gets its people, places, events, situations, articulations and consequences quite mixed up and confused as you compare the same rendering in different books. Even God is not portrayed consistently across its pages. One moment, he’s a loving father, the next he’s a mass-murdering thug who delights in the wholesale slaughter of innocents: men, women children and animals.
To shout out, “NO, it’s not like that at all,” is just denial of the facts. It IS like that. All that stuff IS there. So it is not without evidence to suggest that the Bible is not always consistent nor always clear about things like ethics and God. It is also patently obvious that people can pick and choose which bits of it they want to use for a particular cause, even if it’s a shitty cause, and develop either some weird teaching around it (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses did with Leviticus 17: 14 and blood transfusions or 'word of faith' people watching their children suffer and die instead of taking them to the hospital) or use it to denigrate others (whites over non-whites) or use it to oppress a group of people (men over women) or just use it to beat the living daylights out of someone or some group you don’t like (fundamentalists over Catholics, literalists over gay people).
The Bible as Weapon
The latest in a long line of Biblical atrocities is the Bible-violence to gay people. Scripture is cited and used as a weapon against gay people. I have personally been on the wrong end of some pretty nasty Bible-bashing by ‘loving Christians’ as have lots of gay people I know, many of them Christian themselves. Some of the Bible’s most tribal and ancient warfare passages are used against us, passages written by Iron Age oppressed Israelites trying to survive being engulfed by surrounding larger empires and trying to eke out that survival by maintaining their ancient identity in the face of persistent existential crisis. And they didn’t always put their best foot forward, as can readily be seen in their sacred texts. The violence, viciousness, rage, cruelty and mercilessness of these ancient world passages, pulled into grotesque distortions by today’s homophobic preachers, instead of understanding them as they should be, ie., contextually, are brought to bear to batter and harangue, to repudiate and reject, to judge and to condemn gay people.
Now it is clear to me that that such use of the Bible is not acceptable. It was not acceptable in the examples I gave above in the other arenas of life and it is still not acceptable in this, the latest monstrous wickedness against gay people. In each of the examples I listed above, the world changed its stance and shifted, despite the Bible verses used to defend the initial position. In other words, we deemed those people wrong, in error, and we ignored their Bible verses because we knew that we understood better and that there was a better way.
Universal human values as cited in the United Nations Charter is a good place to start: freedom, dignity, equality, no discrimination on any basis at all, legal rights, the rule of law, peaceful assembly, the right to work and no cruelty or torture. The Iron Age aggressive and discriminatory words and practices of an insignificant ancient people trapped between warring empires desperate to maintain its survival and religious identity are no longer to be thought of as superior. We understand them for what they are. And we study them for what they can tell us about these people and their relationship to their beliefs, their governance and their God. But we leave them in the ancient world and speak of them contextually as we would the rules and practices of the the law courts of the Roman Republic.
It is not uncommon for us to reject our ancestor’s ways as we do now in Australia with our indigenous people. Two hundred years ago, our white ancestors hunted down Tasmanian aboriginal people in the belief they were doing the right thing. The ‘Black Line,’ where white settlers at the behest of the Tasmanian military Governor formed long lines and hunted down Aboriginal people at seven different locations slaughtering them as they swept forward, is a piece of Australian history that is our great shame. Our ancestors were wrong. We can say that now. We would say their ethics were wrong and their beliefs and models about life were wrong. We have changed. We have moved on.
Today, we live our lives so differently to a life lived in the ancient world, especially a life lived in an occupied land or having been sent into exile as a servant class to a conquering empire as happened to the ancient Israelites. We answer our questions today in the context of modernity and with science and human ingenuity and scholarship and a belief in universal human values. That is not to say there is nothing in the Judaeo-Christian writings for us. Plainly, that is wrong. But we must view them contextually and with great care lest we apply a model of the world or spirituality that no longer fits. More on that later.
Let me be plain. The Conservatives among you will tell their hair out, the evangelicals who still hold to sola scriptura – scripture alone, will be putting on sackcloth and ashes, the literalists will be gnashing their teeth and the fundamentalists will be doing what they do best: judging me, finding me wanting and declaring that I am not a real Christian. So be it.
So here it is. I do not hold to face-value reading of the Bible. I think it is dangerous. We have seen in the video above where the logical extension of the literal non-contextual reading and interpretation of scripture leads to. Regarding gay people, let me be plain. It leads to violence. I think it is high time that the Church stopped calling it the Word of God and that people stopped calling it the ‘good book’. We could debate perhaps some new nomenclatures: a word of God, the word about God, a good book, for example. We would even need to see what some of the various texts themselves have to say about what they actually mean when they use the term ‘the word of the Lord’ because they are not talking about The Bible.
I think the Bible is in urgent need of a rebadging. It is too valuable a resource to abandon to the haters, the nutters and the legalistic zealots. We need to start thinking of it, viewing it reading it, interpreting it in a vastly different way than hitherto fore. We need a new Bibliology; a new lens though which we look at this incredible and wonderful but dangerous book. We need to put it in a different place to that which it occupies now, a place where it can no longer be used by haters and bigots. Sorry if this hurts your sensibilities, but I do believe that the Bible is not for the uneducated, for the bigots, racists and homophobes among them lap up all that ancient world violence and spew it forth today. No, I think reading the Bible requires some education. That would seem to counter Reformation principles, but I do not mean that uneducated people be denied the Bible. After all, who could do that anyway? Rather, all people need to know before they open its pages what they are reading, how it came to be, how it can be read safely and why it is still worthwhile having around. However, it should not be read at face-value. It must be read contextually if we are to get anything out of it at all. I devote a chapter in my book to the nature of the Bible and these matters.
I do not forget, even for a moment, that the Jesus story is part of this Bible and that our faith, our understandings of God and human life are inextricably interwoven with his life, death and message as given in accounts in the Gospels and in Paul's unpacking the deeper meanings of what Jesus accomplished. But I also know that the whole compilation of books is not all 'good shepherds' and 'green pastures'.
Peter Enns proposes that the Bible is a messy, beat up, edited, heavily scripted work written over a thousand year period by different authors with different agendas and all wanting to achieve a particular goal in their efforts to preserve ancient Israel from a variety of marauding empires. As such, they filled these many separate texts that we call the Bible with differing views, discrepant models of God, the universe and ethical behaviour such that we now have a bit of a mish mash in this collection. Enns’ principle thesis is that we should accept the Bible for what it is rather than trying to make it do what it was never intended to do. In so doing we twist and contort it and ourselves in trying to make it match our models or doctrines, in trying to make it this clear, purposeful, transparent, guileless rule-book. He argues persuasively that it is not that, that it has never been that and that much of the trouble the Church finds itself in today is because such a false and contorted view is imposed on these texts. He argues we need to let these texts be themselves and accept the inconsistencies, the lack of clarity, the humanness of the writing and their historical origins in a particular time and place by authors not reluctant to write to further their cause. Anywhere else, we would call this propaganda.
Peter Enns: “The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place. The biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was. The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago. Jesus, like other Jews of the first century, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible, but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so. A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus” (4).
|Hatred said to be spoken 'in love'|
Art by Robert Adelman
Again, Enns: "What if the Bible is just fine the way it is? What if it doesn’t need to be protected from itself? What if it doesn’t need to be bathed and perfumed before going out in public? And what if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is without needing anyone to stand guard over it? Not the well-behaved-everything-is-in-order version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith, and maybe God wants us to wander off the beach blanket to discover what that is" (5). If we can change the way we treat the Bible, then maybe it is just fine as it is.
Is the Church ready to start talking about the Bible? I hope so. Are we ready to acknowledge that it is not what we were always told it was? Are we ready to stop trying to beat it into submission to fit our prejudices? I hope the impetus taken from gay people’s experiences with the Bible will be a catalyst where we can get this conversation going and make some changes in this important aspect of our faith. If the Christian Church can achieve this, everyone will do better.
Pax et Amor - Stuart
1. Enns, P. (2014). The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, p3.
2. Pippa Passes, Poem, Robert Browning.
3. retrieved 13 December 2014, http://www.towleroad.com/2014/12/new-zealand-pastor-tells-gay-author-to-kill-himself-says-government-should-put-gays.html
4. Op Cit. (1). p231.
5. Op. Cit. (1). p9.
2. Pippa Passes, Poem, Robert Browning.
3. retrieved 13 December 2014, http://www.towleroad.com/2014/12/new-zealand-pastor-tells-gay-author-to-kill-himself-says-government-should-put-gays.html
4. Op Cit. (1). p231.
5. Op. Cit. (1). p9.
Excellent Stuart. Couldn't agree more. So tragic to see and hear what these "christians" are saying. No wonder so many people have rejected "the church". What an unloving person God must be.ReplyDelete