Many Contemporary Christians are Misusing the Bible
By Donald L. O’Dell, M. Div.
This is a time of Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, CNN specials on the Two Marys, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” and other similar media events. In fact, almost anything biblical has become very interesting.
However, when it gets to the point that our president can hold up the Bible and claim it’s a wonderful textbook for faith-based organizations, perhaps things have gotten a little out of hand. The same could be said as people chose to interpret Hurricane Katrina’s effect on New Orleans as God’s divine punishment for “rampant” homosexuality. These two examples illustrate people’s desire to find simple answers to complex issues coupled with an erroneous conception of the Bible. We all want simple answers to our questions. We want to be able to sort things out in ways that are meaningful to us. However, most of us know that – however wonderful that would be – it simply isn’t in the cards. Complex issues usually require complex solutions. However, when the Bible gets involved or invoked, the issue gets a little thornier.
Biblical literalists seem to believe that Abraham (a Bronze Age nomad), King David (an early Iron-Age mid-eastern monarch), the Apostle Paul (a first century educated Roman citizen and a devout Jewish Pharisee), and they (as twenty-first century Americans) view faith in God in exactly the same way. For these biblical literalists, mostly fundamental Christians or fervent Evangelicals, faith is faith is faith. What Abraham believed and how he expressed his belief, is what David believed and practiced, and what Paul believed and practiced. Consequently, that is what they think they believe and practice today. People who believe this way simply do not understand the Bible.
It seems to me the Bible tells the rather straightforward story of the constant tension between:
· Mankind’s desire for a didactic, explicit, prescribed set of approved behaviors that we think God will bless; and
· God’s actual issuance of “fuzzy” moral instructions
Some of these examples of fuzziness:
• Elijah: After fleeing the Queen Jezebel and fearing for his life he called on God to protect him. He looked for God’s response in earthquakes, mighty winds, and fire. He finally found “…the still, small voice of the Lord. (I Kings 19:9-14)”
• Micah: “What does Yahweh require of you? To do justice, and to love righteousness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Mic 6:8)
• Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But who is my neighbor? Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The point? Your neighbor is anyone who is in need.
We don’t like “fuzzy” instructions or suggestions. We want assurances – almost guarantees. We want teachers to tell us if we do A, B, and C we’ll get a “gold star.” We want to know specifically what God wants. We like the reassurance we get from sermons that focus on all the evil occurring in the world “out there.” Whew! We may be selfish, fearful of change, non-trusting, judgmental, and mean spirited, but at least we aren’t communists, or drug addicts, or sexual perverts, or abortionists, or whatever. We like explanations to be explicit, cut and dried, and predictable.
In the Old Testament this tension bubbled to the surface early: As the covenant with Yahweh (God) was being given its first shape under Moses during the Exodus, the populace continually wanted to create and worship idols. This was followed by the continuing struggle between the ever organizing Old Testament priesthood and the prophets. Talk about rites, rituals, the Law (Torah) must be kept to ensure God’s blessing. All the major prophets railed against these ideas – that it was love, justice, and humility that God wanted, not obedience to elaborate ritual.
In the New Testament it took only about one hundred years for Jesus’ transformational “fuzzy” message of the Kingdom of God – which exists within you in the Eternal Now – to be institutionalized by various Jesus groups as a newer form of Judaism and by Paul as a message that the Kingdom incorporated both Jews and non-Jews. Then the Jesus groups dissolved and Paul’s message was overcome with administrative issues of appropriate first-century behavior.
Paul experienced the freedom he found in the message of the Damascus/Antioch Christ congregations. It was exhilarating, life-changing — transforming. He began to understand that these Christ congregations, which he once loathed because they undercut his beloved Pharisaic Judaism, had stumbled on to something truly revolutionary: God’s love and presence was not reserved for Jews alone but included all of mankind. Nevertheless, he was a Pharisee. He knew the Law (Torah) as well as the oral interpretations (the embryonic Midrash) and he just couldn’t let that go. So he became preoccupied with integrating his transformation with his knowledge of the Law. He also had the same problem with his new spirituality that I had trying to explain or verbalize my spiritual experience. He verbalized his sense of this new reality in terms of redefining Israel’s history and thus the meaning of the Law. At the same time behavioral abuses in his congregations surfaced, which seemed—at least to him—to threaten his authority. These abuses also pricked his sense of orderliness and accompanying codes of behavior—something familiar to his Pharisaical upbringing. The Pharisees after all were fastidious in their observance of behavioral/purity codes: what to eat, how to prepare it, what ingredients to use, what prayers to repeat, and how to serve it.
As a result, Paul’s surviving messages began to be refined by church fathers, slowly but surely, in “new” behaviors befitting a “new” Gospel that was a result of a “new” sense of history and a “new” theology. Later writers, either biblical or non-biblical (Justin, Clement, Ignatius, et al.) began picking up on Paul’s themes—not themes of transformation, freedom, and grace, but of orderliness, behavior, rational (neat) explanations—and continued to expand, getting further and further away from Paul’s Gospel of Freedom. As Paul tried to rationally justify his insight, he began moving from the Christ of faith to the Christ of theology. The early church fathers picked up on the Christ of theology and continued the construction of an elaborate, unified dogma. So now the words of Jesus had morphed into the doctrines of Salvation (Soteriology), Christology, Trinity, Atonement, Incarnation, and Apostolic Succession.
Lost was the sense of freedom that had so influenced Paul. The “fuzzy” was being replaced once again with the “explicit.”
Contemporary biblical literalists are using the words of the Bible in much the same way as the Old Testament priesthood used the temple rites and rituals. If you listen closely, it is no longer faith in Jesus or in God’s love that matters and transforms lives. What matters is the belief in the very words of scripture that one must have faith in, must obey, and must follow. What matters is the theology you espouse – a theology that was extrapolated over 300 years immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and conveniently left behind transformational message of Jesus. That is what makes you a Christian. That is what makes you right. That is what will “save” you.
Since they comprehend that faith is faith is faith – no accounting for linguistic or historical context – we find ourselves in a position whereby any scriptural reference can be used – literally – to support any preferred position(s). To use the Bible in this way would put them at odds with the very prophets they claim to cite, just as the blind use of rite and ritual put the Priestly Class at odds with these very same prophets.
The Bible is a guide, not an instruction manual. It records men and women that struggled to put their very spiritual experiences into words and images that made sense to them in their times and places. We need to understand that to enable us to put our spiritual experiences in words that make sense to us in our time and place.