Friday, February 26, 2010

What Happens When We Take the Bible "Literally"?

Every church I've been to in the Evangelical tradition claims that they make the Bible the authority on deciding matters of faith and godliness; indeed, on every matter in life. Sola scriptura and all that. But as N.T. Wright so brilliantly points out, when a church claims that the Bible is the ultimate authority, they often mean something else entirely:
"First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’"
We say we take the Bible as our authority, but we really mean we take our interpretation of the Bible as our authority, all the while thinking, as Wright says, we are "reading the text, straight."

That in and of itself can lead to lots of problems, but the problems are further complicated when a church (or group or person) claims to take the Bible "literally." Any good Bible scholar will tell you that you need to take the time, place, and cultural contexts into consideration when examining the Biblical text and how it might apply to us today. Yet in our zealousness for "the Word" and its "authority," we sometimes try to make ancient words fit our modern world in ways that are not only clumsy but harmful.

I came across a blog the other day from a woman who has left the so-called "Quiverfull" movement-- the idea that the man is the ruler of the house and the family, that the woman's job is to have babies and as many as possible, and--here's the kicker-- that this is the only way to obediently serve God in our roles as men and women. There's more to the philosophy than that, and different families apply it differently, but patriarchy with absolute female submission and no birth control are the distinguishing features as I understand it. (This philosophy is not all that foreign to me, as it closely resembles the philosophy my husband and I subscribed to when we first got married. Somewhere along the way we discovered it was a disastrous way to run a marriage, and we're still dealing with the fall-out in counseling years later.)

What struck me about this woman's story was she was so sure she and her husband were following the Bible, that even though her husband abused her and the children, she stoically carried on for years, all in the name of obedience. It took her oldest daughter's attempt at suicide to finally decide there was something wrong with the "Biblical" way they were living. It's easy from our outside perspective to say, "Well, obviously, God didn't mean to submit to abuse." But, if we are to take a completely literal, take-the-text-as-it-is approach, we'd have to come to the same conclusion she did-- she would have to submit to his authority regardless of what he does. We would have to take the stance that the only Biblically-allowable reason for divorce would be marital unfaithfulness in its strictest sense. To put it bluntly, women who get the crap beat out of them (whether physically or emotionally) and divorce their husbands would be sinning, if we take the Bible literally.

I found another case of "literal-Bible-reading-gone-bad" on another blog, which told of a recent death of one child and hospitalization of another, caused by their parents disciplining (i.e. beating) them. They were following a "Christian" parenting method that advocates beating your child into submission with plastic tubing. Horrendous, you say? What about a literal interpretation of Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, and 23:13-14? "Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death." These parents took that literally and beat their child to physical death. Mortifying, you say? But is that not what a literal interpretation of the Biblical text gives us?

Our initial reaction may be, "Yes, those are extreme examples, but those folks were misapplying the Bible. That's not what those verses mean..." Ah, but there's the trouble. Our interpretation of those verses do not lead us to the same conclusions as their interpretations did. But they are making the Bible their "ultimate authority," just as we claim to do.

"But we have to take the whole context of the Bible," we say. "We can take it literally within its place in all of scripture." Think of the abused woman, though. What comfort or direction would she get from 1 Peter 3:5-6? Sarah sucked it up and dealt with it, honey, so you can too! (Not to say that Abraham beat Sarah, but he certainly abused her by lying about her not being his wife, thus making her vulnerable to sexual abuse.)

Let's be honest-- we arrive at many of our positions not from literal reading of the text, but from inferring things from the text, from the nature of God, and from the actions of Jesus during His time on earth. For example, the Bible says husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. It does not say that women only have to submit when their husbands are loving. It just says submit. But we would not (I hope) counsel a woman getting beat up by her husband to submit to him and take the beatings night after night (although I know, sadly, that this IS the counsel many women get from churches). We have no specific, literal verse to back us up on counseling this woman to leave. We just point to the loving nature of God who despises violence against the innocent and who created marriage to be mutual submission, and we go with our gut feeling knowing that abuse like that is just plain wrong.

I use these examples because they are a little more clear-cut, but the principle applies to other areas of Bible reading. We post-Enlightenment Western types are big into being literal. (What does it mean? Well, what does it say? It means what it says, of course!) Then we like to pick and choose which parts we are going to take literally and which we are going to consider symbolism and allegory. (Side note-- ever find it funny that so many Christians take Genesis and Revelation literally while chalking most of Jesus' own words up to allegory?) We lose sight of the fact that the Bible is an ancient document written in a completely different time. While God may have designed it to be instrumental in the life of the believer and the Church, the Bible is not our ultimate authority. God is our ultimate authority. We can't read the Bible and extricate our understanding and application of it from the work of the Holy Spirit and the counsel and wisdom of the Church universal and historical.

We're going to get it wrong part of the time, no doubt about it. But I'm starting to think we ought to be done with this "taking the Bible literally" nonsense.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Frustrated Rant from a Tired Christian

I had made plans to jump back into blogging with a great, insightful, and possibly even witty post about Protestants observing Lent-- those who see it as works salvation versus those who see it as a valuable spiritual discipline, etc. (And of course, those of us, like me, who first saw it as legalism, but then later thought it might be a really cool, spiritual thing to do, but didn't want to observe it too rigidly lest I be considered merely jumping on the latest Protestant "back to orthodoxy" bandwagon... ) As it turns out, my spiritual discipline muscle is incredibly weak, and Ash Wednesday came and went with few thoughts and little action. So it was all a mute point, really. I know I ought to be exercising some sort of spiritual discipline more regularly than I currently am doing. In my defense, I did look for an Ash Wednesday service to get me "in the mood" for being spiritual for the next 40 days, but I had worship team practice at my own church (which, as you might have guessed, does not observe Lent).

Yes, I know, I know, one doesn't need to wait until the church calendar reaches a certain day to make a concerted effort towards prayer, fasting, and charity. I guess I was kind of hoping something symbolic would help jump-start my wimpy, puttering faith. I need more than a spiritual cup of coffee-- I need the Christian equivalent of crack. I'm so discouraged. I hate going to church, but I like seeing our friends. I hate listening to sermons, but I can't kick the nagging feeling of guilt that our family needs to sit there, for some reason or another. I might bring up a side point in Sunday School class on occasion, but I've lost the drive to debate theology even on a friendly level. In short, I'm just showing up and going through the motions. The songs don't mean much to me. The sermons, if I can pay attention long enough, usually frustrate me. Does this make me a bad Christian? I don't know. I suppose I don't really care.

No... that's not true. I do care; otherwise I wouldn't bother blogging about it. I want a solution. I want to go to church and like it! I want to sing to God and MEAN it! I want to pray and actually be engaged mentally. I want to read the Bible and believe it. And, most of all, I want to stop thinking cynical, pessimistic thoughts about my fellow Christians. When someone expresses a joyous, heartfelt trust in God, I want to be able to say "Amen!" rather than have the strong desire to smack them upside the head for being naive and platitudinous.

No answers here. Just needed to vent.