I was raised in a half-Baptist household. My mom was a Baptist, my father was not. He wasn’t any religion at all and did not decide to embrace Christianity until about ten years ago, when he was 72 (he’s 82 now and so is my mom). But I went to church every week while I was growing up. And it has stuck with me, to the point that I’m now a theologian, religious author, Sunday School teacher and deacon. And now a whole Baptist.
A popular pursuit in my high school church youth group (this was in the dark ages before Facebook or even video games) was hunting through the Bible to find a “life verse” What’s that you might ask? A passage out of the Bible, no more than a sentence or two, that you could claim as a theme for your life. Sort of like how a couple might glom onto a song while dating that they thereafter refer to as “their song.”
I never really liked the whole “life verse” fad. I thought limiting myself to a single brief biblical text like some cliché on a motivational poster was just absurd. Likewise, it seemed to me that it would be so easy to pull a verse out of context. You know, just for the fun of it.
Finally forced by my youth group to pick something, in my teenage (and still continuing) rebelliousness, I wound up picking Ecclesiastes 10:19:
“A feast is made for laughter,
wine makes life merry,
and money is the answer for everything”
It seemed perfect for my purposes: ludicrous, devoid of context, and hilarious.
My youth group leader was appalled. But he had difficulty criticizing my choice. After all, it’s in the Bible. And how could he criticize the Bible? Especially in a Baptist church?
What I did with that amusing passage from Ecclesiastes illustrates a problem with how so many people approach the Bible. The Bible is a familiar thing that nearly everyone has in their homes—often in an antique translation that they struggle to make sense of since it sounds like Shakespeare and the last time they faced Shakespeare was in high school English when they had to read Romeo and Juliet. And hated it. Most people would never dare to claim enough knowledge of Shakespeare to sit in judgment of the Bard. They’d leave that to the Shakespeare scholars. Likewise, most would recognize that unless they’d gotten a degree in Russian literature and knew the Russian language, a single reading in English of Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov doesn’t turn them into an expert in that particular nineteenth century author.
But somehow everyone feels as if they can pontificate on the Bible—even those who haven’t really bothered to read it in English, let alone the languages it was actually written in.
I think if some of the critics actually read the Bible and understood it (a few classes in linguistics, textual criticism, history, theology and some basic courses such as Bible Survey might help), they wouldn’t be quite so libelous in some of the charges raised against it.
When one ignores the context and point of a text (as I did when I was a pimply-faced teenager), it is easy to set up straw men and then trash them. In listening to some Bible critics I’m reminded of something attributed to Larry Niven, the science fiction author who has penned many books both by himself and in conjunction with Jerry Pournelle. He once got a letter from an irate reader excoriating him for believing the awful things that appeared in one of his books—basing the condemnation on the attitudes and behavior of a certain character.
Niven responded: “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.’”
The same thing very often happens to people who read the Bible. Besides suffering from a biased mindset, cherry-picking and ignoring context, and generally lacking the necessary linguistic and historical background—and forgetting the ordinary reading skills that they probably easily apply to anything else they read—some critics of the Bible suffer from the problem afflicting Niven’s critic. They fail to reckon with the possibility that the readers of the Bible were supposed to be appalled by the horrid things that sometimes happen in the Bible. Surprise, surprise: bad guys appear, do bad things, and bad things happen to good people in books. That’s the way literature works. I suspect very few people would imagine that 1984 is a how-to book for dictators.
But when they read the Bible, why do they fail to reckon with the possibility that if something gives them the willies or offends their sensibilities, that maybe that was the point? Perhaps if they read the Bible as they might other literature, and understood that literary devices like satire, humor, sarcasm and metaphor among other things appear in it—and that stories and poetry work in certain ways and not others—the Bible might make more sense to them. Of course, if certain critics would just approach the Bible realizing it was written in an agrarian society, using some literary techniques alien to Westerners, and if they anticipated they might experience some culture shock along the way, they’d probably do okay. I doubt they would read a story set in ancient Rome and then be upset because it didn’t have enough robots and explosions. Or expect the tropes of a romantic comedy to show up in an action adventure movie.
Frankly, the way certain critics describe the Bible is incredibly naive and simple-minded. Of course, some fans of the Bible are just as simple-minded. I wish they’d all stop using like my high-school self did and that they could comprehend the context of its words, sentences and paragraphs, and use them as they were actually intended, not as sledges to pound their opponents, fluffing for themselves, or as instruments designed to gain sympathy for a cause, justification or condemnation for a behavior, or as a means to fundraising. The good and bad stuff needs to be faced and understood and made sense of in the overall purpose of the stories being told, and the wider context of scripture as a whole, which can be summarized as “love God” and “love people.”
I know it may come as a shock, but the Bible doesn’t actually mean whatever someone wants to make it mean. The authors of the thing actually had something they wanted to say and said it. But it’s just like with any book: the words attributed to Cardinal Richelieu apply: “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” If you don’t know, or choose to ignore context and meaning, yeah, you can twist it however you like. Just like I did with that funny passage from Ecclesiastes when I was in high school.