Why We Still Read the Bible
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 3, 2015
According to the story in the book, Jacob was running away from his brother Esau (Gen 28) after stealing his birthright and his blessing from their father. He stops for the night and lays down with a stone for a pillow. He dreams of a ladder reaching up toward heaven upon which angels are climbing up and down. In his dream God continues the Abrahamic Covenant and promises to be with him, that God would not forsake him. Jacob wakes up and says “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”
There are several classic interpretations of this passage. Some political interpretations say it is a foretelling of the numerous exiles the Hebrew people experience as described later in scripture. Some more personal or spiritual interpretations say it shows how we move up and down in our closeness to God based on our behavior. A literal interpretation claims that this is the exact spot where the Jerusalem Temple was later built and rebuilt. Later Christian interpretations propose that Jesus is the ladder, the bridge between heaven and earth.
My point in sharing all that is to show that there has not ever been a single authoritative interpretation declaring what a bible passage or story means. One of the first steps for serious bible study I learned in seminary is to sort through the common interpretations that have been offered over the years. Interpretations are the key. When we sing about climbing Jacob’s ladder as our closing hymn, you can ponder what interpretations are offered in this sung version of the story – especially if you are familiar with the original lyrics.
In the reading this morning, Plotz listed two reasons why people should read the Bible. He gave an intellectual reason and a personal reason. I agree with his two reasons and will add a third: political. As Unitarian Universalists, we gather as a community of people with differing beliefs. We are not bound by a central belief or prophet or book. We are each free to not read the Bible or listen to the words of Jesus if that is our wish. And yet we are a religious community of free thinkers in the midst of one of the world’s most religious countries. When we choose to ignore the Bible we essentially choose to be blind and deaf to a significant amount of conversation happening in the world around us. Plotz, in the reading this morning, argues for Biblical awareness, not as a believer, but as a free-thinking and literate citizen.
His book is titled Good Book and its subtitle is The bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous, and inspiring things I learned when I read every single word of the bible. That is exactly what he did. This is not that dramatic of a claim, but it is usually a task reserved for Evangelicals rather than lax, agnostic Jews. Plotz adds the point that as a Jew, he read the Hebrew bible, leaving someone else the task of tackling the New Testament of Christianity. To which, I will add the point that the Hebrew scripture makes up more that 75% of the pages named “the Bible.”
America is a very religious country. Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible. (From the jacket cover of Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy) “Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll … once contended that the reason everybody in the United States believes in the Bible is that no one actually reads it.” (Ibid p145)
Stephen Prothero’s book Religious Literacy makes the point that we in the United States are not religiously literate. He sources one of those scenes from an old Tonight Show episode where Jay Leno asks the average person on the street how much they know about the Bible. “Interviewees told him that God created Eve from an apple, that Jacob gave his son Joseph a new car, and that Matthew was swallowed by a whale.” (Ibid p 30)
Other than serving as a clever joke, what does it matter if “Many high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife”? (Ibid 6) How is it significant that “A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem”? (Ibid p30)
Biblical trivia is not a worthy goal in itself. But consider the arguments Plotz, Prothero, and others make. The intellectual argument is rooted in cultural and literary understanding. Huge swaths of art and literature have layers of Biblical reference. Knowing the basic outline of the conversion of Saint Paul, for example, makes it easier to see and appreciate and critique conversion experiences (religious or otherwise) in literature or even the news. When politicians make Biblical references to walking the Jericho road or seeing the log in one’s own eye, it is a rhetorical tool that is lost on a great many.
But this is not merely academic, this is also personal. Recognizing the passages is one thing, using them for something of value is what comes next. Some of the passages from Isaiah, like the one from our opening hymn (#209 O Come You Longing Thirsty Souls,) flow so elegantly and speak to the spiritual earning for a deeper connection with the holy. Many of the parables and healing stories in the gospels are about resilience and forgiveness and grace – lessons I constantly need to rediscover. There are Psalms I return to again and again for spiritual nourishment, Psalms 121, 139, 91, 22, and of course the ever popular Psalm 23. The message of the resurrection, the words the angels say to the shepherds: ‘be not afraid,’ anytime the story has someone showing up to a well. The book is replete with passages and stories that feed my searching heart.
Yes, the Bible is also filled with repulsive and confusing and just-plain-boring passages as well. Yes, many people have been fed shame and judgment instead of beauty and dignity from these passages. But part of our work as a Unitarian Universalist congregation is to help one another mature and grow spiritually. Interpretation is the key. How you read the texts makes all the difference.
In the monumental “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King evoked phrases from the biblical prophets such as Amos 5:24 “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” a passage that also features prominently in one of our favorite hymns
We’ll Build a Land
Where justice shall role down like water
and peace like an ever flowing stream (SLT# 121)
In the original passage, the prophet Amos is crying out against Israel – not on her behalf. Amos is warming Israel to remember the Law. Dr. King and others in recent times have reinterpreted the text as a call to justice from God, turning the warning into a call, changing the tone from God scolding us for falling behind to God luring us forward into where we yet can be. The key is in how we interpret the stories.
This is the cultural or intellectual reason to read the Bible. But it starts to lead us into the political reason as well. Once you recognize the references, if you get past the Biblical trivia – in which you know the quotes and passages – then we can begin to use the passages in interpretive ways to impact society. As one Unitarian Universalist colleague has said, “If you can’t or won’t understand the Bible, others surely will interpret it for you.” (John Buehrens, Understanding the Bible, p8)
Throughout the history of America, religion has played a critical role. Biblical interpretation has shaped our political and social conversation on many issues. For example, the nineteenth-century abolitionists wrestled with the biblical passages about slaves obeying their masters. The Women’s movement had to deal with passages enjoining women to remain silent. The temperance movement and prison reform, public education and care for the mentally ill were all issues that were fought with the bible in hand. What does the bible offer in terms of the issues of the environment, gay marriage, or abortion? Are we blind to the ways in which policy is being and has always been influenced by moral and doctrinal arguments from the bible? Surely we are not blind to the impact religion and Biblical interpretation has on foreign policy! There certainly are situations in which this religious illiteracy, our national amnesia of biblical trivia, borders on dangerous.
And it is important to remember – this is not a question of whether the passages in scripture are true or factual. It is about how the interpretations are being used today to impact society. The interpretations are the key.
Consider a political interpretation of the Biblical injunction from Jesus to ‘turn the other cheek.’ This is often rendered as a spiritual or personal interpretation – “be forgiving, do not return insult for insult, break the cycle by choosing to not retaliate.” And that is a good personal or spiritual interpretation.
But as a political interpretation we drift into very dangerous territory. Too often the suggestion to ‘turn the other cheek’ is seen as a weak resignation to violence. If someone hits you, let them hit you again. It can be misconstrued as Jesus advising us to say “Thank you sir, may I have another.” “Let me lay down so you may more easily walk all over me.” This is the kind of interpretation that supports domestic abuse rather than challenges it.
“As it stands, this saying seems to counsel supine surrender. If you are a woman and you are struck by your spouse on one cheek, turn the other; let him pulverize you. … And the crowning blow: don’t resist evil at all.” (Walter Wink in Religion, Terror and Violence, Rennie and Tite eds., pp 115-116)
I have shared a reinterpretation of this before, but it bears mentioning again. Walter Wink, a Biblical scholar, insists that Jesus’ intent was not weak resignation, but dignified resistance. Listen to how Wink unfolds this passage.
Jesus says “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Well, we might ask, why the right cheek? What if someone strikes you on the left cheek? It probably does matter! Walter Wink suggests that it does. If someone strikes you on the right cheek they will have done so either with their left hand: which back in that time period was almost unheard of. “The left hand was for unclean tasks, and even to gesture with it brought shame on the one gesturing.” (Ibid, p116) Thus a backhanded blow is being described. To strike someone on the right cheek was to put that person in their place, a master to a servant, parent to child, Roman to Jew. It is the blow delivered to an inferior. To turn the other cheek is to deny another backhanded blow, leaving the attacker to do what? Slap the slave? No, that was not a manly thing to do. The rigidity of gender roles were as firm as those demanded by social status. Strike with a right hook with the fist? No, one did not fight with fists unless one was fighting an equal.
This, is the point Jesus was leading his followers to see. You can strike me on the right cheek because I am socially inferior to you, but by turning the other cheek I am saying if you strike me again you must strike me as your equal. The Master can certainly have the slave then flogged for the insolence, but the statement has been made: I am your equal. We are both children of God. This is not submission, it is resistance. It is fighting the violent force with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called soul-force. Yes, you can hit me, but on my terms, as your equal. This puts the oppressor in a shameful position.
This is why we still read the Bible. So that we can recognize passages and the interpretations and even offer better, more life-affirming interpretations than those out there in the common conversation. The context and culture Jesus was in when he called people to turn the other cheek is not the one we now live in. But the message is still good. What are the injustices we suffer from today, where are people oppressed and how might they use the cultural expectations to subvert their oppressors into being ashamed of their actions? That is the deeper question! Answer that and you will launch the next civil rights movement or Gandhi-style liberation.
David Plotz, from our reading this morning, says “Everyone should read [the Bible] – all of it.” (p300) But his commitment is not a religious one. Indeed, his reasoning actually runs in the opposite direction of becoming more faithful or developing enhanced beliefs. Plotz describes his year of reading the bible as a year of argument with God. And that is exactly what some Jewish scholars claim to be the heart of faith, the committed engagement with the text and with God.
I contend that there are several good reasons why we Unitarian Universalists should continue to read the Bible. Between full belief and acceptance of every word as literally true and full rejection in an equally literalistic fashion – there are a multitude of ways to explore the Bible for spiritual wisdom, ethical guidance, cultural competence, and even a good argument. Any way it turns, it is worth a deeper look.
In a world without end,
May it be so.