Disagreements with fundamentalists ultimately end with a discussion of the Bible, an area that should be fertile ground for debate. Unfortunately, social progressives, mainstream Christians, and non-Christians all-too-often surrender the high ground to those who claim to “believe the Bible,” operating on the assumption that social conservatives probably believe more of the Bible than they do. This is very likely not the case.
The Christian Bible is not a single book, it is a collection of 66 canonical writings, divided into the Hebrew Bible from before the time of Jesus and the New Testament from after. Those writings span over a thousand years, with input from multiple sources and multiple rounds of editing for purposes both theological and political. Cultures can change a lot in a thousand years, and the writings of the Christian Scriptures consequently contain a number of different perspectives on every major issue they address. As a result, nearly any idea can be supported “biblically” simply by privileging one text over another.
Think that women should not be allowed to be ordained? I Corinthians 14:34 says that “women should be silent in the churches.” Think they should? Galatians 3:28 says that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Believe there is one God? Monotheism was well-established in Jerusalem by the time the second half of Isaiah was written, and Isaiah 43:10 states that there was no god before or after the god of Israel. However, there’s still some polytheism lingering in the biblical writings. The plural pronouns and verbs in Genesis 1, for instance, or the poetic references to the “gods” in the Psalms (82, 86, 95, 135).
Whether you want to defend or oppose predestination (Ephesians 1:4-5 vs. Galatians 5:4), pacifism (Matthew 5:39 vs. Luke 22:36), or poverty (Matthew 6:19-21 vs. Malachi 3:10) as Christian virtues (or vices), you can take a “biblical” stance simply by privileging one verse over the other. If you privilege the right texts, you can even defend child sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40) or genocide (Joshua 8:24-26). Of course, if you do, people will think you are a “nut” or a “fanatic” for taking the wrong texts literally.
And therein lies the difficulty. If you are a Christian, and have an opinion on any of the issues I raised above, you already know the arguments used to minimize the texts that disagree with your position and privilege the ones that agree with you. If you are a person of any faith, it’s “common sense” to you that the texts that support really heinous things are not intended to be interpreted literally. Regardless of what the text actually says, or meant to its original audience, our natural instinct is to explain away that which fundamentally disagrees with our respective ideas of who God is.
None of this is logically consistent, but it doesn’t matter because – for almost everyone – sacred texts work more like a mirror than a lamp; we see our own beliefs reflected clearly in the book open before us. As a result, some people get away with making ludicrous claims like “God wrote every word of the Bible” and “God’s Word never changes” and “I believe the Bible is literally true.”
If that’s the case, then God thinks that victims of rape should be executed if they do not scream out during the assault (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), and that otherwise they should marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). God thinks that genocide, including the massacre of children, is justifiable (Joshua 8:24-26, 10:37). God sends spirits into the world to lie to us (I Kings 22:19-23) and do evil (I Samuel 19:9). God advocates rape as a legitimate form of acquiring wives (Judges 21:10-24), and even promises to give a king’s wives to their rapist, so that they can be raped “in broad daylight” (II Samuel 12:11-14).
Again, those who are raised with the claim that being a Christian means “believing every word of the Bible” have a stockpile of ready explanations for each of these texts. “Things were different then.” “These are very specific circumstances.” “God doesn’t approve of this, it’s just what they believed or did.” None of these excuses are consistent with actually believing that an unchanging God wrote every word of the Bible, but that is not really relevant to their argument. They want to believe two mutually exclusive things: “God holds the same basic values I do” and “Every word of the Bible is literally true.” Rather than resolve the conflict with critical thinking, these well-meaning believers simply re-interpret – against all evidence and logic – that which is inconsistent with their idea of God.
Nearly everyone does this on the really heinous material (of which I have given only a few examples, above). This then lays the groundwork for privileging some texts over others on the more controversial theological claims (also mentioned above) while still claiming to believe every word of the Bible is from God. The end result is that anyone can come up with any idea and claim it is “biblical.” That adjective is as meaningless (and persuasive) as the claim to “believe the Bible, every word,” and both claims are hard to challenge in a way that persuades the claimant, so they rarely are.
In fact, cultural biases actually help those who want to make these claims. Most people think “conservative” and “traditional” means what their grandparents or great-grandparents believed or did. They lack the historical literacy to know what Christians believed or did a thousand or two thousand years ago. As a result, when fundamentalists claim that they are the “traditional” Christians who “believe the Bible” because they oppose homosexuality or women’s rights or social welfare programs or whatever their cause du jour is, most folks – conservative or otherwise – let them get away with that claim.
In reality, their claim is absurd. They are ignoring just as much of the Bible, and just as much Christian tradition, as the “liberals” they oppose; but, because the general assumption is that the social conservatives must be the ones who take the Bible literally, no one calls them out on it. Unfortunately, the claim to biblical authority is surrendered on all fronts. Their fellow fundamentalists assume that the social “conservatives” are taking the Bible literally because they are already in their camp, and they are already picking and choosing in the same fashion. Everyone else takes the fundamentalists at their word because there is a general belief in the wider culture that the biblical writers must have been socially conservative themselves.
In other words, even though no one, not one single person, takes everything in the Bible literally, fundamentalists are allowed to make the claim that they are the biblical literalists because their fellow conservatives refuse to admit their own cognitive dissonance, and because their opponents lack the historical or biblical knowledge to fully deconstruct the absurdity of the claim.
And so, there is a continual process in which biblical “literalists” selectively ignore the things with which they disagree while simultaneously vehemently quoting the Bible to fight progressive changes in the culture. Then, when those progressive ideas become “common sense” in the culture, the biblical “literalists” add the passages they previously quoted so passionately to the list of texts they now ignore or reinterpret, and then move on to a new battle in the culture wars.
There are two obvious examples of this. The first is the idea of a round Earth in a heliocentric solar system. In the early Renaissance, one of the few things that the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Christians could agree on was that any Bible-believing Christian knew that the Earth was the center of the solar system, and the Universe. The Bible was definitely on their side. Joshua 10:12-13, Habakkuk 3:11, I Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93 & 96 and many other texts describe a fixed Earth resting on sold foundations, around which the Sun and Moon orbit. The very oldest story in the very first book even describes how the Earth was formed with a clear dome above it to hold back the “waters above” – beyond which the Sun and Moon orbited. An omnipotent God, writing an infallible text, certainly could not have made such an egregious and repeated error, and the biblical literalists of the Early Renaissance knew this for certain. Eventually, however, the scientific evidence made a heliocentric solar system indisputable for every person with even a minimal education, and the biblical “literalists” now interpret those texts allegorically.
[As an aside, they often do so with wonderfully circular logic. “How do you know it’s intended allegorically and not literally?” “Because it’s not literally true, so God must have meant it to be an allegory.” “So, anything in the Bible that is not literally true must be an allegory, because the Bible is always literally true?” “Yes!”]
A more recent example is the issue of slavery. The biblical writers are very clear about their perspective on the issue of owning someone and using them as your property – they are fine with it. Slavery comes up regularly in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and none of the writers take the opportunity to condemn the institution. Slaves who are not taken from the Israelites (who are specifically exempted from the “harshness” of slavery) are property – plain and simple (Leviticus 25:44-46). Exodus gives rules for parents who sell their daughters into sex slavery, but it never condemns the practice (Exodus 21:7-10). The Pauline epistles are very clear that slaves are to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, I Timothy 6:1-2). Jesus himself talks of slaves getting beaten, with the ones who didn’t know what they did wrong only receiving a light beating (Luke 12:42-48). Also in Luke, Jesus is quoted as noting that a person does not invite their slave to come in and eat with them after they have worked in the fields; instead they are told to also fix supper. “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:7-10).
Prior to the nineteenth century, good biblical literalists knew what these passages meant: God was fine with slavery, and even set rules for how to go about selling your daughter into sexual slavery and the importance of being an obedient slave. Of course, the culture has shifted since then, and now even those who claim to believe that an unchanging God wrote every word of the Bible refuse to take these passages literally. They can’t ignore the references, so they try to make claims that the “slavery” of the Bible was somehow different from the abusive slavery of more recent eras. Of course, in the biblical version of slavery, a slave could be beaten severely, as long as they did not die immediately “for the slave is the owner’s property” (Exodus 21:20-21); and the penalty for raping a slave was only financial, not capital (Leviticus 19:20-22), so those claims seem more than a little disingenuous.
This pattern – of selectively quoting some passages and ignoring others while claiming to “believe the Bible” – has been repeated for centuries and will likely continue for as long as the Bible is read and quoted. Ultimately, however, any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, holy or sinful, healthy or destructive – any such claim can be defended with Scripture. “I know this makes no sense otherwise, and I know it seems mean or spiteful or bigoted, but I only believe it because I believe the Bible” is the refuge of cowardice and ignorance. Not only is the person already ignoring or subordinating everything in the Bible with which they disagree, the Bible can be used to support any position. People don’t argue from the Bible; the argue using the Bible.
So then, is the Bible useless? Certainly not. Even while denominations were forming to defend the institution of slavery, and slave-owners were using the Bible as a tool for oppression, the slaves working in the fields heard in the story of Exodus their own story, and found hope of deliverance. Like any versatile and finely-made tool, the Bible can be used to create or destroy, to oppress or give hope.
To use it effectively, however, we have to let the Bible be what it is: a collection of writings shaped by the wisdom and the prejudices of a plentitude of different authors and editors. Once we make that admission, when we find something in Scripture that we might be inclined to use to oppress, to harm, to wound, or to exclude another of God’s creatures, we are much more likely to recognize that it is best to err on the side of compassion and common sense. Recognizing that no one takes the Bible literally, and that every generation changes what they are certain it means to understand the Bible, we must all accept the possibility that we are wrong. Once we realize that we have no choice but to live with that level of ambiguity, then we are obligated to err toward inclusiveness, kindness, and love – because “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), for God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7).