The Bible is just an old, old book sitting on a bookshelf. Well, really, it’s a collection of old books from different times and places that’s more an anthology of writings originally written in different languages.
Sometimes people do read it, but most often they don’t look at more than snippets. They just repeat what someone else they consider an authority swears that it teaches.
Because it’s been considered a “sacred” book by some down through history, they’ve used what they want in it to justify their beliefs, aspirations, and bigotry. But that can be done with any book that someone classifies as more authoritative than other everyday writings.
If the Bible didn’t exist, bigotry wouldn’t notice. People who now use it to excuse their prejudices would find something else to blame, such as tradition, authoritative leaders, and respected institutions. You can hear them saying “it’s traditional,” or such and such a big shot says, or “the Church” teaches.
Those hurt by people using the Bible to justify the persecution of others and who haven’t fully healed from those hurts so that they’re still triggered by references to the book, might also regularly blame the Bible. But, like blaming religion itself, doing so, in fact, actually furthers the cause of those who use it to promote bigotry and who prefer using it over examining the prejudices they read into it.
“The Bible,” in fact, doesn’t teach anything. So, when someone says “the Bible says,” they’re just showing their unexamined (intentionally or not) ahistorical assumptions and even ignorance — while often what they follow that phrase with will show their prejudices. The reality is that different books in it, and even different passages, say different things.
It takes a lot of work using one of many competing interpretive methods to try to get this collection to agree on most anything. No one takes all its verses literally and everyone, everyone, everyone, interprets it and has one scheme or another to rescue any passages that don’t agree with them to sound as if they really, really, really do agree.
There are others who also believe that they “follow the Word” and find the Bible to be a collection that inspires only when a verse speaks to the reader — it then, they might say “becomes the Word to them” — and are also able to let other passages go. They see the collection as human attempts to understand some Divine calling, attempts that can at times rise to inspirational heights.
The key here is the fact that people use the Bible. And people, not some book, must be held responsible for how they use it.
Instead of focusing on the Bible, we must focus on why they use it the way they do if we want to change hearts and minds. We need to discover what it is in their lives that causes them to bring the interpretation they do to the text.
The Bible historically has been used by both progressives and regressives. Martin Luther King, Jr. looked at it and saw something very different in its meaning than those who understood it to promote racism. Numerous scholars over the last half-century have disagreed with Pat Robertson’s, Jerry Falwell’s, and Franklin Graham’s overall proclamations about what it teaches about LGBTQI people.
The Bible has been used to promote charity and to whip up persecution, to speak of equality and to justify slavery, to preach apartheids and to fight apartheids, to comfort persecuted people and to fire up the persecutors, to promote death and to value life, to envision an international outlook and to stir up nationalisms. The different uses are not due to the appearance of new translations or different versions but the varying economic, sociological, institutional and psychological contexts surrounding the Bible as it’s come down through history.
This is not, then, an argument defending “the Bible.” There are ideas in it that are defensible and others that are abhorrent.
One need only look at the famous story of Noah and his ark that’s often turned into a playful zoological tale for children. Some have focused on the fact that there the God of Israel graciously saved a family from destruction. But others have focused on the fact that the story says that that same divinity murdered more human beings than any tyrant by drowning all the other men, women, children, and fetuses on the earth at that time.
LGBTQI people are used to hearing of those well-worn passages that have been used against them even though Biblical scholars for generations have argued otherwise. There’s still no better summary of scholarship than the slim little volume by Daniel Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality from 2000. And there have been no new arguments since.
But will prejudiced people even read of such an option if they’re afraid it will challenge their comfortable positions and the “authorities” who’ve told them what the Bible says? And if they admit that they’ve been wrong about this, will they be afraid that they might have been wrong about so much else they’ve heard about what’s in the Bible?
Then there are so many other less-cited passages in the biblical collection that need to be reread historically without the dominant current cultural prejudices to see that not everything there must be interpreted as anti-LGBTQI in the manner of those prejudices. Fortunately, for decades scholars have:
- “When Homophobia Is the Prejudice Through Which You Interpret the Bible”
- “Maybe Jesus Actually Did Say Something About Homosexuality After All”
- “Who Are Those ‘Eunuchs Who Have Been So from Birth’ in the Gospel of Matthew?”
- “What Does the Biblical Legend of Jonathan and David’s Same-Sex Relationship Say About Homophobia?”
- “What Would a Same-Sex Relationship Between Two Women Look Like in the Bible?”
- “The Christmas Story Is About Who’s In and Who’s Out”
It’s way past time to quit letting people use the Bible to promote their prejudices. It’s also way past time to let them hide behind the Bible to protect themselves from admitting that they’re just bigoted.
If they’re actually a part of a moveable middle, they’ll listen to alternative positions, they’ll be willing to read and learn. But if they’re stuck, if religion functions for them the way addictions do, then all we can do is make sure that we’re not stuck — that we see that everyone interprets, and that we don’t have knee-jerk reactions when someone confronts us with the Bible whether we want the old book on our side or not. Calmly we can tell them that we disagree with their interpretation and move on.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.