‘Understanding the Bible’ by John Buehrens | Review

Taking back the text

“If you can’t or won’t understand the Bible, others will surely interpret it for you.”

This is the premise from which John Buehrens writes in his new book Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals. It’s a point that needs to be heeded by more and more of us on the liberal side of religion. Too often, we cede interpretation of the Bible to our more right leaning brothers and sisters. They are the ones framing the biblical argument in the media and from the pulpit.

One fine example of this came during an exchange between Elizabeth Birch from the Human Rights Campaign and Jerry Falwell, chancellor of Liberty University on CNN’s Crossfire.

BIRCH: No one, not a single gay person, not a single gay institution has ever sought to alter the way any religious institution can decide who can marry and when. No one. There’s a sacred separation between church and state.

When we’re talking about gay marriage — and, Reverend Falwell, you know this quite well — we’re talking about a civil secular license that represents over 1,000 federal benefits and rights and responsibilities, like hospital visitation and inheritance and Social Security. And when I look in the eyes of my children, I want to be able to say to them, my country treated me as a full mother, as a great parent, as a full citizen. They deserve that. And I deserve that, too.

FALWELL: Elizabeth, I think you should be treated — I think you should be treated, Elizabeth, as a first-class citizen.

But I believe that homosexuality, while no more sinful than fornication or adultery by heterosexuals, it is forbidden by scripture. If you don’t take the Bible seriously, don’t believe the Bible is the word of God, it is irrelevant. But if you do believe the Bible and take it seriously, it is not irrelevant.

(From: CNN’s Crossfire, August 5, 2003)

To Birch’s credit, she did try to challenge Falwell on his interpretation of Romans and Leviticus, but more often than not, the conservative Christian on any news or debate program is the one exclusively quoting scripture. The more liberal guest is left to argue the civil rights points, to the exclusion of using any scripture or issuing any challenge to the conservative that many others interpret scripture differently.

Often it’s just as simple as saying that. “Not everyone interprets scripture that way, reverend. Not everyone agrees with you.” That’s all it would take, in some ways, to reclaim our right as liberal Christians to interpret the Bible in our own way, contrary to conservative thinking on scripture. But, unfortunately, most liberals are not familiar enough with scripture or historical differences in interpretation to even begin to make such a challenge. Another problem lies in the fact that more liberal believers tend to keep their spirituality in their private lives and do not feel comfortable proclaiming anything biblical in public.

Buehrens, a past president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, believes we must overcome these obstacles and reclaim the public discussion of the Bible from the fundamentalists who have taken it over. It’s not just important to know the Bible so others can’t take over the interpretation of it. There are other reasons including, “cultural or literary: Within this culture you can’t be fully literate or creative, artistically or rhetorically, without an acquaintance with the Bible.” But, the most important reason to know a thing or two about the Bible Buehrens insists is because, “You can’t be spiritually mature or wise by simply rejecting the Bible as oppressive.”

This is the route most liberal religious people take. They cannot accept the literal interpretations of scripture or the view that the Bible is the literal, dripped from his lips, Word of God pushed by the more conservative churches, so they believe the lie that if one cannot take the scripture as a whole as God’s inerrant word, one must reject it as a whole. Buehrens undermines this notion with this book by hoping to convince readers that, “One can be biblically grounded and yet find that the authority of the Bible lies not in some supernatural claim to special revelation, but in the human experience of being so subverted and turned toward ‘real equality, community and personhood.'”

Buehrens’ book goes a long way to demystifying the Bible for those who have not studied it in depth or those who may have tried to read it but gave up at the “begats.” It’s an ambitious project, taking on a survey of the entire Bible in just under 200 pages. There are places where I wish he could have spent more time explaining things. My seminary training kicked in during some pages, knowing more of the story than what Buehrens presented. But, in these moments I had to remind myself that seminary graduates are not exactly the audience for this book. The audience instead are those people who are curious about the book, but may shy away from it simply because the religious right has already framed the argument and they feel helpless in the face of “orthodox” interpretation. This is a “Bible 101” book for them and is not meant to be the only book one reads on the Bible, but should serve as a jumping off point for more study.

While Buehrens can’t take on any topic in-depth, he does manage to cover some hot button issues like homosexuality.

On homosexuality he asserts, along with author Peter Gomes, that Paul knew nothing of a “homosexual nature,” and is condemning “prostitution, pederasty, and same-sex practices by otherwise heterosexual men and women” in the first chapter of Romans.

“Paul’s ignorance that homosexuality can be something beyond choice, that some people may truly be called by God to love members of their own sex, should not be an excuse for unchristian attitudes toward such forms of love today, however,” he concludes.

One of the most helpful aspects of this book is the timelines for Old and New Testament times. One of the hardest things for me in seminary was keeping track of what happened on what date and where that fell in the grand scheme of things. Buehrens’ addition of these at the introduction of each testament makes for an easy reference even when you’re done with the book.

One thing Buehrens makes clear in the book that those who appeal to “tradition” in their interpretations of the Bible need to define their terms. Just saying “tradition” begs the question of “which tradition?” since “all traditions are themselves interpretations.” Our conservative brothers and sisters insist that they are the ones with the “right” interpretation but “tradition” bears out that interpretations have changed over the centuries. Instead of reading the Bible to “maintain the structures of oppression,” Buehrens argues for a reading that liberates people, “and to liberate the wisdom within the scriptures themselves.”

Only those who take the time to learn about the Bible, its history and its interpretations can come to that point of liberation. Buehrens’ book is a wake-up call to skeptics, seekers and religious liberals to delve into the scripture, reclaim in, and reshape it to free those oppressed and hurt by the text.