Taking the Bible seriously, but not literally
There’s nothing quite like the topic of homosexuality to quickly spark a fiery storm of scriptural proof-texting.
Both sides marshal all their scriptural evidence. The conservatives whip out their six “clobber” passages and bang them with a hysterical certainty. The liberals whip out their historical-critical method and read the passages “in context,” dismissing the literal interpretation of the text. Both sides insist upon the purity and correctness of their interpretations. Neither side truly listens to the other. In the end, a chasm that rivals the Grand Canyon in width and depth emerges between the two camps, keeping people forever at a distance.
In Struggling with Scripture, three pre-eminent Bible scholars try to bridge the chasm by reminding us that to truly understand scripture, we must struggle with the text not just once in awhile, but whenever we approach it. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., William Placher, a humanities professor at Wabash College, and Brian Blount, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary each, in turn, urge us to not confuse biblical authority with biblical infallibility.
“If we conclude that the Bible is a human product, we are by no means denying the reality of God,” William Sloane Coffin writes in the introduction to the book, comprised of three essays presented in 2000 as part of a Presbyterian conference on biblical authority and the church. “Rather, we are simply admitting that there is no escaping our personal and cultural history, nor the personal and cultural history of all writers, no matter what their subject matter.”
What we need to learn from the futile exercise of proof-texting is that we each come to the Bible from different perspectives, different backgrounds, and, yes, different agendas. There is no reading of the Bible that is completely free of ideological constraints. We carry our thoughts, opinions and concerns to the text every time we read it.
“There is no interpretation of scripture… that is unaffected by the passions, convictions, and perceptions of the interpreter,” Brueggemann reminds the reader.
This is something we need to acknowledge up front as we seek ancient scriptures for God’s will for our lives today. We must also acknowledge that none of us has the final authority to say that the Bible says anything definitively because the God revealed by the text is a living, breathing, constantly creating God.
“Nobody makes the final read; nobody’s read is final or inerrant, precisely because the Key Character in the book who creates, redeems, and consummates is always beyond us in holy hiddenness,” Brueggemann writes.
Taking the Bible seriously
Each scholar agrees that to take the Bible seriously “means one does not affirm its truth apart from struggling to understand its meaning,” as Placher writes. That means we cannot pick up the book, read a few passages and profess to know what the words mean because it’s “clearly” there in black and white. (Or red and white if we’re reading the words of Jesus!) It means, we must struggle with the text and look not only at the context in which the authors found themselves, but at our context as well, because, as Blount writes, “ethical biblical authority is contextual biblical authority.” To read our own beliefs and convictions onto the text does as much disservice to the text as when we take it at face value.
Placher says the Bible contains truth, but truth conveyed in a different way, “in something more like an extended parable than a historian’s careful account.” So, Placher writes, if someone insists on the historical truth of Jonah — including conversion of Ninevah, which history shows never happened, along with the big fish — “they are not taking the Bible more seriously than the rest of us. They are misunderstanding it.”
That misunderstanding is often intentional because believers either are not ready, or have no desire, to admit that being a Christian means struggling with the hard parts of our faith and tradition. Instead of struggle that brings growth, many Christians opt for pat answers that bring stagnation. Blount says such believers are like “Paul’s babes in the faith; we need the suckling security of a milk bottle filled with authoritative assurances about what we should do and how we should live in any and every time for any and every circumstance.”
Such believers cannot tolerate the ambiguities and gray areas that emerge when one struggles with a text and admits that, given their own ideologies and context, their read will never be the final, authoritative interpretation. Instead they turn the biblical words into the last word reducing them to what Blount calls “literary artifacts.”
“Over time, any church working with such a word becomes fossilized into the past itself; it becomes an archaeological dig rather than a living faith community that celebrates seeing God say and do new things in new times,” Blount writes.
We have many such artifacts on numerous street corners in our cities and towns — churches so filled with “literary artifacts” that God’s newness and fresh creations are either routinely ignored, or condemned as blasphemy.
The Bible and homosexuality
The issue of admitting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians into the full life of the church is one such new movement of God that has garnered the ire of those who like their traditions old and musty.
The brouhaha over the issue is puzzling to Placher who believes homosexuality isn’t a very important subject within the pages of scripture, given its limited mentions.
“So, why has it come to be such an important issue in the life of the church?” he asks. “Some would answer that people are claiming the right to engage in same-sex intercourse without having that count as sin at all. Yet are there not many in our culture who pursue greed and injustice unapologetically? The Bible condemns such sins much more often. Why is our focus not on them?”
The answer, Placher says, is rooted in the power structure of society that has pushed GLBT people to the margins. There it is still “socially acceptable to treat (them) with contempt” while biblical admonitions against wealth and power are routinely ignored because it might offend those who have risen to great wealth and power within the church.
This “interpretive favoritism for the powerful,” Placher writes, “seems the opposite of Jesus’ own practice… He denounced the hypocrisy of the Pharisees far more than the sins of prostitutes or tax collectors.”
Placher calls for a more consistent reading of the scriptures, instead of emphasizing one area of scripture over another for fear of upsetting the feelings of those in power.
Blount pleads for a proper contextual reading of the scriptures, pointing out that ancient writers, such as Paul, had no way to even talk about homosexuality as we understand it today. Sex, for Paul and other biblical authors, was little more than a tool for procreation, so of course, homosexual sex acts would be prohibited in a culture where this was a primary concern.
“The contemporary understanding of intimate homosexual union that often expresses itself physically and celebrates passion within a committed relationship” was an alien concept to Paul, according to Blount.
However, Blount points out that Paul makes the revolutionary conclusion that the categories of male and female, since the coming of Christ, have been wiped out. Categories set up from the beginning of creation are not God’s last word to us.
All people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, stature, or — dare I say it even though Paul does not — sexual preference, are equally acceptable in God’s sight and therefore must be equally treated in human living.
That’s a tall order for biblical literalists who want to take Paul’s words at face value and use them as a blunt instrument to beat back GLBT people who attempt to claim a place in God’s realm.
Bridging the gap
As a way bridge the gaping chasm between liberals and conservatives, Brueggemann proposes an “interpretive rule” that requires us to “make our best, most insistent claims, but then with some regularity, we may relinquish our pet interpretations and, together with our partners in dispute fall back in joy into the inherent apostolic claims that outdistance all our too familiar and too partisan interpretations.”
But, even the proposal to step away from our “pet interpretations,” even for a minute, may prove hard not just for the literalists, but for liberals as well. We in the GLBT Christian community have a lot riding on being “right” about our interpretation of scripture. The other side has a lot invested as well. But, keeping our own little interpretations and continuing the proof-texting war is easy. We don’t want real dialogue because that’s too hard.
“It’s supposed to be hard, stupid!” Blount admonishes. Living in the way of the cross is difficult — a simple faith is impossible. Reconciliation with our conservative brothers and sisters is imperative — and truly struggling with the living word together with our more fundamentalist counterparts is a first step in that process. These authors call us to make the first move — to show those on the “other side” that we take the Bible seriously.
To do that we must struggle with the text, realize the agendas and intentions we hold when we interpret, admit our shortcomings in understanding the texts and recognize the different meanings and teachings the Bible offers.
If you are doing that, do not let anyone tell you that, when they take one passage out of context and insist on its literal meaning, they are being more faithful to the Bible than you are.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.