Saturday, July 11, 2015

Can We Talk About Our Biblical Literacy, Y'all?

This sounds cynical, probably because it is: I have come to believe that the more frequently and more loudly someone says to me that we (the church, the nation, or both) need to return to the Bible or the Constitution, the more apt I am to believe that this person does not know what is in either the Bible or the Constitution.

I'll be preoccupying myself (and you, dear reader) primarily with the former here by dint of my own work and background, but I would be remiss if I didn't note that in all truth, most of us could not name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment without going to look it up (they are freedom of speech, religious expression, the press, assembly, and to seek a redress of grievances).  Many of us aren't aware that originally, the Senate wasn't elected by popular vote and that amending the Constitution was required to put that system into place.  And we aren't aware that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (you know what they say, right?) were necessitated by the reality that the original text of the Constitution placed a valuation of a black slave as three-fifths of a free white person.

That last example is especially illustrative of our own approaches to Scripture: we neglect the context in which Scripture was revealed to, and written down by, humanity.  We think the Bible was written directly to us, and point blank, it wasn't.  The Bible endures not because it was (is) intended for us but because the scope and scale of its truth was and is so great so as to bridge great spans of time, geography, and culture.  Originally, the Old Testament was only meant for a tiny little nation-state called Israel surrounded by the giants of their time--the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Hittiites, and on and on--all of whom could swat them the proverbial fly if they wanted to...and in the case of the Assyrians, eventually did in fact do.

So we can talk all we want about a "return to Biblical values," but we had better be damn careful of what we wish for.  In truth, what we say when we talk about wanting to return to Biblical values is that we want a return to whatever our values happen to be as white American Christians, but we can't say THAT because it simply would not do for us to be that egotistical.

Not that I am simply saying that we are guilty of saying that the Bible agrees with us rather than the other way around--we are, but others who have come before me have made that point far better than I have ("You know you have made God in your image when God has all the same enemies you do." --Anne Lamott).

No, what I am saying we are guilty of is pointing to a book (or set of books, as the Bible really is) and claiming it as our be-all, end-all moral authority without actually knowing what it says.

If we really are enthusiastic about returning to Biblical values, then why haven't we enacted comprehensive immigration reform in the spirit of Leviticus 19:33-34 which says to treat the foreigner as a citizen?

If we really are enthusiastic about returning to Biblical values, then why aren't all our churches functioning as communes, in which no private property is held, but rather, everything is put into a common pool and distributed out according to need, per the practices of the earliest church in Acts 4:32-35? about this: if we really are enthusiastic about returning to Biblical values, then why don't we make same-sex relations a capital crime, punishable by the death penalty, per Leviticus 20:13?

See, most people who want that return to Biblical values only quote the first part of that verse, the ban, rather than the punishment.  I can only assume they have read that part of the verse and are picking and choosing like all of us are, or somehow skipped over that part, in which case, yes, we do need to talk about our Biblical literacy as Christians, because far more often than not, we seem to be upholding a book as the moral basis for our worldview without know all of what it says.

Which is, ultimately, a form of deception, even if only a deception of omission--we are deceiving ourselves by thinking we know exactly what this complex, beautiful, wonderful, shocking collection of texts really says, and we are deceiving others by proffering ourselves as genuinely knowing what in fact constitutes "Biblical values."

(And I haven't even gotten into the Mosaic laws governing marriage, highlights of which include capital punishment for adultery in more circumstances for women than for men, rules concerning polygamy, and a legal requirement for sexual assault victims to marry their assailants.  We've redefined marriage already, people.  Many times.  That ship has emphatically sailed.  But I digress.)

The Bible--beginning with the Ten Commandments and continuing throughout--exhorts us to tell the truth.  So let's be truthful, not just about what the Bible actually says in the parts we tend to not know or avoid (which, let's face it, is a lot of the Bible), but let's also be truthful about just how little we know about it.

Because we do know enough about it to know that it says that God does indeed give grace to the humble, just as God humbles the proud (James 4:6).

Let us be humble in our recognition of the Bible and what we know of it, and may God give us grace in that humbleness, grace enough to more fully understand the divine truth that those texts were first imbued with, thousands of years ago.

And then, perhaps, we might be just a little more worthy to weight in on a return to the values of the Good Book, and whose values we are in fact talking about--ours, or our Creator's.

Yours in Christ,

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