In the episode of “West Wing” called “The Midterms,” President Josiah Bartlett takes on a conservative radio talk show host on her practice of biblical interpretation. It’s worth watching Martin Sheen deliver the lines – please check it out on YouTube -- but with my apologies, Mr. Sheen wasn’t in the area this morning.
President Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination. Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does. President Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus. Dr. Jenna Jacobs: 18:22. President Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important ’cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?
As this dialogue brilliantly illustrates, the Bible isn’t actually taken literally even by those who believe it should be. They dismiss the parts of it with which they disagree as being out of date. To be honest – we all do.
I. The Bible has become more than a challenge for people of faith. It has become a war zone on relevance -- between those who want to argue for biblical literalism, infallibility, historical factuality, and moral and doctrinal absolutes – and the rest of us.
The Bible poses an internal problem. Marcus Borg says in The Heart of Christianity, that “The Bible has become a stumbling block for many. In the last half century, probably more Christians have left the church because of the Bible than for any other singly reason. More precisely, they left because the earlier paradigm’s way of seeing the Bible ceased to make sense to them.” So within the Christian faith, questions of biblical interpretation and scriptural validity for our time create a test for whether or not faith is appropriate in our context.
The external problem is even more serious, if we believe that our task as the church is to spread the gospel and train more Jesus followers, or disciples. Christianity has been less associated with love and God’s grace and justice than with particular views of homosexuality, abortion, or an anti-intellectual view of Christian origins. The Fundamentalists have taken the bully pulpit on faith and alienated much of the culture, and certainly most of the younger generations. Christianity, particularly as expressed in our culture, has become “a wedge that drives people from Christ, rather than drawing them to him.”[i]
What is the Bible? In Chapter Eight, “The Battle over the Bible,” Adam Hamilton begins with these questions. “Is it simply a collection of ancient writings describing the faith and insights of the Israelites and the first followers of Jesus, capturing their biases, their cultural situations, and their prescientific worldviews? Or is it the Word of God with every word having been chosen by God, the human authors merely functioning as secretaries or scribes? Is it marked by the authors’ transient and ever-evolving views of God and humanity, and by the unique character of the authors and the needs of the communities to which the books were written? Or is it, on all of its pages, in every one of its verses, timeless truth, transcending culture, and applicable to all cultures at all times? Is it, as a collection of documents written by fallible human beings, capable of erring in its facts and interpretations, and open to being questioned and corrected? Or is it, as God’s Word, perfect, without error, with no real inconsistencies, and “totally true and trustworthy” in everything it says?”[ii]
This Battle for the Bible began in the 1860’s in Europe and the 1880’s in America, when the rise of modern scholarship challenged some of the cherished beliefs about the Bible. While things like historical context and authorship shed light on the ancient documents for some, it threw others into a crisis of faith. Their response is called fundamentalism – and in an effort to keep their faith they simply rejected anything that challenged it.
Interestingly, this approach has always baffled our Jewish friends, who have not taken their scriptures literally. Creation, the authorship of the Torah – these are not things argued among Jews. They take the tradition of the people of Israel very seriously – perhaps too seriously to take it literally.
Rob Bell suggests that the Bible has more meaning if we DO NOT take it literally. “I continue to find the Bible the most mysterious book – the more insight I gamin, the more I realize how much I don’t know. It inspires and encouraged, and it also frustrates and provokes. The Bible is a difficult book.”[iii] Marcus Borg said that he would tell his classes, “Believe whatever you want about whether the story happened this way; but now let’s talk about what the story means.”[iv]
A Difficult and challenging book – even if we step out of the War Zone. Now let’s talk about what it means.
II. Perhaps what we need today is a different methodology for reading the Bible. We need to read it less for eternal truth, and more for LIFE. We need to read it looking for the ways that it points us to God, for the things that help us make sense of our life. To “Sift the Scriptures” and read them FOR LIFE.
The text from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy says that the purpose of the Scriptures is to “Make us wise for salvation.” It is to teach us, and equip us to lives a followers of Jesus. Now, please keep in mind that at the time of the letter’s writing, what Paul meant as Scripture was the Hebrew Bible, what we sometimes call the Old Testament. The gospels hadn’t been written yet, and Paul wouldn’t have considered his own letters (the first written parts of what is in our New Testament) to be as authoritative as the Hebrew Scriptures.
In this letter, Paul coins a new term to described the significance of the scriptures: theopneustos, a compound word meaning “Godbreathed.” It helps explain prophetic inspiration: that God breathes on us and we get ideas. One of our own prophetic voices interpreted it this way: “These stories (in the Bible) are extremely important. AND the ones God is authorizing inside our lives are also important.” This God-breathing hasn’t stopped with the formation of the scriptural canon. Once we understand this, perhaps we can stop arguing over the text and start loving and serving God as instructed. This was actually pointed out by one of our Confirmands in our session on the Inspiration of Scripture. This insightful student said, “God hasn’t stopped speaking to us!”
We can actually go deeper into the meaning of the scriptures if we are looking for the metaphors in the story. Metaphors are a way of seeing things that go beyond the literal. One of the best examples is found in a children’s story, Guess How Much I Love You. In the book, the parent rabbit and offspring are telling each other how much they love each other and one finally says, “I love you to the moon and back.” Not literally possible – but profoundly true. The stories of Genesis are all metaphorical. They aren’t history – they are faith story. And if we step away from the idea of history, these are our stories. Conversation about whether or not dinosaurs were on the ark miss the point – and if we think of this as history we become angry with God for wiping out the world – but if this is metaphorical truth. Well, ouch! Yes, we human beings consider what we want more than God’s design. Our current environmental crisis could be exhibit A. And if the way to save ourselves involves a lot of hard work and an existence outside our comfort zone – many of us would not build an ark, or get on it. We would stay on land even while rains are falling and waters are rising because self-interest and self-deception would nudge us that way.
We might rather argue over HOW to interpret the Bible than look for its insights. The Bible, taken away from its cultural expectations which also mean that we can discount it as irrelevant, pushes us to change. SIFTING it for meaning means that we eliminate the chaff and are left with what matters.
Bethel 10 Commandments. The most controversial sermon series that I have ever preached was a series on the 10 Commandments. It was controversial because I took the 10 Commandments out of mothballs and the comfortable restrictions that we have put around them and brought the ideas behind them into our own time. I had thought that the most challenging message would be around “Thou shall not commit murder.” After all, I was speaking to a military congregation about the sanctity of life and in that one sermon addressed war, abortion, and the death penalty. Yes, we had heated conversation – but it was civil. The one where it all fell apart was on sexual morality. “Thou shall not commit adultery.” That was a painful conversation – not just because the biblical standard challenged the reality of soldiers apart from their families, but because the whole idea of how we are in sexual relationships was challenged. The Bible challenges how we treat each other. And some things did change. (Not my appointment, however, in case you were wondering.)
Taking the bible seriously enough to allow it to reshape us, to change our hearts and minds and lives – is neither easy nor comfortable. But it can offer us instructions for living life God’s way. The sifted gold holds truth. “Take heed and do not forget God. …Be careful or you will be enticed to turn away from the Lord your God.” Word.
[i] Adam Hamilton, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics. xv.
[ii] Adam Hamilton, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics. 59-60.
[iii] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. 41.
[iv] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 57.