Friday, May 27, 2016

Don't Blame the Bible

If you believe any part of the Bible, why?

Is it because you've been brought up in a country that has historically featured Christianity as its de-facto religion?  And you can easily recognize the more popular Biblical stories and characters that have helped shape your country's traditions?

Is it because you live in a part of the United States where it's easier to agree that the Bible is an honorable holy book, rather than come out and disavow it and its Author publicly?

Or is it because you have become convinced, through mechanisms you can't entirely grasp, that it is indeed the true and authoritative Word of almighty God?

(For the record, I count myself in the third group.)

Okay, now:  If you believe any part of the Bible, are there parts you don't believe?  And if so, why?

Is it because some of the Bible makes sense, and parts of it don't, so there's little point in believing what you don't understand?

Is it because some of the Bible sounds nice and affirming, while other parts of it sound harsh and unattractive?

Or is it because you place a considerable value on culture, society, science, or other human constructs to the point where you defer to those constructs in instances where the Bible seems unclear, or smacks of fuddy-duddy anti-intellectualism?

In the essay I wrote this week about theological liberalism within the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), I described how many long-time churches in that denomination are leaving because trendy Presbyterianism has relegated the Bible to a historical moral suggestion list, rather than the holy Word of God.

And in the essay I wrote this week about sports, I mentioned the upheaval at Baylor University - a Baptist institution - following an investigation into alleged suppression of sexual crimes perpetrated by members of the school's winning football team.  At first, sports experts doubted the school would touch Baylor's celebrated football coach, but to everyone's surprise, they did; firing Art Briles, and risking disarray in their lucrative football enterprise.

So, what caused Baylor to make their decision to put ethics over football?  It must have been something more than lawsuits, which can be settled with money, which the football program under Briles' continued leadership would undoubtedly have been able to generate.

Our traditional Judeo-Christian legal system isn't the only one in the world to criminalize sexual assault, but to have the capacity to identify right from wrong in the first place needs the baseline of something greater than keeping cops and robbers (I mean lawyers) occupied.  Being able to create social taboos, or even instigating economic repercussions against a perpetrator of something bad, requires that we can identify behavior we value, and behavior we don't.

There's something that comes before morality, that serves as its foundation.  There has to be a basic truth someplace, right?

Has the Bible existed as long as it has merely by chance, or military might, or religious bullying, or social reluctance to find something better?

(BTW, religious bullying existed in Jesus Christ's day, and it was directed against Him.)

If to you, the Bible is merely a holy book that has managed to stand the test of time pretty well, is that a good enough reason to entrust it with the outlines of Western civilization's moral code?

How would you be able to know what there is to believe about the Bible, and what not to believe about the Bible?  How would you know which of its stories are true, and which are simply fables?

You could look at the lives and actions of other people who say they believe the Bible, but everybody is a hypocrite to some degree, aren't they?  You could evaluate the Bible's teachings against science, but science is built upon both facts and... theories.  You could study how ancient cultures and present-day cultures collapse or flourish based upon their adherence to Biblical teaching, but Jesus Christ didn't die on the cross to save cultures; He died and rose again to save individual people.

The question of whether the Bible is authoritative enough to believe isn't a question of philosophy, or history, or convenience.  It's a question of how you're going to live your life, and base your view of life.  What you believe - and the things in which you believe - are incredibly important.

I believe the Bible.  Do you?  Either the Bible is trustworthy in every respect, or it is not.  Right?  But who gets to decide whether the Bible is trustworthy?  God, or you, or me?

If it's you, or me, consider this:  In our presumed sophistication, we may feel entitled to re-conceptualize certain Biblical teachings in light of progressive ideologies or scientific advances.  Or we can rationalize that, at this point in human civilization, we no longer need quaint stories and superhero-type characters to dictate how we should live.  The Bible may be historic literature, but it is not sacrosanct.

Yet would your ambivalence - or even hostility - towards the Bible be sufficient reason to deny other people the right to practice the Bible's teachings?

For example, can everybody have a different opinion yet everybody still be correct?  Consider the festering bitterness between anti-Semites, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Jews at none other than Oberlin College, one of the most liberal schools on the planet.  There, political correctness is a circular argument run amok, to farcical extremes, yet fellow liberals are committed to fighting themselves over it.  Why?  Because they can't accept that relativism doesn't work.  If everybody is entitled to be correct, then who is correct?  And what does being correct mean?  Without an ultimate standard, who knows?

Then there's our more common argument over civil rights.  People popularly attempt to distill civil rights down to oppressed people groups, such as blacks or gays.  It's especially convenient to point out how so many Christian southerners advocated for slavery.  Does the fact that many professing Bible-believers used to own slaves mean that owning people is Biblical?  And is that a good reason to scoff at attempts by modern-day Christians to co-opt Biblical teachings against homosexuality against the push for gay marriage?

The thing about slavery is that while it is mentioned in the Bible, and is even used as a metaphor for faith, God never actually teaches that the ownership of human beings is a good thing.  Slavery is a concept present in the Bible, but that doesn't make slavery a Biblical concept. 

In some cultures, someone who is indebted to another may "sell" themselves to that person and work to pay off their debt.  Other times, even in the Bible, a victorious warring army will claim a defeated people group to be their slaves.  But a proper understanding of historical accounts of the Israelites during the Biblical narrative, placed in the context of New Testament grace after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, does not render an endorsement of slavery. 

Many Christians may (and will) behave badly, and act on some pretty bad theology, but don't blame the Bible for such sinful behavior.

Meanwhile, the Bible remains pretty specific about sexual sins, running from adultery within and without marriage, and to whether it's heterosexually, or homosexually.  And even with animals.  And what was wrong when the Bible was written remains wrong today, whether heterosexual adultery is less taboo than homosexuality or not.  It's not up to society to decide which sins are more worse than others, even though we make those determinations all the time, usually on the basis of how commonplace a particular sin happens to be.  We usually write our legal codes based on what a society wants to punish more, but if the sin of heterosexual adultery was also against federal law, a whole lot of folks would be up a creek.

It seems that it's easier to base one's opinions about the veracity and validity of the Bible mostly on how people who claim to believe it behave.  But it's a mistake to judge a book like the Bible by the behavior of its readers.  After all, it's the Bible that teaches that we're all sinners, and we all fall short of God's glory and expectations.  It's God Himself who says we will never measure up, we will never be able to do everything right, and we will constantly be wilting in the face of temptation.  That's the whole point of Christ's coming to be our salvation.  We need to have a Savior.  The Bible is the story of Christ.  God isn't primarily concerned with rules and regulations, or what the Bible calls the "law."  The law exists to show us why we need Christ, and the grace that His life provides.

That's not to say that we can do anything we want.  Nor does it mean that we're all correct, and everything's relative.  After all, grace means somebody's wrong.  If everybody was right all the time, grace wouldn't exist.  So how do we know what is wrong?

I believe the Bible tells us.

If you don't, then you must believe something else tells us.  So, what is it?

Is it your own intuition?  Some other religious system, like Islam, or right-wing American patriotism, or capitalism?

Remember, a lot of folks try to poke holes through the Bible, but all they end up doing is pointing out how imperfect humans are.  The Bible itself isn't what's imperfect, or untrustworthy.

But it can be inconvenient, or unpopular.

So, whose fault is that?

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