We can no longer think of the Bible as a helpful guide for humanity. It is full of contradictions. It is an engine of violence. At the same time it is a conversation stopper, and so, like totalitarianism, it shuts down the avenues to moral progress and human betterment.
That’s my summary of a perspective increasingly commonplace in popular culture. If you pay attention to the New Atheists and their ilk, you hear it a lot. And for anyone who loves the Bible, it’s a blow to the ear and the heart alike.
Comedian-provocateur Bill Maher sounded off against Muslims and their Scripture the other day during an interview with Charlie Rose. It was familiar territory—except for the brazen focus on what is, in the West, a minority religion. The New York Times immediately published a criticism of Maher that purported to offer a better understanding of how religious people relate to their “holy texts.”
At first I thought Reza Aslan, the author and a well-known professor of creative writing, just didn’t get it. His article seemed to reduce holy texts to complete irrelevance. Then I saw his exact idea playing out at the 2014 Annual Council. Both the head of the Biblical Research Institute and the President of the General Conference said things that underscored the fragility of the Bible’s influence even in our own community. Let me clarify.
Critics of religion, Aslan said, “scour” the various Scriptures for “bits of savagery” that illustrate the “oppression” they associate with religious faith. But that is no help; it’s misleading. Aslan explained that identification with a religion actually concerns a person’s culturally and politically generated identity. When you say, “I am Muslim,” or “I am a Christian,” you are describing how you see your “place in the world.” It a “fallacy,” he said, “to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
You can’t, in other words, take “bits of savagery” from “holy texts” to represent how religious people really think or feel. Scripture’s abiding appeal rests, indeed, on its “malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires.” Then he referred to familiar conflicting commands from monotheistic religions; from the Hebrew Bible he mentioned “Love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) and “kill” all the Amalekites, including women, children and animals (1 Samuel 15:3). How a believer relates to such conflicting commands depends, he said, on the believer. Whether your culture, ethnicity, nation or politics has made you peaceable or violent will determine what you emphasize.
So Scripture is no teacher; people read it as an echo of what they already want or believe.
What, then, happened at Annual Council?
Head of the Biblical Research Institute, Artur Stele, who is also a General Conference General Vice President, met with younger delegates to Annual Council and told them that the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) had yielded no clear consensus on whether women may be ordained. Committee members had looked at Scripture but differed over how to interpret its message regarding equality for women in ministry. “The crux is, do you want it or not?” he said.
But that seems to reflect Reza Aslan’s claim: The Bible does not really say anything except what its readers want it to say. It’s “malleable.”
Later, before the entire Annual Council, General Conference President Ted Wilson objected to doubts about inserting the word “recent” into a revised statement of Adventist belief regarding creation. After all, said one delegate, the word is not in the biblical text. Wilson replied that he did not favor anything anti-biblical, but then appealed to a non-biblical authority, Ellen White. She is clear; creation was recent. That was justification enough for saying “recent” in the church’s official statement.
Again, a church leader was illustrating Aslan’s point: You insert what you want to insert, irrespective of what the holy text actually says.
How, then, does Aslan fall short? His account seems to fit.
First, he clearly over-generalizes. Religious people do, at least now and then, appeal to Scripture to authorize a conviction that goes against the grain of dominant culture, and even against the grain of their own life stories. People now and then realize that long-held wants and desires have to change because the holy text pushes us in a new direction. That was the case, for example, when Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, first preached an explicit condemnation of the institution of slavery.
Aslan misses something else that pertains at least to Christianity’s holy text. Here a criterion appears for settling quandaries about conflicting Scriptural passages. The Christian Bible expects readers to acknowledge that it is a story tending toward a grand ideal. The Bible is not just a catalogue of sayings and stories, but is rather the inspired (as we Christians say) account of a people’s journey. On that journey the turning point, or grand ideal, is Christ—Christ risen and Christ present through the Holy Spirit. The living Christ is the Bible’s interpretive key. Here is the single, most important factor for determining what in Christian life and thought is true, or justifiable, and what is not.
What’s crucial, in other words, is to discern the plot of the entire story—to catch its direction—and then to identify not just (as we inevitably do) with biases inherited from society but also, and most fundamentally, with where the story is going. And most assuredly, it is not headed toward the ultimate triumph of patriarchy. The story is headed toward the victory of the One who serves–and does not lord it over—others; the One who welcomed Mary into the inner circle; the one whose message led Paul to say that in Christ there is neither male nor female.
Interpreting Scripture isn’t easy. More than a millennium after Gregory’s sermon against slavery, the Christian West was busy with the slave trade, and Christian preachers were busy defending this practice from the Bible. But now we all acknowledge that slavery is wrong, and we all acknowledge that it is wrong because it conflicts with the plot, or direction, of the Bible story. It simply doesn’t jell with the grand ideal—Kierkegaard called it “the abolition of dissimilarities” as factor in our regard for others—that is signaled by Jesus story.
If the Bible can say whatever we want it to say, then those who doubt its value are surely right. And so is the devil. In “The Merchant of Venice” one of Shakespeare’s characters says the devil “can cite Scripture for his purpose,” and if any passage has authority equal to any other, and the story doesn’t take us to an ultimate criterion, who can doubt that this is so?
We’d be more faithful—more responsive to what God is telling us—if we adopted a Christocentric, or story-sensitive, way of reading the Bible. Our leaders need to catch on.
Charles Sciven is the Board Chair of the Association of Adventist Forums