The Bible Is Dangerous. Too Dangerous To Ignore.
I did a dangerous thing yesterday:
I introduced a young adult to the Bible.
Just for the record, it was at her request. Seems she’s been hired by a church-related summer camp which starts in June. And while the camp sponsors didn’t insist that she sign a creed, the “equipment list” for the summer staff includes — yes, a Bible.
Which of course she’s heard about, but never actually studied or owned. (She was raised liberal Quaker, thee see.)
But she knew that I’ve studied the Bible some, and she may have heard me recommend doing so to others. Now she wanted her own copy — but one, she added, with certain characteristics:
It had to be one that wasn’t “pre-cooked” in its interpretations. One that told her what she had to think or believe. She wanted one that she could study in her own way, to reach her own conclusions about.
Did I mention that she now lives, and attends college, in a community that is thick with ‘Bible-centered” churches, in which people express strong convictions that they say are “based on the Bible”? (And that many of these convictions are very much contrary to attitudes she has been exposed to in her liberal Quaker circles.)
I was honored to be asked, approved of her goal, and was happy to respond. But I did so with no little trepidation. That’s because I knew something she didn’t, or at best was only beginning to suspect, namely:
The Bible is dangerous.
How so? Well, here I quote a letter from High Point Friends in NC, which responded to a purge effort in its yearly meeting, built around some folks’ notions of “what the Bible says:
“We join Friends who hold the Scriptures in high regard, yet we are uncertain by what Friends mean by “Biblical authority.” The Bible is subject to human translation, interpretation, and application. For centuries, “Biblical authority” has been used by political leaders to justify wars, slavery, genocide, colonization, and other ungodly enterprises. Most pertinent to our concern . . . is the way people use the language of “Biblical authority” to pass judgment and condemnation on others, deny individuals of God-given dignity and grace, silence the voices of women, and implement a spiritual legalism of fear versus love. . . .”
Umm, yeah. Not a new problem, or a minor one; and not one that’s going away.
The main liberal Quaker response to these matters is to ignore the Bible as much as possible. In some ways I can’t blame them for that.
But then they end up wringing their hands a lot, wondering why, in so many of their states, most elections are won by folks who wave the Bible and spout some of the most repulsive versions of Bible “teaching.” (This is especially true in the U.S. South today.)
If ignoring the Bible really “worked,” then ignoring cancer should work too.
Ignoring it won’t work for my young friend. For among these repulsive “biblical” teachings loose today are ones pushing for new wars, which could eat up people close to her; and pushing against the freedom she has long assumed was her birthright as a woman. Not to mention numerous other “ungodly enterprises.”
So there’s more involved than simply ticking off an item on the equipment list. By taking up the Bible, my young friend is opening a door to a world of trouble — present and future trouble, not just haggles over stuff that may have happened long ago.
I take some consolation in the thought that at least these will be real troubles, present where she lives. And one of my hopes for her is that she’ll equip herself to deal with the realities of her social milieu, not cower in some like-minded ghetto, pretending they’re not really happening.
See what I mean? Dangerous.
So yesterday, once we were seated at a local Mexican place, munched some chips and salsa, and were awaiting the big burritos, I pulled out a number of Bibles from my collection of several dozen, stacked them on one end of the table, and started trying to explain the basics, as briefly as possible.
Some parts are relatively simple: The Bible isn’t one book, but a collection of many. A collection of collections, in fact.
The books are very old, translated from languages long dead, from cultures long vanished.
This distance of time and culture makes translations hard. Also, the versions are usually entangled with interpretations and theologies that developed much later.
In fact, one adage of that effort is: “Every translation is also an interpretation.”
To be sure, some interpretations are more heavy-handed and directive than others. But figuring out which is which can be complicated.
Furthermore, many words in the Bible are much more obscure than they might seem.
Some of these obscurities are trivial.
For instance, not far from the ancient Jewish Temple there was something called “Parbar”, it’s mentioned twice, in passing; no one knows what it was, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
On the other hand, take the word “God.” Its meaning is even more obscure, beginning from where the Hebrew God tells Moses his name, which doesn’t really seem to mean anything at all, and going downhill (uphill?) from there.
(Or maybe that seeming lack of meaning is really VERY meaningful. Between those two statements, many a theology has been built, many a war has been fought.)
And then, of course, there’s the matter of what the Bible “teaches.”
This also varies and clashes: the text calls for genocidal “holy wars” in some places, urges pacifist non-resistance in others. It tells women to shut up in church here; but elsewhere declares that the spirit has descended on all, and both sons and daughters will prophesy. It assumes the legitimacy of slavery, but also declares “liberty to the captives” as a central message.
Which means that if she’s not going to settle for anyone else’s interpretations, then there’s a lot to sort out if her own are to make sense and stand up when confronting others.
Admittedly, I can talk for hours about all this, and have, at many Bible workshops. So I thought I did pretty well yesterday at keeping it short and focused on beginning basics.
Even so — just this much almost ruined her lunch.
She leafed through the books, and was drawn to one which had a Greek-Hebrew dictionary at the end. That looked promising: it could help explain what all those old foreign words meant Back In the Day.
But it was also quite thick and heavy; too much so for camp, she decided.
Instead, she settled on two: a compact one, with little more than the bare text itself; and a study Bible which had a large encyclopedia bound in with it. One for camp; one for backup.
A good start, I thought. How much patience she’ll have for taking on all this is yet to be seen. But at the summer camp there will be regular sessions where the Bible will be used. This will keep it on her agenda. Will the hands handling it there be heavy or not? And after the summer, the Bible-besotted world around her campus will still be waiting.
Of course, there’s more in those texts than war and rumors of war. Lots of stuff about people, and how they should behave and who/what they should worship. This side of it is not always easy to sort out either, but it’s been shaping lives for millennia, for better and for worse.
Add all this up and might it happen that, like me, she will come to find the texts, not only dismaying and burdensome, but also fascinating and enlightening? That may be too much to hope for.
Later, driving home into a rainy grey evening, I suddenly remembered a time, long ago, when I was on a clearness committee for a Friend trying to cope with his second divorce. He was seeking both spiritual as well as emotional support. And at one point, after listening, I piped up and told him I felt he needed to read the Bible more.
He wasn’t expecting that from me, and he listened. And perhaps others echoed it. Because soon he was doing that a lot, and what he found there took him much further down a path of singularity than I was expecting or would have recommended.
Not that he’s become one of those who is pumping for new wars based on some scriptural silliness. But still, it was an early example of what I started with: The Bible can be dangerous.
But ignoring it is more dangerous still.