Rethinking the authority of Scripture #4: What I would've said to Bill Maher

Saturday, August 03, 2013

This post is part of a continuing  series on rethinking the authority of Scripture. Read the first post here. This article originally appeared on Sojourners

Sojourners president Jim Wallis was recently a guest on HBO's  "Real Time with Bill Maher." In the course of the show, Maher confronted Wallis on the Bible, asking him some very pointed questions about some of its more troubling texts. You can watch the exchange here:

Maher asks, "How do you reconcile this  idea that it all comes from the Bible, but the Bible is so flawed ... I  mean, it's just so full of either nonsense or viciousness." In response,  Wallis steered the conversation back to the topic of social justice and  compassion, often overlooked Biblical mandates. Maher objected several  times, accusing Wallis of "cherry-picking the good parts" of the Bible  while ignoring the bad parts.

I'm a  big fan of Jim Wallis (heck, I blog for Sojourners!), and I appreciate  that he moved the conversation away from Maher's attempted divisiveness  and back to caring for the poor and immigration reform in this country.  He's totally right that caring for the marginalized should be the  priority of us Christians, and I understand that he wanted to stay  focused on that.

At the same time, I  think the question Bill Maher was raising is an important one, too,  because it ultimately has to do with caring for the marginalized as  well. That is, when the Bible is read in a hurtful way, it can and has  been used throughout history to justify horrendous violence and  mistreatment. That matters, and consequently it matters how we read the  Bible. So as someone who has focused on confronting those "bad parts" in  Scripture, I wanted to take a stab at addressing Maher's questions.

"Explain to me," Maher said, "how a book  that's written by God, who's perfect, has so much ... It's pro-slavery,  pro-polygamy, it's homophobic, God in the Old Testament is a psychotic  mass murder ... and I always say to my religious friends: If a pool had  even one turd in it, would you jump in?"

The  implication here is that if we find anything bad in the Bible this  would invalidate it all, because it is supposed to be a perfect book  written by a single author with one unified voice.

But  that simply is not what the Bible in actuality is. In reality the Bible  contains a multitude of conflicting and competing voices, articulating  opposing perspectives in the form of an ongoing dispute contained  throughout its pages. More concretely, we find an ongoing dispute within  the Old Testament between two opposing narratives: The first is a  narrative of unquestioning obedience that condemns all questioning  (often enforcing this through threat of violence). This is the narrative  Maher has zeroed in on. But within those same pages of the Hebrew Bible  there is also a persistent opposing counter-narrative that confronts  that first narrative as being untrue and unjust, and that upholds  questioning authority in the name of compassion as a virtue.

Jesus  and the New Testament as a whole are an extension of this second  counter-narrative of protest (which explains why Maher says to Wallis  "I'm down with you padre, I think Jesus is a great philosopher"). But  what is truly remarkable is not simply the difference between the Old  and New Testaments, but that these conflicting voices were included  side-by-side within in the Hebrew canon itself. The Old Testament is a  record of dispute which makes room for questions by its very nature.

Because  of this, it calls us to enter into that dispute ourselves as we read.  In fact, because of its multiple conflicting narratives we simply must choose,  we must take sides in the debate, we are forced to embrace some  narratives in the Bible and reject others. So I choose to embrace the  narrative of compassion and social justice that is found in both  Testaments, and reject the narrative of using religion and the Bible to  justify violence and oppression, which can be found there, too.

Now  is that cherry-picking? No, it's not, and I'll tell you why:  Cherry-picking is when you misrepresent the evidence by referring to  only the good parts as if they are representative of the whole, while  ignoring the bad parts as if they were not there. It's not about  choosing the good over the bad; it's about giving a false impression  that it's all good and there is no bad. I'm not denying that there are  bad parts, and I'm not trying to justify or downplay them. On the  contrary, I think it's imperative that we confront them. That  confrontation is in fact modeled for us within the pages of the Old  Testament, and expanded on further by Jesus who follows in that same  prophetic tradition of faithful questioning.

At  the end of the interview Jim Wallis concluded, "You can find all kinds  of things in the Bible that have led to patriarchy, oppression,  violence, division" However, he continued, "you also can point to faith  communities at the center of every social reform movement in this  country invoking the same Bible for social justice and for peace." I see  Wallis here embracing the biblical narrative of social justice and  peace, while rejecting the narrative of patriarchy, oppression,  violence, division. To that I can add my hearty "amen."

The difficulty, I think, is that we  progressives often feel the need to apologize for making those kinds of  choices when we read Scripture — both to those on the religious right  who criticize us for not reading the Bible like a fundamentalist, and to  those on the anti-religious left like Bill Maher who (ironically) have  likewise assumed a fundamentalist reading of the Bible themselves. So  what I want to say to my fellow progressives is that we should choose,  and that we find a clear biblical precedent and legitimization within  in the Hebrew Bible itself for making those choices for justice and  compassion, as well as in the way Jesus engaged Scripture — evident in  his frequent confrontations with the religious authorities of his own  faith who held to the narrative of unquestioning obedience.

A  faithful reading of Scripture is therefore not about defending the bad  parts of the Bible (whether by seeking to justify or downplay them). On  the contrary, a faithful reading entails wrestling with those troubling  texts as the biblical authors did themselves. When we are standing up  against the voice of authority in the name of the voiceless, we find  ourselves in the company of the many counter-voices within the Bible who  are doing the same. We find ourselves engaging the Bible in the same  way the prophets did, and the same way Jesus did. That's a good place to  be. As people of faith, we shouldn't wait for Bill Maher to ask these  questions, we should already be wrestling with these troubling texts  ourselves. After all, the very name "Israel" means "wrestles with God."

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