Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bronze Snakes and Inkblots


Jonathan Dudley wrote an interesting editorial piece titled What the Bible Says Depends on Where You’re From on Huffington Post yesterday. In it, he suggests that the Bible is a sort of Rorschach test, that what we read out of the Scriptures depends upon the ideology that we bring to it.

We could run through the list of controversial issues -- abortion, war, pre-marital sex, slavery -- and find that on both sides each debate, a host of passages can be marshaled both for and against each position, creating mutually contradictory portraits of "what the Bible really says."

It's tempting to conclude that one side of these debates is simply biased while the other side (usually our side) is not.

But it's also wrong.

Dudley’s concern is primarily with the way that the Bible is used in political discourse, and so he concludes:

When a community claims they can't help but oppose homosexuality because the Bible requires them to do so, or that Jesus would support a liberal economic system, or that if you really read the Bible carefully you should end up supporting Party X, they're showing naivete. What the Bible "requires" depends on the beliefs one brings to it.

So as the election season heats up, let's stop pretending our ideology comes straight from what the Bible says. The reality is, "what the Bible says" comes straight from our ideology.

I hope these quotes have whetted your appetite to read the entire article. It’s worth the few minutes that it will take.

There are other possible conclusions to be drawn from Dudley’s contention that we do not and, in fact, cannot read the Bible objectively.

For one, I think this bolsters my contention that “biblical” and “unbiblical” are not helpful terms. They do not foster dialogue or promote understanding. In fact, these words are usually used to end conversation. I might be better to say “I understand the Bible to say....”

For another, it might suggest that using the Bible as a verse mine for proof-texts, or as a kind of divine reference book, is mistaken. Rather than taking the Bible as the direct “Word of God” it might be better to read it as a conversation with and about God by its various writers. What is more, we might see the Bible as an invitation to join in that conversation.

Of course, these conclusions may just reflect the ideology that I bring to the Scriptures.

What do you think? Is Dudley right? What other conclusions might be drawn from his argument that what we read out of the Bible is what we bring to it?

Sometimes the most profitable time I spend in the Bible is wrestling with passages that do not affirm my ideology. As I write these words, I’m still struggling with tomorrow’s sermon text, Numbers 21:4-9, in which we read: “So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.” (v. 6 CEB). I took Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel illustration of the passage from wiki.


  1. We all bring a backpack full of "_____" (fill in a your favorite word here) with us no matter what we do, and of course reading the Bible is no diferent. We are all creatures of our own history and context. AND literalism ( or un-literalsim?) lives - it wasn't that long ago, during a forum on the civil union issue at my former call, that one parishoner stated that she could not condone blessing civil unions becasue it was NOT in the Bible - well, duh, of course not...

  2. Of course zippers aren't in the Bible either. That's why the Amish don't use them.

  3. Seems to me the notion that we get out of the Bible what we bring to it is sort of chicken and egg problem.

    The ideology we BRING to the Bible likely in some way or another at one time CAME from the Bible.

    The person who looks for verses to condemn homosexuality, for example, somewhere along the line picked up the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

    I agree with Vicki, we all bring our own "stuff" to our reading of the Bible - but much of that stuff CAME from the Bible - or at least one group or another's understanding of it.

    Again, it seems to me that what is necessary is not so much to use the Bible as an answer book (as you are saying we ought not do), but to use it to come into communion with the Holy Spirit, to let the Spirit communicate the Truth to us - again - it is about a living relationship.

    Which, as I think of it, is tricky business. You are never really in a position to definitively say, "I am right - and you are wrong!" And yet, we ought to hold up that there IS Truth, God's Way IS the right way, and we ought to - we are called to, I would even venture to say - do our part in guiding each other along that Way - and warn those who have wandered off into dangerous ground.