I picture a TV commercial advertising a new version of the Bible. A grungy, black-and-white scene of someone puzzling and fuming over their ESV or KJV opens the ad, and an exasperated voice asks:
“Does Scripture confuse you? Are you fed up with trying to choke down all of those ‘hard sayings,’ especially from the Old Testament and in the Epistles of Paul? Are you tired of being offended and condemned on every page, and having to slog through Bronze Age politics and superstition, just to get to the good stuff?”
[Actor throws down her Bible and glares at the camera, hair awry and shoulders slumped.]
“Then do we have great news for you!”
[Chimes tinkle as the picture switches to color and smiling, stock-photo Christians gather in a small group accompanied by a breezy voice and zippy music.]
“Introducing the Less Intolerant Edition, a Bible that speaks to modern readers with exciting and updated theology, history, and science! It’s designed to convey a spiritual message that makes your tummy feel warm without the Ancient Near-East creation myths, the narrow-minded bigotry, or those outdated, judgmental passages about sex! You’ll find joy like never before in the pages of this highly evolved translation, and you’ll discover the true message of Jesus that’s always been obscured by other versions: ‘God approves of you, your choices, and your ideas, and wants to occupy that snuggly, non-threatening, bichon-shaped pocket in your heart.’
To order your copy of the L.I.E. and read the Bible as it was meant to be read, call toll free . . .”
Don’t laugh. I’m not convinced some Christians wouldn’t flock to buy such a Bible, especially with many already treating their old-fashioned versions this way. Whether it’s Rachel Held Evans, Ken Wilson, Dan Haseltine from Jars of Clay, or Matthew Vines, the cascade of mostly young, relevant evangelicals discovering more permissive hermeneutics just as traditional Christian doctrines come under fire has reached flood stage.
Granted, we get the occasional retraction or qualification. There’s something to be said for World Vision’s humility. But be honest: You’re no longer surprised when you see stories like these scroll across your news feed (right between the latest jurisdiction to redefine marriage, and the most recent Christian denomination to discover that St. Paul was actually chill with committed gay relationships).
The droplets in the cascade contain a common brine—a hermeneutic or way of reading the Bible that’s become commonplace. It’s the same hermeneutic upon which theological liberals and skeptics implicitly build their argument every time they chide Christians for not pantomiming the Bible’s metaphors, or for “ignoring” inconvenient Old Testament laws, or for not taking narrative as normative.
Try condemning homosexual behavior as sin. Try discussing Christian roles in marriage. Try expressing the traditional stance on divorce, for that matter.
“Oh, you’re taking the Bible literally!” comes the gobsmacked response, as if you’re a certain idiom-challenged children’s book character pulling out a sketchpad and pencil when the landlady has asked you to “draw the drapes.”
It should be clear to anyone by now that what this shrink-wrapped, microwaved reply actually means is, “You’re taking the Bible seriously.”
That’s a no-no these days. You’re expected to “reinterpret” (read: ignore) the Holy Writ so your religion falls in lockstep with the latest social and scientific orthodoxy. How have you not evolved yet, troglodyte? Get with The Times.
Or maybe it’s because you read the Bible like any other piece of literature, recognizing metaphor and hyperbole when you see them, but realizing also that this book has a message to convey—one not conditioned on what’s vogue or verboten in 2014. Perhaps it’s because you know you need a paramedic, not a pacifier. You realize that God inspired the authors of Scripture to judge your heart’s thoughts and intentions, not the reverse.
No, you’re not “drawing” drapes or “pitching” tents. Nor—in all likelihood—are you ignoring primitive commands you don’t want to follow and picking the ones you do (two little things called the Incarnation and the Atonement changed the rules for God’s people). You’re probably taking the Bible literally where it was meant to be taken literally, and paying attention to the context rather than snipping verses—which is precisely what a good exegete does.
But as BreakPoint’s John Stonestreet has pointed out, if all this describes you, you’re a rare flower, even among theological conservatives. It isn’t revisionists and progressives alone who bear the blame for conflating a literal reading with a literalistic one. Nor is it entirely their fault for mistaking the Bible for an index of rules or an anthology of fortune-cookie truisms. Evangelicals started treating it that way years ago when we decided the message of 1 Samuel 17 is that we, too, can conquer giants, if only we have faith; that the point of Jeremiah 29:11 is that the Lord will never let harm or poverty come our way; or that when God says He “hates divorce,” what He really means is, “I know a great lawyer, babe.”
These are all examples of what several of my spiritual mentors have dubbed “the hermeneutic of convenience,” or reading what we want between the covers of the Good Book, remaking it in our image rather than letting God remake us through it. Whether liberals or conservatives are doing it scarcely matters. Either way the Bible ends up teaching something entirely other than what its Author intended. Either way it gets conformed to the whims of its readers and the times in which they live. Either way, it becomes an alternative translation every bit as preposterous as the Less Intolerant Edition.
Taking the Bible “literally” doesn’t mean ignoring the principles of good interpretation (quite the opposite!). Nor does it involve being tone-deaf to metaphors and symbolism like our beloved Miss Bedelia. But it does involve allowing the Word of God to speak for itself, to make us uncomfortable, and to deliver socially unacceptable messages to our culture.
You may disagree with the Bible, or even deny its Divine inspiration and preservation. That’s the prerogative of free creatures made by a God Who will have none but sincere allegiance. But let’s not have what C. S. Lewis might have called “patronizing nonsense” about the Bible not teaching what it plainly does. The old doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity insists there are certain things so clearly written that they aren’t a matter of interpretation, but of obedience. They admit no shades of meaning or room for controversy, no matter how frustrating we find them. Because if the Bible is never literally true, then it’s literally never true.
Image courtesy of thedesertnews.com.
G. Shane Morris is assistant editor for BreakPoint Radio.