Monday, September 22, 2008

Confronting the Bible's Double Life

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Karen Armstrong’s recent book, The Bible: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2007), provides an interesting discussion of some of the main emphases in biblical interpretation through the centuries. It is very narrow type of biography which, kindly, only occasionally mentions some of the dark sides or moments in interpretation of the Bible. One could write much more about many aspects of the history of the interpretation of the Bible, and much more about the dark side to the Bible’s biography. In Romans 7:12 Paul says “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (NIV). The same (and more) may be said about the Bible as a whole. But just as Paul points out that the holy, righteous and good law has been used by sin to produce evil and death, the Bible has continued to be abused by some people throughout church history.

I love the Bible. I have spent a good part of my adult life studying it and teaching others about it. Most semesters I teach a course called Interpreting the New Testament and I confess that it is an incredible privilege to help committed Christian men and women grow in their abilities as interpreters of Scripture. I am constantly reminded of the crucial role of engaging Scripture for the health of churches and believers. But I am also constantly reminded of the horrible damage that can be done and that has been done when Scripture has been wrongly interpreted and used as a weapon to oppress or abuse others.

Throughout history the Bible has been used to justify all kinds of injustice and to empower people with oppressive agendas. At different times and in different places, the Bible has been used to justify slavery, wife abuse, child abuse, the crusades, the inquisition, anti-Semitism, racism, apartheid, the use of violence (including deadly force) against those who were accused of not following its teachings, etc. In Armstrong’s view “A thread of hatred runs through the New Testament” (76). I would dispute that, but there is little dispute that a thread of hatred has appeared here and there throughout the history of its interpretation.

Ideological criticism needs to be added to the toolbox of evangelical pastors and leaders. Even those of us who have difficulty applying ideological criticism to the biblical texts themselves should not hesitate for a moment to apply it to the ways that people (including pastors) interpret the Scriptures. Christians need to be the first and the loudest to speak out against the use of Scripture to oppress and abuse others. Since there is such a history of people who consider themselves Christians supporting abusive and oppressive interpretations of Scripture, it might be a good thing for us to be slightly over-sensitive and to be on the alert for interpretations that empower the powerful rather than holding them accountable for the ways they use their power.

In the Old Testament, one of the differences between true and false prophets was that true prophets confronted the powerful people in society – including the king – while false prophets could be bought off or pressured to preach things that would empower the king to permit or sponsor injustice. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). If these are the greatest commandments our teaching and preaching of Scripture should certainly be evaluated in terms of whether or not we are empowering people to abuse and/or oppress others rather than helping them grow in loving God and others. Jesus Christ used his power to liberate and redeem those who were under the power of sin. He sacrificed himself for those who were weak and who were powerless to help themselves.

As practitioners of the ideological criticism of biblical interpretations we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions: Is this biblical text being interpreted in such as way that it would empower some people (or person) to abuse others? Is this text being preached in a distorted way that serves the interests of some people at the expense of others? Is this text being taught or preached in a way that is consistent with Christ’s own loving and self-sacrificing commitment to the good of others, especially the weak and powerless?

Ideology often enters into biblical interpretation apart from any conscious intention on the part of the interpreter. Early on in my missionary career I taught some preaching courses. One of the first classroom sermons I ever heard was one in which a pastor’s son (a fine Christian and a good friend) took a text about the pastor’s sober responsibilities to shepherd a flock with love, wisdom and integrity and turned it into a message about the need for church members to obediently submit themselves to the authority of God’s anointed leader. The student was a fine Christian with a good heart, but his reading of Scripture was evidently being distorted by some of the difficult politics going on in his father’s church. He had taken a text that spoke of the pastor’s responsibilities to God and the flock and had unconsciously turned it into a hammer to beat his father’s flock into submission.

A few months ago I was chatting with a friend who had attended a conference of Bible translators in Kenya. One of the things that he heard while there was about the need for teaching on biblical interpretation to be given along with the preparations of Bible translations so that those translations are not interpreted in abusive ways. For example, he heard about men (pastors, if I recall correctly) with HIV/AIDS who were insisting that their wives submit to them by having unprotected sex with them because they did not want to use any protection. Their wives were supposed to just trust God not to let them become infected as their husbands were!

Of course in this country one may witness people using the Bible to teach warped views of God and of the gospel message through materialistic and egocentric “prosperity gospels” by turning to any number of “Christian” TV stations at virtually any time of day. These teachings lead their followers down destructive paths and pervert the good news into something perverse. Many passages of the Bible warn about those who would twist Scripture to teach dangerous things (e.g., 2 Peter 3:15-16; Acts 20:29-30; Jude 4; 1 Timothy 1:5-7; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Peter 2:1-2).

We are all grateful for tremendous good has been done out of obedience to the teachings of Scripture. But we must not shrink back from admitting that much harm has also been done and we must never stop speaking out against those who would use the Bible in abusive ways. I’m curious about ways in which you might have observed the Bible being used to the detriment of those exposed to the teaching (without naming names or places...). Do you have any suggestions about how we might all guard more effectively against adding to the dark side of the Bible’s biography?

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