Does the Good Book have “bad” bits?
A few weeks ago, the Ship of Fools invited its readers to submit their nominations for the “worst” verses in the Bible. And what did they mean by that?
…Ship of Fools is launching a poll to find the worst verse in the whole Bible. We want you to tell us: which sacred text makes you reach for the red pen? Which hallowed verse makes you laugh for all the wrong reasons? Which blessed passage leaves you groaning with embarrassment? Which piece of holy writ troubles you at night, but at least keeps you awake in sermons?
Readers responded with many suggestions, and there’s a vigorous discussion going on now. Today The Telegraph picked this up and ran a Top 10 Worst Passages in the Bible story. I in turn saw this and posted it on my Facebook wall. And this in turn was shared by The Episcopal Church on Facebook. It also ran at the Episcopal Cafe. This has all stirred up considerable angst.
If you’re on Facebook, have a look at the comments on the posting by The Episcopal Church. At present, there are 46 comments, and 53 people have said they “like” the posting. What fascinates me are the comments and the range of views. I won’t quote them, because commenters, while posting on a public forum, might have expected that their comments wouldn’t end up on a blog.
Some readers are outraged that this article would be shared by The Episcopal Church — or by its semi-official Facebook presence. The idea seems to be that this makes a mockery of God’s word. Others are delighted, believing that it’s high time someone pointed out that the Bible has some difficult bits. Most of them, in my quick reading, seems to have the idea that it’s good to share this article for a free-thinking discussion or even debate. What’s the harm in this, they wonder. I agree.
It’s funny how people claim to want a range of views in the church until a view pops up with which they don’t agree, or which raises uncomfortable questions. I think one of the strong suits of the Episcopal Church is that we are (by heritage, anyway), pretty generous with intellect and criticism. We don’t pretend to force people to agree with particular ways of seeing the Christian faith. Rather, we share a strong center (the scriptures, the creeds, the historic formularies, and our liturgy). That leave a lot of “wiggle room.” And in my view this is good.
So now let’s look at this specific instance. The Ship of Fools wants to collect the “worst” verses of the Bible. That might be scandalous to some, but it need not be, if you look at what they mean by “worst.” What they’re saying is this: what parts of the Bible cause you difficulty, or what parts don’t you understand, or what parts seem out of place, or what parts might you wish to ignore? That does not necessarily imply that one is seeking to delete bits of God’s word, which many would rightly find problematic.
I would not want to be in the church where we cannot admit what troubles us about our faith, about the Bible, about the church, or even about each other. And when you look at the Ship of Fools — and at the Telegraph piece — you can also see that this is done lightly. Perhaps it’s not exactly humor, but it’s close. I don’t want to be in a church that always takes itself far too seriously.
Was the Ship of Fools right in asking people to share their least favorite parts of the Bible? Yes, in my view. Was the Telegraph right to pass this along in the way they did? Of course, because many people stay away from churches as they struggle with these very verses. The church does well to say publicly, “some of us struggle with these verses too.” And what of The Episcopal Church’s Facebook presence? I admire them for passing this along. And, by the way, if Richard Dawkins writes another book, and there’s a news story about it, I’d hope they could share that too.
Raising up a topic for discussion does not always imply endorsement. Rather, it invites us to consider ideas. If we hope to evangelize the wider culture, we’d better be willing to look honestly at the ideas that are out there in the public marketplace. If we stick our heads in the sand, we have no hope of engagement with those outside our walls.
Back to the question in this post’s headline. Does the Bible have “bad” bits? The short answer must be, “yes”, unless you are a particular kind of Christian — one who believes that the Bible in its entirety is the inerrant, literal word of God. And, by the way, if you claim that’s you, then you’d better be a Hasidic Jew or this guy. Otherwise, you’re ignoring bits while supporting others. But I digress, again.
Of course, whether there are “bad” or “worst” parts of the Bible depends on what you mean by bad or worst. Most of us have favorite bits, so it stands to reason we have least favorite bits. Martin Luther would not have liked my sermon on Sunday, because I preached on the Letter of James, which Luther called “the epistle of straw.”
There are a number of places in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, where the source texts are defective. This means every English translation contains some imagination. In terms of textual purity, these might be the “worst” bits of the Bible.
And then, like Luther, most of us look at the Bible as a whole and apprehend a meta-narrative that says much about who we think God is and therefore what God’s word really means. Those of us who see a loving God might struggle with bits of the Bible where innocents are wiped out or people are enslaved. Those who see a God of law and justice (not primarily of mercy), might struggle with notions of jubilee or even the implications of the Great Commandment.
I will not definitively claim that there are parts of the Bible which aren’t holy. I won’t claim absolutely which bits God really inspired and which bits were made up by people. Ask me on the right day, and I’ll give you my opinion. Listen to my preaching on the right day, and you might be invited to wrestle with some of the difficult verses of the Bible.
This priest is delighted with today’s entire enterprise of engaging with “worst” verses of the Bible. Thank you, Ship of Fools, for inviting your readers to share what’s hard and why — and perhaps to find reassurance as other readers explain their understanding of tough verses. Thank you to the Telegraph for an article that reveals a church which is not afraid to think or to hear criticism. Thank you, TEC Facebook, for starting a vibrant discussion.
Today has got me thinking of starting my own list: top 10 varieties of insufferable people in the church. Right at the top of my list: those without a sense of humor. Second in line: those who don’t want anyone asking questions. Third: those who value intellectual diversity when it’s their viewpoint, but not someone else’s. Today on the Interwebs, we got to see some of all three. Who knows, before the night is done, I might finish my top 10.
(For the humor impaired: I do not actually think anyone is insufferable, though I personally sometimes struggle to deal with some people. I do know that God loves us all, even when we act like chuckleheads.)
Photo illustration from The Telegraph, linked above.