Does the Good Book have “bad” bits?

Holy BibleA 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.

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9 Responses

  1. GCC says:

    I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Chasid who took the bible literally. Their theology is much too intellectual, mystical, historical, expansive, philosophical and, frankly, profound for that.

    There’s quite a difference between strictly obeying the commandments of Torah (which is more than the Hebrew Bible) and being a biblical literalist. In fact, it’s precisely a non-literal interpretation of scripture which makes many of the “nasty bits” mentioned sources of great wisdom and teaching, rather than simply things that must just be tossed aside as historic, cultural reflections of their authors that no longer have relevance.

    Chasidim don’t really read the bible as a literal book, but rather as a timeless book. And those who teach from the Jews’ scripture while misunderstanding it (e.g. those crazies who talk about all the things/people God hates) would do well to spend a year or 30 in a Yeshiva.

    Other than that, I’m also thankful (and proud) that TEC participates in and encourages such thought and questioning. The Hebrew Bible more or less expects it.

  2. I just quoted one of your older entries on my page. Was going to comment on that entry itself, but apparently can’t.

  3. Eric Westby says:

    Scott, I’m glad you got the word “chuckleheads” in there toward the end. It was always my favorite of your epithets while at The Atlantic. 🙂

  4. Michelle Peattie says:

    Psalm 58 v. 6 O God, break their teeth in their mouths;
    Ooooo every time I read that I cringe.
    I guess I’ve had too many root canals to detach from that. Not that it’s abnormal to be angry at times but breaking teeth is an image I wouldn’t project on my worst enemy. It reminds me of the adage “What are you doing with your anger?”

  5. Jenny says:

    Very well put, especially the part about chuckleheads at the end. God bless. 🙂

  6. Fr Alexander says:

    This is a very good posting. A couple of years ago, I worked up a lecture / presentation on the difficult bits of the Bible which outlined the various hermeneutical strategies that people use to deal with them. Between the extremes of “uncritical acceptance” (God said it, I believe it, and that settles it) and “outright dismissal” (I find this text oppressive and therefore I don’t acknowledge its authority), I ended up endorsing an approach that might be called “faithful struggle.” Basically it involves (a) acknowledging that the texts that offend us are nonetheless part of the canon of scripture and are therefore in *some* way authoritative for us, even though we don’t necessarily understand how; (b) acknowledging our difficulties with the texts and how they upset or offend us; and (c) refusing to give in to the temptation to resolve the tension between (a) and (b) prematurely.

    A sound hermeneutical strategy also has to take into account developing understandings of the nature of God within the canon of scripture itself, as well as the interpretative lens provided by holy Tradition. (Of course I had to get that in.)

    The only problem with pieces such as Ship of Fools “Ten Worst Bits of the Bible” is that they can be misused to discredit the whole idea of biblical authority in general — “See the Bible says such ridiculous things, we don’t have to take *any* of it seriously.” The question is whether we are willing to let the Bible seriously challenge our worldview and lead us to question our own assumptions and values; or are we only going to accept its authority on those points where we are already predisposed to agree with it?

  7. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for a very well-written discussion!

  8. Glenn Caton says:

    There are so many troubling bits of scripture. Revelations is so vague as to invite whole Christians sects to build apocalyptic camps around it.

    The four Gospels are reasonably consistent, but I would love to see the other Gospels restored to a book titled: “The Gospels Alleged to Have Been Written By the Apostles of Jesus” The Epistles should be broken out to its own book and labeled, as should all of these writings, as to whom, to the best of our knowledge, actually wrote them and when. Each of these writings should also be prefaced with the history of its inclusion in the canon.

    I believe that the Old Testament should also be removed from the canon and broken up into the form of the Septuagint and the individual books should be prefaced with its know history.

    There can be little doubt that the early church codified the canon and edited the collection to remove the most glaringly contrary material. Epistolary materials was included to legitimize the growing gynophobic, and homophobic positions.It also acted to shore up the rights of its blossoming bureaucracy. This period of consolidation of power crushed the independent African church and weakened the faith in central asia.

    In my opinion, the formulation of canon, sowed the seeds that would eventually grow to schism the church, promote doubt and weaken faith. The strengthening of the Apostolic church weakened and distorted the teachings and mission of Jesus.

    I believe that Jesus mission was to destroy the illusion of a personal existence separated from God. He came to promote love of God and each other (pretty much the same thing, once you accept the universality of God in the creation). He taught that formulated prayer was unnecessary, as the Universal God was indwelling and knew our needs. He came to teach us that sin was a willful act against the will of God that hurt us and our relationship with Him. By five hundred C.E., the church had pretty much managed to sweep all of these things under the rug, and was moving the Western world into the dark ages. The lasting symbol of this corruption has come to be the “Holy Bible”.

    I am a follower of Jesus. I was blessed with indestructible faith in childhood. I was also blessed with a discerning intelligence, a strong love of reading, and an insatiable curiosity. These blessings in combination to a ready source of of religious history gave me a good perspective into the bible. It cost me any faith in the “Holy Writ” aspects of the bible. Sadly, it has also distanced me from the apostolic aspects of the Episcopalian church. I will always love it. It will always be the touchstone of my faith. I have just outgrown it theologically.

    So it is with the bible. I love so much of it. It was a great initial tool for understanding much of the past of our faith. It gave me my first notions of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (I still think of it as the Holy Ghost – Anglican Hangover). I have had to watch, saddened as it has been misused and twisted. I have had to suffer watching used to support hate and division. I have come to know the history of its misuse. I still find myself alienated from many people I know and love by their “Bible Believing Christianity”. I personally feel that it is long past time to actively work to reform it in such a way that it can no longer be misused. I will be sad to watch that happen, but not nearly as sad as I have been for the last forty years watching people misuse the bible in the evangelical support of a twisted relationship with God.

  1. September 2, 2009

    […] A few weeks ago, a Christian humor website called Ship of Fools solicited readers’ suggestions of the “worst” verses in the Bible – the most oppressive, distressing, or difficult to wrestle with. Recently the Telegraph, a UK newspaper, published a list of the “Top 10 Worst Bible Passages,” based on responses at Ship of Fools. When the Episcopal Church shared this article via Facebook, a few folks got upset. Here’s a great blog post about the whole kerfuffle. […]

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