The following essay, adapted from last Sunday's sermon, has been submitted to the Mobile Press-Register.
Isn’t it amazing that people of faith can read the same scriptures but reach different stances on today’s issues? In a period when civic discourse is becoming more polarized, perhaps we, citizens of the Bible Belt, need to be more mindful of the wide-ranging strategies for interpreting the Bible, the primary authority our neighbors reference to support ethical/political positions.
I suggest there are three basic ways people read the Bible today:
1) Some find many of its stories preposterous and conclude the Bible is only for the superstitious and gullible. Therefore, they disregard the Bible.
2) Some assume every word in the Bible is literally factual and conclude God can unpredictably intervene in a fundamentally irrational world. Therefore, they weight scripture more heavily than reason in ethical determinations.
3) Some believe the Bible’s varied forms of literature were written, edited, and collected over many centuries by fallible human beings exploring diverse and evolving theologies. Therefore, they do not read the Bible as a scientific or historical document but as a collection of treasured theological wisdom through which God continues to speak today.
People in Group 1 obviously do not use the Bible to construct their ethical framework—but that does not mean they lack personal ethics.
The other two groups do use the Bible to inform their ethical principles, but they make different assumptions about scripture:
· Group 2 assumes the Bible presents one consistent portrait of God. Group 3 believes the Bible contains varied and evolving understandings of God.
· Group 2 assumes the Bible is to be read literally. Group 3 is attuned to its metaphorical language and ambiguities.
· Group 2 assumes the Bible most often prescribes human behavior. Group 3 believes many passages describe human behavior.
· Group 2 brings their own values to the reading of the ancient text. Group 3 is surely also influenced by their own values but more self-consciously factors into their interpretations the original writers’ circumstances, literary conventions, and purposes.
· Group 2 tends to support moral or political arguments with isolated verses. Group 3 favors a more global approach for discerning Bible-based ethics.
Some may wonder if scripture can remain revelatory for those who choose the third method of reading the Bible. Can non-literalists use the Bible to get their ethical bearings and hear the Spirit’s guidance?
I certainly believe so. I believe attending to the full sweep of the biblical witness, its overarching themes, and the context of each verse offers a more reliable moral compass than isolating “proof-texts.” Far too often the Bible has been used to justify violence and oppression, to vilify those who disagree with us. The verses we choose to support our positions can reveal more about ourselves than about God. The Bible critiques itself in places. However, we won’t appreciate these internal corrections if we cherry-pick verses to support a conclusion we’ve already reached.
The Bible’s primary theme of God’s compassion and its roots in the ancient Near Eastern value of hospitality—as well as verses like Leviticus 19:33-34–lead me to decry Alabama’s harsh immigration law, for instance. The Bible does not provide a blue print for modern immigration reform, but I believe HB 56 runs counter to Jesus’s radical example of crossing borders of culture, region, and religion in order to bless, heal, and help “the least of these.” I want to guard against my human tendency to fear those who are different. I believe it’s important we not simply read the Bible, but that we allow the Bible to read us.
The Bible itself is a liminal place of depth and mystery existing beyond our neat categories or cultural expectations. I enter the Bible as a stranger in foreign territory, but I meet myself along the way. The Bible is not, for me, a roadmap dictating THE way, but “a light for my path.” In the unbounded biblical realm I lose my bearings, my surety, my firm footing, but I leave its pages feeling fully at home in the world and fully aware of my kinship with all people.