What the Bible says

“The Bible can say whatever you want it to,” I hear people say.

I absolutely hate, hate, hate it when I hear educated people make such broad assumptions.

You could make this statement about most works of literature. I could cherry pick the Bible, or Shakespeare or a Harlequin romance book and pull individual lines that could be cobbled into almost anything.

But the reason we can’t do this is because words mean something, sentences have more meaning and broader passages have even greater meaning.

I suspect the reason people assume the Bible can say anything and omit comparing it with other literature can be seen in this example:

Bob: I really hate gays. They challenge my views about what marriage out to be. I wonder what God says about gays.

(Bob Googles “what does the Bible say about homosexuality”)

(Bob sees the first four results say it’s a sin, morally wrong and that God doesn’t create people with homosexual desires)

Bob: I knew it. My opinion was right. God hates gays.

Though there are many things wrong with this example, the most obvious fact is people using the Bible as they would a dictionary, which is horrible. The Bible isn’t reference material. It’s not intended to be used as a way of finding individual lines to be heard independently of the broader picture.

One consequence of picking lines out of context is they often evolve into something different. Look at Shakespeare’s “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” for example. That’s what it says in Macbeth. Right? Actually, no. It says “double, double toil and trouble,” yet I hear “bubble” used far more often than otherwise.

Similarly, Bob’s assuming the passages he’s found are the word of God. Sure, some claim the whole Bible is literally the word of God, but in this case none of these phrases actually quote God or Jesus directly.

So how do you get through to Bob? Well, you could pick your own lines from the Bible and see how he reacts:

“Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children.” – Hosea 1:2

“There is no God.” – Psalm 14:1

“Drink and let your nakedness be exposed!” – Habakkuk 2:16

Bats are birds. – Leviticus 11:13-19

My guess is he’d laugh off these instances as being clearly absurd and obviously out of context.

I’ll be the first to admit there are parts of the Bible that aren’t very clear. Though there are parts a six-year old can understand, it’s not an easy book to plumb. Most of the verses above clearly do not read the same way when you read the surrounding verses. There would still be the factual issue with bats being birds, but apparently as long as we don’t eat them we’re ok – not that I’ve ever known this to been an issue for anyone.

Fairly often I hear “Ask and it will be given to you…” from Luke 11:9. Looked at independently it almost seems to say “Pray hard enough and I’ll give you whatever you want.” It’s like Jesus has told us we can have anything – money, happiness or that corner office at work, yet the surrounding sentences clearly make this passage a much less material statement.

The point is this: we have to ask ourselves if the surrounding sentences are things we equally agree with or if they change the picture. So if Bob’s using Leviticus to justify his stance we have to wonder if he’s accepting that chapter and the surrounding ones with equal fervor. If he’s not then perhaps he’s using selected lines merely to justify his opinion. Maybe Bob even feels like his opinions are under attack and puts a stranglehold on scripture to lend credence to his stance.

“But aren’t you equally opinionated in challenging my beliefs?” asks Bob.

To some extent, yes. When I hear Bob I sometimes think of my mom, who would say “Well, that’s how I was raised. All the pastors I’ve ever had said this was true. The only reason people saying the Bible’s not right is because gays are in the news and it’s popular to be on their side.”

Culture certainly makes a difference. When my mom was growing up there were different water fountains for black people to use and she still struggles to see blacks as equals. Fortunately this isn’t something she passed along to me. I suspect she understood times were changing even if she was unable to break free from her own upbringing.

I’d like to think I’d be able to change my mind about something I’d been taught my whole life, but so far I’ve never been faced with a similar circumstance. As for mom, once her mind is made up there’s no changing it.

I think the only thing I could remind her of is that the Bible says many things very directly. Furthermore there’s a hierarchy of what’s central to faith as a Christian and what is much more peripheral. So I would leave her with one of the most serious consequences of picking lines out of context:

When we place our beliefs paramount to what the Bible instructs we lose the ability to love our neighbors because we’re placing ourselves first – before love, before compassion, before scripture and before the words of Christ.

So tell Bob to keep using the dictionary and encyclopedia for his reference work, but to stop doing it with the Bible. We wouldn’t just read exerpts from Hamlet, so why would we do anything different with scripture? To my way of thinking you miss an awfully good story when you only look at the lines you find interesting and toss away the rest.

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