The Bible is the most controversial book ever written. We cannot calculate the amount of good that it has brought about, but it has also caused more damage than any other book in history. Throughout history people have used it to justify wars, mass exterminations, persecutions, and all other forms of violence and oppression. Sometimes these people had no faith and simply used the Bible to manipulate others. Others, sadly, believed what they were doing was right and what Jesus wanted them to do. That’s because they didn’t understand the Bible properly, or what Jesus was really trying to teach.
The majority of the problems come from not reading, and thus not interpreting, the scriptures without context. Many of the fundamentalist that I have talked to act as though the King James version of the Bible descended from Heaven in a beam of golden light with a chorus of angels singing. They forget that real men, living in a specific time and place in history, wrote the different texts for very specific reasons. Only later did these different books get compiled into one anthology that we call the Bible. Though we believe the text to be inspired by God, they were written by humans. The divine revelation they were given was filtered through a human mind with all of its cultural biases and individual prejudices. To understand the Bible, we have to study who these people were, why they were writing, and who they were writing for. We have to understand their culture and the times.
Thank God that the Catholic Church, as well as some others, is engaged in and encouraging that type of scholarship. It makes us be more honest with the scriptures. We are beginning to understand the social, cultural, political, economic, and theological situation in which they were written. By bringing all this to bear it becomes harder to make the Bible say what we just want it to say, what we think we need it to say, or what we are culturally conditioned to think it says.
Our prejudices and biases lead us to believe, before we even read the text, that Jesus is the Lord of our saved Church. We then read the Bible to prove that belief. This does not lead to enlightenment, but actually numbs us into complacency. Just believing that Jesus is God of our saved Church means that we are right! The first step is to admit our biases. Then we have a chance to let go of them, and come to a richer understanding of the Bible and of Jesus.
Fundamentalism is growing. Not just in Christianity, but in Islam, and in politics. Fundamentalist Christians have a non-historical love affair with the written word of God. They refuse to hear what the scriptures are actually saying because they refuse to understand the communities they were written in. As humans we want clarity and certainty. The Bible does not provide that as it is, but that need leads some people to read and interpret the scriptures in a close minded, authoritarian manner. It is a mechanical, almost scientific approach. Again from my own personal experience, fundamentalist have no faith outside the written words, and they dissect them like a scientist dissects a specimen. All this leads them to be trapped in their own cultural moment in history, missing the real message and meaning of the Bible.
I love it when they say, “we need some of that old-time religion,” when what they consider “old-time” is only the 1800’s. That’s nothing in the two thousand years that separates us from the time when Jesus walked the earth.
Ironically, by taking the word literally, the fundamentalist is in fact missing the literal word. The real meaning of the text is largely missed by people who say they take it all literally. They miss the metaphorical sense, the mythological sense, the psychological sense, in other words they miss the sacred story that is the real literal meaning. They miss the sub-text, what is written between the lines. Think about when you talk to someone, do you expect them to only hear what you say and disregard tone, body language, emphasis? No, all of it together is how we communicate. (Why I hate texting.)
Jesus knows the language needed to speak of spiritual things. Religion needs the language of symbol, metaphor, analogy, and story to describe a transcendent universe. There is no other way to describe what, “no eye has seen.” Against conventional wisdom, this approach is actually more demanding. Perhaps that is why the number of fundamentalists is growing, it’s easier.
God is infinite, and thus His word is infinite. There is meaning, buried within meaning, buried within meaning. We call this mystery. Fundamentalist only see the meaning on top. They miss the mystery of it all, the ambiguity, the paradox. Pope John Paul II said that, “to be ignorant of the scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ.” We should put aside our preconceived notions and dive into the mystery of the living Bible, where after thousands of years God still speaks to us.