The Bible isn’t unchanging steel. It’s malleable clay.

the bibleI came across an interesting article today by blogger Andrew Sullivan titled “The Trouble With Religion“. In it, he quotes a New York Magazine interview of Dr. Reza Aslan– a Muslim, religion scholar and the author of two best-sellers, including the explosively controversial Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Dr. Aslan has been commenting fairly often in recent days on the now famous (or infamous?) exchange involving Bill Maher, author Sam Harris and actor Ben Affleck.

For those of you who aren’t in-the-know, Maher and Harris are two very loud voices in the anti-religion sphere, both of whom unapologetically believe that all Muslims sympathize in some way with the extremist views and/or practices found within Islam. When commentary by Maher and Harris during the October 3 taping of Real Time began to devolve into a series of Islamophobic generalizations, Affleck chimed in to demand a more balanced assessment of Muslim opinion and practice. The argument between the three men became utterly caustic, and the coverage of the discussion has prompted numerous religious thinkers to weigh in.

While Dr. Aslan’s commentary in NYMag was great as a whole, there was one specific point that really stuck with me. When attempting to explain whether religions are inherently violent, he said:

I think the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion.

…And to me, there’s a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic — people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.

Upon reading Aslan’s words, I began to consider the manner in which many Christians approach and use scripture. It occurred to me that we do indeed think of the Bible as something that has been “given” to us by God, when we should think of the Bible as a collection of texts to which we’ve given numerous interpretations throughout history. We think of the Bible as something that has given us a specific narrative about the world, without acknowledging that we are, in fact, the ones who assign and propagate biblical narratives. When it comes to the biblical narratives we choose (whether this involves our chosen theory of atonement, our perspectives on sin and human worth, our thoughts about women in ministry, our beliefs about gays, our beliefs about other religions, or even our perspectives on war), we like to believe that we have passively received something to which we are enslaved and for which we have no responsibility– when the truth is that we are conscious and responsible actors with the power to change these narrative(s) at any time. Again, we assign these narratives to the texts. We are responsible.

We think of our ancient texts as a static, unchanging steel message, given to us by some divine being from another realm, when it’s actually more like a ball of malleable clay that has always bent to our influence– good or bad. It’s our responsibility to acknowledge this and to change the narratives that we mold using the scriptures, especially if we desire to rescue the faith from the eroding influence of fundamentalism.

Joel Osteen (who as far as I know, has never hosted a seminar on Biblical literacy, Bible history or comparative theology for the 20 million viewers who tune in to hear him each month) starts each of his sermons with the following mantra:

This is my Bible.
I am what it says I am.
I can do what it says I can do.
Today, I will be taught the Word of God.
I boldly confess:
My mind is alert, My heart is receptive.
I will never be the same.
I am about to receive
The incorruptible, indestructible,
Ever-living seed of the Word of God.
I will never be the same .
Never, never, never.
I will never be the same.
In Jesus name. Amen.

I remember attending a church fairly often in Columbus, Ohio that recited this mantra before each service, even though the church wasn’t affiliated with Osteen. We were very attached to our belief that each of our Bibles said things specifically about us, and that our Bibles outlined things that we could do. (This included some belief that we could and should control both governments and their people based on our interpretation of the Bible.) We were not asked to consider the biases we brought to our engagement of scripture. We were also not asked to think of the needs that we each brought to scripture: The need for inspiration. The need for answers about the world. And sometimes, the need to be affirmed in our worldview, or the need to be right.

I look back on the “This Is My Bible” mantra and now wonder what would happen if millions of Christians were instead trained to say:

This is my Bible.
I am a witness to what it says, and a student of why it says what it says.
I can do as much research as I wish on the origins and intended uses of these texts.

Today, I understand that my biases impact my perception of what God’s Word is, versus what these words are,
However, I humbly and boldly confess:
My mind is alert and my heart is receptive, as I seek a message that will shatter my biases.

We will never be the same, because we seek a story that will make us all whole.
Others have used these texts irresponsibly in the past, but we will never make that mistake.
Never, never, never.
We will never be the same.
In Jesus name. Amen.

4 Comments

  1. Bea Quilter says:

    “Affleck chimed in to demand a more balanced assessment of Muslim opinion and practice”.

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Affleck was red-faced and incoherent. Sam Harris does not “unapologetically believe that all Muslims sympathize in some way with the extremist views and/or practices found within Islam”, he unapologetically KNOWS, based on clear polling data, that a huge percentage, a vast majority in many Islamic theocracies, of the Islamic population, support such notions as a death penalty for adultery and a death penalty for apostasy.

    As Harris was trying to say, when Affleck’s torrent wouldn’t let him get a word in edgewise, it is Islamic IDEOLOGIES that lead to such terrors, not a particular race of people. Affleck tried to sell this inane idea that Islamaphobia is akin to racism. It is not. Fearing a perpetuated idea (and believe me, there are ideas, religious and otherwise, that we should certainly fear), has NOTHING to do with fearing the color of a man’s skin.

    1. Crystal says:

      Thank you for your very passionate comment.

      1. Bea Quilter says:

        You’re welcome! It’s factual too!

  2. “or the need to be right.” I think this is the crux of the whole matter. It is in the West that we have to be right, and so we fight about religion all the time, whereas in the east (e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism), there is the urge to see and understand the fullness of the spiritual life, which cannot be encompassed in any given text or philosophy. We tend to worship books rather than the spiritual experience that’s out there and can’t be captured in any book.
    And your response to the previous comment was right on. There are “data” that lets someone KNOW something. Please. No true scientist claims she KNOWS something (only true believers do); the evidence simply supports a particular understanding.

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