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Friday, October 18, 2002

Is the Bible hateful?

Myra S.-K. wrote:

In our church we are considered a Hate Free Zone. In my opinion that almost puts the Old Testament out the door.

The Bible is a library more than it is "a book." It isn't "by" a single writer. The many books in it — Genesis, Exodus, and so on — were written over the course of a thousand years, each with at least one point of view, topic, and context. The Bible only makes sense now in some interpretative context or another: The meaning of the Bible depends on a community of interpretation. The more historically aware, spiritually sensitive, and intellectually engaged your "community of interpretation" is, the better your Bible will be — without changing a word in it.

Unitarian Universalism ought to be the most historically aware, spiritually sensitive, and intellectually engaged religion — but when it comes to the Bible, we sometimes seem to lose our nerve, letting somebody else define what the Bible "means" before we even take a crack at it. That's all to our loss.

The more I read the Bible the more I see that this is a very confused/confusing religion.

The Bible isn't a religion. The Bible (as we usually think of it) is a collection of writings that Protestant Christians accepted as scripture around five hundred years ago. "The Bible" means something different if you are a Roman Catholic, or if you are Russian Orthodox, or if you are Jewish. Each biblical religion includes different books in its Bible, which you'll see quickly if you compare the tables of contents of different translations. Each religion reads the Bible differently. Each religion has a different way of talking about it. The book, from a religious standpoint, requires interpretation — and the kind of interpretation you bring to it is an expression of your religion.

The Bible is used for hateful purposes by people whose religion is already hateful; it is used for spiritual purposes by people whose religion is spiritual; it is used for complex and multiple purposes by people whose religion is complex and various. If our religion is "liberal," we will use the Bible in liberal ways — which means thoughtfully, critically, rationally, and spiritually, as William Ellery Channing and our other Unitarian forebears demonstrated and defended two hundred years ago. (See my essay on one nineteenth-century Unitarian's view of scripture, 'Words are not the only language.')

We like to say that ours is a church that doesn't ask you to check your brain at the door. We should also say that our Bible doesn't ask you to check your brain at the front page, either.

For those who would like an accessible, modern, thoroughly informed guide to how the "Old Testament" came to be what it is today, I'd recommend Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman, which is a wonderful book. Next spring, Beacon Press will publish Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals, by former UUA President John Buehrens. In the meantime, I'd also suggest picking up The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter Gomes or Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture by John Shelby Spong.

Abandoning the Bible to its worst meanings is like ditching Shakespeare because there's astrology in King Lear, or banning The Color Purple because there's a rape on the novel's first page, or censoring the dictionary because we don't like some of the words in the English language. The Bible is a central element in our cultural heritage. We ignore it at our peril, because other people do use it for hateful purposes, and it helps to know your enemies. But if we pay better attention to it, I believe we'll find treasure and nourishment there, too.

(Originally posted to UUS-L)

Copyright © 2002 by Philocrites | Posted 18 October 2002 at 10:03 AM

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Lawal Damilare Yomi:

November 24, 2004 08:05 AM | Permalink for this comment



November 24, 2004 06:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

How I wish I knew enough about Islam to begin to answer your question. You might start with Beliefnet's reading list. I don't know what you should read that would explain the roots and origins of the Qur'an; ask my friend Maryam. (Personally, I'd like to read Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells and Western Muslims and the Future of Islam by Tariq Ramadan.) Your most urgent question, "Who is God?," however, can only be answered with a lifetime of study of prayer. No one can answer that question for you, no matter how hard they try.

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