Monday, May 21, 2012

What is Biblical?

Kelly MiyaharaMany years ago, when I was writing and preaching my first sermons in preparation for church ministry, a common theme was to encourage my audience to read the Bible more. I would look around me and see a common lack of Biblical literacy. For example, whenever a Bible category would come up on Jeopardy!, the contestants on the show would routinely struggle with questions that I considered "basic" questions (knowing the answers certainly wouldn't have impressed any of my seminary professors!).

To observe that people aren't especially biblically literate is nothing new. Barna surveys have been pointing this out for years. But as I look back on those sermons these days, I feel that I was misreading the real issue in the world around me. It's not so much that I think that people actually know what the Bible says better than I thought they did. Nor do I think the situation has improved. Jeopardy! contestants of today aren't markedly better at answering these questions than they were more than a decade ago. Rather, I've come to understand that my sermons couldn't hope to achieve any meaningful change. I say this not for the obvious reason of the fact that my audience during any given sermon was no more than a couple of hundred people. Even if I was giving those sermons at a megachurch with thousands of people in the audience, I would say the same thing. I believe this for at least a couple of reasons:
  1. Perhaps this goes without saying, but for the most part, any sermon I give would be in the context of a church-going audience. To the extent that otherwise smart people such as those contestants on Jeopardy! aren't regular church attenders (let alone people of Christian faith), no sermon telling people that they need to read the Bible more can ever hope to have an impact.
  2. Even among those who attend church regularly, a message telling people that they need to read the Bible more tends to fall on deaf ears. It's not that they wouldn't agree with the message, but rather that such people will either already understand that they should be reading the Bible more without my telling them so, or they think that they already are reading the Bible enough to know what it says about any given matter of importance, and any message that only encourages something the audience already thinks that they are doing can't hope to change behavior.
I'm not going to worry here about the lack of biblical knowledge among those who aren't even believers. Motivating them is an evangelical mission worth doing, but is a topic for another time. In a similar vein, I'm not going to bother trying to tell folks who already know they need to read the Bible more that they should do so. That leaves me with the subset of believers who don't know what the Bible says as well as they think they do, and I think that they actually pose a fairly serious problem, demonstrated by the ubiquitous misuse of the word "biblical."

Perhaps I need to stop to make the case that the word "biblical" is, in fact, being misused. This happens in at least a couple of ways. Often, when someone argues for a "biblical" perspective on something or other, they aren't using the indefinite article (as I just did). Rather, they try to argue for "the" biblical perspective, as if there were only one. Yet on many, if not most, issues where such a statement is made, the fact that there is a significant plurality of perspectives within Christianity, all using the same Bible to arrive at those perspectives, argues to the contrary. To argue for a single "biblical" view is to argue that Christians who disagree are being disingenuous; that they must be doing something other than reading the Bible faithfully. I'm hardly the first person to make this observation.

Perhaps even more pernicious is when someone argues for "the" biblical perspective when the way of doing things so described clearly didn't — and couldn't — have existed in the ancient context in which the Bible was written (for example, that "biblical economics" equals free-market capitalism, or the implication that "biblical womanhood" resembles June Cleaver, yet no one seems to suggest that women should act more like a wife of the ancient near East). How do so many people who claim to hold the Bible in such high esteem end up claiming that the Bible says things that it does not, in fact, actually say?

So, to put it in a way that a Jeopardy! response might, "What is biblical?" I think it's safe to say that "biblical" pertains to something that can be found in the Bible. But this applies equally well to things that few Christians of today would suggest are acceptable behavior. Strictly speaking, it is "biblical" to have multiple wives (as with Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc.). It is "biblical" to deny people with disabilities the right to serve in the ministry. It is "biblical" to force a man to marry his brother's widow. I could go on.... In fact, I could even make the argument that evil is "biblical," because the Bible attests to its existence all the time. I am not for a second trying to argue that the Bible actually commands evil (although some passages clearly require explanation). Just that the definition of "biblical," when stretched beyond the existence of a phenomenon within the Bible, extends to the realm of interpretation.

Of course, some people try to argue that "you can make the Bible say anything you want." That's actually not true, either, and I've addressed this "straw man" argument elsewhere, so I won't belabor the point here. The fact that the Bible allows for various possible interpretations does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid. It simply means that there are limits to our ability to get to the single "correct" interpretation, which should encourage us all to be charitable as we make our arguments for which "biblical" interpretations are best ones.

Obviously, the art of interpreting the Bible properly does require learning what the Bible actually says. But to the extent that my old sermons stopped at that point — just asking people to read the Bible more — they really didn't do anything of great value. If we hope to learn God's will for us (that is, to be "biblical" in the sense that most people really mean when they say the word), we need to recognize that "biblical" probably isn't a very good word to use in these debates at all....

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