Sunday, March 01, 2015

There Are Bible Thumpers and Bible Bashers -- We Are Neither



There are Bible-thumpers, and there are Bible-bashers.

 You know about the Bible-thumpers. To make a point, the Bible-thumping preachers thump the Bible on the pulpit. Liberal preachers do it too, of course, but in a kind of weak-kneed way (more like patting it). The real experts at Bible-thumping are the television evangelists: somebody like Jimmy Swaggart holds his Bible in one hand, walks across the stage, reads a line or two carefully, asks a rhetorical question, pauses for a moment, and then lets you have it: “What it means, brother, is that you’re going to hell if you don’t mend your ways!”  I love to watch them – it is great theater. I’m convinced that is one reason for their success. John Wesley once said that the reason he got such large audiences was because “I set myself on fire, and the people come to watch me burn!”

 You know about the Bible-thumpers. They are the ones who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, that every word and every sentence is direct instruction from God to us today.

 There are also Bible-bashers. You may not have seen as many of them, but you have probably known a few. The Bible-bashers are the ones who love to debunk, to challenge, to ridicule, and generally to reject any special significance for the Bible. Bible-bashers have been around for a long time – forever I guess – but there have been times when they’ve been exceptionally active. During the second half of the 19th century, the secularists and freethinkers and other anti-Christian/antichurch folk in England and Europe got downright vicious in their attacks. The American versions were generally less vicious; people like Ingersoll and even Mark Twain were appreciated by audiences perhaps more for their wit and cleverness than for their beliefs. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, Bible-bashers like to take a passage or two out of its historical context, ridicule it by comparison with contemporary standards, and by implication at least, suggest that people ought to then reject the whole Bible.

 Some Bible bashing and church-bashing is helpful, for it punctures the pretensions of Christians who get too arrogant. Sometimes, however, Bible-bashing is just as arrogant – the work of people who think they’re smarter than those poor Christians; and sometimes it’s sad – people working out their anger about childhood experiences with conservative religion.

 An example of Bible-bashing might be the letter from a fellow who wrote: “Have you ever read the filth in the Old Testament?” – and then proceeded to cite several instances of God smiting the Ameleks and instructing Moses to wipe out the Midianites. “Why give the Bible any more credence than we give ancient Greek myths, or the Koran, or the Book of Mormon?” he concluded.

 There are, you see, Bible-thumpers and Bible-bashers. Both of them share one common trait: they’re both biblical literalists. One reads the Bible and says, “It’s all true,” the other says “no, it ain’t.” Both, I think, miss the point.


 It is crucial to know, to have a basic understanding of, what the Bible is, and what it is not. The way in which you approach the whole Christian enterprise is dependent upon the answer you give. Here is a liberal Christian answer.

 The Bible is not literal history, or geology or astronomy, or a set of instructions on divinely-approved diets, or an international affairs handbook for understanding Soviet intentions in a nuclear age. Nor is it a deliberate fabrication, a hoax, or a cruel delusion fostered upon the masses to keep them under control. It is not a verbatim transcription of God’s spoken words to the world, dictated through sixty or so secretaries; nor is it simply myth, conjecture, fantasy and legend.

 The Bible is the record of the encounter of a people with God. The record of that encounter is, to be sure, expressed in the language and the world-view and the cultural conditions of the writers’ times (and in the time of Moses, you either wiped out the Midianites or the Midianites wiped you out!).

But the underlying reality is there: the people of the Old Testament, the people who responded to Jesus, found – beneath all the cruelty of the ancient world, behind all the day-to-day tragedies of human life, beyond all the crushed hopes and dreams of every one’s existence – a power and a strength and a grace that redeems and transforms the whole creation. They saw a meaning that transcended the endless repetitions of birth and life and death, and projected instead a future for the planet. They found people who said and did things that were good, too good to be the products of the cultures in which they lived.  So what if they described them in otherworldly, miraculous, ways? In a world where wiping out the Midianites was the order of the day, to find a man who preached “love your enemy” was definitely (and still is) “out-of-this-world.” And, most importantly, they found themselves changed, transformed, empowered, “equipped” for good work.  So what did they do?  The only thing they could do: they told stories.

 The Bible is, simply, The Story. And not just any story, but our story, the story of how our people encountered God. Christians are a band of storytellers.

The problem of the Thumpers and the Bashers is that they try to make The Story into something it is not. With a story, you don’t bother to ask whether some event happened exactly as it was described, you ask what it means. To borrow the language of constitutional interpretation, you can be a “strict constructionist” or you can be a “broad constructionist.” One closes down the document, restricting it to only what the writers meant many years ago; the other opens it up and allows it to live. With the biblical story, it’s not just a matter of how did the Israelites live 3000 years ago, but what does the Bible say to us today?
 The point is that the Bible is more than just “literature” or “religious history.” The power those ancient writers described is a living power. To say that the Bible itself is the revelation of God would be idolatry. God is greater than the words written about God – but there is a way in which God speaks through  the  Bible,  uses  the  biblical Story,  to speak to us. Perhaps it is that the gospels simply make us receptive, help us to recognize God. But I think it is something more:  when you hear the stories of Jesus, for example, when you don’t just take a surface reading but when you wrestle with them, when you confront your own life in their light, you can begin to see things you’ve never seen before, you can understand and feel and know something of who Jesus was and is. And you can be changed.
 Duke University’s William Willimon points out that for much of this century, liberal educators and liberal churches have thought of education (both religious and secular) in terms of “nurture.” It is the idea that education is a matter of “‘bringing forth’ self-contained, individual, self-discovered identities.” It’s all a matter of “discovering who we are,” of uncovering the “spark of divinity” within us, of exploring our talents and wants and desires and rights.
 I believe that – up to a point – but I’ve always had a problem contemplating the idea of encouraging a young Adolf Hitler to discover “who he really is.” To me, at least, it is as clear as day that there is in human nature, in every one of us, impulses to do grand and noble deeds and baser impulses, negative destructive impulses. Human beings are saints and sinners. 

 “The Christian gospel,” says Willimon, “is a story about something that has happened to us – something that has come to us from the outside” – some words, some events, and the life of one man. It is a message, I believe from God, about how human beings ought to live with dignity and compassion and love and justice.

 The Biblical story, when you get to the heart of it, is something out-of-this-world. It was out-of-sync with the culture of Roman-occupied Judea and it is out-of-sync with much of the world in the twentieth century. It is something “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man or woman of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

 The month of November begins with All Saints Day. There really are saints – not the plastic ones on dashboards and the plaster ones in yards – but the ones we have known and who have helped and befriended us and others, the ones who are faithful when the world is idolatrous, who are loving when the world is hateful, who are forgiving when the world is vengeful. Do you know what I think makes ordinary people into saints? – when they listen to The Story, they let it work its way upon them. The Christian community’s testimony is this: they become blessed, blessed:

blessed because they mourn and are not calloused by the endless repetitions of  wars;
blessed because they are meek enough to not add to the escalation of violence by retaliating;
blessed because they hunger for righteousness and are not satisfied with
  peace and quiet;
blessed because they are merciful enough to show to others the mercy they
 themselves need;
blessed because they are pure in heart  and let God’s love flow in their veins;
blessed because they conspire to make  peace.
Why give the Bible any credence? Because when we truly listen to it, when we stop arguing and shouting, when we stop thumping and bashing, we can hear God.

 – Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Wintle, Senior Minister

First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts 


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