Saturday, June 05, 2010

Selective scripturalism

Both Brad DeLong and the blog Making Light directed me to this post at Slacktivist, which makes a specific political point, but is worth thinking about in a more general sense, too.

A few times a week I get an e-mail or a drive-by comment from someone very upset that I'm defending or advocating for a position they regard as contrary to the Bible. This happens often. Regularly. Constantly.

Yet as often as it happens, none of my accusers has ever been angry that I seem to be "glibly dismissive" of the clear biblical teaching of Luke 3:11. No one has ever suggested on the basis of this Bible verse that I am a fraudulent sham and an enemy of the true faith. Nor have they ever suggested that my failure to heed and revere it's clear instruction constitutes an attack against the sacred "authority of the scriptures."

And that's odd, because I would seem to be vulnerable on this point.

"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none," the Bible says in Luke 3:11. And I have a lot more than just two coats. I have a closet full of coats, jackets, suits, shirts, dress pants, jeans, sweaters and nearly a dozen different pairs of shoes. My wardrobe would seem to be a sinful extravagance that's biblically indefensible.*

And it's worse than that. I'm also actively trying to lure others into this lifestyle of selfish superfluity. I have over the years recommended or urged the readers of this blog to acquire all sorts of things beyond what they need ...

Now it's true that the person speaking in Luke 3:11 is John the Baptist -- an ascetic who wore a hair-shirt and lived on locusts and wild honey. In general, John the Baptist's teachings on diet and dress aren't regarded as authoritative.

But it's not just bug-eating John who gives us this teaching. Variations of his statement can be found throughout the entire Bible, in the law and the prophets, the Gospels and the epistles. This is a unified, unambiguous, relentlessly repeated commandment not just of John but of Moses, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter ... of everybody, really.

We're not talking about just a handful of scattered verses -- not just a few obscure texts plucked from the lists of Leviticus and one or two Pauline tangents. This is a major, dominant theme of the entire Bible: Whoever has more than they need must give to whoever has less than they need.

And yet as I said, despite regularly receiving angry condemnations for the ways in which I supposedly deny "the authority of the scriptures," I have never even once been challenged on the matter of my personal superfluity or my advertising and enticement urging others to acquire.

None of my interlocutors has ever accused me of flippantly disregarding Luke 3, or Matthew 6, or Amos, or 2 Corinthians 8 -- even though my lifestyle is clearly and wholly incompatible with what those texts have to say. I have never received a single question from these Guardians of Biblical Truth as to how I manage to reconcile my lifestyle with the vast multitude of scripture passages condemning it as sin. My supposedly conservative inquisitors have never challenged me on this point or accused me of promoting a "liberal" approach to the Bible that hand-waves away the clear mandates taught in the more than 2,000 verses dealing with wealth, possessions and the poor.

Instead, they're mainly just upset about the Gay Thing.

That's odd. Because the Bible doesn't actually have a whole lot to say about homosexuality. The sum total of all it says on that subject is just a tiny fraction of what the Bible has to say about sex in general and even all that put together is, at most, a minor sub-theme.

Think of it this way: Picture a seesaw. Take all of the passages you can find in the Bible that might possibly be construed as condemning homosexuality and gently place them on one seat of the seesaw. Now take all of the passages and parables and sermons and stories in the Bible that deal with wealth, possessions and the poor and drop them onto the other seat.

That seesaw just became a catapult, launching that little collection of verses on homosexuality high into the air....

Let me address my accusers directly. Be warned: If you come to me as a Guardian of Biblical Authority, demanding to know why I do not join you in biblically condemning homosexuals, I will before answering you look at your shoes.

Are they practical and well-worn? Are they your only pair?

They had better be. Because unless your shoes provide evidence of the reckless generosity unambiguously commanded throughout that same Bible you insist must be used to condemn our GLBT neighbors, then I'm not sure you really understand -- or much care about -- the "authority of the scriptures." Unless you exhibit a personal poverty commensurate with the chastity you insist from others, then I don't believe that you believe what you're saying.

Show me an American willing to abstain from luxury and indulgence and that person earns my attention. Show me a straight person expecting to be commended for abstaining from gay sex and that person earns only my pity. (That's not an achievement, that's a tautology.)

The Bible is not a Rulebook for Other People. If you're going to insist on treating it as a rulebook, then you're going to have to pay attention to the rules that apply to you as well as to the rules that apply to others. I'd suggest starting with this rule: Don't treat the Bible as a rulebook.

The comments on this post are worth a good look, too.

One more argument for a subtle approach to the analysis of religion in life and history!

Image: difficult to interpret, for me at least.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm, the United Church of Canada (and others) and the social gospel repeated?
    Thanks a good blog to share and very useful for someone like me who reads the Bible daily and often wonders what Steve would think of certain passages.