Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It Is Also Written (Or, Texts Prove Exactly Squat)


I never expected to bump into Randy.

It was the summer of 1984. I was scouring the Pacific Northwest for my first teaching job, driving for interviews on the coast, in the rain forest, the desert, the mountains, in both Oregon and Washington. In between these trips, I frequently stopped off in Salem to visit my friend Scott, occasionally sleeping on his couch. During one of these visits, Scott introduced me to a friend he'd made in law school, who, to Scott's surprise, I'd actually known for nine years. Randy was a fellow alumnus of Philomath High School, where he'd graduated the year before me. He'd gone to college somewhere in Portland, taken a year off or something, then come to Willamette. Randy had always been an irritating person to have a conversation with, stubbornly worrying at an argument until I felt like chewing off my oratorical leg, which made him a perfect candidate for the legal profession.

In the years since I'd last seen Randy, he had honed his skills at infuriation. He'd also acquired a taste for Dungeons and Dragons--he made an excellent dungeonmaster--and he'd taken the plunge into radical evangelicalism.

I'd learned some things, as well, and could hold my own arguing politics. Unfortunately, as I was to discover, I was especially lacking in the rhetorical skills I would need to counter Randy's Scriptural gymnastics.

One day I was strolling down Winter Street, having just dropped in on my college advisor for a chat, when Randy fell in beside me. We talked, I don't know about what; eventually, the conversation somehow turned to the topic of Hell. Raised in a progressive Methodist environment, I was extremely skeptical of the whole notion, because, I reasoned, God is love, and no loving God would consign anyone to an eternity of torment. Randy, of course, took the exact opposite viewpoint. I don't know if he even believed the things he began to say about the necessity of Hell in the cosmology of the Bible, or if he just enjoyed arguing. At one point, he constructed a perfect straw man, insisting that Hell actually proved that God is loving. It's there to scare us into converting, he insisted, and if it succeeds in scaring just one person into Heaven, then it's worth all the countless souls writhing in agony.

"Where do you get that?" I cried out in disbelief.

"It's in the Bible," he insisted, and quoted me some verses he'd ripped out of context.

"So is this!" I threw back at him, quoting that passage about God being love.

"And so is this." It went back and forth for awhile, but not very long; I quickly exhausted my arsenal of Scriptural ammunition, whereas Randy could've gone on for hours more.

I finally turned to the far better argument that one ought not use the Bible to prove such things because, I said, it was full of contradictions.

"Are you saying God can't write?" (Straw man number two.)

He had me there, because the perfect rejoinder, "No, you are!" never occurred to me.

I resolved that day to find those contradictions by reading the entire Bible, cover to cover. I'd done it once before, in high school, but it hadn't stuck; I couldn't quote it worth anything, and while I had a vague sense of the Bible taking paradoxical positions on a variety of issues, I couldn't even pull the two Creation stories out that afternoon in Salem. For the next eight months, though, I really read that book, a few chapters a night, making sure I really absorbed what I was reading, finding contradictions galore, but also finding a beauty and wisdom that lifted me up and pulled me through as I took and lost that first teaching job, spent the rest of the year in the purgatory of subbing, and ultimately, transformed by that cover-to-cover reading, decided to attend seminary. 

So you could say that Randy Chambers is the reason I went to seminary, which led to me meeting my first wife, traveling to Illinois and England, having two children, divorcing, remarrying, divorcing again, washing out of ministry, and finally, after far too long, taking another shot at teaching. And that is as pure an argument for Chaos Theory as I can imagine.

But that's beside the point. All of this has been an elaborate set up for me to share the following story about Jesus:

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4 But he answered, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' " 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you,' and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' " 7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' " 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.   (Matthew 4:1-11, NRSV)

In casting this story from my own life, I am (ahem) playing the role of Jesus. Guess who portrays Satan? (Hint: his initials are Randy Chambers.)

What I love best about this story is that Jesus, himself, presents the case against proof-texting, making the argument that you can get the Bible to say anything you want it to by selectively quoting it--and, in the process, proving it ought not be used that way. EVER.

Proof-texting, in case the term is new to you, is the use of selective passages to defend arguments through an appeal to authority. Proof-texting rests on the assumption that the authority one appeals to is given equal weight by both parties in a debate, and that both interpret it in the same way. Otherwise, the whole exercise is pointless. A Biblical literalist and a progressive who uses the historical-critical method may both agree that the Bible is the most important document ever written, that it is, in fact, God's Word, and carries an authority unique among all things written; however, should the two be debating a particular issue (gay marriage comes to mind), one will simply quote scriptural condemnations of homosexuality, while the other insists that these passages be read in their historical, sociological, and literary context, with attention to the form and function of the passage in question. The progressive may also point out that the original prohibition was grounded in the need for a nomadic people with a high mortality rate to be as fruitful as humanly possible, so that relationships not producing babies would, in fact, endanger the survival of the nation. Similar reasons lie behind the Biblical distaste for the withdrawal method of birth control (mistakenly interpreted, traditionally, to be a condemnation of "Onanism"--masturbation). None of this will hold water with the literalist, though, as the Bible "says what it means, and means what it says." In the words of a bumper sticker I have seen are far too many vehicles to make me comfortable, "God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it."

The notion of divine authorship is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the Bible does not even begin to make that claim for itself. The closest it comes is the teaching that "all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV) Never mind that these words are, themselves, just one of many possible translations (some versions use the word "breathed" instead of "inspired," and the Greek could also mean "all scripture inspired by God is useful"--which could also suggest some scripture is not inspired), or that nothing in the passage even suggests that scripture should be the final word in any argument. It's yet another straw man: it's all inspired by God, and God would never say anything ambiguous. Any apparent contradiction is due to copying errors or mistranslation.

As you can see, any attempt to argue with a proof-texter that contradictions in the text render its authority questionable, or that the text being used as proof is being misinterpreted, comes up against the catch-all excuse that the interpretation of the proof-texter is, in fact, the only legitimate one, that all others are themselves misinterpretations that put the lie to the obvious meaning of the text, and that the questioner is heretically expressing lack of faith in God's Word.

Take a look at the long passage quoted earlier. Two milennia ago, the use of proof-texts was already enough of a problem that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew (himself a formidable prooftexter) felt the need to imbed a criticism of the practice in the story of Jesus' spiritual formation. That's right, the book used to establish the authority of the book as literally true in every respect asserts that it is ridden with contradictions and ought not be used in that way. It's a rhetorical Gordian knot: if you really believe the Bible says what it means, and means what it says, then you ought to stop using it to prove points, because it says not to do that.

There's a further point I want to make about proof-texting: I happen to believe the Bible is a powerful, wonderful, beautiful book, an amazing compendium of diverse expressions of faith representing centuries of experience, one of the most human documents in existence. Using it as an answer book, mining it for quotes that serve one's purposes, disrespects it, even violates it. If you really love the Bible, don't rip a verse out of context to prove a bigoted, reactionary point that can't stand on its own merits.

I say this to liberals, as well as conservatives. Friends of mine have made the gay-rights-friendly argument that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. This implies a number of things I'm not comfortable with: 1) The only relavent part of the Bible is the four Gospels; 2) those Gospels contain everything Jesus ever said; 3) based on this assumption, the church did, indeed, supercede all the covenants God made with Israel, which makes God a promise breaker; and 3) if Jesus didn't say it, it doesn't count. Sorry, friends, but with this book, it's in for a penny, in for a pound. If you're going to interpret any of it to have authority, you have to accept all of it to have that same kind of authority.

Which is why you will never hear me quote the Bible to prove a point. I'll tell a Bible story as an illustration of the universality of a particular human experience, and I may quote a passage just to add some resonant language to a conversation (much as an English major might quote Shakespeare or W.H. Auden), but I will never ever make the appeal to Biblical authority. Doing so abuses this wonderful book, proves nothing, and if used in argument with a true literalist, can only lead to two results: either we will never agree; or I will be forced to convince you this book that is at the heart of your faith is not worthy of your faith, that it is in error on so many issues that you have no choice but atheism.

I'm not going there. Please don't try to force my hand. I'd rather not talk to you at all than have that argument.

So go in peace, my literalist friend, and let's simply agree that God wants us to live in love. And leave it at that.

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