Seek to understand, not simplify, the Bible

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Years ago, while appearing before a committee vetting candidates for ordained ministry, I answered a question that earned me a well-deserved dollop of ridicule. It's been a lot of years but my memory of the brief exchange went like this:Me: "I believe what the Bible says."

Committee member: "The Bible says lots of things, Jeff."

Boy, is he right. That encounter came to mind when I heard a recent exchange between Fox News host and ex-governor Mike Huckabee and TV satirist Jonathan Stewart. Huckabee recorded an ad in support of a candidate in the last election cycle where he urged voters to support "biblical values" at the ballot box. When Stewart pressed him for specifics, Huckabee said he supported what he called the "biblical model of marriage." Stewart crisply replied, "The biblical model of marriage is polygamy."

Boy, is he right. For example, the Hebrew Bible reports King Solomon had hundreds of wives, presumably to fulfill the admonition of Genesis 1:28 to "be fruitful and multiply." While the Scriptures give us examples of monogamy, you can also find examples of men with multiple spouses.

Mike Huckabee is used to hosting his own show and making speeches to admiring crowds who will not challenge his statements. (This is the same guy who recorded a radio commentary in which he called Albert Pujols one of his favorite players and then mispronounced his name several times. For some reason, no editor called the governor on the mistake.)

Facts are stubborn things and the Bible, the most venerable of books, resists the efforts of people like Huckabee to truncate its contents.

Leave it to an Internet blogger, Rachel Evans, to point out the inconsistency. Huckabee, she says, represents a brand of Christian rhetoric that suggests the Bible has one ? and only one ? thing to say about a host of contemporary issues. As she puts it, "The Bible is not a position paper." It is a remarkably diverse, even eclectic, collection of letters, laws, poetry, prophecy and history written over many hundreds of years in the ancient Near East.

My guess is that a pastor could walk into a pulpit anywhere and suggest that Jesus is the family's biggest cheerleader. No one would contradict that notion. Can the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels be reduced to such a simple categorization? Only if you ignore that Jesus apparently once declined to go out and greet his family when they arrived at a home to visit him. (Matthew 12:46-50) Only if you ignore that Jesus is reported to have said the following: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters -- yes, even their own life -- such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)

Be very, very wary of people who quote the Bible in such a way that simplifies its contents. Simplicity is more digestible, for sure, but accuracy is healthier over the long term. The Bible resists reductionism. We should too.

Blessings to all of you as the Advent season begins anew.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is administrator of the Foundation and assistant director of marketing at Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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