The Bible Tells Me So…Sometimes

My favorite and most frustrating classes to teach include Introductions to the Old and New Testaments. I love to teach the Bible and yet knowing what to say and how to say it frequently keeps me up at nights. Should I tell the students, for example, the debates about the historical Jesus—that even though the New Testament claims Jesus was born in Bethlehem most scholars think Nazareth was more likely—or that there is no historical evidence to support the flood narrative or that David was more of roaming warrior than the more popular and palatable king we’ve made him out to be?

I worry about whether or not my students will be able to hear evidence from critical scholarship as an invitation to study because for many of them their youth pastors or other church leaders have so thoroughly indoctrinated them to seeing the Word of God as God’s individual “words” to them that they long ago jettisoned any reasoned approach to Scripture.

Rather than approaching the Bible as a tool to be used, the Bible often functions as an end in itself: Bible “study” the goal, not transformation of heart and mind.

And, it’s easy to blame the Bible for the way it has mis-shaped American Christianity into one big bully pushing itself onto others in oppressive ways whether in forcing all other religious traditions to the side-lines or in asserting all Christians must be anti-gay and anti-abortion, while ironically also being pro-gun and pro-war. Readers searching for self-justification for almost any position can certainly twist this sacred text easily enough especially when our society’s biblical literacy has declined rather precipitously.

Consider, for example, a recent survey released by the Barna group providing information about the biblical literacy of various cities around the nation. According to their findings, 91 out of 96 markets demonstrate a lack of biblical-mindedness. To no one’s surprise, cities in the Northeast, especially Providence, Rhode Island, and Albany, New York, are the least biblically minded. At the same time, the southern region of the United States boasts the highest amount of biblical familiarity. The Bible-belt is apparently still firmly buckled.

But I wonder if the Barna information doesn’t also reveal a deep problem with our ability to read and interpret the Bible? If the South displays a tendency toward biblical awareness beyond what the East and West coasts can demonstrate, what are we to make of the South as the region of the country most supportive of policies that contravene Scripture (capital punishment and unquestioning support of nationalism readily come to mind)?

Furthermore, what if our inability to interpret the Bible reasonably is hindered by our blindness to the work (dare I say, bias?) of our translators?

The Evangelical world has long had a tight relationship with the NIV translation. Several years ago when the NIV underwent significant change to address the gender bias in its translation, you would have thought the world was ending. According to some, there would no longer be any good to come of Bible study, if it was conducted with anything other than the old standard NIV.

And so, a few short years later in 2011, a second revised NIV has appeared. Claiming to strike a middle road between the first NIV and the TNIV of 2004, the 2011 translation reveals the pressure of various Evangelical groups to maintain masculine preference.

Here’s an example of the 2011 regression:

Genesis 1:26

NIV(1984): Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…

TNIV(2005): Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness …”

NIV(2011): Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness … ”

Clearly, when it comes to the Bible, there are numerous obstacles we need to face: problems inherent in the text itself since it is a human document (if also being divinely inspired), church leaders who suppress rigorous study and scholarship in favor of maintaining tighter controls on people in the pews, and translators who are driven by publication demands determined by specific consumers.

On many days when faced by such an onerous task I might just decide it would be better for all of us if we simply banned this particular religious text.

On most other days, I gladly enter the classroom eager for the challenge and the privilege of assisting a few to be better readers, trusting the miracle of transformation to accompany in some small way, the rigors of examining the Bible.