Thursday, May 26, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: Bible Interpretation

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank Schaeffer writes a great deal about how we interpret the Bible. Frank himself grew up in a home where the Bible was interpreted literally: God created the world in six actual days (Genesis 1:1-2:3); Adam and Eve were actual people who ate an actual piece of fruit in disobedience to God's command and were thereafter banished from an actual Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:4-3:24); the sun actually stood still for an extra twenty-four hours so that Joshua could finish his battle against the Amorites (Joshua 10:12-14); Jonah was swallowed by an actual big fish and lived three days in its belly before being vomited back up (Jonah 1:17-2:10); and so on. Frank grew up with the idea that it was important to believe, literally, everything that the Bible says because the Bible is directly inspired by God, and God does not make mistakes.

Unfortunately, as Frank points out, the God of the Bible says and does a great many terrible things--things that would be considered seriously wrong if anyone else said or did them. The God of the Bible sanctions sexual slavery of virgin women captured in war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), commands the slaughter of conquered men and women and children (I Samuel 15:3), orders the stoning to death of Israelites who gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), and personally kills Uzzah for reaching up to steady the Arc of the Covenant when God had said that no one but the Levites must touch it (II Samuel 6:6-7).

Trying to believe that God is all-good and all-loving while also believing that God condones sexual slavery, deliberate war-time killing of civilians including children and infants, and the death penalty for disobedience of minor commands requires some mind-twisting mental gymnastics. We wind up denying what our hearts tell us about good and evil so that we can affirm that otherwise evil actions are good simply because God is the one who does them. After all, if God does something, it has to be good, right? So, somehow, all this God-endorsed sexual slavery and civilian killing must be good simply because it is endorsed, or even committed, by God. When I was trying to so believe, I found this a terrible mental and emotional strain (as did Frank).

But then one day I actually found myself thinking something like this: Wait a minute. We are constantly told that we have to accept God's actions as good simply because God does them and that we must measure our own thoughts and words and actions by what the Bible says. But suppose we turn this around. Suppose we measure the words and actions of the God of the Bible by what our own hearts tell us. How about that, for a change?

Frank says something similar. First, Frank makes a distinction between the God of the Bible and the actual God who really created the universe. On page 83, Frank makes this wonderful statement, which I love: "[M]aybe the best thing a believer in God can do is to declare that a lot of the Bible is hate-filled blasphemy--against God." Wow! Those parts of the Bible where God is depicted as condoning such atrocities as sexual slavery and civilian killing are actually evil lies against God! How terrible to feel trapped into believing that one must honor and defend these despair-producing lies!

And these lies are despairing-producing. I remember my mother expressing to me how trapped she felt within the Catholic Church. She told me that she was afraid to leave the Catholic Church because it might actually all be true and she would find herself condemned to hell for eternity for rejecting the One True Church. On the other hand, my mother was also concerned that, when she died, she would find herself before the Real God, who would say to her, "I condemn you to hell for being a Catholic." How awful to believe that maybe the Real God condemns the Catholic Church and the Bible and the people who adhere to them, but then maybe the Catholic Church and the Bible are all true and people who reject them are the ones who will be condemned. How awful to believe that, whoever God may be, God is caught up with condemning.

The idea expressed above, that God is in the business of condemning, is despair-producing. I think that it is very important to realize that, when an idea is despair-producing, it is wrong. This should be a rule of thumb: When an idea leads to despair, let us reject that idea. If we think about God and feel despair, we can be sure that there is something seriously wrong with our ideas of God. This doesn't mean that we reject painful facts; it does mean that we refuse to interpret those facts in a despairing way. If it is clear, for example, that I am facing an imminent and inevitable death, I can accept that fact in a peaceful rather than in a despairing way. If it is clear, for example, that we are destroying our earth with pollution (and this should be clear to us), we can accept this fact and work to change our direction rather than succumb to despair.

Well, back to what Frank says about interpreting the Bible and God's words and actions therein. After stating that the Real God may not approve of the God of the Bible, Frank says that the sane way to interpret the Bible is with our hearts. On page 87, Frank says:

To reject portions of the Bible is not necessarily to reject God or even the essence of Christianity. A great deal of the Bible is contradicted by the Love that predates it and, more importantly, survives in you and me. And that Love edits the Bible for us. Call that editing the Holy Spirit, or call it a more evolved sense of ethics and human rights, but most people know what to follow and what to reject when it comes to how they live. Sacrifice for others, not sacrifice of others, is the message of the "better angels" of spiritual faith.

To boil this down to its essence, Frank says that "Love edits the Bible for us." Yes! Yes! Yes! You are so right, Frank. LOVE EDITS THE BIBLE FOR US! Our hearts shout out: No! Sexual slavery is wrong! Slavery itself is wrong! Deliberate war-time killing of civilians is wrong! Our hearts know what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil.

Our hearts, informed by love, know how to edit the Bible. Here is an example.
When we read, "Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters" (Colossians 3:22a), our hearts say, No! Slavery itself is wrong! When we read, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent" (I Timothy 2:12), our hearts say, No! Women are not inferior to men! But when we read, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28), our hearts say, Yes! Yes! Yes!

Frank points out that there is much good in the Bible. Our hearts know how to zero in on the good and reject the bad. Frank also says that the Bible can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it is interpreted. On page 99, Frank says, "Sometimes belief in the Bible leads to building a hospital. Sometimes it leads to justifying perpetual war and empire building. Same book--different interpretation."

I will end this post with a final thought: It is an act of maturity to move away from swallowing, whole and literally, whatever the Bible says and to move into interpreting the Bible with one's own heart informed by love. Frank shares this idea on pages 86-87 of Sex, Mom, & God by quoting from page 168 of Thom Stark's The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It). So here is what Thom Stark (as quoted by Frank) has to say:

An infallible Jesus, just like a set of infallible scriptures, is ultimately just a shortcut through our moral and spiritual development. To have a book or a messenger dropped from heaven, the likes of which is beyond the reach of all human criticism, is a dangerous shortcut. It is no wonder humans have always attempted to create these kinds of foundations. And it is a revelation of God's character, from my perspective, that cracks have been found in each and every one of those foundations.

To expect the Bible to give us all the answers in a literal and wholesale way is a mark of immaturity. For God to provide such ready-made answers, says Thom Stark, would be to cut short our spiritual development. In fact, says Thom Stark, God shows God's character by refusing to provide us with ready-made answers even when we clamor for them (just as a good parent shows his or her character by refusing to give in to a child's clamoring to gorge on unhealthy sweets). No, God insists on supporting our maturity. The Bible will not work as a wholesale revelation dropped directly into our laps from God. The Bible will only work when we interpret it with our hearts informed by love.

Frank Schaeffer, thank you so much for this beautiful truth: We interpret the Bible through the love in our hearts!

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