Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Offended by the Bible: Thoughts on Handling Offenses

Some of the non-Christians I meet these days complain to me that the Bible is offense to modern sensibilities. It contains things that seem to them to be offensive, primitive, and regressive, so they feel they are justified in ignoring it. One blogger, when commenting on a picture (see the image to the left) that he claims represents the Bible's view of slavery (I will get to that below), once said, "To me, it’s obvious that the bible is offensive.... If a simple graphic depicting what slavery means is offensive, then so is the concept and the book [the Bible] that condones it. Again and again and again, our morals do not come from the Bible. Thank God I'm an atheist!"

I could try to make a list of the things in the Bible that offend people today, but it is not necessary (you can just do a Google search for it and come up with lots of rants), it would be too long for my blog post, and the list changes all the time anyway. What I would like to do is suggest a few things a thinking person (believer or non) should do when they come across something in Scripture that appears to them to be offensive, primitive, regressive, unethical, etc.:

1. Please consider the possibility that the passage does not teach what you think it teaches. If you come across something in Scripture that seems to offend your modern sensibilities, could it be that you do not understand what it really teaches on the subject? Why automatically assume that your initial interpretation is exactly what the Bible teaches and therefore you know it is offense? If it were really that easy to interpret Scripture at every point, do you think there would be so many Christian denominations? So back up for a moment, calm down, and consider that it may not be teaching what you think it is teaching. Let me give you a biblical story that shows this can happen and a biblical example to illustrate.

First, read the story of the Road to Emmaus in Lk. 24:13-34. The men Jesus walked with on the road to Emmaus were some of His disciples. They had heard Him say time and time again that He came to save the world (not just Israel), that His kingdom was not of this world, and that the religious rulers had interpreted the role of the Messiah wrong. Yet, they still said, "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." They had read the OT through cultural blinders that held that Israel was the only chosen people of God, applied that to Jesus' work (even though He had taught them otherwise), and as a result they got it wrong. They needed to step back and consider the possibility that they the OT did not teach what they thought it taught. That is why, in v. 27, the text says, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself." He had to show them what the OT actually taught. It can happen to anyone, so consider that maybe you are interpreting it wrong.

Second, let's consider a biblical example of this. Think about the book of Genesis and the depiction of marriage and inheritance practices described there. If we read it thinking that the descriptions are biblical prescriptions, we are going to be offended. For example, the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) practiced polygamy. Someone who does not take a moment to consider that the Bible may not be teaching what they think it is teaching, might look at this and point out how offense their marriage practices were. But, if they took some time to investigate, they would find the Bible is not at all teaching what they think it is teaching. A good place to start is Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative. Now, Alter is not a Christian (he is a Jew) and if you read my review of this book, you will see there are a lot of things I do not like about it. However, he does have some helpful things to say about interpreting OT biblical narrative. When it comes to the "offensive" practices in Genesis, he is very helpful. Alter points out that there are two institutions described in Genesis which were universal in ancient near eastern (ANE) cultures: polygamy and primogeniture (the practice of giving the eldest son as inheritance everything in the family). He notes that when we read the text of Genesis, we see first that in every generation polygamy wrecks the family and reeks social, psychological, and relational havoc on everyone. Anyone who says they have read Genesis and thinks that polygamy is portrayed as a good thing or supported by the Bible, simply has not really read Genesis. When it comes to primogeniture, Alter points out that God counters culture and always favors the younger over the older (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, etc.). So, if you step back, calm down, consider the cultural setting of Genesis, and really pay attention to the details of the stories, you will see that Genesis is not promoting offensive marriage or inheritance practices but that it is actually subverting those ancient institutions at every point.

Please, take a moment to consider the possibility that the Bible is not teaching what you think it is teaching. Then do some research into whatever passage(s) that have offended you. Read a commentary or two. Ask someone to help you understand it. If you cannot find anyone else, ask me. I will be more than happy to attempt to answer your questions.

2. Please consider the possibility that you are misunderstanding what the Bible teaches because of your own cultural blinders. If we are honest with ourselves and others, we will admit that we are a product of our culture and that means there will be times when we will unwittingly (and wrongfully) imprint our cultural understanding of a practice, word, or philosophy back into a different culture. Let's take, for example, the subject of the quote from the atheist blogger I mentioned above. He is offended by what he thinks is the Bible condoning slavery. Why is that? It is because he is imprinting on first-century Greco-Roman culture a view of slavery that comes from our more recent new-world, pre-civil war, race-based experience of slavery. He sees Scriptures like Col. 3:22 that say, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters..." and what comes into his mind is a picture of an eighteenth-century Georgia plantation owner abusing his bought African slave. That, however, comes from not considering the possibility that his cultural blinders are affecting his view of the first-century practice of slavery. What he has not considered is that the "slavery" described in Scripture is nothing like the more recent pre-civil war, new-world, race-based slavery we think of today. His cultural blinders and assumptions are the source of his offense, not Scripture.

Murray J. Harris has written a book on the NT metaphor of what it means to be slave to Christ: Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ. In it, he spends several chapters examining the ancient practice of slavery and compares it to our more modern experience of slavery. He points out several things that show them to be very different:
  • In first-century Greco-Roman slavery, slaves were not distinguishable by race, language, gender, clothing, or anything else. They were never segregated off from society in any way.
  • In first-century Greco-Roman slavery, slaves were often more educated than their masters and many held high managerial positions in the household.
  • In first-century Greco-Roman slavery, from a financial standpoint, slaves made the same wages as free laborers. They were not usually poor and often gained enough money to buy themselves out of slavery.
  • In first-century Greco-Roman slavery, persons were not slaves for life. Most sold themselves into slavery to pay off a debt or gain a certain sum of money and worked their freedom after a set number of years.
This is in great contrast to our more modern experience with slavery. New-world, pre-civil war slavery was race-based and was perpetuated through the kidnapping, forced relocation, forced labor, and dehumanizing of African peoples, which is something the Bible categorically condemns (cf. Dt. 24:7; 1 Ti. 1:9-11).

Therefore, while early Christians like Paul discouraged the Greco-Roman form of slavery (cf. 1 Co. 7:21-24) and even worked on an individual basis to overcome it (cf. John Piper's article on Philemon), they did not feel they needed to lead a campaign to end it, for 1) they had no ability to do so since they did not live in a democratic society where social change was possible the "average joe" and 2) that form did not (at least most of the time) violate human rights as images of God. New-world Christians, however, who were consistent in their Scriptural beliefs and interpretation, did work to abolish the new-world, pre-civil war, race-based forms of slavery because they could not be squared with Scripture. (Yes, it is true that many people in the South did attempt to use the Bible to justify their subjugation of African slaves, but they were reading the Bible through their cultural blinders as well. It was an illegitimate twisting of Scripture. Such a twisting does not prove that Scripture is wrong, but only that the culturally blinded, sinful use by some Christians was/is wrong.) So, if you step back, calm down, and consider your cultural blinders may be obscuring the truth of Scripture, you might find it is not nearly as offensive as you first thought.

Please, be intellectually honest and consider that your cultural blinders mind be clouding your view of something in Scripture. Then do some research into whatever passage(s) that have offended you. Again, read a commentary or two. Again, ask someone to help you understand it. And again, if you cannot find anyone else, ask me. I will be more than happy to attempt to answer your questions.

3. Please consider that you may be offended by a biblical text because of an unexamined assumption of the superiority of your cultural moment. We in the modern, Western world often think that we are the apex of human achievement: scientifically, ethically, morally, etc. There is the unexamined assumption that because something offends our modern sensibilities, it is categorically wrong because our culture is obviously superior. However, consider that perhaps your cultural viewpoint is not objectively superior. Then think about how other cultures may read the same Bible passage you read and find it pleasing when you find it offensive or offensive when you find it pleasing. For example, consider what the Bible has to say about subjects of sex and forgiveness. In our modern, Western culture, what the Bible says about sex is seen as "obviously primitive," backwards, oppressive, and offensive, violating individual freedoms and "rights." Yet, modern, Western cultural loves what (they think) the Bible has to say about forgiveness. We love the idea of being able to be forgiven over and over again for the same sins. Now, transfer these two subjects into a modern, Middle-Eastern culture. The exact opposite responses will be given to each. What the Bible has to say about sex is pretty well accepted (though even it may not be strict enough), but what the Bible says about forgiving many times over or forgiving your enemies is seen as insane.

So, if you are offended by something the Bible says about a subject (and you have worked to get past the above two suggestions), I must ask: why should your cultural sensibilities trump everyone else's? Why should certain parts of the Bible (or the whole thing) be tossed because they offend your (unexamined) cultural assumptions? Think of how cultural assumptions change and you will see how improper this is. What we think of as "normal" today was considered taboo fifty years ago, and your great grandchildren will probably find absolutely embarrassing many of the things that you consider culturally acceptable today. So, again, why should your current cultural sensibilities trump all others?

Please, consider that you may be offended by a biblical text because of an unexamined assumption of the superiority of your culture, and then take some time to attempt to examine those assumptions. Perhaps you will find they are not as superior as you first assumed.

Whether you are a Christian or not, hopefully these suggestions will help you when you come across something in Scripture that seems to you to be offensive. It takes time and effort to do what I have suggested above, but it will be worth it. If you do not do it and simply toss out the Bible, you will be missing out on everything that Jesus has to offer, most importantly peace with God, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, and freedom.

By His Grace,

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