The 9th installment in our “aha moments” series is by Anthony Le Donne, assistant professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, and formerly of Lincoln Christian University. He was terminated from that position as a direct result of his popular book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Le Donne, a widely respected New Testament scholar, has also written The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals and blogs at The Jesus Blog.
It would be fair to say that I’ve moved from conservative to liberal in my views about the Bible. But since my perspective on what constitutes “conservative” and “liberal” has evolved, perhaps these labels are misplaced.
I will say, however, that if my teenage self could meet who I am now, that dashing young man would call me a liberal. He would also be dismayed to learn how poorly Italians age. It’s like going from Johnny Fontane to Luca Brasi overnight.
In my Johnny Fontane years I viewed Scripture as an owner’s manual for life. I remember hearing this metaphor used at church. Life would just be better, smoother, happier if we just adhered to the owner’s manual.
The Bible cautions against drunkenness, so we avoided alcohol. Simple. The Bible tells us to resolve our conflicts before coming together in communion. Who wants to hold a grudge anyway? So simple. The Bible tells us not to murder. Less murder seemed like a positive thing to us (Luca Brasi notwithstanding).
Following these instructions seemed beneficial. Sunday school taught me this: if I did what the Bible told me to do, I’d be on the right track.
Both now and then, I see great virtue in this paradigm. The legal instructions of Israel exhort care for resident foreigners. These Scriptures command good stewardship of the earth and care for animals. Jesus tells me to feed the poor. He tells me to help folks who cannot pay me back. I’m supposed to love people considered outsiders by most.
I think that I’m a better person for following, meditating on, and wrestling with these teachings whenever I can. So what’s the problem?
Part of having a “high view” of Scripture for evangelicals is reading the Bible closely and often. I did. When I did, one of the things I found was a teaching from Jesus about lust.
Lust was a big deal when I was an adolescent. For boys of a certain age, lust is a fulltime job. I tried to think about baseball. I really did. But biology is a Super Bowl commercial. I—like most boys—was at war with myself.
I turned to the Bible often with fear and trembling. Jesus told me that if I looked upon Daisy Duke with lust in my heart, I was guilty of adultery. I kept reading. Jesus told me that if my right eye continued to sin, I should pluck it out. And here I was looking upon Linda Carter with both eyes!
I asked around. The standard evangelical advice I got was that this command wasn’t to be taken literally. The proper evangelical reading of this passage was to get the main point. What was the “didactic thrust” of Jesus’ words? Well, according to my youth pastors and mentors, Jesus was just using a bit of rhetorical flare to warn me against the dangers of lust. It would all make perfect sense if I just took it as a figurative speech.
I began to look for the didactic thrust of biblical teaching. The owner’s manual might command us to throw literal rocks at literal homosexuals, but the gist of that passage was that God hates homosexuality… but LOVES and FORGIVES all sinners (we’ve taken to shouting that last part—more for ourselves than for anyone else).
The rock-throwing part wasn’t to be taken literally, but the meaning behind the text seemed quite clear to us. Sometimes it seems that the clearest meaning of Scripture is the one that reinforces our own comfort zones.
Already as a high school student, the owner’s manual paradigm was stretched beyond usefulness. My evangelical world began to accommodate figural readings by looking for the underlying message. I think that this is where most evangelicals land.
We treat the Bible as an owner’s manual that we’re forced to interpret creatively at times. As long as we read selectively, we’re able to use the Bible to reinforce our “commonsense.” This way we get to keep our eyeballs and hands on our persons (Matt 5:27-30) but continue to reinforce our commonsense notions of sexual purity.
But what of the “underlying message” of Ezra 9-10?
By the grace of God, both my eyes survived adolescence and I was able to keep reading the Bible as a young adult. I was in high school when I first set my eyes on Ezra 9-10. I was able to sidestep the command to divorce and abandon children without much thought to the “literal sense” of this story. Obviously such a command shouldn’t be taken literally. After all, Jesus condemns divorce.
So I looked for the gist of God’s words through Ezra. The underlying message—it occurred to me—was that interracial marriage is sinful and disastrous to the purity of bloodlines. This teaching seemed remarkably similar to my grandmother’s disapproval of my parents’ relationship because my father was dark-skinned.
I’m not claiming that my 16-year-old exegesis was all that sophisticated. But any way you slice it, Ezra 9-10 is deeply troubling—especially so to folks with an owner’s manual view of the Bible.
My salvation during this crisis came from a fellow evangelical who pointed me to Jeremiah 29. In this passage, the Lord seems to command intermarriage as the Israelites find themselves in Babylon.
An owner’s manual view of the Bible might see this as a contradiction. But I found Jeremiah’s exhortations to be comforting. The prophet commands Israel to be culturally integrated within a milieu of religious and ethnic pluralism.
This wasn’t my only “aha” moment, but it was a significant realization in my life. The Bible—it occurred to me then—was much more than an owner’s manual.
In my adulthood, the Bible has become a multi-vocal conversation spanning centuries.
Voices are set against voices for good reason. Job is juxtaposed with Proverbs. Paul is juxtaposed with James. Mark is juxtaposed with Matthew (indeed, four Gospels are set together—as opposed to one official narrative).
Sometimes I heard my own voice set against an ancient one as I read. But my voice wasn’t alone. Sometimes there was a chorus of faithful voices on my side. Viewed as a multi-vocal conversation, I found room for me within the paradigm—me, including my right eye and right hand.
I also found Proverbs 26:4-5 to be a needed corrective to my view of the Bible as an owner’s manual:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
In my Johnny Fontane years, I might have heard this passage as a contradiction. What am I supposed to do? Answer the fool or not? But when I hear these sayings as two voices collected within a multi-vocal collection, I am invited into a conversation.
More importantly, these divergent views are set side-by-side. Somewhere along the way, a faithful collector of tradition decided that these two sayings should be set into direct relationship. Once put together, these sayings were passed from generation to generation in a relationship of tension. There is something beautiful here that cannot be captured by the owner’s manual paradigm.
I no longer expect biblical voices to harmonize or to provide some sort of absolute Truth. As I encounter God through the many voices of the Bible (even when they debate or sound like my grandmother), I throw myself into a living and evolving relational Mystery.
I enter into the worship of God as I study the Bible. I don’t need the Bible to be infallible because it is just the entry point, not the ultimate destination.
For me the Bible isn’t something that demands my ultimate affirmation of commands and prohibitions. A high view of Scripture—for me at least—is one that views the Bible as much more than an owner’s manual.
But I will admit that I continue to struggle with my roots. I may not look like an evangelical to my younger self, but I find myself in evangelical default mode at times. Just when I think I’m out… they pull me back in!
This is why I rarely trust my own readings. I live within a community of honest academics (some Christian; some not) who have permission to correct me and better me. As such, the multi-vocal tradition continues. Because as much as I’d like to be Johnny Fontane, I’m not much of a soloist.