"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Bible as a Mirror

"Every war needs killers and they can always be found. We always put ourselves in the skin of the victims and not of their killers - we never put ourselves in the skin of a Nazi or Khmer Rouge.  Yet between them and us there is very little difference, no more than between the victim and us."  (from this post)

Thanks to those who took the time to comment on my last post about those yucky Bible passages. I was nodding my head at times as I read each of them. They are things I've either encountered in this book, The Human Faces of God by Thom Stark, or not so long ago in other books.  It was kind of neat seeing them restated by all of you!

So what does the author suggest we do about those disturbing passages in the Bible?  Instead of glossing over them, ignoring them, or cutting them out of our text, we should retain and condemn them!

His argument throughout the book is that while the Bible may be inspired by God, it is not inerrant. It argues with itself and he believes God wants us to wrestle with the text, with what is stated and then come to just solutions for our societies.

Why acknowledge these texts are there? Why not cut them out completely? Because they are there.  And they shape many of our backgrounds more than we realize. He suggests the Bible is a mirror. It shows the good and bad of human nature.  It shows what we are capable of. What we are capable of justifying in God's name!  How many of us are appalled at radical Muslims who strap bombs to themselves and say "God is greater" right before blowing themselves up and often killing fellow Muslims?  How many of us are stunned that the Crusaders and people today of their same mindset can kill others because they believe God would have it that way?  And Jews who believe the land is theirs and if people are in the way they've got to go. Either they need to leave or face unpleasant consequences.  All because God - the scapegoat - said so. 

The Bible shows not perfect people, but imperfect prophets, kings, patriarchs and ordinary folks. Yes, even amongst the "chosen people."  You want to destroy your enemies? You want to keep virgin women as your own after conquering their people?  OK, write the history and say God commanded it.  Simple as that.

"The Bible reflects our doubt and our mediocrity.  It mirrors our best and worst possible selves. It shows us who we can be, both good and evil, and everything in between."  (pg. 218)

The author quotes John Collins who states, "There is no reason in principle why a text that is shocking might not be inspired. Such a text can raise our moral consciousness by forcing us to confront the fact that immoral actions are often carried out in the name of religion ... Rather than ask whether a text is revealed (and by what criteria could we possibly decide?), it is better to ask whether a text is revelatory, whether we learn something from it about human nature or about the way the world works. A text that is neither historically reliable nor morally edifying...may be all too revelatory about human nature."  (pg. 219)

You may recall this post from the American who was hosting a book club in Kosovo.  I remembered her words this morning as I thought about what to write in this post. 

...Is their bitterness, their fear so great that they could do to Serbs what Serbs did to them?  Could soft-spoken Veton burn a Serb village because his own was burned by Serbs? Would sweet, wide-eyed Enver, who loves basketball and never misses a class, stand by and watch while atrocities were committed?  Could any of these bright, kindhearted young people kill Serbs because they are Serbs?

And if I were in their shoes, what would I be capable of? Have I come to grips with the darkness in my own heart?

Thom Stark in The Human Faces of God believes God can speak to us through the texts. Whether they are passages that inspire us, make us feel the love or shock or disgust us. They mirror humanity, and show us what we are capable of doing to each other.

Feel free to share the texts that inspire or disgust you the most. What do you think of the author's idea that "their status as condemned is exactly their scriptural value"?  Do you think people are capable of all sorts of evil or just the rare few?  Any other thoughts?


Sarah Familia said...

I think most people are capable of terrible evil, if put in the right (wrong?) situation. I was just reading The Dream of the Celt , by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. He talks about the rubber trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Belgian Congo and Peru. Europeans posted there, who were just regular people back home, lost all sense of morality and committed horrible atrocities against the indigenous population.

There is also Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, which chronicles the story of a a police battalion in 1940's Germany that began as normal family-men. Through a gradual process of desensitization, they eventually turned into monsters, massacring entire Jewish villages during WWII. Browning's main thesis is that given a "perfect storm" of prejudice, conformity, and authority, regular people can commit absolutely awful and depraved actions.

I loved the idea you cited that "God wants us to wrestle with the text." Like your quote at the beginning, it is so easy to always cast ourselves as the "good guy" in scriptures. But we need to hold up the less savory parts and see if we can see ourselves in that mirror as well. I also appreciate his meta-point that the very act of justifying our sins in the name of religion is what we can see in the authors of some Biblical stories.

If we're going to judge the different parts of the Bible based on an outside standard, though, it does leave us with the question of whence we derive that standard. That's similar to the question you asked me about how Mormons view the Bible: How do you decide which portions of the Bible (or editorial points of view) are "right" and which are not?

A Mormon answer to that question would involve a couple of elements. We have additional Scriptures (The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price), which are partially designed to clarify and correct the Bible. And we also have a modern-day prophet, who is responsible for both interpreting ancient scripture for our day, and also receiving new revelations.

In the end, I think we have all of these helps (scripture, prophets, wise counsel from other people, even the societal norms that generally keep us out of situations like those that happened in Nazi Germany and the Belgian Congo), but the ultimate aid we have is our conscience and the influence of the Holy Spirit. Even in the books I cited above, there were a few individuals who resisted their circumstances and refused to become what those around them were becoming.

It is ALWAYS possible to transcend one's circumstances and choose to remain true to one's morality. But it takes some humble soul-searching, so we can ferret out those evil tendencies we have, instead of excusing them. And that's where Stark's points are so important. We particularly need to ask those troubling questions about Biblical texts, because they are the same troubling questions we need to ask ourselves.

Frightening though the thought might ultimately be, I believe that one of the purposes of life is for us to find out from our actions who we really are.

Thanks so much for this discussion, Suzanne. It has really made me think. And I am going to look up Stark's book and read it, too.

Wafa said...

Do you think people are capable of all sorts of evil or just the rare few? I would love to say "the rare" but I know that we are way two complicated to even know our capability. I just finished a book that shocked me to the core and made me way sick than I can imagine, to even believe that people are capable of this much !!.

I love the note at the beginning a lot. and I guess we should try to understand those we call "killers and evil" if it's not for them and to try to save them, at least so we can make our world a better place.

Making sense? :)

sanil said...

Fascinating! Thank you for sharing this. I really enjoyed the distinction between revelatory and right, and the idea that something negative might be included so that we can learn to do better.

I definitely think all people are capable of evil, I know I've had some pretty scary impulses a few times in my life. It is important to acknowledge it and do better rather than try to pretend it's not there and let it get out of hand, and I can see how that could be applied to sacred texts. Learn from history so we don't repeat it.

I'm curious about how this might be applied in religions without a sacred text. For example, a lot of pagans today find the ancient myths valuable but don't actually consider them inspired and tend to dismiss uncomfortable stories or turn them into metaphor. I think I'll have fun trying to figure out if there's a good way to use this sort of interpretation for them instead.

Amber said...

Very interesting. I think that all people, put in the right circumstances, are capable of terrible things. Even the exceptions, the people who remain 'good' in terrible situations, to my mind simply haven't been exposed to the factors that would influence them to do something they consider abhorent.

I like the idea of the Bible as a reflection of humanity. It contains good and bad within it, just like every one of us. Which makes sense, since it was born out of us. Whether you think that the Bible was inspired by God or not, it came through humanity. It was filtered through us and it can't help but have been influenced by us.

Susanne said...

Sarah, thank you for your comment. I really enjoyed the examples you provided from books you've recently read. Browning's main thesis seems right on - and somewhat scary. Makes me realize I need to guard my heart from those "perfect storms"!

Thanks, too,for answering my question about how you derive which parts of the Bible to follow and so forth. I know many people who would agree with your thoughts on the Holy Spirit guiding us.

Greatly enjoyed everything about your comment. Lots of good stuff to chew on!

Wafa', good to read something from you again! Yes, I know what you mean.And I think I know what book you are talking about. The recent one you blogged about, right? The honor killing one? That is so awful. It never ceases to amaze me that people can kill their own children or other kin like that!

Sanil, glad you enjoyed this view. I'll be watching your blog to see if you come up with some interpretation for yourself then! :) The author mentioned people who allegorize the texts - like saying it represents the evil impulses we must conquer and wipe out completely. As if the Canaanites and Amalekites are our evil parts and Joshua and the Israelites are our attempts at wiping them out.

Amber, nicely summarized. I actually think you've taught me a lot of this already. I often thought "this sounds like something Amber has said" as I read the book. So, thank you!

Suroor said...

I like it very much, Susie. Thanks for sharing! Makes a lot of sense and definitely a more real and non-apologetic view to sin and humanity. I would also like to believe that prophets were not sinless. Makes them more real and human.

Rebekka @ Becky's Kaleidoscope said...

I definitely think we are all capable of committing atrocities (sadly).

I took a psychology class in secondary school (here in DK secondary school is kind of a mix between the last years of high school and the first years of college). One of the themes were 'the psychology of evil' which dealt with the theories concerning how people could do such evil things. 'Group think' (everyone else does it, reluctance to go against the group norms etc.), 'authority obedience' (i.e., I just did as I was told, they must know what they're talking about since they're experts), and probably the one I think explains the most, the slippery slope of self-justification.

I'm currently reading a book called Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) (I've posted a fair few quotes on FB recently). One of the points the authors make, is that often when we don't know how to make a decision, we're standing at the top of a pyramid. Once we make a decision, we take a small step to either side, but soon we need to justify the decision, the more we justify it the more we slide down the pyramid, so in the end we are standing in the opposite corner of someone who stepped to the other side. E.g., two guys are taking an admittance test to their university of choice, they're both equally intelligent, same background etc. Before the test they both consider cheating wrong, but it's not a huge deal. During the test, there's one question they can't answer, and an opportunity to cheat arises. A huge part of their future depends on passing this test. What do they do? One of the guys cheat - the other doesn't. But what happens now, with two guys who were very similar - at the top of the period - need to justify what they did. The guy who did cheat says it's no big deal, his future and his studies are much more important than one question on a stupid test. The guy who didn't cheat starts to think that cheating is the most abhorrent thing you could ever do, morally wrong and should be punished harshly.

Similarly, whatever choices we make, they are automatically reinforced - because otherwise we might have to admit we were wrong, and that ruins our image of ourselves as good and righteous. Imagine Nazi Germany, when Hitler first came into power, it didn't seem so bad... Sure he said Jews couldn't be a member of the Nazi party, but that wasn't so bad was it... and if they weren't allowed to hold government positions, well really that was pretty fair... and Hitler was a good man who created jobs, and turned the economy of the country around...

We have an old saying in Denmark, 'once you've said a, you must say b'.

People don't start out accepting huge bribes, it starts with accepting a pen... and a lunch, and it sure would be more comfortable to discuss the issues while playing golf...

Slippery slope.

Rebekka @ Becky's Kaleidoscope said...

Okay that was a huge discussion to such a tiny part of your post :P My apologies.

As someone who doesn't see the Bible as divinely inspired, I can still find beauty in certain parts. I can use it to understand the people at the time.

My problem with apologetics, is, as already pointed out, who gets to decide which parts we should use and which we shouldn't?

I think an omniscient God might've been a bit more careful about what he allowed into his Bible - or at the very least be a great deal more specific about how the parts should be interpreted, since clearly certain interpretations have done a great deal of harm in the world.

I find it very disconcerting, that a book which is taken as moral guidance, doesn't for example condemn slavery, rape (which is basically considered stealing, not something done against the woman herself - but against her father), child abuse etc. Like I said before, I can understand these things from a secular point of view, by not seeing the text as divine and holy. I can understand, and not judge the people at the time, since they didn't know better. But I cannot defend calling such texts holy, or divine.