This scene, from the ever-quotable 1987 film The Princess Bride, perfectly sums up my response to some of the feedback I’m seeing on social media regarding the debate on human sexuality at this year’s United Methodist General Conference. I am not a delegate to this quadrennial event, so I won’t even attempt to summarize the proceedings and decisions (or lack thereof), but I have been following along quite intently on Twitter, which gives a little more insight into the inner thoughts of both delegates and spectators.
I’ve found myself quoting Inigo Montoya as I refresh my Twitter feed. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. I follow a variety of Twitter users, and by following the #UMCGC hashtag, I can see everything tweeted regarding General Conference. Whenever discussions on human sexuality arise, without fail there is someone who says something to the effect of, “The Bible is CLEAR on this issue,” or “If we could only follow the Bible instead of our emotions.” I read another comment that said, “Let’s pray they follow the Bible and not their interpretations!”
The Bible is clear. Just follow the Bible.
You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Sometime during my youth, I remember hearing that the word “Bible” was actually an acronym. Any other church kid remember this?
As someone who now works with children and youth in a church, I can see how the misunderstanding happens. We start from a simple lesson, teaching little ones that the Holy Scriptures have something important to say to our lives. We try to impart Scripture’s authority, specialness, and relevance to a first-grader by simply saying something like, “We must follow what the Bible says.” And then we rely on over-simplified acronyms like the one above.
There’s nothing wrong with that. However, many of us fail to move past that elementary understanding. (I’d argue it’s not even an understanding, but one of many shades of meaning of what the Bible could be.) The reality is: the Bible is not an instruction book. Give it a cursory glance, a quick flip-through, and you’ll see it’s full of stories, poems, and prose. There are no “to do” lists, no step-by-step instructions on how to handle each and every situation or stage in life. (I can hear you now…”What about The Ten Commandments?” Just because you can number them, doesn’t mean that column in the Bible is the full instruction God meant for all people. That was a list of ten ways to describe how God wanted the Israelites to live within the holy bounds of his covenant. It certainly does not address every situation.) Rather, it’s a strange collection of writings, some that contradict each other.
Second, we cannot simply “Follow the Bible.” Which part would you like to follow? Let’s take the Ten Commandments, listed in Exodus 20:1-17. Don’t murder, don’t be jealous, honor your parents…that’s reasonable. I can follow that. What about killing someone who worships another God? That’s in the Bible. What about clothes made with different materials? Can’t do that, it’s in the Bible too. I could go on. But maybe you’re saying, “No, no, Amy. We’re under the ‘new covenant’ of Jesus’ blood and those Mosaic laws don’t apply to us.”
Fine. Shall we go ahead and denounce Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, and the Civil War? (Or as my Atlanta-based cousin has to teach to his students, “The War of Northern Aggression”) Because twice in the New Testament, writers (likely Paul) exhort slaves to obey their masters. And you who say the Bible is clear, do you have a woman preaching at your church? Or even a woman doing the announcements? Or a woman teaching Sunday School? Because the Bible seems pretty clear about all that too.
“But Amy…wasn’t that because the Corinthian church was out of hand? Paul needed them to calm down. That doesn’t apply today!”
Exactly. Here’s the thing: because the Bible began as verbal story-telling, and then became a collection of writings from over hundreds of years, we cannot simply read it and follow every instruction. We must interpret it. In fact, we all naturally interpret the Scriptures through our lens of bias. It’s human nature, we are all naturally biased in some way. We each have a personal worldview through which we interpret all that goes on around us. There is no such thing as an unbiased view of Scripture.
“The Bible is clear on this issue.” “Just follow what the Bible says.”
These are dead-end statements. They lead us nowhere. The Bible is not an instruction book. Stop using that word. We cannot pretend that we do not read the Bible without bias. We are all interpreting the Bible for our own context, even if we think we are not. Interpreting does not necessarily mean that we are making Scripture say what we want it to; certainly we all have read and interpreted Scripture that led us to making changes for the better in all our lives. But we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that we do not interpret Scripture through our personal worldview. In fact, it’s egotistical to assume that we are the ones who hold the “clear” or “right” understanding of Scripture.
Please. Just stop using that word. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.
Let’s get rid of dead-end statements and begin to speak and think more creatively, friends.
EDIT: If you want to chew on this idea even further, consider that the Bible in your hand, bookshelf, or even on your phone is also an interpretation. It was not composed in English, and had to be translated from more than one language. Secondly, many parts of the Bible were composed by putting together fragments of parchment found, like puzzle pieces. Also, ever wonder why there are different “version” of the English Bible, such as the NIV, NRSV, King James, and ESV? Various committees were formed to translate but each committee often used varying sources (the KJV, while lovely and poetic, is likely the most out of date in terms of sources), to translate, and had to make choices about how to translate certain words and phrases. Are all of those steps free from interpretation, bias, or worldview? Certainly not.
Does this mean we throw the Bible out? No. I hold a high view of Scripture, but a very realistic view of my own limited understanding, my own personal bias, as well as the limitations and biases of all who have come before me. My point is this: If you choose to engage in debates or even in-depth conversations about Scripture and this world, using statements like, “The Bible is clear on this…” automatically disqualify you from the opportunity to learn, grow, and love more deeply. After all, a dead-end is what it is.
(Thanks to Abby Cloud for the conversation that sparked this postscript)