Yes, I know those verses. But why don’t you tell me what they are anyway? There’s nothing I love more than a good old-fashioned verse war. You know, that game where Christians retrieve and deploy the verses that affirm their current beliefs and values to take down their theologically-misguided opponents.
A dash of I Corinthians here, a dash of Genesis there. While it sure seems like you—verse warrior—are selectively hurling Biblical texts at me that affirm you and your ideas, you know you are simply and kindly pointing me toward Truth.
Boy, I really feel for the Bible. Poor Bible. If the Bible were a human, even the most racist, oppressive, violent, commodifying, and manipulative person would feel sympathy for what the Bible has had to endure. Abuse. Twisting. Selective listening. Self-serving agendas. Used to bully and pick on others against its will. Misrepresentation.
I’ve heard all the “clobber passages”—those texts used to condemn the identity and love of my LGBTQ+ friends. But for me, countering those passages with alternative interpretations to show how they do not, in fact, condemn what you say they condemn, does not feel like the best way forward.
If I defend the sacredness of my LGBTQ+ friends’ sexual and gender identities against these hateful (or made-out-to-be-hateful) passages by showing how those texts really meant something else, I might just needlessly be playing by the rules of my opponent. If someone told me, “well Leviticus says that ‘it is an abomination’ and Paul says it is “unnatural,’” you know what I’d say?
I love the Bible. LOVE it. Do you believe me? I take it so seriously. Probably too seriously! I should really get out more and stop taking the Bible so seriously. And to take the Bible seriously is to see it for what it is and what it is not.
The Bible is not an elaborately coded and coordinated document, created by God by opening the skulls of its writers, dumping in a bunch of information, re-sealing said skulls, and then watching as its puppet writers craft texts that merely appear to have a context, appear to have agendas, appear to be situated in the cultural worldview of their writers, but which actually contain important core messages written directly to you and me that we just have to discover like we are on a treasure hunt.
Messages like “humans are totally depraved” or “you go to heaven or hell when you die” or “men should not marry men” or “the Bible is inerrant and infallible, when it’s convenient for you.”
Actually, the Bible is messy. The Bible contradicts itself. Parts of the Bible are written by people who hated their enemies and wanted them dead, and so assumed God probably did too. Parts of the Bible are written by people who thought the world was literally about to end.
Parts of the Bible are written by people who may have been misogynists and racists, “innocent” as it might have been. Parts of the Bible are polemical, written by people in the midst of conflict within churches and between churches. Parts of the Bible are written by people who revised earlier versions of texts to fit them to new situations.
But I love the Bible. Because it’s real. It’s raw. It shows the pain of people without a home. It highlights the foibles of disciples doing their darndest. It demonstrates relentless hope, a hope that continues on even when previous hopes were unfulfilled and new hopes need to be formed. It is written from places of grief. It reveals the search for meaning in the midst of lives helplessly borne about by powers greater than themselves.
And yet, I can’t help but feel the providential care of God throughout the Bible, even if the Bible is at times very human (and not in a good way). At the center of this messy collection of histories, poems, and letters is the Love of God, manifesting in countless ways but most potently in the person of Jesus.
My starting point for reading the Bible is…well…myself. Let’s be honest. My primary authority in approaching Scripture is my present mix of beliefs, experiences, hopes, anxieties, expectations, and so on. It is to these things that I display most allegiance when I open a Bible. I can’t help it. I assume this is true for you too, though if you have a more evangelical experience of the Christian faith, you might claim that the Bible is your ultimate authority.
I hesitate to question someone’s claims about what they have experienced. But…listen: the Bible is probably not your ultimate authority. History is filled with competing interpretations of the Bible about a variety of topics. You don’t follow the Bible, if that means other Bible-guided Christians don’t. You are guided by your experience of the Bible, as it has been shaped by your participation in the Christian communities of which you have been a part, authors you like, or formative and unique life experiences.
My experience with Scripture has revealed a central message that is at once complex and understandable, easy and difficult: Love. By central message, I don’t mean something deliberate, of course. But as the writers of Scripture try to put into words their experience of the Ultimate, the Transcendent, the Sacred, the Other, or simply try to solve problems and put out fires, a common theme emerges: Love.
Love is the throughline of the Bible. Particularly the Love I see in Yahweh’s impulse toward justice and Jesus’s impulse to care for “the least of these”—two expressions of love in continuity with each other. When I sniff unlove being promoted in Scripture, I don’t need to do tricky interpretative gymnastics to make the smell go away. I simply name it for what it is: a mistake. A projection. A misunderstanding. A deviation.
When it is claimed that God wipes out large numbers of people or wishes the death of Israel’s enemies, I say “nope.” Such passages are not a testimony to the power and freedom of God, as one might allege. But they can be received by us as cautionary tales about nationalism, resentment, and self-preservation.
When it is claimed that one must fulfill certain requirements—like the requirement of “confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord”—to avoid one’s default doom of eternal torment, I say “nope.” Either I feel little need to give such theological weight to what Paul says—extraordinary saint, writer and spiritual caregiver though he may be—or I question our modern projections onto ancient documents, where we assume, in this case, that such confession is about intellectual assent to doctrines and possibly overly personalized such that the power of its social critique is lost.
I believe the Bible does not condemn same-sex marriage, transgender individuals, or any other kind of gender or sexual identity that, when lived, upholds values like respect, care, and kindness. In other words, sexual abuse, for example, is uncaring, unkind, and disrespectful (among other things). Marrying someone of your same gender is none of these things, unless you count the “disrespect” of which one might be accused by troubled family members who feel their child has lost their way.
No, you condemn these things, not the Bible.
But why do you do it? What’s at stake?
Maybe you condemn these things because you just find them unpalatable, distasteful, much like how I do not care for pickles (though I have come to like some other pickled foods). If so, pay attention to this.
Maybe you condemn these things because you think they undermine the purpose of marriage. Well, what’s the purpose of marriage? I mean, what’s it for? Don’t say “childbearing,” because not everyone can bear children. Don’t say “for a man and a woman to be united,” because how much of your heterosexual marriage has anything to do with the fact that you are a man or a woman? Does this really factor into most of the hours that make up your married life? That one of you has a penis and one a vagina? If you notice you are not sure what the purpose of marriage is, pay attention to this.
Maybe you condemn these things because they’re new to you. How many of us cling to our comfortable patterns and routines? Our fundamental and often healthy instinct to preserve what we know can also make us reactive to the threat of the “new.” We fear that what is emerging will threaten us in some way. And so as you become anxious, you ask the Bible to relieve this anxiety with a few scattered verses, even if the Bible is not up to the task. If you’re afraid of change or what you do not yet understand, pay attention to this.
Maybe you condemn these things because if you don’t, you’ll lose someone. Maybe you fear you’ll disappoint your father if you reveal you are an ally of LGBTQ+ individuals, because that’s not how he raised you. Maybe you have a small group of individuals that has nurtured your faith, and you would become an outcast among them. If you are condemning the self-giving, caring, courageous love of someone because you are afraid of losing your own social connections, pay attention to this.
Maybe you condemn these things because you are unsure of your own sexuality. Speaking to men, which is more comfortable for me on this matter: maybe you have a strong sense of your identity as a very masculine man; and maybe you’ve even cultivated this masculine persona in part as a counter to the threat of—I don’t know—becoming effeminate, soft, gentle, etc. Maybe some of your condemnation is actually an attempt to safeguard masculinity as you understand it. If the reality is that our gender identity is not so clear-cut, that we are more on a spectrum, even, then perhaps other gay men or trans women, for example, cause you a great deal of angst. If you are unsure of yourself, pay attention to this.
Maybe you condemn these things because you are illogical. You make slippery slope arguments, arguing that being gay is just one step on the way to something truly awful, like putting ketchup on your ice cream. You make shallow appeals to history, like “this is how we’ve always done it,” as though that’s evidence for avoiding a massive transformation of our thinking (um, slavery?). You mistake a human rights issue for an “agenda,” and assume that what is simply a plea for respect, kindness, and fairness is actually a sinister takeover of your way of life. If you are being intellectually irresponsible, pay attention to this.
The Bible is my normative text. It is foundational for my faith. I preach from it every week. It constantly challenges me, often calling me to be different and better than I am, on multiple levels.
But there is a Spirit behind the Bible that guides individuals to live lives of love. I see it in Jesus, constantly. I often see it in the other writers of the Bible, though sometimes I have to squint to see it past their own concerns, anxieties, biases, hopes, expectations and agendas. This Spirit continues to manifest and transform today where people follow its leadings of Love.
The Bible is not always clear. And this is okay! Its point is not to be clear for you, contemporary reader. In fact, it might not even be accurate to say the Bible has a point. It may testify to the God of all things who is Love, and to Jesus as an incarnation of this Ultimate Reality of creative, gracious, relentless Love. But it doesn’t have a point, as though an individual in charge seamlessly tied it altogether.
But I do see in the Bible a common thread: the Love of God, breaking into the world, sometimes more strongly than in other places.
So read the Bible. Listen to it. Savor it. Let it transform you. Come to it with an open mind, ready to learn something new, see something new, be changed.
Practice, as an experiment, reading through some portions as if you know absolutely nothing about God or Jesus or the spiritual life, and do not be afraid. Try reading it as though you were a different gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status. Pretend Jesus is a villain and others are the good guys and see what happens. Play with the Bible. Pray through the Bible.
But be kind to the Bible. It is fatigued. It is tired of reinforcing our prejudices through our complex and inconsistent pattern of selective literalism, in which we conveniently ignore passages we have declared no longer relevant but lean into the ones that help us condemn the things we don’t like.
Please don’t say the Bible condemns the identity and love of my LGBTQ+ friends, as though that relieves you of the burden of being condemning. Then it’s not you that’s responsible for your condemnation, it’s the Bible, and you are just following orders, so I should take it up with God. Right?
Instead, just say that you condemn whatever it is you condemn. Tell me the truth: you just don’t like it. For that, I would have no counterargument. But I would celebrate your honesty.