The division line between the evangelical Christians and the “liberal” Christians can perhaps be defined by how they interpret the Bible. Evangelical Christians tend to treat the Bible literally, and as the “word of God.” Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to take the biblical stories as metaphors, or as myths (although not in a pejorative sense).
Let’s talk about the literal interpretation of the Bible. I have been leading a Bible study group which meets almost every Saturday at my house. I want to take this opportunity to reflect on this experience.
The literal interpretation of the Bible can be silly at times. On this, even many of my evangelical Christian friends would agree. For example, there is a passage in the gospels about Jesus calming the storm:
(Jesus) woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
(Mark 4: 35–41)
A literal interpretation this passage would not make sense. What are the wind and the sea? Are they like puppies for Jesus to command? That interpretation would be a case of animism. Quite frankly, a literal interpretation of the Bible is what many Christian fundamentalists do, and it is childish. But what if we take the opposite approach? What if we treat the Bible as total fiction? Would it be any better?
I recently published an article on the dark side of religion. I made the observation that a prime virtue valued by religious people is obedience. Ever since the first book of the Bible (Genesis), the readers will notice that obedient believers were rewarded while the disobedient ones were punished. In addition, the fear of God is considered as a virtue and the beginning of wisdom. This makes religion particularly dangerous. The believers are not supposed to question or to do their own critical thinking. Dissent, of course, is out of the question. Where is the democratic spirit? Where is the allowance for free inquiry? Obvious, such religious mentality is totally against the scientific spirit and the democratic sentiments in the modern world. According to Genesis, Noah made an offering to God immediately after he and his family got out of the ark, almost as if to forestall another disastrous strike from God. The Bible story also told us that God, after smelling the scent of the meat offered, was pleased and He promised not to wipe out humankind again. What kind of lesson do you think this story would teach to our children? That one should try one’s darndest to appease a tyrant?
A friend who is in the seminary read my article. He complained that I have taken the story too literally. He reminded me that I have “left off an entire swath of mystical, contemplative, and monastic commentary and literature that uses the word play of the Greek and the Hebrew and that plugs into rabbinic sources.” Well, I am actually quite familiar with the complexity of biblical interpretation. Beyond the mystics and contemplatives, there are also the independent theologians and the Bible scholars. My point, however, is that the non-literal interpreters are just a tiny minority. If I have to put a number on it, I would say less than 10%. It is a problem when the vast majority of Christians are totally unaware of what the mystics, the scholars and the theologians understand. But that is precisely the problem with any popular religion. It is the same thing with popular Buddhism too. When we come to the popular level, we are talking the uneducated lowest common denominator. And since many people take religion as the Ultimate Authority, this uneducated understanding can be very dangerous, if not toxic.
We should note also that while the Bible should not be read literally, there is nevertheless some historical contents. Adam may not exist. Abraham may not be a historical person. The same can be said about Noah. Even Jesus may not actually exist. But what is recorded in the Bible is how ancient people used to think. When you read Genesis, you will get an idea of how important it was to have plenty of descendants. You can also see how the primary role of women in those old days was reproduction. A woman’s worth was based on how many offspring she could produce. And that is why Sarai (Sarah) asked Abram(Abraham) to take her Egyptian maid just so that there could be descendants. We can also see that in those days, fertility or infertility was seen as either a blessing or a curse from God. There was virtually no distinction between God and nature in that regard.
And of course, because much of the Old Testament is the recording of the thoughts of ancient people who did not know about modern civility, there is much violence and barbarism — racism, killing, rape, and other atrocities in the name of God. The Book of Joshua, for example, talks about the genocide of the Canaanites, again in the name of God. Did all these atrocities really happen? Or are they more like war propaganda? Whatever is the case, the historicity lies in the fact that these are records of how people thought in those ancient times.
These are complex issues. The Bible should not be read literally. But this does not mean that it is devoid of historical contents either. The historical Jesus may not exist. But the New Testament contains documents of a “Jesus Movement.”
The vast majority of the “biblical Christians” believe that the Bible is the word of God. I was in Bible study group in an evangelical Christian church about a year ago and I questioned why Christians would condone the enslavement of the Africans. The leader of the group told me that the enslavement of blacks was justified because black people are the descendants of Ham, and Ham was cursed because he “saw his father’s nakedness.” I have not returned to that church ever since then. It is for this reason that religion can be very dangerous and divisive. The common people simply lack the training to sort out which is which. When understood incorrectly, the Bible offers divine endorsement to commit atrocities, and all the inhumanities can be justified in the name of God.
There is plenty of barbarism and inhumanity in the Bible. To say that the Bible cannot be taken literally is not an excuse! The Bible is a depository of ancient thoughts, if not also ancient deeds and atrocities.