I went to a tiny church school from first to seventh grade. It used the A Beka Book school curriculum, which, although it worked out okay for me, I’ll go on record as saying, was mostly awful. My wife makes fun of me all the time for never having read any non-Christian children books. She says I’m deprived. She’s probably right.
Anyway, for some reason that I’ve still never figured out, A Beka used the King James Version of the Bible as their translation of choice. This always seemed strange, particularly since most people in my church at that time were pretty psyched about the NIV version. I’m happy they chose the KJV though, as I attribute my life-long love of the English language to its beautiful text. There are verses and passages still lodged in my head from all the years of rote memorization.
I distinctly remember flipping through my blue faux-leather bound KJV (A Beka still sells it, I was happy to discover) during Bible class in attempt to look past all the stories I had been learning, and directly to the rules the Bible was supposed to contain. In my mind, I was done reading the Bible like a child, and I wanted to know it like an adult. Stories, I thought, were just to get kids interested; adults used the Bible for all the rules it contained.
This search was typically fruitless. Yes, there are some rules for living in the Bible; there are the Ten Commandments, the whole book of Leviticus, some sayings of Jesus in between all his stories, and Paul’s prescriptions, but mostly, I found, that blue book with gold leafed pages is full of stories. Useless, useless stories.
I’m happy I’ve grown out of this view and that I can look back on those years and laugh. Somehow, despite my logical young mind, I grew a deep appreciation, again, for the language of the KJV, but also for the beautiful, meaningful, and, ultimately, instructional stories of the Old and New Testaments. But, in order to get here, I had to become comfortable with ambiguity. Even as late as (Christian) college, I remember friends searching the online versions of scripture for any specific rules about – what else – sex before marriage. They were both disappointed and relieved to find that the phrase “premarital sex” never appears in scripture.
I thought of this all recently as I read New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof’s “Religion and Sex Quiz.” In it, he’s riffing on the much-discussed book by Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts. Both Kristof and Knust find, shockingly, that the Bible isn’t as explicit on sexual morality as we’d like it to be. Kristof’s quiz includes questions about marriage, homosexuality, divorce, and erotic writing.
Knust’s book, though it is supposed to seem controversial, hasn’t really struck me as all that surprising, or even interesting. I learned a long time ago that ambiguity is a part of the Bible, that interpretation is a necessary part of reading scripture. But what is interesting is the way Kristof here uses Knust’s conclusions (and Knust herself may do the same, I haven’t read the book) in a very similar way to those on the other side, those that would suggest that scripture is full of clear do’s and do not’s about sex.
That is, both sides are using scripture to advance an agenda and make a half-baked point. Does the Bible mention abortion? No. Does that make the issue any less complicated? Of course not.
Kristoff acknowledges this in his explanation of Knust’s book. He notes, “The Bible’s teachings about sexuality are murky and inconsistent and prone to being hijacked by ideologues,” before adding, parenthetically, “this quiz involves some cherry-picking of my own.”
Of course the Bible, like any written text, can be used to make any number of points. But the question is, should it be used in such a way? This question, I admit, at this point is fairly ridiculous. It’s too late. It is used this way all the time. I think there is great value, though, in pausing from time to time to remember what we’re talking about when we talk about the Bible. It’s a collection of books, most of which contain stories. It was written and collected over millennia. Those of us who are Christians believe God inspired both its creation and compilation, but this does not change the fact that because it is an ancient written text, it is full of ambiguities; it is open to interpretation. Further, and rather importantly, its very existence, beyond even what it contains, tells us something about the nature of God. That is, God values the written word; he works through interpretation; he is comfortable with ambiguity.
And, so should we be. Because you know what happens when people start assuming they can unlock Biblical secrets, don’t you? Armageddon doesn’t happen.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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