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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.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to The Beautifully Ambiguous Bible

  1. michael says:

    Yep, good take. Pretty much what I thought when I read it (and responded to you when you opened this question up on Twitter yesterday).

    However, I think we also need to keep in mind that part of recognizing that the Bible can be ambiguous should, result in our showing grace toward people who get tripped up on those ambiguities. Even if they piss us off. Not that we don’t challenge them, of course. But still, our reaction to them has to be of the same vein that we’re expecting from them in return. Otherwise, an in-kind hatred or denigration of black-and-white types makes “openness to ambiguity” a new fundamentalism.

  2. Michael McDonald says:

    A Beka uses the KJV because they are directly affiliated with Pensacola Christian College, which itself is affiliated with the fundamentalist independent Baptists churches. Karen and I hated the A Beka curriculum. It had so much mindless repetition and memorization of obviously slanted materials. Of course every educational institution has a slant of some sort.

    On the Independent Baptists, there is an interesting if sad story of an Independent Baptist church in Concord NH who “disciplined” a fifteen year old girl who was raped by a member of her congregation. She had to apologize before the church for her “sin” and then the church sent her to Colorado where she had the baby and then put it up for adoption. Fast forward to this month more than 15 years later and she is finally getting a little justice as her case finally went to trial and the perpetrator pled guilty though he still claims the sex with a 15 year old was consensual. Such is the ugly side of Christian fundamentalism.

  3. Phil says:

    I disagree with the statement that the Bible is FULL of ambiguities. The vast majority of information and theology that we’ve gleamed from the Bible is not ambiguous, although some information may seem ambiguous to someone who picks up a Bible and searches for keywords, I guess it’s relative. Of course there are matters that we can not agree upon which are ambiguous, I think we focus on these issues because they are the ones that are so hard to solve and think through and there is no “Thou Shalt Not” easy answer. The small number of issues that we disagree upon, sometimes over shadow all others that we agree upon.

  4. Nate Shields says:

    I am a much happier person, when I ask more questions and open the door a bit further, than recite answers that close the door so tightly. It has taken a while to get comfortable with that.

    Thanks for the ref to the A Beka Bible. I still have mine that my parents gave me (as a requirement of the grammar school I attended, no doubt) when I entered 1st grade. I love that Bible.

  5. Mike Rogers says:

    A couple of terms that are found in the Bible and are not ambiguous are “fornication” which includes sex before marriage, as well as “adultery” which is sex after marriage with some one other than one’s mate. Jesus called “lust” adultery of the heart whether one is married or not.

    • Keith Ross says:

      I agree with Mike. The Bible doesn’t use the word “abortion,” but it does talk about murder. The Bible does use the term “pre-marital sex,” but it does have plenty to say about sexual behavior. While it is true that the Bible is not full of “the rules,” the ones that is has are pretty clear. I think we need to be careful when we start talking about the clarity or the ambiguity of the Bible that we are not, as you say, Jon, “hijacking” the Bible for our own desires.

  6. […] today, Jonathan Fitzgerald of Patrol Magazine posted on the delightful ambiguity of Scripture.  He reflects, as he often does, on his time growing up in Christian environment that was on the […]

  7. Rob says:

    Your general point is worthy–at least for hyper-Protestants, who deem the individual the only authoritative interpreter of Scripture unto himself–but your examples are bad. Is it really all that unclear what the Bible thinks of extra-marital sex? Really?

  8. Johnny says:

    reading down the line, i don’t think jonathan is advocating open-mindedness to the point that brains are falling onto the floor; for pete’s sake, he’s not advocating extramarital affairs with anyone and everyone.
    some of the words i think are worth struggling with. how does one define fornication? how about marriage or adultery? is fornication just sex before marriage? is marriage just a song and dance with the government and church community so two people can have sex with each other and get tax write-offs for it? is adultery just having sex with someone who’s not your spouse? they’re questions worth asking, and if you think mr. fitzgerald’s blog is advocating that kind of open-mindedness about various aspects of sexuality means questioning commitment itself, i politely ask that you reconsider.

    peace to you.

  9. What I took from the article was to look in the Bible for answers as opposed to reciting dos and don’t from a preconceived notion. I appreciate that.

    I have to disagree that the Bible is ambiguous though. A sermon I heard once from a professor at Covenant College (can’t remember his name) said that every word in the Bible is there for a reason. I think the exact quote was “the Bible is not a wordy book”. We may not know why it says the things it does, but I think everything in it has a meaning.

    I also think that the Bible contains clues to it’s secrets. If God did not want us to unlock, or try to unlock Biblical secrets, why would He put clues?

  10. Matt S. says:

    This was really quite good, Fitz.

    I do want to make one point, related to the matter of “ambiguity.” God’s knowledge of himself will always be distinct from our knowledge of him. As such, we don’t possess “absolute” truth. This does not mean that what we know of God is not trustworthy. But it is not an absolute knowledge of God. All knowledge we have of God, even knowledge based on revelation, is “accommodated” to our human understanding, our finitude. There is, then, a kind of ambiguity or limit to anything we can say about God, precisely because we are not-God. I think this is why there are so many “stories” in the Bible. They teach us something about God’s character and intentions toward us while not possessing the finality, abstractness, and clarity that we simply cannot have as beings who are not-God. So even apart from a proper hermeneutics, and the points you make here, there is just a first order humility and nuance we should have based on the fact that everything we can know about God is subject to the limits of not being able to grasp his essence.

  11. Liz says:

    First I’ve heard of A Beka in a long while, outside of local homeschooling families. I must say, A Beka has the best beginning writing, grammar, and phonics curricula I have ever come across, largely because of the rote style of learning that is becoming obsolete. I owe many a high score to their curriculum.

    As to the ambiguity of the Bible, one must remember that we are not reading the original text. We are reading a translation created by another human. When you begin studying the scripture using the original Greek or Hebrew, interpretation problems arise because the original word does not have a single concrete meaning when translated for our understanding. Words and passages become much more conceptual than we arrogant English-speakers, who think the entire world revolves around us, realize. This is why the Holy Spirit has been given to direct our actions and interpretations and why prophets (not the kind that predict the future, but those with the spiritual gift of prophecy) have been placed on this earth.

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