This I Believe

Kenneth - Sacramento, California
Entered on April 22, 2006

Mark Twain was eloquent as ever.

“It is not what I don’t understand about the Bible that bothers me, it’s what I do understand.”

I remember old Twain whenever I read Luke 14:26. That’s where Jesus says you must learn to hate your parents, your children, your brothers and sisters—even yourself.

Bible translations such as the King James, the Revised KJ or the New International Bible are brutally candid about this verse. A few candy-coat it, or slightly change the words.

But just for the record, Jesus was speaking to a large crowd (“multitude”); if he ever had an opportunity to be clear on morality, this was it. Also the Greek word is miseo, which everywhere else in the New Testament always means “hate” in the common sense. Like “I hate going to the dentist,” or “I hate beets.” (Miseo is the root for words like Misogyny and Misanthrope.)

Among conservative Christians, some say Jesus did not really mean to “hate,” simply to “love less” (less than we should love Jesus), or to “let go” (be detached). Or he was trying to shock us with extreme rhetoric, to stir us from our spiritual slumber.

But redefining an inconvenient word simply because of the inconvenience seems circular and selective. When liberal Christians do this, conservatives have a retort: “Cafeteria Christianity.”

Does the context justify redefining Luke 14:26? Alas no. The plain meaning squares well with what Jesus said elsewhere. Like Matt 10:35-36 (he wanted to turn children against their parents), or Matt 10:34-36 and Luke 12:49,51 (his goal was to cause conflict, strife, discord).

In fact, Jesus never said or did anything favoring what the Religious Right now fondly calls “family values.” No word against abortion, for example. And usually he was rather abusive and abrasive towards his mother Mary. Like in John 2, he snaps at her, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” When one poor fellow’s father passed away, and wanted to give his dad a decent burial, Jesus retorted, “Oh, forget him, let the dead bury the dead!” (Matt 8:20).

Wrestling with such problems has led me to a shocking conclusion, one that now, in retrospect, seems obvious. The morality, the holiness and the righteousness I once saw in the Bible simply is not present in the literal text.

Rather, it comes from us, from our hearts. We read it into the Bible, we interpret it that way—as we might see faces in the clouds or omens in tea leaves.

In this sense, the Bible is the biggest Rorschach Ink Blot test ever.

Perhaps that is why over 33,830 different Christian denominations and sects exist today (according to the World Christian Encyclopedia), bickering over what the Bible “really” means.

I believe it is OK to interpret and redefine, if our heart and reason truly lead us. But we should be honest about it. Honest too that we can do the same to any other complex book, like the Koran or the Mahabaratta, the Elder Edda or Finnegan’s Wake.

I still love the Bible. It is grand literature, and even has fragments of history.

But just on a moral level, it’s cabbage.

As in II Kings 2:23-24, where God sends a she-bear to tear apart 42 children, limb from limb, simply for teasing Elijah about his bald head. Or Judges 11:30-32,34,39, where God accepts the human sacrifice of a man’s daughter. Or II Sam 21:1,8,9,14, where God accepts the sacrifice by dismemberment of seven innocent men to remove a famine. Or Psalms 137:9, which proclaims happiness for those who dash little children against rocks. Or Num 31:17-18, where Moses ordered the slaughter of innocent women and children, but told his officers to keep the little virgin girls alive for their own personal use.

There are good parts too, such as the Golden Rule, but these usually derive from earlier faiths. And they come all bundled with other parts reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosh on drugs. (For example, in Ex. 4, when God told Moses to go to Egypt to free the Israelites, and Moses agreed, why in the next verse did God try to kill Moses? Or in Matt 1 vs. Luke 3, why does the Bible give two contradictory genealogies for Jesus, both by lines of male descent? Or why is the story of Jesus so much like the story of Mithra, from over 600 years earlier?)

Believers have spilled gallons of ink trying to explain such problems. How much simpler to recognize the Bible for what it clearly is: a cluster or bundling of many folklores, mythical traditions and cultural views, wrapped around maybe a few grains of truth.

Or in the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, an honest Christian:

“I can’t believe that anyone who had read this book would be so foolish as to proclaim that the Bible in every word was the divinely inspired, inerrant word of God. Have these people simply not read the text? Are they hopelessly uninformed? Is there a different Bible? Are they blinded by ego needs and naiveté?”

Hear hear!