In my last post, I talked about the “secret” history of Red Alabama, and how that history gets sanitized. How we sanitize history is the subject of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which argues that how we teach history affects our thinking and our politics. There is a similar “secret” history of biblical interpretation, which also affects both our thinking and our politics.
I’m doing a Bible study called “Your Vulgar Bible” on Monday nights in a local pub. I’m sharing the stories and passages that don’t get preached. These are stories that do not get shared, either from the pulpit or in Sunday schools, and so people get a skewed vision of the Bible.
I argue that there are three ways the Bible gets censored:
- In translation. Translators often make ambiguous passages more explicit, and explicit passages more ambiguous. When Saul calls Jonathan the “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” who is a “shame to [his] mother’s nakedness,” he is not making a claim about Jonathan’s parentage. He’s insulting him, calling him a son of a bitch. While “bitch” might not be a literal translation, “perverse and rebellious woman” conveniently hides the gist in such a way that it will not shock the people in the pews. Likewise, when Rehoboam’s friends make derogatory statements about the size of Solomon’s genitals (and thus his manliness), we can translate the phrase in such a way that makes readers think we’re talking about his waist circumference. In both cases, we’ve gone very literal in order to hide the meaning. It’s possible to censor the latter passage by going very vague. Either way, you hide the scandal of the language used. That’s censorship.
- In selection. Some passages simply never appear in the lectionary or sermon series, nobody talks about them in Sunday school lessons or devotionals, and they just don’t come up. This is like the history of Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, or the fact that Birmingham was once a hotbed of communist agitation. There are people who know these facts exist, and choose to avoid the topics when they teach them. If we talk about the fact that there is cussin’ in the Bible, or allusions to sex outside of marriage, then the very categories we use to think about the world get called into question. It’s easier to never talk about it than to let it challenge us. We tell only part of the story, or don’t tell the story at all.
- In interpretation. We can read some passages a thousand times and never pay attention to what is being said, because we skew the interpretation to be about something more palatable. When Paul talks about the church as the Body of Christ, he is likely not the first to do so. What he does with the metaphor, though, is to twist it in such a way as to make a point: “The church members you dislike,” argues Paul, “may be assholes, but would you want to live without yours?” Paul refers to “body parts with less honor” that we “cover up,” When these less honorable body parts rejoice, all the body rejoices, he says. His hearers would have known he was talking about sex.
Most contemporary church people never hear the subtext of Paul’s passage, though. Paul figured his listeners 2000 years ago were smart enough to figure it out. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Bible, a lot of preaching makes us dumber! When we never hear alternative interpretations, we are less likely to hear delightful subtext, allusion, double entendre, humor… in short, everything that makes reading fun. This is why so many nonreligious people think the Bible is full of dry-as-dust moralistic writing.
Like the story about Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, these aspects of the Bible are lies by omission. We are sold a vision of history—and the Bible—that is shaped by an ideology, a narrative that censors every voice that might contradict it. When we buy into that narrative without question, we rob the Bible of its ability to shock and challenge us. We silence the voices of its authors by setting the Bible up on a pedestal. Rather than let them speak, we talk over them, drowning out their own words with ours.
I would also argue that we silence God. It is hard for me to comprehend how white Christians in slave states in the South could have read the book of Exodus without casting themselves in the role of the Egyptians, or how child-labor supporters and anti-suffragists and Jim Crow supporters could ever read the Bible and simply not hear prophetic calls for justice for orphans, widows, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet they did.
And they do. Because of biblical censorship, people will continue to “look without seeing” and “hear without understanding.” These are the folks who claim to read the Bible literally and believe every word. Yet the Bible they believe in is missing most of its pages.
Letting God speak through the authors takes a willingness to expose ourselves to other interpretations. We have to be willing to make a claim, test a hypothesis, and admit that we are wrong. All of this happens in the context of conversation! Jewish sages have been doing this for centuries, like Hillel and Shimmei, wrangling over what it means to “honor the Sabbath.” Our faith encounter with the Bible has always been dialogical, and part of my mission is to resist attempts to turn it into a monologue.