I'm in the waiting room
Can't see for the smoke
I think of you and your holy book
While the rest of us choke
– “When I Look at the World,” U2
Don’t worry about the various English translations of the Bible and scholarly attacks on traditional Judaism and Christianity. Instead, worry about the diversity of opinion about what the Bible means.
Interpretation of any kind of text might be too big of a topic for a journalistic column.
But moral outrage is a perfectly suitable topic.
According to BBC News,
A South Korean couple have been arrested on suspicion of beating their three children to death to cure them of a "demonic illness", police say.
The children - five, eight and 10 years old - were found beaten and starved to death at a vicarage in South Cholla province.
Police arrested a 43-year-old "pastor" who had set up a "church" - and his wife.
The couple believed that the children's illness was caused by demons….
The parents had said that they had repeatedly beaten the children to cure them of a flu-like illness that they believed was caused by demons. The children's hands had been bound.
I’m not willing to think of certain things as culturally relative – child abuse, for instance, or child killing.
Of course, the Bible – that combo of Old Testament and New Testament – includes passages on correcting children. The Bible also tells stories about evil spirits – demons – that can possess and dominate people.
Yes, again, interpretation of any kind of text is probably too big of a topic for a journalistic column.
But when someone takes the Bible and religious beliefs and molds them into a reason to kill his own children, we have a significant problem – one made even more significant by the dominance of Christianity in the United States, and especially in the South.
Interpretation of sacred texts – and its impact on everyday life – isn’t just a far-away issue. About 17 years ago, WTVD-News Channel 11 in Raleigh, N.C., reported on a church with a style of exorcism that involved screaming at supposedly possessed congregants. Long sessions of screaming were supposed to cast out devils. I remembered that report when I read the BBC News article about the South Korean pastor and his wife.
Nowadays, take a drive on S.C. 378 from Conway to Columbia. Count the number of churches along the way. I’m not accusing them of violence, but guess how many different Biblical interpretations they might represent.
Of course I don’t know how many interpretations in any definitive sense, but I can justify my despair: In the 1990s, according to a United Nations estimate, Protestant denominations alone, globally, numbered around 30,000.
A more recent -- and broader -- number comes from the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200, which counts 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world.
"Over half of them are independent churches that are not interested in linking with big denominations," the encyclopedia says.
So, some of those denominations are redundant or similar in belief and practice, no doubt.
But if there were only 34 differences -- two figures instead of five -- among Bible-based religions, would that be any saner?
In a sense, yes. In a sense, no. I would be willing to bet many of these Protestant differences are matters of culture and geography – as well as matters of interpreting the Bible.
I can imagine some people reading this and saying, “Oh, so he thinks the Bible is the problem.” Not really. I’ve known abusive people who turn to the Bible daily, and I’ve known loving people who turn to the Bible daily.
What do I think the problem is?
The problem is the difference between the advertised benefits of Bible reading and what actually happens among Bible readers.
Bible reading is said to make a person into a morally stronger, spiritually healthier, more loving individual. Bible reading is said to make people happier and wiser. Bible reading has been acknowledged as the source of everything from instant guidance to get-rich-quick schemes.
Maybe it’s just because I went to Christian grade schools (except second grade) and churches all of my life, but I think the Bible readers look pretty much like the general population – good and bad, pretty and ugly, hopeful and despairing, selfish and giving, evil and wonderful.
Furthermore, the benefits of reading the Bible are advocated in terms that are narrowly defined and tighly focused, while the interpretations are broad and varied.
One person believes the actual body and blood of Christ materializes in the bread and wine of Holy Communion; another person believes in beating children until they die. Of course those two things aren't in the same category -- but who actually knows that?
When the Bible can mean anything, anything goes.
Maybe we can say this much here: Interpretation largely rests in the intentions of, and the influences on, the person doing the interpreting. Some passages are contextualized; some passages are taken at face value.
That would be the norm with handling ancient literature, but the people selectively contextualizing and selectively taking words at face value usually aren't trained in understanding ancient texts.
That goes for just about everyone, believers and skeptics and unbelievers and street preachers alike.
But still, many evangelicals talk like people should just read their Bibles and everything will be fine.
Ask the spirits of those three dead South Korean children about the benefits of their parents' Bible reading.
Maybe a little more work needs to be done on contextualizing how we read the Bible.
A 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once wrote, “People hardly ever make use of the freedom they have, that is, freedom of thought, and instead demand freedom of speech as compensation.”
Today, some Bible readers demand freedom of interpretation as a compensation for their own failure to think.
-Colin Foote Burch