When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.
— Exodus 31:18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
— John 1:1
The issue of homosexuality has turned everyone from the President of the United States to John and Mary Pew-Warmer into amateur theologians and experts on the Bible. It seems appropriate and timely to offer a brief course on hermeneutics. (The interpretation of the Bible.)
THE BIBLE HAS A CULTURAL CONTEXT
Believe it or not, the book of Leviticus has a cultural context. Its admonitions regarding everything from eating lobster to men’s hairstyles have a cultural context. For example, when we read in Leviticus 20:9: “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.” Capital punishment for smart mouth kids has a cultural context. Even the most rabid follow of Jim Dobson would draw the line at killing their child for disrespect. Leviticus was written to a nomadic people try to survive in the desert. There are currently no religious groups using Leviticus as a literal guide to morality and conduct.
THE BIBLE HAS A THEOLOGICAL CONTEXT
When President Bush reminds us, “We are all sinners,” there is no universal consensus as to what that means or if it is true. When Martin Luther tacked a few of his latest ideas to the door of Wittenberg, he did not divide the church theologically, he shattered it. These theological differences did not result in polite academic debate, they resulted in war, bloodshed, and political mayhem. It is impossible to read the Bible without theological bias. Everyone picks and chooses. Even if you have never darkened the door of church you have a theological perspective. The Bible is interpreted both by the passages we read and by the ones we do not.
THE BIBLE IS NOT AN EASY BOOK TO READ
The Bible is not convenient gathering of religious insight; it is a complex conglomeration of history, poetry, and personal correspondence. It is more soap opera than Sunday School. We have the naive notion that we can teach even the youngest child the Bible. Noah is a perfect illustration of that. Go into any church nursery and you will see a poorly rendered ark and Disneyesque animals going two by two into it. The story of Noah is a dark and foreboding story of the day God gave up on the world. I don’t recall my Sunday School teacher reading me Genesis 6:4 … “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days —and also afterward —when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” This is an almost indecipherable passage. Commentators only guess at who or what the Nephilim were. And by the end of the story Mrs. Wilson wants me to draw a rainbow, but not a picture of Noah passed out drunk, naked in the tent.
Even the words of Jesus are complex. It is easy to point piously to the words of Jesus when he says, … “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5) as a simple view on family values. That same Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters —yes, even his own life —he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) It is a difficult saying of Jesus. Anyone who says there is a simple explanation of it does a great disservice to Jesus’ words and to themselves.
THE BIBLE AS SWORD INTO PLOWSHARE
Some of my favorite memories of my father are watching him read the Bible. He wrote copious and indecipherable notes in the margins. He approached the Bible as a mystic not a nitpicker. He truly wanted the words of God to transform his life. And in occasional, oblique ways it did.
I am weary of the Bible being used as a sword by both sides. The warriors of the right brandishing verses that prove as a gay man I am an abomination before God. I am also weary of zealous gay Christians who pour over “clobber passages” and throw back spears of reasonable explanations.
To pick a verse from the Bible and brandish it as a weapon is like reaching into the chest of a man and pulling out his heart to say, “This is a heart!” It will beat for a short time and then die in the hands of the one who holds it. If the Bible has any validity at all, it will be as mystery. It is a beating heart, unseen except for the movement of the chest and kept alive only by keeping it in the context of the entire body.