I know that I previously mocked the Conservative Bible Project, which probably makes me a not-very-nice person. It’s a hard target to resist, an alluring blend of hubris, dubious principles, and non-sequiturs (since when is gambling a liberal cause?).
But though the project does indeed deserve to be mocked – it is very stupid – it also deserves a serious response.
The project, as it turns out, indulges in an error common not just to conservatives, but to liberal believers and atheists as well. Namely, these conservative ideologues seem to think that the Bible should tell them what they already know, rather than challenge their beliefs.
Just the other day, I received an e-mail from a reader asking if I didn’t think it was hurtful to cite Genesis saying “’It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’” Her point, which is fair enough, is that the passage recreates women’s inequality every time it’s read on Sunday morning.
That might be true, and plenty of feminists have become post-Christians for just that reason. But is it intellectually honest to pretend that such passages don’t exist? The fact of the matter is that the Bible was written across many hundreds of years, in none of which were women considered the equals of men. I at least think that the task for believers who claim scripture as normative is to struggle with that reality, to allow the text to question how our own age treats women. Emending or ignoring difficult passages just lets us off the hook.
It’s much the same problem with atheists who attack scripture for condoning slavery, among other things. Why would God approve of actions that so obviously violate accepted moral standards, they ask?
This begs numerous questions. First (and not to be glibly dismissive), comparisons between the practice of slavery in ancient times and modern slavery are notoriously difficult. That’s not to suggest that somehow it was better back then, only to say that simplistic critics may be surprised to find that they don’t understand what they criticize as well as they thought. That’s a danger for anyone evaluating morals across time, believer or not.
There’s also the question of whether or not God does sanction abhorrent practices in the Bible. Deuteronomy and Leviticus accept and regulate slavery, for example, but the Exodus narrative seems to speak against it. On a more granular level, speaking in God’s name to serve one’s own agenda is time-honored tradition. And Hebrew scripture in particular seems to feel no need to synthesize radically different perspectives. They’re all included, and it’s up to the reader to decide what’s truth and what’s a cautionary tale. Simply stating that God thinks this or that on the basis of a decontextualized verse or chapter is, well, an act of faith, with all the risk that implies.
Last but not least, one has to ask how it is that we come to know “obvious” moral standards? After all, slavery was a commonly accepted practice for the vast majority of human history. It’s only recently that we’ve decided it’s wrong, and not everyone agrees on the point.
Again, the point here isn’t to justify slavery. It’s simply to say that we were wrong about slavery in the past. What’s to say that we won’t get it wrong again in the future, or that we’re not equally, and horrifically, wrong about something else?
As humanity attempts to discern its way forward, then, it might be handy to have some record of its attempts to get it right in the past. The Bible need not be the sole authority on such counts, though obviously some will claim it as their primary source. Nor should anyone be required to agree with the Bible in all its particulars, as if such a thing were possible. The point is that agree or disagree, scripture at least provides a starting point, a way to focus the conversation and make sure that it is just one conversation. For that reason, objectionable texts should not be blithely dismissed or suppressed. It’s far more honest – not to mention faithful – to fight about them!
This is what the Conservative Bible Project misses, like so many other modernist readings of scripture. The good book is not the “eternal, unchanging word of God,” (a phrase you won’t find within its covers), but the record of very fallible people doing the best they can to live up to their faith. Complaining about liberal bias or sexism or gross violation of moral standards in scripture just reveals ignorance, however well intentioned. The Bible’s not there to provide timeless certainty. Far from it. In fact, it’s there to do just the opposite: provoke arguments and unsettle what it is that we think we know.
Because as it turns out, the only way we know, the only way we can know, is through the dangerous process of taking a position and defending it as best we can. The conservatives don’t like gambling, but what else is faith without risk? For that matter, what else is reading? Nothing but arrogance, liberal conservative or unbelieving. Coming to scripture with a sense that one might wrong, though, that’s the most serious approach there is.