The Common Good

Questioning the Bible: What I Would Have Said to Bill Maher

Jim Wallis appears on 'Real Time with Bill Maher'
Jim Wallis appears on 'Real Time with Bill Maher'

Sojourners president Jim Wallis was recently a guest on HBO's  "Real Time with Bill Maher." In the course of the show, Maher confronted Wallis on the Bible, asking him some very pointed questions about some of its more troubling texts. You can watch the exchange HERE.

Maher asks, "How do you reconcile this idea that it all comes from the Bible, but the Bible is so flawed ... I mean, it's just so full of either nonsense or viciousness." In response, Wallis steered the conversation back to the topic of social justice and compassion, often overlooked Biblical mandates. Maher objected several times, accusing Wallis of "cherry-picking the good parts" of the Bible while ignoring the bad parts. 

I'm a big fan of Jim Wallis (heck, I blog for Sojourners!), and I appreciate that he moved the conversation away from Maher's attempted divisiveness and back to caring for the poor and immigration reform in this country. He's totally right that caring for the marginalized should be the priority of us Christians, and I understand that he wanted to stay focused on that.

At the same time, I think the question Bill Maher was raising is an important one, too, because it ultimately has to do with caring for the marginalized as well. That is, when the Bible is read in a hurtful way, it can and has been used throughout history to justify horrendous violence and mistreatment. That matters, and consequently it matters how we read the Bible. So as someone who has focused on confronting those "bad parts" in Scripture, I wanted to take a stab at addressing Maher's questions.

"Explain to me," Maher said, "how a book that's written by God, who's perfect, has so much ... It's pro-slavery, pro-polygamy, it's homophobic, God in the Old Testament is a psychotic mass murder ... and I always say to my religious friends: If a pool had even one turd in it, would you jump in?" 

The implication here is that if we find anything bad in the Bible this would invalidate it all, because it is supposed to be a perfect book written by a single author with one unified voice. 

But that simply is not what the Bible in actuality is. In reality the Bible contains a multitude of conflicting and competing voices, articulating opposing perspectives in the form of an ongoing dispute contained throughout its pages. More concretely, we find an ongoing dispute within the Old Testament between two opposing narratives: The first is a narrative of unquestioning obedience that condemns all questioning (often enforcing this through threat of violence). This is the narrative Maher has zeroed in on. But within those same pages of the Hebrew Bible there is also a persistent opposing counter-narrative that confronts that first narrative as being untrue and unjust, and that upholds questioning  authority in the name of compassion as a virtue.

Jesus and the New Testament as a whole are an extension of this second counter-narrative of protest (which explains why Maher says to Wallis "I'm down with you padre, I think Jesus is a great philosopher"). But what is truly remarkable is not simply the difference between the Old and New Testaments, but that these conflicting voices were included side-by-side within in the Hebrew canon itself. The Old Testament is a record of dispute which makes room for questions by its very nature. 

Because of this, it calls us to enter into that dispute ourselves as we read. In fact, because of its multiple conflicting narratives we simply must choose, we must take sides in the debate, we are forced to embrace some narratives in the Bible and reject others. So I choose to embrace the narrative of compassion and social justice that is found in both Testaments, and reject the narrative of using religion and the Bible to justify violence and oppression, which can be found there, too.

Now is that cherry-picking? No, it's not, and I'll tell you why: Cherry-picking is when you misrepresent the evidence by referring to only the good parts as if they are representative of the whole, while ignoring the bad parts as if they were not there. It's not about choosing the good over the bad; it's about giving a false impression that it's all good and there is no bad. I'm not denying that there are bad parts, and I'm not trying to justify or downplay them. On the contrary, I think it's imperative that we confront them. That confrontation is in fact modeled for us within the pages of the Old Testament, and expanded on further by Jesus who follows in that same prophetic tradition of faithful questioning.

At the end of the interview Jim Wallis concluded, "You can find all kinds of things in the Bible that have led to patriarchy, oppression, violence, division" However, he continued, "you also can point to faith communities at the center of every social reform movement in this country invoking the same Bible for social justice and for peace." I see Wallis here embracing the biblical narrative of social justice and peace, while rejecting the narrative of patriarchy, oppression, violence, division. To that I can add my hearty "amen." 

The difficulty, I think, is that we progressives often feel the need to apologize for making those kinds of choices when we read Scripture — both to those on the religious right who criticize us for not reading the Bible like a fundamentalist, and to those on the anti-religious left like Bill Maher who (ironically) have likewise assumed a fundamentalist reading of the Bible themselves. So what I want to say to my fellow progressives is that we should choose, and that we find a clear biblical precedent and legitimization within in the Hebrew Bible itself for making those choices for justice and compassion, as well as in the way Jesus engaged Scripture — evident in his frequent confrontations with the religious authorities of his own faith who held to the narrative of unquestioning obedience.

A faithful reading of Scripture is therefore not about defending the bad parts of the Bible (whether by seeking to justify or downplay them). On the contrary, a faithful reading entails wrestling with those troubling texts as the biblical authors did themselves. When we are standing up against the voice of authority in the name of the voiceless, we find ourselves in the company of the many counter-voices within the Bible who are doing the same. We find ourselves engaging the Bible in the same way the prophets did, and the same way Jesus did. That's a good place to be. As people of faith, we shouldn't wait for Bill Maher to ask these questions, we should already be wrestling with these troubling texts ourselves. After all, the very name "Israel" means "wrestles with God."

Derek Flood (TheRebelGod.com) is the author of Healing the Gospel and a featured blogger on the Huffington Post.

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