In May, a Utah parent suggested that the Bible, specifically the King James Version, be banned from some of the elementary and middle school libraries in Utah’s Davis Public School District. Leading up to this ban, the parent had argued that the holy book was “one of the most sex-ridden books around” and should, therefore, be considered “indecent” and “pornographic” under a Utah law that aimed to ban books with “pornographic or indecent” material from schools.
Like many book-banning laws around the country, the Utah bill claimed to protect minors or children from exposure to materials deemed inappropriate by their parents and right-wing parent advocacy groups like Utah Parents United. In practice, however, the law actually restricts access to books containing themes dealing with race, gender, and sexuality.
As reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, the parent arguing for the ban of the Bible explained that the book “has ‘no serious values for minors’ because it’s pornographic by our new definition.” The anonymous parent wrote to the school board, “Get this PORN out of our schools,” before listing over eight pages of offending verses that seemed to fit the legislature’s definition of what is considered to be “pornographic or indecent.” (The Utah parent later clarified that the complaint against the Bible was meant as a way to expose a “bad faith process” in the district, rather than any distinct dislike of the biblical text.)
At a 2022 meeting of Utah’s Education Interim Committee, board chair Mark Clement told the legislature, “We’ve had police arrive at a library because someone had reported that there were people peddling pornography to children, which scared our librarians and made them less effective.”
Perhaps that’s why the district’s library review committee initially reviewed the King James Version of the Bible in compliance with the 2022 “Sensitive Materials in Schools” bill. That review led to the removal of the book from the libraries of eight elementary and middle schools in the region “due to vulgarity or violence,” a district spokesperson told NBC News in June. (They have since reversed their decision due to an avalanche of appeals.)
As a practicing Christian who reveres the Bible as a divinely inspired text, I’m not surprised that the committee initially decided to remove the Bible. Because while American Christians may passionately defend our right to read our scripture whenever, wherever, and whether you like it or not, many narratives in the ancient text are troubling for adults to decipher — let alone kids. Another way to say it: The Bible is rated R, not G — as we sometimes like to pretend.
For example, in the first book of the Bible — the book of Genesis — the narrative contains examples of murder (4:1-16), slavery (16:1-6), genocide (19:1-29), incest (19:30-38), child sacrifice (22:1-19), and rape (34:1-2), — even within (supposedly) righteous and God-fearing families. These accounts do not aim to flatter the characters or to paint an idealized image of people from the past. In fact, these narratives do the opposite. The Bible is full of the raw, very human accounts of early humankind who, despite their flaws, are still sought out by God. Their sin does not persuade the Creator to give them up. That, ultimately, is the story of the entire Bible.
Yet the problem with these stories comes not in this blunt record, but in the fact that the writers and redactors of this sacred book do not always offer commentary on these behaviors. This can lead some to believe that these stories are endorsed by Christianity.
Take, for example, the commentary by New Testament writers on the faith of Abraham, the original patriarch of Israel. The author of Hebrews twice commends Abraham, once for his patient endurance (6:15) and once for his faith that God could give him and his wife Sarah a son, though fertility had long passed them by (11:8-12). Likewise, Paul asserts that “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God” (Romans 4:18-21). By these accounts, you’d guess that Abraham was as stoic as a redwood, always trusting and never doubting God’s promise that God would make him “a great nation” (Genesis 12:2).
Yet these passages leave out Hagar, an enslaved woman. Ten years after God promises a son to the infertile couple, Sarah “gives” Hagar to Abraham so that he can “go into [his] slave.” Hagar conceives and she births a son, Ishmael, who is then rejected by Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16). The New Testament authors celebrate the faith of Abraham, but they do not question the fact that he owned slaves nor do they recognize the faith and perseverance of Hagar, who saw God and named God “El-roi” — that is, the “God who sees” (Genesis 16:13).
Added to that, Paul gives specific instructions for enslaved people to “obey their masters” (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22). He also admonishes the runaway Onesimus — enslaved by Philemon — to return to his master, encouraging the two to reconcile without ever explicitly demanding that Philemon free Onesimus. Based on these and other biblical passages, as well as theological writings, a person can certainly walk away from reading the Bible with the belief that it endorses slavery.
The Bible is not “easy reading,” as it has sometimes been painted; the Bible is ancient literature that requires contextual interpretation. Imagine trying to decipher Homer’s Greek epic, The Odyssey, without the help of a skilled linguist who can read Homeric Greek and offer historical context.
Many adult Christians who claim certainty about what the Bible means may misunderstand it because they lack the appropriate tools to contextualize it. And others purposefully misinterpret it to legitimize oppressive politics.
You only need to turn on the television to see a range of misinterpretations on display. In our news cycle, the Bible often pops up as a weapon of war rather than the artistic and literary masterpiece that it is. Consider the last time you caught sight of a Bible verse in the wild: Was it at a Trump rally, claiming that Trump is God’s ordained leader despite his election loss in 2020? Was it on a protester’s sign outside of an abortion clinic as they hassled people entering the clinic for healthcare? Was it a verse plastered on Proud Boy’s merch supporting the Capitol attack? In all these scenarios, the Bible has been twisted to fit oppressive political ends, just as it was twisted to support slavery throughout American history.
None of us can control how anyone else reads the Bible, nor the ends to which they interpret it. But we can encourage a more thoughtful engagement with this ancient story.
Christian parents often shield their children from some of the most troubling biblical passages until they’re “old enough,” meaning that we understand that some passages need greater context and experience to interpret. The Book of Legends, a collection of Jewish rabbinical literature, notes how rabbis once counseled the same, saying that the very first chapter of the Bible should not be read without the guidance of a rabbi unless the reader is already a “sage who is capable of understanding on his own.”
Even the apostle Peter admitted that Paul’s writings often stumped him and that, because of their opacity, “the ignorant and unstable [have] twist[ed] [his words] to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Not much has changed.
Rather than removing the Bible from any place where it might be misinterpreted, we should endeavor to better understand it. The God portrayed in these onion skin pages is a God of justice and mercy, of clarity and mystery. The God of the Bible does not belong to any one person or group, but to those who are seeking a God beyond human categories. As complex as reading the Bible can be, we can choose to embrace the mystery of words written down so long ago — for through them, God is still speaking today.