Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reading the Bible Again (For the First Time)

Most Americans, I suspect, think they are pretty familiar with the Bible. After all, it’s a major sourcebook of Western civilization. And many of us remember the stories we heard in Sunday School: Adam and Eve, the talking snake, and the rest.

But Biblical illiteracy is rampant. Even fundamentalists, who insist that every word of the document is inerrant and divinely inspired, have a hard time naming the five books of Moses from the Old Testament or the four gospels from the New.

Barna, Gallup and other respected polls show many Americans imagine that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! How well do you know the Good Book?

Listening to National Public Radio this morning, I heard a commentator make reference to what he called “Biblical” terms like “hellfire” and “damnation.” Skeptical (and somewhat familiar with scripture), I wondered if those particular terms ever appeared inside its pages.

Here’s the answer, according to the online concordance Bible Gateway, which searches over 100 versions of holy writ by keyword. Neither damnation nor hellfire are words you’ll ever find there.

Nor will you find any reference to the “trinity” in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. There are no hits for “immaculate” or “infallible” or “literal” in the Bible, either. And of course, there is no mention of “incarnation” or “transubstantiation.”

Most of the central dogmas of the church are missing. They were invented centuries after the canon was closed. But surely the moral teachings of the Bible are timeless and clear?

Uh-oh. There are no references to “homosexuality” or “abortion” or “stem cells” in the Bible at all. The labels “Democratic” and “Republican” don’t make any appearance.

Perhaps we should have less preaching and pontificating about the Bible and a little more study of the document! Read accurately, within its own historical context, it is unlikely to support any of the narrow religious or political agendas that are promoted in its name.