Jul  2016 26
Do You Muddle?

How do Americans use the Bible to interpret American public life? Your answer says a lot about both how you view the Bible and what you think about life in the U.S.

One answer is: “I am an adherent of a non-biblical religion and I use another book, or a different set of stories and principles, to reflect on American public life.”

A second response is from atheists who believe religious faith has no place in the public realm. “Religion belongs in the dust-bin of history. If you are sufficiently under-evolved that you actually believe in some Higher Power, at least have enough sense to keep your religion private. Public life should be conducted without religion. Leave your Bible, your faith-inspired morals and ethics, at home. Better yet, evolve and leave the crutch of faith behind.”

Rebuking faith-in-public is not new. The stance goes back at least as far as the European Enlightenment and trust in human reason. But the position has grown in the U.S. during the last 35 years of the bad-for-Christianity alignment of conservative Christianity and the Republican Southern strategy, during which a sometimes violent culture war has been waged. 

A third option lives at the very end of conservative Protestant Christianity: the Reconstructionist Biblicist position. According to this point of view, the Bible is THE ONE, THE ONLY book of truth. 

As a book of truth, the Bible is a book of faith, history, and science. The Bible contains the one true understanding of God, the one key to understanding how God created the world and how to identify the unchangeable moral law God sowed into the Universe. There is no legitimate, moral, or godly nation, policy, law, or form of governance that is not directly derived from scripture. The Old Testament, in particular, contains the laws that every society on earth needs to follow.

If the Bible says one should stone a disobedient child, then that should be the law of the land. The U.S. per se, the Constitution, a ruling of the Supreme Court, any particular law, any particular judicial decision is valid and should be followed only if that law agrees with the Bible. The democratic process is legitimate only if alignment with God’s law results. If there is any disagreement with God’s law so understood, true Christians have an obligation to disobey, seek to change the law, or nullify the errant law or official. 

There are very few Reconstructionists in the U.S., but their ideas have influenced everything from persons who assault abortion doctors and clinics, to local school board textbook decisions, to anti-federalist and anti-tax positions, to lawyers educated at particular law schools (such as at Regent University) and how those lawyers, funded by powerful think-tanks, argue their cases.

Thankfully, most of the Christian populace does not live at the extreme.

But most of the populace also does not give much thought to how the Bible should be used to interpret American public life. Survey research consistently shows that American revere the Bible more than we read it; we claim it is really important a great deal more than we demonstrate its importance by learning how to interpret it responsibly and meaningfully.   

Seminaries like Phillips promote a third category of options for using the Bible to interpret American public life is what I’m going to call “the muddled middle.” In using the term “muddled,” I don’t mean “muddied middle,” as if one’s position is muddy, incoherent, or confused. Persons, and the occasional seminary, on an extreme end love the purity of their “Bible only” position and would use “muddle” as a slur. Fine.

I’m using “muddle” in the sense that bartenders use it. To muddle is to take a tool, called a muddler, and press a fruit or herb in the bottom of a glass, crushing leaves, releasing their oils and scents, and mixing them with sugar or salt or bitters.
The result is the basis for a wonderfully infused-with-flavor cocktail.

The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is not a book of history, understanding history in any modern way. The Bible’s authors, dealing with this or that Empire, and often with the foot of some Empire pushed heavily against the People’s throat, did not envision democracy with it multiple promises and problems, or modern economics. For becoming wise in the practice of democracy, or how to think about globally-connected market economies, we should employ sources of knowledge and insight in addition to the Bible.

I muddle the Bible with other sources of knowledge to interpret American life. The Bible is a book of faith, a collection of books of stories and interpretations from particular times and places, of who and what humanity is, of who and what God is, and of the relationship between a people and God. Each book of the Bible, and the Bible as a whole, is an interpretation of a relationship that requires a living interpretive community.

My self-understanding as an interpreter of the Bible is that I am a muddler. In the bottom of my glass, I have as many fields of knowledge as I can fit and I muddle the Bible into the mix. Not everything in the Bible, but my interpretation (shared by a community of interpreters) of what in Bible truly reveals God.

From the Bible, I understand that God is love, that grace is God’s self-giving, that human beings distort love and desire in self-serving ways (sin), that justice is the social expression of love, that grace + repentance + forgiveness repairs broken relationships, and that strong persons are grown in strong communities. These are the herbs I infuse into my interpretative cocktail for understanding American public life—or life per se, for that matter.

Yes, this is an interpretation! Yes, EVERYONE interprets, even those who claim the Bible is their ONLY book.

How do you use the Bible to interpret American public life?

Do you muddle?

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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