The Bible and Book Banning in Oklahoma

Some lawmakers in Oklahoma and elsewhere are either banning or “researching” which books they’d like to ban. In Oklahoma, a bill currently still alive in the legislative session would make the Bible the official state book.

Why a state needs an official book is one question (we don’t have one now). Which version of the Bible is another matter. (A different bill proposed to require school libraries to accession the 1611 King James version.)

The representative who offered the resolution said:

We are people of great faith.…The Holy Bible is an integral part of numerous faiths and is deeply important to many Oklahomans. Even when we don’t always agree with each other, we always know that we have a foundation higher than politics that we can rely on to remain unshakeable when times are tough.

That statement deserves to be unpacked. “Holy” is a strange word for a state resolution. There is no one “Holy Bible.” How many faiths are included in “numerous?” There are many multiples of interpretations about what constitutes that “foundation higher than politics.” And that foundation, whatever it is, is supposed to be off-limits in official government business. But the question I’d like to explore here is: How does the Bible differ from the books they want to ban?

Following the chronology of the books as arranged in Christian Bibles: the opening chapters involve fratricide (Cain and Abel), genocide (the flood), a curse (Noah on his son Ham) used in pulpits millennia later to justify chattel slavery, attempted deicide (Tower of Babel), and a rape and dismemberment as horrific as anything a Mafia movie could imagine (Judges 19). Don’t forget polygamy (many) and attempted rape (in Sodom).

Abraham passes off his wife as his sister. The man after whom the people is named, Jacob who becomes Israel, was a master deceiver. The greatest leader-heroes commit murder (Moses) or arrange a murder (David) in order to cover his infidelity. The king known for his wise words (Solomon) impressed some of his citizens into deadly slave labor.

These are not models for morality.

A theme that sweeps throughout the whole Bible is not law and order but rebellion against oppression and a God who sides with the suffering rather than upholding the ruling powers. Overlords who use people and create and benefit from inequality and cruelty do not fare well.

There is also that land invasion or taking a promised land (depending on perspective), a story that has been used to justify massive murder and land dispossession far away in time and space (with the U.S. being the chief example).

Have you read the Song of Songs as the erotic love poetry it is rather than as an extended analogy of the relationship between God and Israel or God and the church?

And Jesus, the man who claimed God gave him a message to preach good news to the poor and liberation to the captives. The so-called Lord’s Prayer begins with a Mt. Rushmore sized “taking a knee” in the line: “Your Empire come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” That line is a call for God’s way to replace Rome’s way. Read the Beatitudes, that part of the Bible on which no lawmaker appeals to write legislation. Or the Magnificat as spoken by his mother, with kings tumbling from their thrones.

Jesus lived communally. His parables were all about what we owe to each other in ways richer and different from any appeal to capitalism or “personal responsibility” could create. He was ambiguous, at best, on paying taxes. His attack on the moneychangers seriously bloodied the noses of Jerusalem’s economic elites.

In the framework of today’s attacks on anything and anyone who asks us to consider how we are connected to each other, how freedom for everyone limits my freedom to ”do what I please because this is a free country,” Jesus would surely be labeled a socialist or communist.

On the basis of these examples (and I’m sure some of you could add many more), the Bible should be a candidate for banning (if you are into banning books; I am not).

And, writing as one who has read the Bible for almost 60 years, who spent time learning Greek (somewhat) and taking a biblical Hebrew course (somewhere in the foggy past) in order to read the books of the Bible better, who has preached from the Bible for nearly 50 years, of course: there is a great deal in the Bible to commend it.

The Bible is also soul-searching poetry, stories that reveal the heights and depths of human nature, timeless reflection on suffering and mortality, plumblines for measuring a society according to the way the most vulnerable are treated, and inspiration to finding joy. For Christians, the Bible is also the sole source for stories about who Jesus of Nazareth was, what his ways entail, and his understandings (refracted through the Gospels and through Paul) of who God is. Understandings that are critical for those of us who claim to follow him.

If you judge the social worthiness of the Bible by its worst moments, it might make many lists of banned books. However, take the insight offered by the late New Testament scholar Doug Adams. He said the Bible does not contain models for morality but mirrors for identity.

Just like many great books with disturbing content that should be read.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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