In Unprotected Texts, Jennifer Wright Knust reviews the internal complexity of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Many voices, communities, and perspectives are part of the anthology we now call “the Bible,” and these many perspectives sit side-by-side, sometimes rather uncomfortably.
The Bible’s polyvalence—its many-sidedness—isn’t something that only anti-religious readers perceive. Over centuries, Biblical scholars have noted it too. Scholars and believers just vary on how they interpret that textual evidence and what conclusions they draw from it about God.
As Drs. Jean Sheldon and Olive Hemmings have said, the concepts of God that religious people take from their scriptures have significant consequences for how we perceive each other and the quality of community that we build together. We don’t rise higher than the level of our gods, and that can be devastating when, as Sheldon shows, our gods are violent, destructive, capricious, or fundamentally untrustworthy.
So when we read the stories of our scriptures, we’re not just reading stories. We’re engaging other and ancient cultures, interpreting their values, mapping our ideals onto our own worlds of experience. We’re responsible for the meanings we assign to their texts, and we’re accountable for whatever the texts inspire in us: we don’t get to blame the text or praise the text for our ethical decisions.
“Ignoring the passages we don’t like and holding onto the passages we love will not make what we hate go away,” Knust writes:
The Bible is complicated enough, ancient enough, and flexible enough to support an almost endless set of interpretive agendas. That’s why abolitionists could find inspiration in the Bible’s pages despite centuries of biblically sanctioned argumentation in favor of the enslavement of fellow human beings… We ourselves must decide what kind of people we will become [and] how best to love one another.”
Does humanity’s future depend on us properly stewarding this responsibility? I say yes.
An increasing number of people disaffiliate from denominations and other forms of organized religion each year. Yet religions and spiritualities still deeply influence individuals and the societies we shape.
In the Christian epistle James is a definition of “true religion”: caring for the vulnerable and refusing to be overrun by the small-hearted and dominating customary ways of the world. If this definition is valid, true religion is a call for us to be totally and faith-fully engaged with all that means life and all that makes good tangible for real people. True religion isn’t like a strong drink: it’s not an escape; it’s rather a call to step up with others impartially and for all our sakes.
For people in text-influenced religions like me, responsibility includes how we read our central texts and apply them to each other and the core issues of our time. For all the havoc and folly we people of faith can wreak, it matters that we choose to practice faith responsibly.
One person who’s done this exceptionally well over the last several years is Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech professor and researcher who specializes in climate change. Hayhoe explains to ordinary people all over the country that they don’t have to jettison their faith to act on climate.
Peterson Toscano recently shared Hayhoe’s work on Citizen’s Climate Radio. The video of her presentation is captioned. Check it out.