Monday, January 28, 2013

Decoding the Bible

I've been thinking about how Christians often seem to have a tendency to pick out passages of the Bible to defend positions that can ultimately be debunked by history.  For example - you won't find very many people in America today condoning slavery.  But go back to the 1800's and look through some of the literature and you might find that some Christians felt that the Bible fully condoned slavery.  In fact, they felt it was those who were against slavery who were quite mistaken, and even saw them as heretical, questioning the authority of God.  These pro-slavery Christians would point to passages such as Deuteronomy 15:12-15, Ephesians 6:9, and Colossians 4:1, which all deal with the treatment of slaves.  As is pointed out by Pastor Henry Brinton of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia (from this article):
In the 1860s, Southern preachers defending slavery also took the Bible literally. They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, "slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling" (Ephesians 6:5), or "tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect" (Titus 2:9). Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up.

Today, you'll find few Christians taking this position.  History has given us new perspective, and we've left this particular debate behind.  But there are other examples where Christians have used the Bible to support arguments we have now left behind, such as (but not limited to): the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, and Segregation.  So the disturbing question we are faced with, in light of our history of using the Bible to support arguments that are ultimately debunked by history, is this: are we currently using the Bible to defend arguments which will be seen in the future as having been soundly debunked and shameful positions?  And the question that should follow it is this: how can we avoid using the Bible to support positions which may ultimately be seen to have been harmful to the cause of Christ?

To illustrate how difficult approaching the Bible can be, let's look at how the Bible deals with enemies.  Jesus tells us in Mathew 5:44 to love them.  Paul tells us in Romans 12:17-21 not to repay evil with evil (and he doubles down on the rhetoric by telling us not to seek revenge), but to repay evil with good and seek to live in peace with everyone.  But then in Psalm 137:9 the writer speaks about taking joy in the fact that Israel's enemies have had their babies dashed against the rocks.  In Psalm 139:19, the writer prays for God to destroy the wicked.  In Deuteronomy 7:1-6, it seems that God, Himself, has commanded the Israelites to completely destroy their enemies and show no mercy. 

There are a number of other arguments we could have, using the Bible to justify two contradictory positions, as well as ways we could use the Bible to justify positions that are not acceptable in modern society.  So how do we avoid taking up these kinds of positions?  How can we assure ourselves that we haven't already taken positions which will one day be seen as unacceptable even in Christian societies?  As I've thought about this problem, I came up with an analogy that I'd like to share.  I am aware that it is not a perfect analogy, but it helps me to deal with this problem and I hope it helps some of you as well.

I am a computer programmer.  Computer programs are often written in a way that involves building layers upon layers - writing code that can be re-used for multiple purposes.  One piece of code can inherit the properties of another piece of code and then expand upon it in order to serve another purpose.  Sometimes, in a particular business, programmers will write a set of libraries that can then be re-used in multiple projects, so that if they want to apply the same security rules for all of their projects, for example, they simply need to import the security library and declare that set of rules to apply to their new project.  But then, sometimes when they do this, they will have a project that is a bit of a special case, and they will apply the security library rules, but add to or modify them in order to serve the needs of this special case. 

With this in mind, it is often difficult to enter a support role where a programmer was not involved in the original design of the code.  It can be quite tricky to decode these layers upon layers of code and understand how they function.  One trick that has helped me in doing this is to keep in sight the end result.  Often I will be asked to fix a "bug" in a program, and the very first thing I will do is to make sure I can reproduce these results.  I want to see how the code actually functions, and what the result is.  Once I've seen this, I know for certain that this result exists and can be reproduced.  If I see code that doesn't seem as if it would produce these results, I know there must be something I'm missing - some other piece of code that changes the result somehow.  If I know the result is true, then it doesn't matter if I'm reading a particular piece of code that doesn't seem to end in this result.  So when I'm faced with this situation, I know that I have to keep looking.

So, if we carry this analogy to the Bible, you can imagine it like the "code" for how we are supposed to live our lives.  This code is quite complex, and multi-layered.  The Jews had a couple of terms they liked to use for referring to what we now call the "Old Testament" - the Law, and the Word of God.  I think God left us a profound clue for understanding what the result of his code is.  In John 1:1-5, John tells us that Jesus is the embodiment of the Word of God:
In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
The Word gave life to everything,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.

So, when I think about this passage like a Programmer, I think that maybe Jesus is like the executable that results from compiling the code of the Bible.  If we want to understand how all of the code of the Bible works when practiced perfectly in real life, we have no further to look than the way Jesus lived his life on earth.  And when Jesus was on earth, he often faced disagreements from the religious leaders of his day, who would accuse him of not following certain commands of the law.  For example, in Mark 2:22-28, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath.  But Jesus illustrates for them that they have misunderstood this law, and tells them that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."  And in Matthew 5, Jesus makes a series of very powerful statements starting with this: "Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose."  He then goes on to make a series of "you have heard that it was said" statements, where he illustrates that though many of the religious leaders of his day have observed the letter of the law, they have not accomplished a life that embodies the spirit of the law. 

All too often, we take the Bible in the same way a lawyer would, and pick out statements and cases that support the purpose we have, and then use it to beat down our opposition.  But Jesus illustrated how mistaken this approach is through his life.  If you believe that he embodied a life that perfectly accomplished the purpose of the law, you may start to understand that perhaps the limitations of the words used to express the law could not accomplish the task of fully illustrating what its purpose was, but Jesus' life succeeded where words fail.  Perhaps looking at Jesus' life as the result of the execution of the code will help us to decode the Bible.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your layered approach to reading the Bible. I fully subscribe to the idea that we cannot pluck a verse out of Scripture and use it solely to defend our suppositions. The context is everything: how does each verse fit together in the story as a whole? That's what we should be asking. Jesus's life as the end result of the teachings of the law? kind of a cool idea. As I read through the Bible this year, I've been surprised by how much the old testament prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus.It makes sense to use his life work as a decoder for all other passages.