The Ways We Use the Bible

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 10, 2012

Psalm 139:13-18 NRSV

Selection from Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

Last year, a woman walked into the Shared Pregnancy Women’s Center in Lansing, Michigan, and asked for an ultrasound.  She did this even though she was leaning toward having an abortion.  Saralee Howard, of the Pregnancy Women’s Center, sat with her during the ultrasound, and together they listened to the fetal heartbeat.  When the woman identified herself as a Christian, Saralee talked about “God valuing this precious unborn child made in his image.”  The woman, who had little money and already had two children, said she thought God would understand her decision to have an abortion, if she were to go through with it.  As the woman stood up to leave, Saralee slipped her a Bible bookmarked to a passage of scripture.  And the scripture was this: “For it was you who formed my inward parts.  You knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  A quote from Psalm 139.  The next day, the woman cancelled her abortion.

And then, there is the story of Rebecca Voelkel, a minister who coordinates religious programs for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  Rebecca recalls a gay pride parade she participated in some years ago and a simple white poster bearing words from the scriptures.  And the words were these: “FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE.”  The same quote from Psalm 139.

Now, here is the interesting thing: Saralee Howard is ardently antiabortion and believes that being a practicing gay or lesbian is a sin.  Rebecca Voelkel, on the other hand, supports a woman’s choice for an abortion and advocates for gay and lesbian rights.  Two women on extreme opposite ends of the social issues spectrum (and perhaps theological spectrum), but who use the same Bible, the same chapter, and the same verse to support their position.  How can this be?How can two people with diametrically opposed views quote the same biblical passage in support of their position?  

These two true stories reported in Christian Century magazine illustrate how the Bible can, and does, attract diverse—sometimes diametrically opposed—followers. Again I ask, How can this be?  How can it be that the Southern Baptist Convention “titled its funding program for ultrasounds in pregnancy centers the “’Psalm 139 Project,’” while at the same time gay activists were using Psalm 139 as an “affirmation of their. . . understanding of God’s acceptance and embrace”?2 

At least one reason that the Bible can be used by those of very different theological frames of reference is we all bring to the Bible our own life experiences.  And no two of us have the exact same life experiences, do we?  So when I read the Bible, I read it through my own personal lens—my life experiences, my history, my own biases and prejudices, and so on. The Bible—both that which went into its making and also goes into its reading—is bound up with personal experience.  

Marcus Borg, in his book titled Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, notes that “Rather than seeing God as scripture’s ultimate author, I see the Bible as the response of . . . ancient communities to their experience of God.”3  The key in that statement, I think, is the words of the Bible are the response of the Hebrews’ and later the followers of Jesus’ experience of God.  And today the way the Bible is interpreted is in response to our own personal experience and how we feel God is speaking to us through the pages of scripture.

But using scripture to proof text one’s position has the danger of building a wall between people that keeps them apart rather than a bridge to bring them together.  Too often, religious people quote the Bible as a final say on a matter, rather than being willing to talk openly and honestly with those of opposing opinions.  Such puts an end to what could be beneficial dialog before it even begins.  Where I was raised, there are a lot of churches and a lot of Christians who say, “But the Bible says!” as the final word on any matter.  By quoting a passage as a final word on a matter, without taking time to listen, is to in effect say, “I have no interest in your life situation or experiences.  I don’t care to walk in your shoes.  I don’t care about your discrimination or the hatred you have experienced.  I don’t care about the suffering that goes into the decisions you have made.  All I care about is using the Bible to win my argument.” 

Now, let me make this clear: This sermon is not about taking sides on either one of these issues.  It is about something different.  It is about the ways that those on opposite sides of the fence use the Bible.  In the case of Saralee Howard who influenced the mother’s decision about having a third child, did she take into account the pain and suffering and agony the mother may have endured and may endure in the future as she tries to care for the child?  Is Saralee just as concerned about the baby’s needs being provided for after it is born?  And is she willing to love gays and lesbians as much as she loves the unborn fetus?  And likewise, can Rebecca have the same love for those like Saralee who are ardently pro-life?  Can the same scripture that is used in opposing ways serve to bring these two women together, instead of driving them apart?

The sad truth is differences of interpretation of the Bible inevitably lead to conflict.  Marcus Borg contends that “Conflict about how to see and read the Bible is the single greatest issue dividing Christians in North America today.”4     One of the problems that leads to such conflict is a literal interpretation of the Bible that uses one or two ancient verses to build an entire theological structure.  This is true for issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and other hot-button issues.  And so, one or two verses—or even part of a verse—can be taken literally and used as a basis for extreme hatred and persecution against some segment of society.  Consider the few verses in the Bible that tell slaves to be obedient to their masters that were used in southern churches to justify and perpetuate slavery.  The issue of gay and lesbian rights has split a number of mainline Christian denominations right down the middle based on a few literalized verses from the Bible.  And it probably would baffle our minds if we could know how many churches have split and how many new Christian denominations have been started over minute points of biblical interpretation. But does it have to be so?

David Van Biema, in that Christian Century article I noted earlier, observes that “the double duty” of scripture—that is, it being used by groups on opposite ends of the social and theological spectrums—is “merely one more testament to the ongoing allure of this psalm—and all the psalms.”  And I think we could say the Bible in general.  There is in the Bible an allure, a universality, an open field of reference where everyone, no matter his or her social issue or theological frame of reference, can identify and connect to his or her own life experience. 

The challenge for all those who make use of the Bible is to let its allure, its universality, its ability to connect with the experience of all become a positive thing that brings us together, rather than a negative thing that drives us apart and leads to conflict.  Yes, that is the challenge.  Obviously, we have no control over the way others use the Bible to lobby for their position.  But we do have control over the way that we use the scriptures.  Amen.

 1Christian Century, May 16, 2012.

2Ibid.

3Borg, Marcus.  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.  New York: Harper Collins, 2002, p. 22.

4Ibid, p. 4.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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