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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Biblical Ambiguity Is Our Friend

One of the findings of Bible publishing marketers is that people don’t actually read the Bible. Any pastor can verify that. America is biblically illiterate. Try as they might, their initial attempts to read it are met with elaborate argumentation (Romans), boredom (Leviticus), or the bizarre (Revelation). Some just stick to the tried and true (Psalms, Sermon on the Mount, John 3:16), or simply flip to a random passage and hope for a blessing. Most just give up altogether. But even though they no longer study the Bible, people think they should own one, which is the edge these marketers are exploiting.

Let’s face it, reading the Bible is not easy. It’s not arranged in a way that logically unfolds it meanings. We have to master biblical timelines, grapple with differing genres that require differing modes of interpretation, decipher unfamiliar practices, and try to understand foreign cultures and peoples. Add to this that the King James Version’s Elizabethan English is increasingly foreign territory to modern Americans, but still remains the bestselling Bible. Then there is the nagging problem of ambiguities in the text. We don’t like them.

Have you noticed that most of the translations in the last 25 years focus on “readability”? It’s a given that the Bible is just too complicated to let it remain complicated. So our beneficent translators set about to make the Bible understandable. Today a prospective purchaser has over 30 English translations to choose among.

Then there’s the “value added” Bibles that are marketed to specific demographics to solve their unique problems that the plain Bible can’t seem to provide. Here’s a great example of one directed to men (and it appears, manly men). The publisher writes:

Every Man's Bible: A Bible for Every Battle Every Man Faces
Finally, a Bible that every ordinary guy—from truck drivers to lawyers—can call his own.  This is a guy's type of Bible—straight talk about the challenges of life.  Notes cover everything from work issues to relationships with women to common temptations guys face....Whether on your dashboard or on your desk, you'll want to keep the Every Man's Bible close at hand.  It gives you real answers, real fast.
No demographic goes without its own specific issues resolved. There are study Bibles for teens, women, the addicted, athletes, minorities, college kids, defenders of the faith, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Liberals, children, and many, many more. All promise "real answers, real fast." Just what the doctor ordered. In this case, is it Dr. Faust?

People who depend on this approach to biblical understanding are exchanging their own search for personal truth for the tidy explanations that someone else delivers in a palatable package. They claim to make sense out of that confusing Bible for you. The end result is that people think they are getting biblical truth when, in fact, they are simply served up someone else's opinion. And they are still not reading the Bible. They are reading the sidebars, tables, charts, and "How to apply this to your life" explanations, but rarely the Bible. It's perfect for Americans who have lost patience with patience.

Biblical ambiguities are our friend. There is no need to explain them away. For when we do so, we lose touch with a necessary aspect of biblical and lived life. Not everything is easy, or immediately available. Often the explanations involved that "clear up" ambiguities are nothing more than veiled attempts to force theological or ideological opinions in the name of "Thus saith the Lord."  I will provide just one example.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is a notoriously difficult passage to translate.
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (NRSV emphasis mine)
In an earlier post I dealt with the anachronism involved with"sodomites," a word not invented until 1000 years after the Corinthian letter was written. Nevertheless, some of the more recent translators are not content to let stand the ambiguity of just what or who these people, male prostitutes and sodomites, are. So this is how they clear it up, from the Common English Version:
Don’t you know that people who are unjust won’t inherit God’s kingdom? Don’t be deceived. Those who are sexually immoral, those who worship false gods, adulterers, both participants in same-sex intercourse, thieves, the greedy, drunks, abusive people, and swindlers won’t inherit God’s kingdom. (emphasis mine)
There is a perfectly fine translation alternative to this speculation that now serves as a proof-text against homosexuality. "Male prostitutes and sodomites" can easily be translated "male temple prostitutes and those who use them." The ambiguity inherent in this and other passages forces us to dig deep into the biblical text for our answers. It reminds us that all our findings are of our own making and subject to all the restrictions and restraints humanity must bear. We are finite beings only touching the hem of the garment of absolute truth. To pretend otherwise is to dishonor not only the Bible, but the God who created ambiguity in the first place, to make us searchers after God, not imprisoners of the Divine Truth. Ambiguity is our friend; it keeps us human.

Steve Kindle
www.clergyunited.org
info@clergyunited.org

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