06/13/2013 08:18 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

Betraying the Spirit: How the Christian Right Gets the Bible Wrong

I just released UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, the much revised and updated version of my earlier title, UNFAIR: Why the 'Christian' View of Gays Doesn't Work.

Among the most significant new content in the book is this passage, taken from its (now) opening essay, Taking God at His Word: The Bible and Homosexuality:

The Bible isn't a rulebook, and Christians cannot lift out of its context any passage from it, and still hope to gain a clear understanding of that passage.
It is important to understand that even the most fundamentalist Christian sects do not take the Bible wholly literally. The New Testament is two thousand years old, the old Testament much older. The Bible's cultural contexts, along with the translation at hand, is always taken into consideration by any Christian serious about understanding this vast and complex work.

To excerpt any isolated short passage from the Bible, and then claim for that passage absolute authority, is to fail to take the Bible on its own terms. If we wish to follow the word of God, then we must take the entirety of God's words into account. For example, when the Bible itself identifies some of its words as proverbs, it is bestowing upon those words less moral weight than other words that it identifies as commandments. The Bible itself tells us that some of its contents are songs, some visions, some histories, some dreams, some parables, and some commandments. The Bible itself also instructs Christians that New Testament moral directives supersede Old Testament moral directives. The Bible itself tells us that its moral principles supersede any of its moral "rules."

The context of any Bible passage is as integral to its meaning as the passage itself. It may be appropriate to give equal weight to each clause within a business contract, each step within a set of mechanical instructions, or each rule within a game rulebook. But the Bible itself tells us that the Bible is not a uniform document, with each passage spelling out something clear and specific, and all passages having equal value. The Bible is not a rulebook for being Christian. We would be foolish to fail to understand that not everything in the Bible is a commandment, and that Christians cannot take a small section of the Bible out of its larger context, and still hope to gain a clear understanding of that section. Isolating a clobber passage from its context, and then claiming a sort of moral helplessness because "it's in the Bible," is failing to take the Bible either literally or seriously.

The Christian right, in other words, is getting--and has always gotten--the Bible wrong. And the excruciating irony of it is that they treat the Bible in precisely the manner they're forever accusing the Christian left* of treating the Bible.

The most dependable weapon in the arsenal used by Christian conservatives against their liberal counterparts is the accusation that liberals fail to take the Bible seriously.

The conservatives' kill shot has always been a silver bullet with four words engraved into it: "It's in the Bible."

A wife is to submit to her husband. A woman shouldn't speak in church. Spare the rod, spoil the child. The Earth is the center of the universe. God's plan is for the white man to have slaves. Gay people are a moral abomination. People who die without having accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior must spend eternity burning in the hellfire of damnation.

The conservative Christian makes this sort of ruinous proclamation, and then shrugs innocently, smiles with humble assurance, and says, "Hey, it's not me saying it. It's in the Bible."

But much like the Hollywood movie publicist who cobbles together a glowing review from a savage one by carefully selecting from the latter a few choice words and then tossing the rest, the Christian right is ignoring the entire point of the Bible. Repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms, Jesus insists that equity, compassion, humility, fairness, and love supersede any specific "rule" in the Bible. Christ instructed us not by prohibiting specific behaviors and prescribing others, but rather, in principles and parables, making clear that he expects us to use our hearts, minds, and the Holy Spirit to translate his words into actions appropriate to our time and place.

God is all-powerful. If he wanted Christians to follow a simple, clear set of rules, then the New Testament would be a simple, clear set of rules. But it's not. Because God wants Christians to think more than that, to intuit more than that; God wants us to be more than that.

The Christian right only pretends to take the Bible seriously. But what they actually do is to take out of context, and then take very seriously indeed those few and far between words in the Bible that serve to bring them (gee, what a coincidence) the very power that they want.

They do not serve the Bible. They use the Bible to serve themselves. And, incredibly enough, they've learned to turn that fact into the ultimate in offensive weapon.

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*I personally am neither a liberal nor conservative Christian. I'm an Unfundamentalist Christian. If you are, too, come join us where we do our thing on the UC Facebook page.