A good question: What do you do about the bits of the Bible you don’t like?
One question, four answers
‘Fit them within a bigger picture’
We struggle with the Bible because it is incredibly complex. There is a lot of variation in its content and historical context. It’s one thing to say all Scripture is inspired Word of God, it’s another to put it all into practice. Parts of the Bible are quite controversial and shocking. For example, some people find it extremely hard to relate to themes of death, slavery, tough justice, violence, war etc. And for sure, such bits will make you uncomfortable and may not fit in with your picture of God or of what the Bible is all about.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Bible is not a single book but a collection of books, written by different authors who, in their thinking and writing, were inspired by the Holy Spirit. If you run across something that you don’t like, instead of just glazing over, you could ask yourself: What is this portion of Scripture trying to say to me? Whether it is from the law, history, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, gospels, epistles or apocalyptic literature, it has to be discerned. As a Christian, I cannot pick and choose what I like and don’t like in the scriptures. I treat both the Old and New Testaments as the infallible Word of God. What is written in the Bible is meant for our instruction and encouragement…
Samuel Silungwe is the minister of three churches in the Kettering area, Northamptonshire
‘Read, wrestle and pray’
Read them! Not all the time, of course – that would just be masochistic – but we do need to read them, wrestle with them and pray with them. The problem of reading just the bits of the Bible that we like – or which make us feel comfortable – is that we end up with a Bible that looks like a paper doily, carefully sanitised to avoid disturbing us in any way. Treating the Bible like this means we make for ourselves a Bible which conveniently agrees with us, with our view of the world and of God and which empties the text of its power to challenge us or to turn our world upside down.
Of course, reading those bits of the Bible we don’t like challenges us to think again about how we read the Bible. If we stick to what we like then reading the Bible is a relatively simple task. All we have to do is read the text, identify its core meaning and apply what it has to say so to our own lives. We might need to struggle for a while to work out what it meant in its original context but otherwise the task it relatively straightforward. I don’t, by saying this, mean in any way to demean this kind of reading of the text. Christians have been doing it from the first century onwards. It is powerful and faith-enriching, and lies at the heart of most devotional approaches to reading the Bible…
Paula Gooder is a freelance theologian and author
‘I feel comfortable disliking them’
There are bits of the Bible that I feel justified in disliking. I’m aware of these. They’re the bits where God seems not to care.
An example would be the Genesis narrative of Abraham’s dealings with Hagar and Ishmael. I’m hugely irritated by the tangled ideas about human choice and agency which leave God looking partial, casual, contradictory, cruel.
I dislike intensely the triumphalist destruction of Sennacherib in 2 Kings 19, where God smites 185,000 sleeping Assyrians (plus, according to Byron, all their innocent horses).
I detest Judges 19: 1-30 which describes a woman’s betrayal, rape, torture, murder and dismemberment. Not because I can’t face the story (after all, strands of that story are new every morning on the radio) but because I can’t stomach the political capital being made at the start and end of the story, about the benefits of having a monarchy.
I don’t like the conversation in John 9 about the man born blind. I earnestly hope that Jesus’ mouth has been hijacked to express John’s personal theology.
In fact, I’m aware of all my self-justified antipathies to dozens of bits of the Bible. … What do I do about them? Nothing. …
Lucy Berry is a performance-poet and minister
‘Approach with joyful imagination’
The lectionary, useful as it is, has a lot to answer for. Scripture isn’t designed to be divided up into bite-sized chunks that are easy (or not) to digest individually. Any one ‘passage’ of Scripture is potentially meaningless when taken out of context. The hope of the Gospel is in the whole, whether experienced as trajectory, paradigm or even a collection of stories which cannot be fully understood in isolation. The first part of my answer, then, is that I hold parts of the Bible that I struggle with in tension with those that bring me hope. Both challenge and comfort are necessary.
Approaching difficult bits individually, in detail, is also important though. As a transgender person, I used to struggle immensely with the Genesis creation stories. Now I love them. Why? Because I read them again. And not only in one version or even in English. We must be sure that we understand a text fully, and with the guidance of the Spirit, before we reject it. The words ‘God made man and woman’, which have been used to wound transgender people, have an entirely different feel than ha’adam – the human, the earthling, the creature of clay. And what of the creative word play between ish and ishah – man and wo-man? We tend to focus on the differences and ignore the similarities…
Alex Clare-Young is training for ordained ministry at Westminster College, Cambridge
These are extracts from an article that was published in the March 2018 edition of Reform