The Bible's dissonance: inspiring, teaching, confusing


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God is Abba, Father

What is sin?

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Creation and Original sin

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For me the Bible is like a mountain range with peaks of inspiration, as Jesus saying the Shema and loving neighbor, and drops to death valleys as Psalm 137, passages that put down women, that say kill enemies. One of the fundamentalist fundamentals is that all the Bible is equally important — like a level plain. Do you think of the Bible as peaks and valleys or as all at the same level?

Do we read the Bible through lenses — not glasses or contacts — but through our beliefs, expectations, wishes? If you recognize these, the Bible can be fresher and more meaning-filled. Reading the Bible is looking at a world and listening to conversations from a strange world thousands of years ago!

"The Bible (is) that great mongrelized library of stories, books, letters, songs, unfinished manuscripts, polemics, lists, and lost treasures," says Sara Miles in her book Jesus Freak. You find almost every kind of literature imaginable, and we must read them accordingly — poetry as images that try to express the inexpressible, drama shows people interacting, letters reveal the heart of a writer. The word Bible comes from the Greek word that means a collection of writings (as 'bibli'ography).

"In Scripture … multiple meanings begin to jump alive, firecrackers of insight," writes Carey Ellen Walsh. The Bible is provocative if we let parables, images, the Song of Songs ignite our imagination.

I believe the Bible says live in God’s world to learn from the birds of the air, roots and growth, people; as the prophets and Jesus taught to spread justice, peace, empathy for people.

“Life itself — and Scripture too — is always three steps forward and two steps backward.… Our job is to see where the three steps forward texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust), which gives us the ability to clearly recognize and understand the two steps backward texts (which are usually about vengeance, divine pettiness, law over grace, form over substance and technique over relationship)," says Richard Rohr.

The Bible like the book Alcoholics Anonymous is both inspiring and instructive. It records the experiences of people with whom we identify, so we say, "I felt that!" It instructs us in the nitty-gritty of recovery. The Bible shares with us the experiences of people with whom we can identify and from whom we may learn. The Bible can be a many faceted source of inspiration and guidance with nuances and shades of meaning.

About current issues

  • The Bible only in one place says anything related to abortion, and there says it is minor, unless the woman is injured;
  • nothing about homosexuality, because that word/idea did not exist until 1869;
  • often condemns economic inequality: Amos, Hosea, Jesus and many more.

When Elizabeth Barret Browning sang,

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.…

Did she mean make a list or calculate a total? She answered her question,

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.…

Likewise the Bible usually is not literal, but teases us as it sings and dances with images and pointers.

The Bible's variety offers us many possibilities. If you prefer a newspaper like account of Jesus, read the Gospel of Mark with profound insights in teachings and interactions. If you prefer a meditative portrait, read John. For deep thinking read Paul's letters to the Galatians and Romans; for advice about problems and pictures of early churches, read the letters to Corinth, Thessalonians, or Galatians. God's thunder is in Isaiah 1 and his comfort in Isaiah 40. The Song of Songs is sensuous! The Psalms have every emotion imaginable.

Facts is a modern, scientific idea Bible writers did not know, so ask not whether something happened; ask what it means.

If you are familiar with the Bible, beware, for you know what is coming. That may make you miss something. For the Bible to become meaning-filled, read it fresh, consciously as if you never read it before. Look to learn what is fresh and even different — the "aha" of discovery.

Look! Listen! Feel! …like works of art.
Read the Bible the way you look at a work of art. You may study the artist, where and when the artist worked, what school or movement that artist was related or responding to. To “see” the art you look at it in a very receptive mood, trying to let your feelings receive what the artist was trying to “say.” You look to see what you had not noticed before. You look at it up close and at a distance, and from different angles. Above all your attitude is open and wanting to receive from the work of art. Read the Bible in the same way.

Read it quickly to get the over view, then read it slowly; if poetry, savor the words; ask what the writer may be saying. An example: when Jesus is baptized, the earliest Gospel writer, Mark, says the heavens were torn apart. Matthew and Luke who often copy Mark, say the heavens opened. Take time to ponder what each is saying and receive as a work of art.

Jesus's teachings guide you
We must read the Bible through the lens of the words of Jesus. Parts of the Bible are very militant and war-like; to understand those read them from the perspective of Jesus's beatitudes (Matthew 5 and Luke 6.20-26). The book of Proverbs suggests harsh punishment, but read that through the lens of Jesus's views about children.

Build a bridge
For the Bible to be meaning-filled, recognize how utterly different our assumptions are from feelings before the 20th Century. Then death was part of every family; visit a cemetery from the 19th Century to see how family plots include young children. Illnesses we take lightly meant quick death. Plagues swept across countries killing millions. Risks now are reduced. Many farmers were wiped out by a couple of poor crops; today we have many resources to ease that risk. Storms and other tragedies destroyed without warning, while now we often have weather warnings.

We must build a bridge from Biblical times to our time. An example is finding the meaning in what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ day the only “good Samaritan” was a dead one! They felt about Samaritans the way we feel about terrorists! To understand Biblical writings, we must bridge from the feelings in Bible times to our times before we probe into the deep significance in the Bible.

The healings in the gospels trouble some people, because the Bible claims that demons are the cause of illness. Again bridge from Biblical times: illness struck without apparent reason to those who knew nothing about germs or viruses; illness was demonic! A hymn says about illness:

…demons still are thriving
in the gray cells of the mind:
tyrant voices,
shrill and driving,
twisted thoughts that grip and bind
doubts that stir the heart to panic…

which is an apt description of depression and mental illnesses (written by Thomas H. Troeger).

To feel and understand bridging from Bible situations to ours consider slavery. Slavery was an accepted, normal part of first century society, as well as centuries before. The Apostle Paul clearly tells slaves to remain slaves. In Ephesians 6.5 and Colossians 3.21 he says, slaves, obey your earthly masters with enthusiasm. Do we cringe at such a thought? Jesus said nothing against slavery; he apparently accepted that it was part of life, so he used slaves in his parables without criticism of slavery. Paul write the Colossians, "Slaves obey your earthly masters…wholeheartedly." If we follow the Bible literally, should we enslave people?

Women are treated as subservient, even property, until Jesus embraces women as equals! He included women among his closest followers; he accepted women and children just like men. All alike were to be respected as humans! I feel certain the living Christ condemns domestic violence and child abuse and heals survivors.

When we turn to the Apostle Paul, we may have a problem. In his letter to Galatians he says, "There is no longer Jew or Greek … slave or free … male and female, for all of you are one in Christ." He blesses and encourages women who are leaders in Churches. When in Ephesians 5.22 and Colossians 3.18 he writes, wives be subject to your husbands, we wonder who really wrote that; certainly not the Paul who wrote Galatians!

Paul and his religion and his culture were all very patriarchal — male dominated. In our rural past wives were coworkers in the fields. Huge changes occurred during the last century, culminating with "Rosie the Riveter." Women working was essential to our victory in World War II. The women workers at a New England shipyard built one of our submarines — an extremely complex weapons system. Their submarine, the Flasher, was an ace in the Pacific War. After World War II many women returned to be wives and mothers. But before long they became active in professions and trades and crafts. Our economy depends on women working for wages, as almost two-thirds of mothers work for wages outside the home.

Parenting and being couples I cover elsewhere on this site.

In 1 Corinthians 11.4–16 Paul writes that women have long hair and veils, and men do not. Women now wear pants but no veils. Men wear long hair! Do these violate Paul's teachings? Or do these reflect changes in our cultures? Be open to the interaction of culture and Scripture ancient and modern.

Two choices about the Bible
We have two choices. Some literalists insist that wives must subjugate themselves to husbands, ignoring Paul in Galatians! That attitude leads many men to feel bossy, hierarchical, controlling, exploitative. Many Christians insist that we bridge from Paul’s cultural assumptions to our own. We must think and ask questions. Jesus's attitude toward women says to me that women may work outside the home, if they so wish, and the work of bed and board must be shared with no thought of what is his or her’s. House work and parenting need both whether male or female.

One more bridge we must build. Some six sentences in the Bible, out of millions, appear to condemn homosexuals. Actually only three condemn homosexual acts as they were in the first century! Some literalists insist that homosexuals are sinful and must be converted and changed to heterosexuals. Leviticus says homosexuality is only as sinful as wearing blended fabric among many other common acts (18:19, 22, 19:19) as parts of purity codes. If you take Leviticus literally about homosexual acts, then you must eat Kosher!

If someone tells you, "I am straight," that says nothing about that person — about personality, integrity, the qualities of that person — nothing! The same is true if one says, "I am gay — or lesbian." Being straight or gay says nothing about the qualities of that person!

Some cite the clear words of Jesus, who said nothing on this subject, but said we are to accept and care for and love everyone. In Mark 7:18–23 does he dismiss Leviticus? Bridging to our time, we learn that being gay or lesbian is very complex. Are some born gay as I was born left handed? We are to accept and welcome gays and lesbians, following the clear command of Jesus and Scripture! See the book We Were Baptized Too.

Dissonance is present in the Bible. Many passages are not in harmony. To find the meaning in the Bible we must accept the dissonance as part of the beauty of the Bible. But across the mountain ranges of the Bible is an ultimate harmony much as we find in music with its harmony and dissonance expressed by a wide variety of writers. Remember Rohr's words three steps forward and two back!

Many writings in the Bible have great reservoirs of meaning, and assist us in the living of these days. Our feelings are often laid bare in the Psalms, so we can find deep meaning in our feelings. In the prophets we find people agonizing over what is happening in society, so we can find there our mission in the world. Many of Jesus' parables and teachings give us ever new insights.

If we bridge from the Bible culture to ours, if we use our imagination to read our selves and our feelings into the variety of Bible literatures, we find deep meanings. As one said, we see our face in the life and actions of a Pharisee or a Sadducee. We make ourselves open and receptive as when we view the work of an artist.

See a chart of how the Bible came to our hands.

How is the Bible inspired? Visionary people throughout the ages have created stunning works - art, music, literature. Some created in a burst of work, as George Frederick Handel composing "The Messiah." This long work was created in a couple of weeks, during which his cook brought meals often not touched. I believe the prophets, Jesus, others in similar experiences of ecstatic writing reveal God.

To see inspiration the way I do consider two images.

First is the manager who receives many letters, and delegates drafting responses to staff. The boss tells his staff in a few words what to say. The staffer knows the manager's way of expression, so expands the few words into a letter, which the manager signs. I believe the writers of the Bible were as active as those staff people, receiving brief insights, then using their brains and their experience with God to express their insight in what we read in our Bible. For example, when the prophet Amos saw a plumb line, his experiences with God moved him to say Amos 7.7–9.

Is God a ventriloquist so Amos and other biblical writers were voiceless until God spoke? Or were they deeply moved by their feelings and awe so they insightfully spoke and wrote what we read in the Bible? I believe they were profound people who worked to understand God's ways before they spoke.

Second, imagine Paul writing a letter to his church; from his letter to Corinth we know that Chloe’s people there wrote Paul as did others, and some from Corinth visited him to tell him of events in that Church. As a result Paul wrote letters about those particular problems and questions. Paul’s advice to that congregation was so filled with meaning and significance that most of his words continue to instruct and inspire us. But he was very much a child of his paternalistic culture as his words about hair length. So we must bridge from that culture to ours; we must ask is this thought from God or his paternalist culture? In his letters he writes to women leaders in many churches; in one he says women should not speak out. Does that seem out of synch with the many positive comments to women leaders?

Inspiration happens when we are moved deeply in our feelings and in our minds, when we are inspired to love God wholeheartedly and to be a neighbor without borders. Instead of saying the Bible is inspired, ask how it is inspiring you!

The following prayer has been used for centuries when reading the Bible:

"Blessed Lord, who caused all Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by the patience and comfort of your living Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of abundant life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ." (Book of Common Prayer, alt.)

Four suggestions to enhance your Bible reading
Answering four questions helps us understand the meaning of the Bible.

First, decide what type of literature it is. Is it poetry, history, law, letters? Poetry in the Old Testament uses repetition; a good example is Psalm 103:1:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me bless his holy name

says the same thing two ways. Notice how often through the prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, and the Old Testament writers used this repetition. If poetry, the writing is filled with images and pictures, and not to be taken literally; the Lord is like my shepherd. Creation in Genesis 1–3 and Proverbs 8 are poetic images of God's actions.

Law and history are literal. Leviticus and Deuteronomy condemn equally mixing breeds of animals (ranchers depend on that for healthier animals), mixing cloth (as wool/Dacron), homosexual acts, menstruating, women wearing pants, and tattoos.

The second question is what is the situation underlying the passage you consider? Leviticus says all those are equally unclean as a defense against the Canaanite religions. Paul in his letters often is responding to particular situations. The prophets often tell particular situations that prompt a word from the Lord. Isaiah 7 tells vividly how Ahaz the king and the people were shaking with fear at the threat of immanent invasion, and Isaiah tells them why not to fear. When Ahaz still shakes with fear, Isaiah has a word from the Lord: a pregnant woman will bear a child, call him Emmanuel, and before that child knows right from wrong those enemies you fear will be gone. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek centuries later the Hebrew word 'young pregnant woman' was changed to virgin!

Third, Scripture passages often have two or more meanings. View it as you reflect on a work of art, looking at different angles and implications. Let your thinking and imagination explore many meanings.

Finally, if a passage of Scripture seems strange or uncertain, compare translations. In the New Testament Phillips translation often has a revealing way to say it. Translations have biases. The NRSV tried to avoid limiting passages to men, adding women or using words like people; the NIV decided to avoid inclusiveness along with other conservative biases.

The first three suggestions are usually essential to deeply probe and understand Scripture, while the fourth often adds meaning to our Bible reading.

Suggested Bible reading
To glimpse the breadth of the Bible read three parts: start with Psalm 1, start with Hosea, start with Mark 1. Read until your attention is caught, make notes, then go the next section. Psalms nourishes you deeply. The prophets beginning with Hosea challenge our boundaries. Mark brings together the heart, soul, and walking the talk. Consider this ancient guide for Bible study.

Your reflecting, questioning

Copyright © 2003, 2015 John F. Yeaman




Slavery as practiced in the cultures of the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans was very different from slavery of African-Americans as practiced in the United States. Those ancient cultures did not separate families of slaves, but respected and supported families. Then slaves were often well educated and cultured who fought for the losing side, but continued using their education. Slaves in America were for menial labor and discouraged from education. Stephen Ambrose in an early chapter of his Undaunted Courage contrasts the slave economy of Virginia with the culture of the nearby German immigrants, whose way of life did not need slaves to get their work done — provocative reading!















To read one woman's feelings and thoughts as the meaningfulness of her life became emptier as her children grew and moved out on their own, and her struggle to find new meaning in life read Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. Many women on reading it resonated with her experience.