“They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations,” writes Kurt Eichenwald of evangelical Christians.
“They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments…They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch.”
So begins Eichenwald’s recent cover story for Newsweek, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” which the author claims is meant to enlighten readers about the true nature and content of the Bible, but which almost certainly alienates the very people it aims to persuade by caricaturing and mocking them in the opening paragraphs.
I grew up evangelical in the small Southern town made famous for its fundamentalism by the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. I have written both warmly and critically about that evangelical upbringing, speaking out against problematic teachings regarding gender, sexuality, science and abuse.
I tackled biblical literalism and its negative affects on women with a yearlong project and book entitled, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” No one familiar with my work would consider me an unthinking apologist of evangelical culture. Indeed, plenty of evangelicals don’t consider me an evangelical anymore.
And yet I simply do not recognize my evangelical family, friends or even critics in Eichenwald’s misinformed opening screed.
I will leave the more in-depth textual debates to the scholars. But as a student of evangelical culture, I can confidently say that many of the revelations Eichenwald expects evangelicals to find shocking — that there are two creation narratives in Genesis, that the Gospels differ in their accounts of Jesus’ life, that the Bible contains imperfect translations — will not surprise most mainstream evangelicals.
And Eichenwald’s arguments regarding the historical context of the development of the canon and the dubious authorship of some of the New Testament epistles are certainly not news to more liberal evangelicals.
Furthermore, what would otherwise be good points about the sort of selective literalism that renders homosexuality an unpardonable sin but shrugs off Sarah Palin’s biblically forbidden pearl earrings are lost in Eichenwald’s assumption that evangelicals make these decisions “with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch.”
How I wish it were that simple!
Having examined, debated, and creatively engaged these interpretive discrepancies for years, I know for a fact that evangelical hermeneutics are rarely done with flippant disinterest.
Most evangelicals I know, even those with whom I disagree, are devoted to trying to interpret and apply the Bible with as much wisdom and grace as possible. I may think their interpretive methods are wrongheaded (and even dangerous) at times, but I am careful of assuming they arrived at their conclusions without thought or care.
This is why Eichenwald’s argument fails before it begins. He assumes the very worst of his opponent’s motives and thus puts them on the defensive right from the start.
Has the Bible been used to support all kinds of atrocities and injustices throughout history? Absolutely.
Does it continue to be abused like that today? Sadly, yes.
I agree that evangelicals need to engage in some tough, uncomfortable conversations about the nature of the Bible and our interpretation of it.
But unlike Eichenwald, I am familiar enough with the culture to know that those conversations are indeed happening.
Maybe not among Westboro Baptist Church members, but on many Christian college campuses, in books by biblical scholars like John Walton and Peter Enns, at progressive evangelical conferences, and on my blog.
I am familiar enough with evangelical culture to know that, just as there will always be a few Bible-thumpers screaming from city street corners, there will always be evangelicals like Boz Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, who has devoted his expertise as a lawyer to training church leaders on how to prevent, identify and respond to child abuse in their communities.
There will always be organizations like International Justice Mission, committed to rescuing and empowering victims of human trafficking and exploitation.
Many of the Ebola fighters honored by Time magazine this year identify as evangelicals, and the voices that have most challenged this privileged white girl to get serious about social justice belong to evangelicals like Lisa Sharon Harper, Christena Cleveland, Soong Chan-Rah and Eugene Cho.
If you speak with these evangelicals, many of them will tell you their work is inspired by words from the Bible — perhaps the part about how God is present among the poor and sick and “the least of these,” or the part about how God longs for “justice to roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” or the part about how we are to “abide in faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.”
Eichenwald concludes that useful biblical interpretation should begin with Jesus’ emphasis on loving God and loving neighbor. He might be surprised by how many evangelicals agree.