Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A little context please

It baffles me how how people preach texts from the Bible without any sense of cultural and historical context.

The Bible is not a book but rather a collection of books, each with their own nuances, perspectives, and historical/cultural motivations.

To comprehend and teach the Bible as a literal, stand-alone text is like describing the ocean to someone based on only what you see from the shore, which is the surface of the water.

Yet there is much more depth and scope to be explored and understood beneath the surface. To merely skim the surface based on what you think see, is to tragically flounder. -David Moran
This is a quote by a friend of mine from college. We recently reconnected over facebook and have been exchanging wall posts and messages discussing our current questions and ideas about our faith. An issue we have both struggled with is what he addresses here- anachronism of philosophy/theology. Taking texts out of the Bible and applying them without taking into consideration whether or not we should really take them literally. Personally, as a woman, there are parts of the Bible that I consider archaic and will absolutely not take literally. I was a church leader and I don't really know what Paul would have thought if he had showed up for my homegroup (Bible study) in college. Would he have stood up and proclaimed like he did in his letter to Timothy, "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet."

Should I have not even been teaching in the first place? I know there are still churches that expect women to be secondary to men but there are plenty that allow women to stand in places of authority and it is generally accepted as a matter of preference. But why? The Bible says "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet." End of discussion right? Why isn't it the end of the discussion? Because, culturally, we have evolved. This idea of Paul's is no longer considered culturally relative so we, American Christians, have largely set it aside. There are lots of women active in ministry today.

In 1 Cor. 11 Paul discourses at length about men and women's hair and whether or not they should cover their head while praying. He concludes men should have short hair but not cover their heads and women should have long hair and cover their heads. He apparently felt strongly about this, I can't say why because I don't know, but in spite of his strong feelings I was intrigued by verse 13: "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?" Is that really Paul inviting the Corinth believers to make up their own mind about this? Intriguing. Maybe he didn't consider himself "the man" after all.

So I will conclude this with some questions - should we take the Bible literally? Is that the way God/Jesus meant for it to be? Did Paul even mean for his words to be passed along for hundreds of years and a letter to a specific man or church to be taken as commands for a church in New York in 2011?

I'm leaning towards no.


  1. I'd go a bit further. I'd suggest that you can't take the Bible literally if you hope to get any sort of sense out of it. The way I most often hear it in this context, "literally" is actually a code for assigning equal weight and similar purpose to every single sentence (unless that appears to create a contradiction, in which case you need the proper literal interpretation). And that's no way to read, well, anything, really. It attempts to take a wide variety of writings, and treat them all as if they were one, big, unified instruction manual - when, in a lot of cases, they clearly aren't and were never intended that way.

  2. Hey Michael, thanks for stopping by. I like your comment about "literally" being a code for assigning equal weight- I agree completely. Very interesting to think about. Thanks!

  3. If you're curious, I found the blog from a link in the comments at Alise Write. I do like (both of) your writings, so do please keep it up!