Why study the Bible if it is morally dubious? The question itself might for some be dubious, especially if the Bible is understood as the authoritative means by which morality is to be determined. However, I would suggest there is much in the Bible that is either not relevant for us now, or which could even be harmful.
Of course people study the Bible for many reasons. Scholars study it to try to better understand history. Whatever else it might be, the Bible remains an important human artifact. My inquiry would likely not be an important one for students of history. If one’s interest is in reconstructing the ideologies of the past as a historical exercise, one will not likely be troubled if those ideologies turn out to be unacceptable according to contemporary norms.
However, for those who read the Bible within the context of faith, attempting to somehow realize the divine (perhaps only vaguely) within the human dimension, my question could present an immediate existential discord. If the Bible cannot be relied upon as a guide for contemporary morality, why read it at all?
Let me give an example. Consider the so-called “Household Codes” in the New Testament (Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:22-6:9, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7). These are texts that state relational responsibilities that were expected from various members within the ancient household. Those in the subservient position (wives, slaves, and children) are to be obedient, and those in the dominant position (husbands, masters, and parents) are to be gentle. This advice was more or less conventional at the time. What are we to do with this now?
It was not too long ago that this sort of advice seemed fine (See The Good Housewife in 1956). In our time, at least for most of us, I would suggest it is discordant. What are we to do with this affirmation of a status quo that is no longer so?
To consider this I want to tell a story of a teaching experience I recently had. I went to Guyana to teach an introductory course on biblical studies to a class of priests and laity within the Anglican church.
There are many contextual issues to consider in this sort of teaching experience, not the least being the cross-cultural ones. I don’t want to come in with all the answers, when I often don’t know what the questions are for the various students. This was a diverse group of students: some were very well versed in biblical studies, and others had a mostly “devotional” perspective.
In any event, I was exploring with the students the “household code” passage mentioned above from the New Testament. One of the male students stated that in his household the man (himself) was in charge and obedience was expected from his wife. Another male student agreed. While I am sure there are places in Canada and the USA where this sentiment is similarly held, it is frankly not one that I have encountered before while teaching, at least not in such a blunt and obvious way.
The women around the table (as well as several other men) voiced strong objections. This turned into a robust discussion. For the most part this dispute was respectful, although not without a degree of intensity. It seemed to me that me this debate represented an issue that was very important to the people there, but one which was subterranean, for the most part. This was my interpretation of things.
As the discussion ran its course, I commented that the discussion they just had was valuable for at least two reasons: 1) the issue itself is important and needed airing, and; 2) they demonstrated the value of biblical studies, at least within the context of believing communities. The Bible provided a jump-off point for this important discussion. In this example, it is precisely the fact that many (but not all) in the room disagreed with what the Bible said that occasioned this debate. This debate may not have got us any closer to what was originally meant in the Biblical texts, but did bring to light an important issue in the present.
Did this discussion change anything? Ultimately I will likely never know. Did anyone change their perspective immediately after the debate because of what was said? I doubt it. But that’s not typically how people change. But that is not to say it was without effect.
While there are many definitions of ideology, I take it to be values and beliefs that hold together worldviews and provide implicit guidance as to how to navigate one’s way through various social entities. They are replicating (they seek to spread themselves) and defensive (they resist challenges). Ideologies can be normative (as in the status quo) or deviant (at least as seen from the dominant ideological position). Deviant ideologies can become normative and normative can become deviant. Normative ideologies are normative because they are invisible. When something is obvious or in accordance with commonsense, it is likely that it is so because it is corresponds nicely with a normative ideology.1
There is no escaping ideology. This is not to say that the power and “givenness” of any ideological construction won’t change over time. There is no neutral non-ideological ground upon which we can stand. Nevertheless, there are ideological positions that need to be resisted, whether they were acceptable in the past or not. Ideologies only change when the fact that they are not God-given and eternally true is brought to light.
I wonder if it is the sort of conversations I witnessed in Guyana where this work of ideological deconstruction can take place.
So why study the Bible if it is morally dubious? Sometimes, I think the value is exactly is in being able to say no to the biblical text. How much better when this is done respectfully within the context of communities of faith.
- For a nice explanation of ideology, see John S. Kloppenborg, “Ideology and the Momentum of Interpretation,” The Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics, and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine, (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), pp. 7–31.