When I was studying abroad in Germany my senior year of high school, my English class received an interesting assignment. We were going to have a debate the following day, and the topic was going to be whether or not a woman’s place was in the home. I think I laughed. I laughed a lot in my English class, not least because the teacher pronounced the word ‘clothes’ as ‘clothe-es’, insisting that if it sounded strange to me it was because I spoke corrupted American English. But that day I laughed because it was something that I knew was an actual topic of discussion in my home town. I remembered hearing very intelligent girls arguing that, ultimately, a woman should stay at home. That’s the way it was meant to be. Now personal decisions about what to do with your life are just that, but even as conservative as I was in those days, I did not think that women should have to stay in the home. So when I was assigned to argue in favour of women being bound to kitchen sinks and diaper pails, I wondered just how I was going do it.
It did not take long for the thought to strike me. I was pretty good at arguing my point and felt that even if I didn’t believe in this assertion, I could probably find some compelling reasons why women should cook and clean and aspire to nothing more than ensuring the survival of the species on the most intimate level. But the secret weapon that came to mind almost immediately was the Bible. So the next day I brought a Bible to class. I had done almost no other preparation, the whole native speaker thing being an enormous advantage for me. And when my host sister, assigned to argue against women having to stay at home, gave a lucid and well-reasoned opening argument, I responded with Genesis.
The smiles started as soon as I pulled out the Bible. I opened to a passage in Genesis and read aloud that a woman should serve her husband. My host sister had a nervous smile on her face, but true-to-form she pressed on. She noted that the Bible was very old, after all, and did we really want to live our lives according to everything in that book? The trap was set, and I reeled her in (forgive the mixing of metaphors). ‘The Bible also states pretty clearly that murder is wrong,’ I replied arrogantly. ‘Should we start murdering each other just because the Bible is old?’ My host sister was flabbergasted. The debate was over. The class immediately decided that Team Tradition had won. I felt bad for the other three people who hadn’t gotten to talk, but it was a very interesting moment.
Of course, my host sister was not at a loss for words because my argument was so sound. She was confused, I think, because of how weak and ineffective the argument was. I believe that when she struggled to find a way to reply, it was not because she felt out-witted, and it was not because she was unable to express herself properly (her English was superb, and it has gone on to outstrip mine). No, I think she was just unsure of how to argue with someone who was so plainly wrong. So we won the debate, and we all joked later about how silly the idea was that a woman’s place was in the home, but in the end I had done something rather shameful. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had made a terrible mistake, albeit one that people have been making for centuries. I had used a religious text that serves as a cultural foundation for most western societies to support an argument that had nothing to do with religion. Even this silly school story demonstrates how easily we can use the Bible to say something that it’s not really saying.
Again, I have no problem with people deciding that they would rather be stay-at-home moms or stay-at-home dads. Is it the toughest job out there? Yeah, it probably is. My mom stayed at home with my brother and me, and it was awesome. I can’t begin to thank her for that sacrifice. She put her career on hold to make sure her kids had someone at home after school. That was important to her, and it had a great impact on our lives. Does that mean it’s the right decision for everyone? The way it should be? No. Plenty of kids grow up with working parents and turn out just fine, just as plenty of kids with a stay-at-home parent turn out to be very disturbed. There’s no one formula for family, which is great because people themselves are so different. No one can predict what’s going to happen to a child and which environmental factors will be the most crucial for development. I guess that’s part of the fun of life, even though it can be frustrating at times.
But what does this have to do with cherry-picking the Bible in general? Well, thanks for asking. I’ve noticed for a long time now that Christians enjoy taking advantage of the fact that we have access to both Old and New Testaments. We get the angry, judgmental God, who will destroy you if you back talk Him, and we get the sweet, loving Jesus, who sat down and debated the Talmud with religious scholars instead of frying them for asking so many stupid questions. This is convenient, and we are most fortunate that we get to do this when no one else can. It must be why we’re so special. It’s like modern plumbing: if the water’s too hot or too cold, we can mix them together until it’s nice and lukewarm…um, wait…let’s just say ‘warm’. Is that okay? God doesn’t mind warm, does He? Just lukewarm, right? Oh, they’re literally the exact same thing? Well, shoot-a-monkey.
I’m sure most of you have seen this ‘Dear Dr. Laura’ essay posted on fb or elsewhere on the internet. In case you can’t read it clearly enough, here is a link to a print version:
There are many places to find it besides snopes.com, but snopes is just so fun. The ‘Dear Dr. Lara’ letter is very well written, hilarious, and it makes an excellent point. Is it saying that the Bible is old and should be tossed out? Not necessarily, although I can’t speak for the author’s own opinions. What it says to me is that, as I’ve said before, God gave us brains for a reason. Christianity isn’t just a set of rules, just like every other religion isn’t. It’s a path to finding God. God gave us some guide books to help, but he also gave us brains. Sure, there are some rules, but if you’re going to talk about Jesus, then you have to go all the way. Jesus was a doer, not a don’ter. Yes, plenty of times He said not to do things, but it often involved not doing things people had grown accustomed to thinking they were supposed to do, like stoning people who stepped out of line. Jesus showed up and said, ‘Guys, where do you get off? Don’t you know that you’re all in this together? How about trying to love each other and see where that gets you?’
Now some of you might be thinking, ‘This Peter Woods guy just wants to cut up God’s word and say that some stuff counts and some stuff doesn’t. That’s not okay!’ Let’s think about this for a minute. We like to bring up books from the Old Testament, like Leviticus, whenever we want to justify the death penalty or rail against people for being gay, yet we’re fuzzy on the whole circumcision thing these days, and we sure do like our Easter ham. We think slavery is bad, even though the Old Testament tells us just how to go about it, and we even ignore the New Testament’s own admonition that slaves obey their masters. Now it was Paul who said that, not Jesus. Does that mean we’re good? Well, it was Peter who had the vision with the unclean animals and the whole that-meat’s-okay-now thing. So where do we draw the line? And if we have to accept that every word of the Bible holds true today, with no exceptions, what do we do with all of the cheeseburgers?
We also gleefully point out that Jesus drank wine one time, and we use that to justify consuming alcohol. Keep in mind that the wine they drank most often back then was mixed with water and likely had an extremely low alcohol content. Technicality? I’ll allow it. Hey, I like wine, too. But here’s where we don’t get technical enough: we turn our backs on the poor and point our fingers at adulterers, forgetting that Jesus said that only the one without sin could cast the first stone and that a wealthy person who puts their worldly riches before the needs of those around him will find a hard time getting into heaven. Yes, I’m aware that Jesus asked the rich man to follow Him, not to help people, but what did following Him really mean? What did Jesus spend the majority of His time doing? All throughout the Gospel He’s helping people and reminding His disciples, who were either really hard of hearing or willfully recalcitrant, that it is much more important to love others, no matter who they are, than to spend time worrying whether they deserve it.
So if we want to follow Jesus, let’s learn something from the way He lived. Let’s help each other rather than judge each other. Let’s serve each other rather than dominate each other. Let’s make sacrifices for people rather than insist they do so for us. Let’s show the world that Christianity is not about hypocrisy and hate, but rather about love and forgiveness. If we can do that, I think we’ll find that even some of our fears and some of our opinions about what others should and shouldn’t be doing may soften. We might disagree, but that doesn’t mean we have to discriminate. Let’s look ahead, folks, and show that we are tolerant, caring and loving, just like Jesus said we should be.