Showing Respect by Talking Back

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Respect for the Bible has been a hallmark of Protestantism. The authority of the Bible justified actions of many reformers who broke away from medieval traditions and promoted wide spread reading of the book that was made available in a variety of languages for all to read and interpret for themselves. Today most Protestant services feature reading from the Bible that ends with congregational affirmation that it is “the Word of God.”

Talking back to the Bible may at first sound like disrespect. When my nine-year-old grandson doesn’t do what his parents tell him with the promptness they expect or complains about their instructions, he is told to “drop the attitude.” Obedience is taken as a mark of respect and children are still taught that “back sassing” is not acceptable.

When it comes to the Ten Commandments or instructions in the gospels, obedience traditionally is seen as the right response to the eternal truth and authority of the Bible. Modern views that want to build self-esteem rather than focus on inherent sinfulness or soften harsh injunctions in Deuteronomy are taken as efforts to overturn scriptural authority.

More traditional societies – such as many in Islam, or very orthodox Jewish groups, or countries where authoritarian governments retain power – find the behavior in democratic countries disrespectful. A belief in freedom of speech goes along with encouragement to speak up for oneself. In ancient times people were executed for criticizing political leadership because acceptable etiquette meant bowing and fawning before those in the elite. Democratic societies like ours expect “due process” as well as free speech, so that there is no one in authority who can avoid multiple channels for complaints, grievances, and appeals that question actions and statements by those in authority.

Parents must insist on obedience from young children in order to protect them. Yet parents know they need to encourage the budding independence and development of self-confidence by gradually loosening boundaries as the child matures. Talking back becomes more appropriate with maturity and is the basis for supportive and interactive relationships as young people become adults. With talking back comes the possibility of real conversation, a genuine mutual sharing rather than a one-way relationship.

A traditional view of the Bible as a collection of eternal truths and commands to be obeyed seems to me to be a religious attitude that assumes a perpetual spiritual childhood that must yield to authority. Not only do people grow up, but, over millennia and with advances of human knowledge and capacity, the human species has matured through cultural advancement. Should we assume that God expects humanity to remain in perpetual childhood? Does the Bible hold possibilities for seeking conversation with God that fosters the increasing maturity of the species?

Every semester I try to teach undergraduates how to read history. Of course they don’t want to listen because they are sure they know how to read. Yet they think history is mainly factual information to be learned by rote. What they most want is a “study guide” which tells them which items to memorize. I try to show them that all history is interpretation of carefully selected information that supports the historian’s views. The key is to encourage students to ask questions that turn their reading into an investigation – into a mystery to be solved or a game to be played. The result is application of mental energy to inquiry and understanding rather than memorization. This can also be described as having a conversation with the reading.

I believe the Bible should also be read interactively so that we raise questions, challenge old views, and test the continued validity of old rules. Some interesting questions can come up. For example, the Ten Commandments tell us that God does not want to be equated with images, leading most theologians and scholars to conclude that one message to be heard is that God is beyond human imagination. Yet there is in Christianity a popular image of God as looking human, having white hair and beard, dressed all in white, and sitting on a throne. This image can be traced to the Bible. Another example that puzzles me is how the Old Testament speaks of a God of anger, justice, and mercy – but never about God laughing. Jewish comedians are many in our society and humor can be found in the Old Testament. Why doesn’t God seem to have a sense of humor? Why doesn’t God laugh?

Asking such questions leads to an interactive rather than merely compliant approach to the Bible. Marcus Borg referred to making the Bible our primary ancient partner in conversation. That is what I mean by talking back to the Bible.

Finally, anyone who is convinced such an approach is disrespectful needs to read the many laments in Psalms and other places in the Old Testament. Oddly enough people have softened the impact of the first words of Psalm 22 because Matthew places them in the mouth of Jesus toward the end of his suffering. There is nothing pious or respectful about calling out to God that you have been abandoned. Some have tried to use Matthew to suggest Jesus lost hope at the end – but Jewish and Christian traditions are filled with such cries of complaint that are still within a context of devotion to God. This is an extreme form of talking back that has scriptural support.

As citizens in a democratic society, we are accustomed to speaking up and talking back without taking it as disrespect. It’s time to apply the same expectation to the Bible.


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