Conservatism’s Troubled Marriage to the Bible

Recently on Patheos, the following meme was made by a fellow progressive concerning fundamentalist Christians and their relationship with the Bible:

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The context for the meme was a discussion on James McGrath’s Blog Here As one conservative, Realist1234, on Patheos pointed out, everyone comes to the Christian Bible with an agenda, progressives rejecting the parts that don’t fit their views. At the same time, Phil’s meme resonates with what I know to be true, in large part among evangelicals and fundamentalists. What has happened historically within orthodox Western Christianity is that in the development of the Christian canon, in the development of the various creeds, in the creation of various denominations, the church has built a framework of understanding scripture that subconsciously “bends” the Bible to meet certain religious and philosophical presuppositions. Fundamentalists would point out, I’m sure, that progressives do that very same thing: bend scripture to meet their own presuppositions.

Fair enough, but the key to fruitful dialogue between conservatives and progressives has to start with a willingness to examine those presuppositions for validity and whether those presuppositions promote a “healthy” religion or a toxic one. It is interesting that Phil chose to frame his statement within the marriage context, that of the Bible being the faithful “wife” and the fundamentalist as being the “husband.” I am reasonably sure fundamentalists would state just the opposite, that they are the dutiful “wives” obeying their husband, God’s Word. It is interesting to me because the marriage image is so often used in both the Hebrew canon and the Christian, as an apt metaphor for mankind’s relation to the Creator.

For me, where the marriage “hits the rocks” among conservatives is when literalism becomes the “glue” that holds their marriage together. It tends to promote a “contractual” relationship with God, where the contract becomes the object of adulation rather than God, the husband. This is due, at least in large part, to the Reformers, who raised scripture itself on to such a high pedestal that it detracts from our marriage to Christ. 

I think conservatives miss the irony that Jesus spoke in parables when they scour the scriptures for propositional truth statements. They are missing the fact that scripture uses, as Gary Dorrien calls it, “true myth,” to impart spiritual insight. The conservative church is not content with the beautiful poems and allegories her husband brings her, but obsesses with the marriage license, reducing the relationship to hard facts. In doing so, conservatism misses the broader truths that parables and myths bring. The search for propositional truth stops short of discovering broader principals of living and applying Christ’s teachings. Instead of a developing love story the Bible becomes a rule book, a legally binding document stipulating the terms of the marriage agreement.

Don’t get me wrong, as a progressive Christian I have great respect for the Bible, but I am not married to it. I am married to Christ, and it is he whom I desire to please. The Bible is very valuable in helping us understand how to best serve God and others, but if it becomes the focus of our adoration, it becomes idolatry.

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