Stop saying “the Bible says”!

Progressive Christian Contributions

Some versions of Christianity are clearly better than others.  That is why I wrote: “My Favorite Type of Christian” where I explore the major components of Christian thinking and tell you which versions I find to be healthier.

The Christians I feel closest to and often sympathize with are ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ Christians (whether they call themselves that or not).  Many Progressive Christians strive to improve society in ways many of us admire.  They also help fight the conservative and fundamentalists in their religion who use the Bible to support very dangerous policies and psychological stances.  And Progressives rightly battle their Conservative ‘brethren’s’ views of the Bible by trying to help them see the Bible’s cultural and historical contexts.

The_Bible_Says“The Bible Says” Correction

So, while I am thankful for those components of Progressive Christianity, I’d like to make a suggestion on how to speak more consistently about the Bible:

Please stop saying:
“the Bible says . . .”

Here is my argument:

    1. The Bible is an anthology – a collection of books written by many different people.
    2. The Bible-anthology’s various authors had different opinions and often wrote from different theological, political and philosophical perspectives.  Simply: The Bible-anthology writers disagreed with each other not infrequently.
    3. If there is a god, that god certainly was not overseeing the writing of the anthology’s authors to make sure they all were consistent with each other so that the anthology (the Bible) gave a consistent, homogenous message.  [for some liberal Christians, this is a tough step to take, many Progressives already see this. (yes, I know the boundaries are hugely fuzzy).]
    4. Thus: to use the phrase “The Bible says …” is wrong on two important points:
      1. The Bible has one voice — it doesn’t
      2. The Voice(s) of the Bible are consistent

Bizarre Comparisons

oxfordenglishverseCould you imagine an English teacher saying “The Oxford Book of English Verse says …” and pretending that the anthology puts forward unified positions on love, nature, God, sexual orientation, abortion or violence? Look at all the authors in that text.  

Even if there is an anthology of one authors writings, we almost always see a shift in opinion of that author over the decades of their lives.  

Suggestions

Long, subtle caveats are not needed to speak of the Bible more accurately — there are simple fixes.  Here are two simple strategies and suggestions:

(1) Acknowledge that the Bible is an anthology

Instead of: “Let’s explore what the Bible says about Guns”

How about something like: “Let’s explore what various Bible author’s say about Guns [or fill in any topic]“.

(2) Acknowledge the author

Instead of: “The Bible says …”

How about: “The author of second Timothy says …”

Non-Christian Equivalents

Mind you, this is not just a Christian error.  I hear Buddhists say “The Sutras say…” and don’t understand all the redacting and different voices in their holy texts.  Hindus abuse the Mahabharata the same way.  Muslims do the same with the Qur’an where an obvious difference is that Mohammed’s surah (verses) written from Mecca have a very different view of how to treat nonbelievers than do the verses from Medina.

Conclusion

Many Progressive Christians may agree with much of this post, but they still have the Conservative habit, ingrained in our society, of speaking about the Bible as if it had one author and one voice.  I hope this post helps you to consider rejecting the expression “the Bible says”.

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27 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

27 responses to “Stop saying “the Bible says”!

  1. Wow, right after posting this, I found a great post by Steve Wells illustrating my point. See what the Bible says about perfume. (Oooops, I mean, “What the various Bible authors say about perfume”) :-)

  2. Of course, even reading the verses he selected presents problems. The Exodus quote that supposedly says you can’t wear perfume says in full context that you can’t wear a perfume made of the herbs stacte, onycha, and galbanum mixed with pure frankincense because it is meant as an incense for G-d’s altar and is sacred to G-d. So you just can’t wear that particular blend of perfume. Not that you can’t wear any perfume.

  3. But, DrkShadow, what do you think of the point of my post? I might have to get into exegesis arguments another time.

  4. TWF

    Interesting post Sabio. There’s a part of me the vehemently agrees, because I think that using more precise and accurate speech like that would probably give people a healthier perspective and motivate them to do a little more digging for the truth themselves.

    On the other hand, I think it is a little hypocritical for us to demand this type of adjustment when much of our common vernacular is inaccurate in roughly the same ways. For example, we still talk of the “sunrise” and the “sunset” as though it was a geocentric universe. I think we do so because it is convenient short-hand notation. Similarly, “the Bible says…” can be thought of as a short-hand notation of “the author for this particular section of Isaiah…”

    On the other, other hand, sunrises don’t demand adherence, promote their sets of approved moral codes, or claim to be the authority on anything. So I’m definitely on your side here. :-)

    typo: “[of” -> “[or”

  5. Peacer

    Hey. Even better … stop saying “God says…” (interchangable with “the Bible says” for fundamentalist types). This drives me absolutely CRAZY! It was the primary reason I had to stop attending my church while I underwent a transformation of truth regarding the scripture. The speakers kept getting up in the pulpit saying “and God said, and God says, God teaches, God wants” while they waved the bible around. Aaargh!

    Good post, Sabio.

  6. Dan

    It’s not too difficult to find contradictions and different voices in works by a single author, let alone compilations.

  7. I agree and will accept the challenge! Here are some things to consider:

    1. This is “shop talk” and is short hand for those “inside the tribe” so to speak. However, you have pointed out that it isn’t entirely helpful given our working knowledge (it seems to assume “1 biblical voice”) and prog. Christians don’t believe that. Yet all tribes have this in some form or another, a short-hand phrase which sounds contradictory to the knowledge held by a group. Logically, this phrase doesn’t work in prog. circles yet it’s said a lot.

    2. Non-Christian Equivalents: A few atheists I interact with on other sites and f2f repeated use “Science says…” I don’t see that on this site with you Sabio, Ian or aimlee use this, and if it is, it’s used rarely. Usually it’s short-hand for “this theory postulates that” or “this particular study by so-and-so states that.” But in some of the new atheist books I’ve read (Hitchens being the most guilty of this) it seems to assume that science speaks with one voice, which is mindboggling.

    “…but they still have the Conservative habit, ingrained in our society, of speaking about the Bible as if it had one author and one voice. ”
    -I don’t know about this claim. I think we hear more conservatives use it but I don’t know if it’s roots are there. Regardless of the history, it is a phrase that needs adjusting, that’s for sure. Good post.

  8. decourse

    I can’t say I’ve ever seen the phrase used by a progressive Christian, but it’s possible that I mentally edit it out because I know what they mean by it.

    In fact, I remember the uses of it by atheists more readily, in phrases such as “the Bible says gays should be killed”. Sometimes I think that atheist bloggers are worse bibliomancers than fundamentalists.

  9. @ Dan,
    Good point. It was actually in my original draft but the draft got too long. I will add it back in a re-write with examples. Do particular philosophical or political examples of authors come to mind with evidence — that is what I did not want to spend time researching. I was a bit lazy.
    Thanx for your comment! It helps me see that it should obviously be part of this essay.

    decourse,
    Excellent point! I totally agree. Many atheists are busy fighting a fundamentalism they left, or the fundamentalism that is so damning for their governments or schools. They then pick up the same jargon of their opponent.

    But this post was inspired, not only because I have heard many use it, but I saw it on a particular Progressive Christian’s site.

    So, I may go back and broaden this post — taking out the liberal Christian stuff — so I can refer Atheists back here too. Thanks for the idea.

    @ Peacer,
    Excellent point. Stopping “The Bible says…” is the first step — for that is the basis of saying “God says …” And, as you point out, they mean the same. This shows how important it is to undercut this thinking. I think many liberal Christians still have this thinking floating around in their head even if they may think the expunged it.

    I will add your fine point to the post again when I re-write — thanx!

    @ TWF,
    Thx, interestingly you but in the same “shorthand” defense that I’ve heard Christians make. But after I make clear why I object to the phrase, making that defense is like a man saying to his girlfriend, “Yeah, but you know I ain’t no chauvinist pig, bitch! That’s just shorthand for ‘I love you’”.

    The point is, “Change the distorting common vernacular on language that has real impact.”

    Maybe I should make a “counter-argument list” which has my responses.

    Thanx

    @ Luke & ancientwaykevin,
    Indeed, “wikipedia says…” or “science says” are authority equivalents. But as I have written over-and-over, religion taps the taboo side of the brain — the side that tells you “Those who disagree are dirty and reprehensible”, so when religions use authority like this, it is particularly bad. But bad thinking, is bad thinking and I agree.

    In my circles, people throw around “studies show …” the same way. BUT, it is not taboo to question and show problems (though folks may not).

    @ Luke,

    So I addressed your “Science” does it too defense above. Now for you “Shop talk” defense:

    You are using the defensive “You Too” fallacy. Yes, Shop Talk exists in other circles. Read my note to TWF. Some shop-talk and short hand is helpful and some harmful. And just because a group does something bad, does not mean that can’t point out a mistake in others. [that is the problem with the “You Too” Fallacy. Let’s just focus on this distorting, dangerous phrase.

    Yeah, conservatives use it more. But that ain’t my point.

    Finally, after all your defenses and counter attacks you say:

    “.. it is a phrase that needs adjusting, that’s for sure.”

    Yeah, I’m glad you agree. And I think Peacer makes a great point that this is the foundation of “God says” or “God tells us” thinking too. God tells us nothing — people do. We choose to agree or not, then we cover it in god talk to give it a weight attached to the taboo side of the brain. This is a horrible move.

  10. Umm, sorry you feel that I was defensive and attacking you..?

    I want you to hear this very strong: I agree with you.

    I was hoping to bolster your post with those comments, not attack it. In fact, I liked this post so much and agreed with it I posted it around facebook and tweeted it. I challenged my clergy friends and the Outlaw Preachers.

    Two atheists from OP wrote back:
    #1:”Atheists need to watch out for the same problem. Sure we like to say “The Bible says [some horrific thing]” It’s fine for my fellow atheists to do that to point out that the Bible has conflicting ideas in it. And it’s a useful retort to Christians who use “the Bible says …” But sometimes we jump to the conclusion that the particularly nasty bits we pick out characterize religion or believers.
    #2:”I agree [with #1] and I also find that atheists also tend to have a pretty fundamentalist interpretation of scripture themselves. I think I know why and its because its the easiest to do and the easiest to attack. This is really something to watch out for all around. It’s not just a theist thing.”

    Thus, it can’t be a tu quoque cause I’m not trying to discredit your argument. Once again, I agree with it and was trying to support it. Or as Ian stated, “Agree with different words.”

    BTW: “taboo side of the brain”
    -I don’t know what this means.. I don’t think I have the same taboo brain as you do as I don’t see manipulation or a shadow side in prog circles on this issue as I think it’s short hand in prog. circles (although it betrays what we know about the bible)… however I see how conservatives use it as a conversation stopper and/or a manipulation tactic. I initially chalked it up to lazy prog shop talk… but then again I don’t have the same taboo side of the brain that you must have.

    Finally, I AGREE WITH YOU. And since I do, I will
    1. Watch my language
    2. Look for the shadow side in prog circles with this phrase and others

  11. marfin

    Sorry to stir thing`s up again but there is only one type of Christian the one who says God says or the bible say`s.anything beyond that is their opinion and a Christians opinion is no more valid in matters of religion than anyone else.As a non christian you don`t have to accept the bible as god`s word ,but as a professing christian I think believing the bible is the actual word of god is a given.

  12. @ Luke:
    Great. Thanx for clarifying. More on your other points later.

    @ marfin:
    If people who call themselves “Christian” disagree and feel that the Bible contains different writers who sometimes are not consistent with each other, would you say that they are not “true” Christians. Are you saying “there is only one type of Christian” and they should believe just as I do?

  13. Ian

    For the sake of having a go, can I try and defend the practice? I’m just experimenting with this idea, I’m not sure how hard I’ll want to defend it if you see holes!.

    Prog Christians I know do have a theology of biblical authority. The bible has an authority not as the word of God, but as the holy book of their tradition. It may be myth, but it is their myth, in a way that makes them distinct. And beyond myth, they see it as being the record of a many different faithful people’s response to the reality of God and God’s call (however ‘God’ is to be understood). While it is clear there is diversity, there is also a commonality there, and that commonality is criticially important because it points to what is not contingent on bias or culture, but what can genuinely be learned about what God is like and the response Christians are to have to the divine.

    To that extent, the authority of the bible is something to be discovered within and underneath its text, not something the text has just by virtue of being in the bible.

    To that extent, saying “the bible says …” is more than saying “some writer among those collected into bible says …”, it is more like saying “the spiritual wisdom of my tradition, that I view as authentically speaking about God, has found …”.

    So in that sense the bible does say that love is the ultimate calling of Christians. But it is not true that ‘the bible says we should stone adulterers’, even if that command is contained it its pages.

    This is an example of gracious translation on my part, but I do detect this as a genuine theology of biblical authority among some prog Christians, and a way of understanding this phrase as a (abbreviated, admittedly, as Luke suggested, but nontheless) accurate expression of their underlying theology.

  14. @ Ian,

    Thanx for giving a go at saying, “Hey, you Progs can keep using “The Bible says…” because in a sense it still does for you.”

    I think this is your logic concerning Progs:

    (1) They value the Bible as the highest sense of spiritual authority. [I think this is true for most, even though some would like to think themselves much more inclusive, when it comes down to it, they don't act like it.]

    (2) The Bible is not the exact Word of God but it gives them their primary sense of God.

    (3) Progs are all about God being a god of Love.

    (4) They believe the NT authors all generally teach consistently about God being Love

    (5) Therefore, “The Bible says that God is love and love is important.”

    That may not be exactly what you said, but close, I imagine.

    Problems:

    (A) They are only really speaking about the NT. OT they are much more willing to say that Leviticus or Judges or … are not really Love manuals.

    (B) Even in the NT, is Revelation or 2 Peter all about Love. Or punishment of Anais in the book of acts, of many of Jesus’ sayings. I don’t think so.

    So, I still think that “The Bible says…” is still a distortion for the Progs.

    What do you think?

  15. @ Luke,
    I will try to remember to write about “Religion and the Taboo Brain” in another post. I see I mention it in all the posts below but never really explain. So obviously it is part of my thinking which I have not discussed. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Is fiction bad for you?

    Mushroom Faith

    How well do you wipe?

    Defining Religion

  16. Ian

    Thanks Sabio. Yes, I think that’s near what I was saying.

    In terms of your push backs, both A and B, I think even in problematic texts, there is a idea that ‘underneath’ the surface features of the text is a deeper sense that comes from engaging with God.

    So a prog can look at Leviticus as being full of horrible morality, but still think that they can sense that is was written by a group of people trying to do their best with the even more horrible cultural baggage they were given. Leviticus, in that sense, still reflects a certain kind of genuine engagement with God. One can still learn about God from Leviticus, but not just by taking what is says at face value, but by trying to understand how its writers were motivated by their encounter with God.

    As I said, I’m not defending my own point here, so I admit I’m not making a compelling case! But there is a sense of the unity of scripture even among some progs I know, which I think traces to a theology of a ‘deeper’ unity.

    Of course, I don’t think that is true, I’m just saying that I detect in many progs still a sense of whole-bible authority that resists a complete follow-through on the bible-as-anthology idea.

  17. @ Ian,

    Thanx Ian.

    I agree, many Progs have an inability to give up the Ghost — pun intended. They will find someway to still make it God’s Word, Inspiration, Message, Guidance or something special. And then they are just courteous to other scriptures and very forgiving of their own.

    I get it — and have heard it —

    “The Bible is God’s gift to us showing ‘God’s People’ wrestling with their limited understanding of him.”

    Don’t get me going on that “God’s People” thing.

    I hear you that you aren’t defending those sort of Progs, but at least if they still want to claim “The Bible says …” or “God says …”, we have a chance to illustrate this underlying stubborn blindness all for the sake of a flag, a banner, identity — as you said, “unity” . It has nothing to do with a god. So the first step is to get them to admit the anthology issue.

  18. Ian

    Yes.

    My only quibble is that “The Bible is God’s gift to us” sounds like a rather non-prog thing to say. More of a mainstream (i.e. non-evangelical) confession. Certainly it is a very theistic thing, and many progs I know view theistic language as metaphor.

    Many progs I know would not say that the bible is ‘better’ than any other scripture, or that it was an act of God at all. Rather that it contains texts that have been recognized within their tradition as showing authentic understanding of God. It is this authenticity of encounter which gives them unity.

    I think that is subtly different than what I’m reading you saying. But I may just be splitting hairs.

  19. Yeah, Ian, that “authenticity” clause may be their slight-of-hand to make “the Bible say” or “God says” happen.

  20. I suppose I have no issue with the “Bible says . . . ” for the reasons already discussed in the “The Bible is Not a Masterpiece” Thread. I agree the bible is an anthology of different books, which sometimes disagrees in details and theological viewpoints, but ultimately I see a strong overarching unity between those books.

  21. @ Ian:
    There we go! Drkshadow played the “authenticity” card but called it “overarching unity”.

    @ Dark Shadow:
    If the Bible is an anthology, AND disagrees in details, I guess you are saying that there are many propositions which are not in contradiction and have a united agreement through all the authors and all the books. Correct?

    So, if true, a statement in that case which would be more helpful may be something like “All the authors in the Bible agree …” because, as I said, otherwise, you ignore the nature of the book and feed into the old-mistaken implication that disagreement, different theologies, different worldviews don’t exist among the authors compiled in the 300s by those trying to squash heterodoxy. Wouldn’t you say?

  22. I should clarify: I would agree that given the anthology nature of the Bible and the disagreements that do exist it would generally make sense to speak of particular books or sections when mentioning a specific idea. I also admit it sometimes has bothered me when I’ve seen atheists make statements like, “The Bible says . . . ” while ignoring all the passages that contradict it, which I suppose makes me a bit hypocritical.

    At the same time, in general it doesn’t really bother me. I’ve always interpreted “The Bible says . . .” as, “Somewhere in the Bible it says that . . . ” So in another way, I’m saying in general it doesn’t bother me.

    I suspect the difference of why one annoys me and the other doesn’t has to do with the purpose of each type of statement: one’s goal is to show how bad or immoral or stupid the Bible is, while the other’s goal is to state some supposed truth contained in the Bible.

  23. OK, Dark Shadow, then we are largely in agreement and perhaps you can see how my admonishment (not a commandment except for rhetorical value) to stop saying “The Bible says…” can help both self-insight and limit propaganda as a corrective measure.

  24. @Sabio: Ian brings up good points as does dark shadow. There are themes that are agreed on within the various books, so when “The Bible Says…” is used in this context, it’s short hand for “Here’s a theme that runs through these particular authors at hand.” No propaganda or manipulation in that usage either. At least to my ears. Nor is there a “card” being played, not sure what that means either.

    -About the “many Progs have an inability to give up the Ghost ” Comment
    Wow… I see… This sound supremely intolerant and pretty condescending.. As if all progs are mascarading some how and won’t hesitate to use the Bible as a club once they get the chance… . For Prog’s the bible is the collection that happens to be special/authoritative and will weigh in on our decisions. It’s a collection that is special for us and we find great meaning in and yes, sometimes connects us to God. It sounds like you’re trying to take that away Sabio or have a problem with this fact. What would you have us do? We already know it’s a collection. We already know it’s got a lot of warts and has been used to justify a ton of terrible things. What would you have us do? What would you have us become?

  25. Do you have any idea how much I adore your mind? (little chuckle) I doubt it. You don’t believe in God, but I believe that God has used you greatly in my life as it relates to my blogging. You trigger ideas and make me think so deeply about quite literally everything. What a wonderful teacher you are! Now how am I actually able to learn about Christianity from an ATHEIST? (wink) I don’t know, but I certainly do….

  26. @ Luke,
    Of course you would enjoy Ian and Dark Shadows points. I countered them.

    It is very poor shorthand, if that at all. It buys into to tons of bad thinking.

    Interesting, I say “MANY Progs” and you quote me saying “ALL progs”. Feeling defensive? We won’t get anywhere with that sort of conversation.

    @ W.,
    That is the first step — listening to the damned. Thanx for your comment.

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