What Should We Do With This Problematic Book?

I read The Christian Century, which carries the tagline “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully.” In the current issue (June 3, 2020), in an article with which I largely agree, Dorothy Sanders Wells writes, “[T]here’s a difference between the Bible describing something and condoning it.” She is talking about slavery and ideas of racial purity. Her claim is that using the Bible to justify slavery and racism is a misuse of the text.

But it’s pretty clear that the Bible does condone slavery. It does condone racism. When you read opposing arguments leading up to the Civil War, both slaveholders and abolitionists tried to use the Bible to support their cause, and it’s clear that the slaveholders were on much more solid ground Biblically than the abolitionists. All the way through the Old and New Testaments, slavery is an accepted part of life, with considerable rules as to how it is to be conducted and no allowance for its abolition. Likewise with racism. The overwhelming sentiment throughout the Bible is “Judah first!” Even those passages that urge the Israelites to treat foreigners fairly do not go so far as to treat them equally.

Progressive Christians use this “describe, not condone” mentality with regards to other problematic Biblical texts as well. I have read gay and trans Christians dancing around the so-called “clobber passages”—those verses used against them—in an effort to soften the message, but to borrow an unhappy phrase from the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church, it really does seem in the Bible that “God hates fags.” No matter how we try to read our progressive viewpoint into it, the Bible remains a misgynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, racist text.

So what are we to do with this? Do we throw the whole thing out? I happen to think the Bible is an endlessly fascinating book, both in and of itself and because of the oversized roles it has played in history. I do not advocate throwing it out. But I do advocate acknowledging its shortcomings.