Tuesday 14 July 2015
On ABC’s Q&A program last night, John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver returned to the panel. He got handed a question about how to know which parts of the Bible to follow versus which parts to ignore. This is how he answered:
THE QUESTION: My question is for John Stackhouse. I’m not a Christian but I was just wondering how you decide which aspects of the Bible to follow and which to ignore. For example, the Bible encourages slavery in the New Testament and the Old Testament even goes so far as to name shaving one’s head to be sinful. Do you think it’s inevitable that Christians will eventually ignore all teachings of the Bible as society’s values and attitudes progress?
JOHN STACKHOUSE: Yes, I think there is a sense in which folks will say things like, “Well, parts of the Bible seem absurd to me so, therefore, I will dismiss the Bible.” Well, parts of any complex document can seem absurd if you don’t know how to interpret it. Parts of the Criminal Code can seem absurd if you don’t understand the context. Parts of any complex legislation can seem absurd and so people can pick and choose phrases out of their context and make them sound absurd. But the Bible is not a book for kids. The Bible is a grown up book. It’s meant to do grown up things, like form people into whole, spiritual human beings and form communities of love across cultural lines over the centuries, so we shouldn’t be surprised that one can pick and choose apparently odd things. That’s why people go to school to learn how to read the Bible carefully, the way they go to school to read law carefully or they go to school to read the physical world carefully.
So my sense often is a little impatience that folks who would never think that they would contradict an astrophysicist, they never think that they would contradict an airline pilot, feel quite free to say silly things about religion without actually taking the time to study why this book would say what it does. So my sense is you can take or leave the Bible but please make sure you’re taking or leaving a Bible that you’ve properly studied rather than one you’re taking to pieces.
The discussion took a quick turn to same sex marriage and the experience of Christians in Professor Stackhouse’s Canada. But Alex Oliver, a panellist from the Lowy Institute, brought it back to the original question about the Bible.
ALEX OLIVER: Well, the original question was about the Bible and you raised the point, John, about – well, you made an analogy between the Bible and the Criminal Code but, of course, they’re different because the Bible is the Bible and you can’t change bits that you don’t like, and it’s a few thousand years old so it’s not adaptable. The Criminal Code is. So we cast off the bits that are no longer relevant from a couple of thousand years ago and we adapt them to the circumstances of the day. So I guess, you know, I find it hard in a nation and a system where we have a separation of church and state to be considering laws including in relation to gay marriage and basing our decisions on those laws on what the Bible says, given that it is not an organic document and it was not designed for the time that we live in.
JOHN STACKHOUSE: The only point I was trying to make, of course, is that the Bible is a complex book and deserves an adult reading. You can take it or leave it as a source of wisdom. We have to be careful, of course. The fact that a text is adaptable or non adaptable doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. I mean, lots of important documents in civilisation are done with. We can’t adapt the plays of Shakespeare. We can’t adapt lots of things that we find to be life giving but you do need to, at least, interpret them with the appropriate skill and discipline. That’s all I was arguing for.