The Uses and Abuses of Scriptures

October 17, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

READING "Selections from a Letter to Dr. Laura" Author Unknown

Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other specific Biblical laws and how to follow them.

a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c) Leviticus 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

d) I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

e) I know that it is an abomination for a man to wear a woman's clothes or a woman to wear a man (Deut. 22:5), so does this mean that since my wife borrowed my boxers, she's going to hell?

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging and also for the reassurance that the Bible is infallible.

THE SERMON "The Uses and Abuses of Scriptures" Rev. Victoria Weinstein

That tongue-in-cheek letter to the self-righteous radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlesinger made the rounds a few years ago after she thumped the Bible around condemning homosexuality, women working outside the home, and a host of other behaviors. The original letter is quite a bit longer than the segment I just read, but you certainly get the gist: those who quote the Good Book to shore up their prejudices had better be ready to defend all of it and not just pick out bits and pieces that support their point of view on holy and clean livin'.

The Letter to Dr. Laura is a hoot; a well-done and pointed criticism that leaves egg on the face of Biblical literalists everywhere who engage in what we call "proof-texting," or pulling out sentences or verses to make a point while ignoring the larger context of that portion, and generally ignoring the Bible's larger messages about loving neighbor as self. We like it because we're not Biblical literalists and we try not to proof-text. One of the earliest and most enduring features of Unitarian thought, in fact, has been to appreciate and respect the Old and New Testaments as containing wisdom from the past, instructive stories about human nature that we can learn from in every age, and a beautiful collection of prayers, lamentations and spiritual teachings that reveal to us the nature of the holy. Liberal religious folks, and especially 19th century Unitarians, have always said that the books of the Bible should be read with an understanding that they're historical documents, written by human beings with limited understanding, and therefore should be regarded as containing those human limitations.

The biggest Biblical problem in Unitarian Universalism today isn't how we read the Good Book or how we struggle to make use or meaning of its many bizarre and inconsistent aspects, but that we tend not to read or engage with it at all. This is a huge mystery to me. In the midst of a time when there are Biblical literalists at the highest level of American leadership and when the Bible influences many domestic and foreign policy decisions, a time when legislators (both Democrats and Republicans) meet together for prayer breakfasts, read the Bible together and use it to discern what they say is God's will for them and this country, the majority of UUs have stopped studying the Bible and have decided it's a dusty old book that doesn't matter any more. What a disappointment! We ought to be the ones most prepared to argue from a place of knowledge and understanding why the other guys and gals have got it all wrong when they use the Bible to legitimize prejudice and ignorance!

Oh, but I think I understand. There's a good reason many people avoid the Bible. It's not an easy read if you've never had any instruction on how to go about it, so many of us have got a Bible on the shelf at home that belonged to Grandma or Uncle Henry, and we keep it around because it's got a family record of births, deaths and baptisms written on the inside cover.

Many men and women who come from a more conservative or orthodox Christian upbringing and have chosen to leave their old religion behind don't read the Christian Scriptures because it's full of embarrassing things like miracles and resurrections and sons of god running around curing the lame and the blind with nothing more than some spit and a prayer. The only women of any note are either virgins or prostitutes, and then after the Jesus stories are over, you get Paul saying some crazy and hateful things alongside a whole bunch of beautiful and inspiring things. The whole thing's a mess: disturbing and full of magic and mayhem and best for reasonable people to leave well enough alone. You get some good teachings in there, but then there's also Jesus telling people, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword," or "He who doesn't hate his mother and father and sisters and brothers for my sake shouldn't bother following me" and what are you supposed to do with that?

I can hardly blame folks for giving it up entirely, and that's just the Christian scriptures! I want to say a little bit more about them. Most of you who heard the Christian Scriptures growing up in churches heard it in snibs and snabs, and did anyone even explain to you why you heard them in chopped up fashion? It's because Catholic and Protestant (and Jewish) preachers organize their preaching around what we call a lectionary, which is a great idea in that it assures that the faithful get to hear the whole of their Bibles instead of just the priest, minister or rabbi's favorite bits. The bad thing about preaching the lectionary is that unless you're really paying attention in the pews and studying your Bible at home, it feels a little random. No matter what's going on in the world, the preacher's got to tie his talk in with that week's lectionary readings. What if it's the Sunday after a major terrorist attack and the lectionary reading is all about a bunch of disciples getting the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues of fire? If you've got a great preacher, he or she can tie it all together in some inspiring way. But although preachers do our very best, we're not always that talented. And those who are preaching the lectionary don't always tie it all together, so you sit in church on a Sunday morning getting your random Old Testament reading about, say, the battle between the Manassites and the Canaanites, and then a gospel reading about disciples speaking in tongues of fire, and the best sermon the preacher can give about how we should respond to the terrorist attack, and is it any wonder even churchgoers give up on the Bible? It feels like weird ancient stuff tossed in there for the sake of tradition that has no bearing on our lives now whatsoever. I'm not sure that the lectionary tradition has been such a good thing after all to foster appreciation of the Bible. I don't know that I would appreciate it much myself if I'd been fed little bits in a church or synagogue service all my life. (I learned to love the Bible as an adult, mostly through the talents of my seminary professors who made it intensely relevant and exciting).

Faithful Jews also have it tough. Their Scriptures (which we used to call the Old Testament, but are more fairly referred to as the Hebrew Bible) are full of blood and guts and slavery and stories like the one where God and Satan treat Job cruelly as a kind of game between them, and other highly outrageous moments like Abraham being told to sacrifice his only son Isaac. The Psalms are full of prayers of vengeance and more smiting and dashing enemies' heads against the rocks, and other items quite unsavory to moderate minds. It takes great talent, love, respect and hard work to interpret these Bible stories and prayers so that they illuminate our spiritual struggles today. And the Jews, the oldest people of The Book, do have a great tradition of interpretation, most notably the extensive Midrash, or commentary, of the rabbis (compiled between 400-1200 CE). Even the most orthodox of all Jews would never read Scripture without considering a variety of possible meanings, and constantly peeling away layers of language to get at the holy truths contained therein. To be Jewish is to know that not only must one read the Torah but one must interpret it, to wrestle with it until it yields deeper wisdom and insight, discuss it and to discern with other faithful Jews what moral and ethical demands it makes upon them.

There is another People of the Book I haven't yet mentioned. There are three major world religions that have at their center devotion to sacred scriptures, and they are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are also, and not coincidentally, the world's three great monotheistic faith traditions, believing in the one great God called by the various names Yaweh, Adonai, the Lord, Ha-shem, God, Al-Lah. There is a great deal of debate nowadays between theologians and scholars of the three faith traditions as to whether or not Muslims, Jews and Christians really do worship the same God, as President Bush kindly – and in the spirit of religious unity -- suggested in 2001. Some say essentially yes. Some disagree. Perhaps at some point I will speak to you at more length on this issue but for the time being, let me just say that it seems to me that a people's conception of God is so shaped by their culture, that I don't think we can responsibly say that they are worshiping the same God. I like the idea and it would be helpful if it was true. Most of the world's religions really do have similar ultimate values, and they arise out of struggles for meaning with which all human beings grapple. However, I think we must continue to respect the originality of each people's specific concept of the great I Am.

And the Qur'an ("the recitation"), the sacred scripture of the Muslim people, has its own unique revelation of that great I-Am which is not getting a fair hearing lately. One of you forwarded me an e-mail that a well-meaning friend had sent to you. It was an outraged response to the United States Postal Service's debut of a stamp that said "Eid Greetings."

"They don't even believe in Christ and they're getting their own Christmas stamp!" said the irate e-mail. And then the e-mail goes on to say, "Remember the MUSLIM bombing of PanAm. Remember the MUSLIM bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993! Remember the MUSLIM bombing of American Embassies in Africa!" and so on and like that. "To use this stamp would be a slap in the face to all those AMERICANS who died at the hands of those whom this stamp honors." And the e-mail calls for a boycott of the stamp.

I should first point out that the word "American" in that last sentence is capitalized, as if to highlight the difference between Americans and Muslims. I wonder if the writer of this e-mail is aware that 5.5 million Americans are Muslims. I wonder if this person knows that Eid is the feast and thanksgiving celebrated at the conclusion of Ramadan, a month-long observance of the period of time in which the Holy Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammed; a month during which Muslims fast all day. It is not trying to be Christmas. It is not even a parallel to Christmas.

I suppose if this person knew all of this, he or she might still dismiss the stamp commemorating the holiday even more vehemently as it is commonly believed nowadays that the Qur'an is to blame for the actions of the Islamic terrorists. You can tell from this e-mail that the writer of it equates fanatical terrorist Muslims with all Muslims. That's a shame and I know I don't have to tell you that part of our job as peace-making people is to challenge anti-Muslim sentiments when we hear them. All good people condemn the actions of terrorists, and that includes good Muslims. Those who worry that Islam is somehow inherently more violent or destructive than any of the other two major monotheistic world religions, let me assure you that it is not. The bad news is of course that the other two, Judaism and Christianity, don't exactly have clean records on violence themselves (And I hasten to add that there are dangerous fanatics among every religious people in the world. No one is immune, not anywhere).

But you must be wondering about the Qur'an. Does it or does it not condone violence, decapitations and holy wars? As a bit of background, you should know that the Qur'an -- "the recitation -- is considered to be the revelation of God to the prophet Mohammed; a revelation that was given to the prophet line by line, verse by verse over twenty-three years of a kind of intense mystical listening. "Never once did I receive a revelation without feeling that my soul was being torn away from me," he said. It is an epic and repetitive thing, a kind of philosophy of life and faith, and above all it is meant to be heard and recited, for the sound of the Qur'an is just as important as the reading of it. Sales of the Qur'an are not therefore not primarily books but tapes and recordings, and those who speak Arabic say that it is a gorgeous sounding epic, like the speech of God would be if God could speak. One of the problems with Westerners appreciating this sacred text is that Arabic is notoriously hard to translate.

Yes, the Qur'an is fierce reading and contains passages about violence, as do the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, but it also a document of great ethical vision and contains admonishments not to kill – especially non-combatants: "A woman or a child, or a hermit, a farmer plowing his field, a person who is not carrying a weapon against you." The Qur'an also forbids mutilation of enemy bodies and mistreatment of prisoners. And it says, "those who control their wrath and are forgiving toward mankind; Allah loveth those who do good."

I am struggling with the Qur'an myself, reading it in bits and pieces by index points, knowing that if I am going to gain an appreciation of it I will have to understand its context far better: what it was that Muhammed, an illiterate merchant on spiritual retreat in the year 610 C.E., really experienced when he began receiving the revelations, how painful and frightening they were to him, and how much good he did in his lifetime, uniting hostile Arab tribes and creating an ethic of just and equitable treatment of the poor and vulnerable. The Qur'an is very much a philosophy of how to live, and contains no obligatory doctrines about God; "indeed, the Qur'an is highly suspicious of theological speculation, dismissing it as zanna, self-indulgent guesswork about things that nobody can possibly know or prove." (Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, p. 143)

The fact is, both the Old and New Testaments, and the Qur'an (which contains many of the same characters – for example, did you know that the Angel Gabriel is the herald of the new revelation to Muhammed, and that both Moses and Jesus are referred to at length in the recitation?) – none of these books provide a steady foundation on which to base opinions of the people of that faith. They are works of art, ancient mirrors through which we can look and see our own search for meaning and see reflected back at us the eternal quality of our struggle. And you know what I'm going to say next, don't you. I'm going to recommend that you take Jim Pickel's class on World Religions that's starting in a week or so, and that you dust off that Bible and study it, and make it yours, and marvel at it and argue with it, and equip yourself to respond to those who would like to use it in the service of alienation between individuals, communities and nations. We should do some of this as a congregation, and while we are not offering any Bible courses this year in Adult RE, we will do so next year. So we all have a year to do some prep work.

As Roman Catholic priest Walter Cuenin said recently, "It's not whether you're Protestant or Catholic [ or any other faith], it's whether you interpret your Scriptures or not." So whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims or simply a person who wants and needs to co-exist in a world with People of the Book, we must prepare ourselves to accept the legitimately different worldviews presented in each of these sacred scriptures, while never accepting that any of them be used to undermine the relationships between human beings. And I quote here in closing Dr. David Gordis, President of Hebrew College who said, "Anything that leads to the diminution of human dignity, or that teaches something that leads someone else as less than human cannot possibly be the word of God, but by those texts we can see the hand of humans in shaping the word of God." Thank you for listening. Amen. Shalom. Salaam.