I Corinthians 13:1-3
John Wesley cited those familiar verses from Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth as the text for his sermon, “On Charity.” In his opening paragraph, Wesley observed that although Christians believe that “All Scripture is inspired by God,” we also know that all texts are not equal. “There are some Scriptures which more immediately commend themselves to every man's [sic] conscience.” And he argues that this passage from First Corinthians is one of the finest texts in the Bible, one that commends itself universally to all persons, regardless of their faith traditions or lack thereof. Then, as he begins to explore the meaning of charity, as it is contained in Paul’s letter, he notes that “charity” is really not the correct translation of the Greek word, “agape,” which is better translated as “love.”
It is a great sermon, one in which Wesley builds on his own conviction that love of God and neighbor is central to Christian faith and that how we live is more important than what we claim to believe. It is one of the sermons that United Methodists claim as foundational to our understanding of Christian faith and doctrine (insofar as Methodists can be said to have doctrines at all).
I thought of Wesley’s sermon as I was reading Kurt Eichenwald’s long essay in the Christmas issue of Newsweek, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” and the firestorm of controversy that it set off. It struck me that Wesley’s nuanced view of Scripture and his awareness of the problems with translation were light years ahead of what Eichenwald seems to assume is the perspective of most Christians. And Wesley was not an obscure scholar. He was a popular preacher more than 250 years ago.
I found the Newsweek essay on line after a friend told me about the essay and about the response to it by the defenders of Christianity on the cable news programs. I assumed that I would find myself siding with Eichenwald against the TV theologians.
In a contest of whose position most misrepresented a faithful reading of Scripture, the cable news folks win that one going away. But the Newsweek essay only looks good by comparison to something much worse.
Eichenwald has his own point of view, which he makes clear in the first two paragraphs:
They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.
They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.
There are many flaws in the Eichenwald analysis, but there are two that particularly stand out.
First, he speaks of Fundamentalist, biblical literalists, conservative Christians, and Evangelicals as if those were basically different names for the same group of people. He almost seems at times to assume that he is speaking about all Christians. And he does not distinguish Christians who are politically conservative from those who are theologically conservative.
Second, he criticizes the biblical literalists from the perspective of biblical literalism. He assumes (or appears to assume) that the biblical texts should be interpreted literally and the problem with those the literalists he criticizes is that they are inconsistent.
He says that the Bible “contradicts itself” by interweaving two different narratives of the stories of Noah and the creation. This, of course, is not new information. Scholars have talked about this since the middle of the nineteenth century. Every pastor trained at a major theological school in the past century is familiar with the different sources woven together in the biblical narrative.
Eichenwald misses the point. The reason that that biblical literalism is so problematic is that the Bible is not meant to be read that way. Jesus and Paul did not read the (Hebrew) Scriptures that way, and the writers of the Hebrew Bible did not read the previously written texts that way. It is not a book of history and science. It’s about ultimate meaning. As Marcus Borg points out, it’s not less than literal; it’s more than literal. The problem with literalism is not that it claims too much, but that it misses too much.