« I Know It Sounds a Bit Bizarre... | Main | Confucius for Quakers: 2 »

The Bible and Dr. Seuss

Posted on Monday, October 2, 2006 at 05:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , , | Comments17 Comments

I’ve never met the philosopher Richard M., but I’ve enjoyed his ruminations on the Web enormously.

A week or so ago, he wrote in a brief note that he might soon post an essay to the Web about “how modern Friends ought to read the Bible”.

This tantalizing suggestion was followed by an actual essay, last Thursday, under the title, “The Authority of the Bible”.

I wound up holding that essay in the Light all weekend long.

The main thing that came to me — with more and more force as the weekend passed — is that in this essay Richard approached the Bible as an outsider, examining it with an outsider’s detachment, as he addressed his fellow outsiders. (Thus: “I do not think that any reasonably thoughtful and educated person can find this alternative [using the Bible as proof of what is true] plausible if they give it a serious test.”)

I understand that approach, and sympathize. If you are an outsider to the Bible, treating it this way is a totally natural and honest way to begin your relationship with it.

But it’s not the only natural and honest way to relate to the Bible, nor even necessarily the best one. And that recognition is what provokes me to write this response.

Most Christians — including most Christian Quakers — are, I think, more inclined to approach the Bible as insiders, which is to say, as people whose lives are embedded within the same great story that the Bible introduces. So for them, the Bible is not an objective textbook that one examines with detachment, like a school board considering a proposed new civics text. Rather, it is a collection of the testimonies of some very remarkable people in the far past of one’s own extended family, whom one looks at through the rose-colored spectacles of personal kinship. In a nutshell, it’s a sort of family photo album.

Richard’s concern, in his essay, regarded Christians who do what is frequently described as “proof-texting”: holding up isolated passages of the Bible as “proof” that this or that is true. (E.g.: “What do you mean, it’s okay to eat green eggs and ham? Read Hepzibah 7:49, you unbeliever, where it clearly says: Thou shalt not eat green eggs with ham and live!!”) Richard’s concern warmed my heart, because that sort of proof-texting bothers me, too.

Any really heavy reliance on proof-texting is a sign of disease in a religion. When a religion is vital, alive and healthy to the tips of its extremities, its followers are so immersed in its vision and practice, and its way of understanding comes so naturally to them, that they have little need of such proof-texting: their own lives bear sufficient witness to the Truth that no further props are generally needed.

Extensive proof-texting comes in when a religion is moribund, and its limbs are starting to grow cold. At that point, its members begin citing proof texts in an effort to jump-start a life that no longer pulses naturally through the body.

But this isn’t to say that all proof-texting is unhealthy. Sometimes, as in Peter’s address in Acts 2, the proof text actually succeeds in drawing its hearers to new life. Sometimes, as in Christ’s scriptural citations to his antagonists, it is deliberately addressed to deaf ears, and antagonizes the owners of those ears still further, but in such a way as to improve some onlookers. It’s not always done so clumsily, or by a preacher so uncomprehending, that it serves only to discredit the speaker and hurt his cause.

Most Christians do some proof-texting, and some do an awful lot. But I don’t experience that proof-texting is the center of most Christians’ relationship with the Bible. Really heavy-duty proof-texting seems to me to be concentrated in the far right wing of the church — that is, among the one-third of churchgoers to whom religion is vitally important, but who are themselves very far from the confidence of the early believers, and who therefore feel deeply threatened by any idea not clearly affirmed by their own teachers.

For most of the rest of Christianity — because they feel themselves embedded in the story — they do see the Bible as a sort of family album. And while one can and sometimes does pull out the family album to settle questions (“There! You see what he’s holding in that photo? Green eggs and ham!!) — an act which is indeed proof-texting — the more common thing is to pull the volume out just to steep oneself in the world and personalities it depicts.

Someone who approaches the Bible as a family album is much less likely to feel threatened by an idea that maybe, e.g., Paul was mistaken on some particular point, than someone who takes the Bible to be the spiritual equivalent of a standard physics text or code of law. It’s okay to disagree with deceased family members, whether publicly or privately, whereas it’s really not okay at all to disagree with What’s Real or What’s Right.

And it feels particularly okay to disagree if — as is the case with most Christians — the actual life of the religion in question pulses tangibly in one’s own daily experience. One’s own experience then becomes sufficient proof that one is on the right track.

It is for this reason that I have some difficulty with my friend Richard’s closing recommendation — that “we should read the Bible looking for truth and not merely for truth as we already see it.”

Again, I understand and value the reasons why Richard makes this recommendation. And I’m not trying to say that it’s wrong! It’s always good to be looking for truth, no matter what one is looking at!

But to follow this recommendation, without any further guidance, can leave the newcomer who has been taught that the Bible is a sort of answer book like a physics text or municipal code, still looking on it as a pretender to that sort of rĂ´le — a pretender which we are now approaching warily but with an open mind, like a hiker approaching an unfamiliar snake.

Me, I’d say: forget the whole idea that the Bible is anything like a physics text or municipal code book!

  • The way that the Gospels were originally put together was in the spirit of a family album — as a sharing of all that could still be remembered of the authors’ beloved Lord.
  • The histories of the Old Testament are similar: a sharing of all that oral tradition could transmit of YHWH’s dealings with His people.
  • The books of the prophets and the letters of the apostles are special mementos: dried roses pressed between the pages of the album: my prophet, my apostle, gave me this on the day of the ball.

The Christians who take the Bible as a sort of family album today are, therefore, the ones who are closest to the spirit in which most of it was originally assembled.

Moreover, as far as I know, only the priestly law of Moses and the book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) make any actual claim on their own behalf to be at a higher level of authority than a story told at second hand possesses. The Gospels, the histories, and the prophetic and apostolic works do not claim any higher authority than that for themselves, but instead assign all higher authority to the God whom they are laboring to describe.

And as regards the law of Moses, its claim to possess a higher authority in-and-of-itself largely folded for Christians when the church set aside the laws of cleanliness and ritual almost two millennia ago. Whereas, regarding the book of the Apocalypse, which explicitly asserts in its final verses that it possesses such higher authority in and of itself, there are many genuine Christians, including the Greek Orthodox and Syrian establishments and the Protestant leader Martin Luther, who never accepted it as fully worthy even of the stature accorded to other books in the Bible.

Personally, I think that approaching the Bible as a family album is far healthier than approaching it as a book of supposedly definitive statements on every aspect of life. It leaves the spirit of the worshiper free, in the same sort of freedom that a child enjoys in the bosom of a healthy family. The child of such a family is drawn into the spirit of God by the life of the family in which he is raised, not by proof-texting!

And that, in fact, is how the early Friends understood the Bible — if I may be forgiven a little proof-texting of my own —


Friends treating the Bible as a family album:


The scriptures or bible … contain many various passages … of things transacted and done in a time and state not suitable to that of man in the beginning, nor to that of the gospel or new covenant: as, for a man to have several wives, or many concubines at once. It was not so in the beginning, nor ought it to be so now, yet such things are recorded in scripture of divers persons, without any expression of censure.

   — George Whitehead, The Presbyter’s Antidote Tried (1673); repr. in Penn and Whitehead, The Christian Quaker, and His Divine Testimony Stated and Vindicated (Joseph Rakestraw, 1824), pp. 386-87

…The Scriptures of Truth … contain,

  1. A faithful historical account of the actings of God’s people in divers ages; with many singular and remarkable providences attending them.
  2. A prophetical account of several things, whereof some are already past, and some are yet to come.
  3. A full and ample account of all the chief principles of the doctrine of Christ….

   — Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Prop. III (1676-78)


Friends teaching that the Bible should be read
in the spirit of the family of Christ:


…Any teaching or expounding the Scriptures out of the life shuts up the kingdom: for the life is the kingdom, and words from the life yield the savor of the kingdom; but words out of it, though ever so good and true, reach not to the life in another; but only build up a knowledge in the contrary wisdom…. And so this kind of teaching and knowledge shuts up the door and way of life, and must be lost, before the kingdom can be found.

   — Isaac Penington, The Jew Outward, Being a Glass for the Professors of This Age… (1659)

The poor people is groping in the letter to find life there, when the life was in them that gave it forth.

   — Richard Hubberthorne, Reply to a Book set forth by one of the Blind Guides (Calvert, 1654), p. 2

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (17)


I really like the image of the Bible as a family album! It brings back happy memories of going through my own family's photo albums over and over and over again. To the point where it was hard to know if I really remembered some things from when I was young or just from seeing the photos.

Similarly, reading parts of the Bible over and over again helps bring me more and more into the story. With grace, I may actually live more and more into that story, that Way.

-- Chris M.

PS I found your essay by way of your comment on Richard M's blog. I don't think I ever updated your RSS feed in my bloglines. I may have some catching up to do!
Oct 2, 2006 at 10:59PM | Unregistered CommenterChris M.

I wish I'd read this years ago, as it took me far too long to read the Bible for purposes other than:

* to figure out what was going on in a painting

* to counter someone else's proof-texting

* to check back in with the Sermon on the Mount to remind myself that Christianity is more than Crusades.

Some of that is my background, but a piece like this is a wonderful way to move forward into the Bible without getting trapped in the efforts people make to force it to give an answer, preferably their answer.

Oct 3, 2006 at 11:31AM | Unregistered CommenterSimon St.Laurent

Thank you both for the wonderful comments!

The realization that the Bible was a sort of family album for those who put it together, has been a liberating one for me ever since I first came to it, fifteen years ago. I'm glad to learn that it works for other people, too.

Chris -- and dear readers generally -- if you're planning to keep up with both my journals by subscription through RSS, RDF, or Atom, you need to bear in mind that they are two separate blogs. A subscription to the one won't automatically get you the other as well! But it's easy to subscribe to both: just click their subscription icons on the navigation bar on the left side of this page.

Oct 4, 2006 at 05:56AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
No time for a lengthly response now but a couple of quick points. First, why do you say I have an outsiders viewpoint. Outside of what exactly? Certainly not outside the Christian tradition or outside Quakerism. Also I don't see what we disagree about. I like the family album metaphor and we agree about proof-texting. So what do we disagree about? I'm wondering if it isn't that you find my view too cold and analytical, something along those lines?
Oct 4, 2006 at 10:50AM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM

Welcome, Richard!

When I said you approached the Bible as an outsider, I meant that you approached it as something outside of yourself, and implicitly, as something that you in turn were outside of. This relationship of mutual outside-of-ness is necessary for an objective, analytic evaluation of a thing, which is what you were offering the readers of your essay. One cannot objectively evaluate something that interpenetrates one's very self.

And no, I don't think we disagree, either. I certainly wasn't contradicting anything you said. I was simply speaking of the value of a shift of perspective, from the objective point of view you had taken, to a subjective point of view in which one perceives the Bible and oneself as interpenetrating, each contained in the other, in the manner that a story and its participant-narrator are each contained in the other.

Oct 4, 2006 at 11:47AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
I really can't wrap my mind around this. I think I can and do "objectively evaluate something that interpenetrates" my self. My beliefs, my desires, my habits are all part of me and it just comes naturally to examine them self-critically: is this belief justified? is this desire excessive? is this habit fruitful? And I'd want to say the same thing about stories I would tell. In a sense who we are is the story we choose to tell about ourselves but the story can be looked at critically: am I exaggerating the hardships I faced? Did it really happen that way? etc. This all seems so natural to my prosaic mind that I must be misunderstanding you. Help me out here.
Oct 4, 2006 at 02:41PM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM

Well, Richard, maybe we understand things differently.

I would make a claim that nobody can look objectively at anything that is mixed up with his/her own self in his/her own mind. It doesn't work that way. We may think we examine our own beliefs, desires & habits objectively, but we do not; our biases and defenses and so forth color our self-examinations at levels even beyond what we are consciously aware of -- and other people watching us see this about us. Your wife, for example, ought to be able to tell you this about yourself. (I'm making a prediction here, but I think it's a safe one. I've yet to meet a wife who doesn't see at least some of her husband's unconscious biases.)

Still, you are most welcome to disagree with me on that. And with your wife, presuming she confirms what I am saying.

And yes, I agree that we can look at our own stories critically. But the critical process is not automatically objective, and in any case involving self-criticism it simply cannot be. That's why (to offer a prosaic illustration) when judges are asked to judge a matter that is tangled up with their own stories -- as for example when Supreme Court justices try to judge a case involving a principle big enough that it gets tangled with the stories by which they understand themselves -- we can discern subjective biases coloring their judgment, no matter how hard they try to be objective.

Oct 4, 2006 at 04:21PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
I play chess every Wednesday night downtown and when I got back my wife was reading your last note. She laughed and said "Listen to this. Marshall thinks you have biases. Noooo, you don't have any biases. He he he." So, unless I am totally unable to recognize sarcasm when I hear it I'd say she agrees with you.

Seriously, I'd say the difference between us is real but not very great. I certainly admit that it is harder--much harder--for someone to see the beam in their own eye than it is to see the speck in their neighbors. But hard isn't impossible and people should try consistently to do this and those who do try consistently are better at it than those who adopt a habit of looking at themselves uncritically. The attempt to examine ourselves and our tradition critically is both possible and good.
Oct 5, 2006 at 11:10AM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM
I'm delighted by your ability to tell a story at your own expense! It's a gift (and very becoming in a Friend).

Many thanks for the dialogue, Richard. I'm pleased that you were willing to take the time for it. And I continue to look forward to every new posting on your blog!
Oct 5, 2006 at 12:02PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
I think the next post will be about sin. Modern Friends are uncomfortable with the concept but I will be arguing that it is a reality we cannot ignore.

I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Oct 5, 2006 at 01:55PM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM
I think we need to add an acknowledgment of the need for guidance by the Spirit when we read the Bible. Clearly some parts of the Bible are literally truth, while others are only true when read as metaphor (proof text: Jesus' rebuke of Nicodemus). One passage may speak to a particular issue at a particular time; it may speak to another issue at another time, or with another reader.

Also, limiting the possible use by the spirit to a particular collection of documents called the Bible, simply because those documents were approved by some 3rd century church political leaders, seems a bit dubious.(And as a crowning proof-text, I wanted to cite Timothy, or whoever it was, who remarked that all scripture is god-breathed, but my memory has grown dim and I can't quite find the spot at the moment. Just as well I burned my evangelical membership card, or I'd have to turn it in now!)

Doesn't Fox make some remarks about scripture being "opened" to him or for him? Again I can't quite recall the context, but I do recall thinking that he had an experience of the Bible being cold, dead words, and then his experience changed and some part of it became alive, which I interpreted as the action of the Holy Spirit. And this is my attempt at an argument from authority, a more socially acceptable form of proof-texting.
Oct 10, 2006 at 07:30AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Parsons
David, those who try to use the words of the Bible as proof neglect the fact that words say nothing unless they are interpreted by the reader and interpretation isn't simple. Also the text of second Timothy which they cite as implying that Scripture is inerrant says nothing of the kind. It merely says that Scripture is useful. As a teacher I can assure you that useful texts can contain errors. Also as you note why should we think God is limited to speaking to us by means of the Bible. God speaks to us in many ways.
Oct 10, 2006 at 10:12AM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM
Thank you, Marshall. I've been waiting for a long time for someone to articulate this point of view as well as you do.
Oct 10, 2006 at 11:37AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul L
I think your metaphor needs to return to the drawing board.

I look at the Bible as an outsider, specifically as an outsider seeking whatever truth I may find in it. I agree that there is significant, profound truth there, and that seeking such truth is useful, while poking for errors only demonstrates the unprofitable no-brainer that yes, there are quite a few.

Ignoring the Bible is particularly useless. It is not merely a story about divine revelation, but an example. It is also contains examples of how readily people distort revelation to suit their various human agendas. It points us toward God, our only real salvation from the sterility and violence of the culture that forms and deforms us. (Its frequent misuse as a distraction from God and a substitute for God belongs on the warning label, but shouldn't discourage us from using in appropriately.)

So I think we do agree on much, in practice. (Here comes the "but"):

It is not something I inherited; I find no occasion in it for self-congratulation. It belongs to the world, to anyone who can find a scrap of under-the-table wisdom in it. While I have no better metaphor, so far, I find "family album" altogether too smug, suggesting that the Bible accords us some special status vs all those "outsiders" to whom it's a closed book, something old and strange that crazy people get drunk on. If anything, we should have a metaphor that gives us responsibility to pass on what we find in it.
Oct 10, 2006 at 01:27PM | Unregistered Commenterforrest curo
Thank you for this piece, and I especially appreciate the interplay between you and Richard here and on Richard's blog. As I was pondering the "family album" metaphor, I was reminded of genealogy stories my wife has told me where people find out very unpleasant things about their ancestors. Some try to ignore them, some get upset, some won't even talk about them, and some talk about them very openly. I certainly see that reaction among people in response to the Bible.

Also, I should point out that the translation of Hepzibah 7:49 is the subject of much debate among scholars. In the original text, the words appear in the order "eggs green ham." Because the word translated as green is spelled the same way in both the accusative and dative cases, a significant portion of scholars now think that the verse is more likely "Thou shalt not eat eggs with green ham and live," with a small but vocal vegetarian minority suggesting that it is, in fact, "Thou shalt not eat eggs with ham and live green."

With love,
Oct 10, 2006 at 07:09PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Wutka
Thank you Richard, for your concise statement about the reality of interpretation. I think we are in agreement about the reality of interpretation of scripture occurring, despite the claims of the evangelicals.

It is still as necessary to insist on the need for divine inspiration in interpretation as for divine inspiration in the creation of the Bible. The error in the evangelical wing lies in attributing authority to the book rather than to the Spirit who guides the understanding. Authority resides in the living God, not in the dead pages of some book.

This may sound too close to the liberal position for what you were wanting to do, but it is an essential point that cannot be glossed over: to understand the Bible requires the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and authority resides in that spirit, not in the words on the page. Perhaps it would be more Quakerly to say God is in you, not in the book.

Marshall offers a concrete, pictorial way of beginning to read the bible as something other than a unitary whole. I suspect that seeing the differences between different parts of the bible is as easy for Richard as breathing, but for many people it is a real struggle; especially for evangelicals.

I see both of you, Richard and Marshall, as trying to build a bridge to the evangelical community, although I think you are starting construction from opposite ends. And you are correct that addressing the Bible is the essential beginning point. Forrest and Mark W are working on some of the planks in the middle of the bridge; useful points to make after people have become able to see the bible as made up of separate pieces, along the way to replacing a relationship with the bible with a relationship with a living God. I hope you succeed in building the bridge; there are some good people over in evangelical-land.
Oct 11, 2006 at 03:44AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Parsons

Many thanks to all you new commenters for sharing your thoughts and your reactions here!

David -- I do agree we need the guidance of the Spirit when we read the Bible! But then frankly I think we need the Spirit's guidance when we read all things. I'm mindful of specific Friends I know, who will ask the Spirit's guidance before they crack the covers of The Book, but will forget all about the Spirit of Christ when they get into an economics text -- or will forget the Spirit entirely when engrossed in a murder mystery.

I'd like to address your comment that "limiting the possible use by the spirit to a particular collection of documents called the Bible, simply because those documents were approved by some 3rd century church political leaders, seems a bit dubious." Basically, I agree with you, but there are some details --

I believe the text you're trying to remember is either II Timothy 3:16a ("All Scripture is given by inspiration of God....") or II Peter 1:20-21 ("...No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit."). My own problem with the way modern evangelical Protestants interpret these two passages is that they ignore the historical context. These passages were written at a time when there was no general agreement as to what books were scripture and what books were not. So Peter and Timothy had to make their own personal decisions on such matters. And they made their decisions, obviously, based on what books seemed *inspired* to them, and what books did not.

But when the Bible was finally put together -- no, not "by some 3rd century church political leaders", but by an informal, consensual process that involved most of the Christian community and extended all the way from the second into the fifth century A.D. (look it up!!) -- the decisions as to what would be included, and what would not, were *not* strictly based on what books seemed inspired and what books did not. Instead they were governed, to a remarkably large extent, by the logic that decides what goes into a family album.

-- Apocalypse/Revelation made it into the Bible because the Christian community in the West (Italy, Gaul, Spain, West Africa) really, really liked it even though the Christian community in the East (Greece, Egypt, Syria) did not. The Westerners felt that John of Patmos, the author of Apocalypse, was Our Kinda Guy speaking Our Kinda Language, and that settled that.

-- The Apocrypha -- I and II Esdras, Tobit, Judith, LXX Esther, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, LXX Daniel, and I and II Maccabees -- made it into the Bible (and still remain in the Catholic Bible) because they were found in the Greek-language Jewish Bible, the "Septuagint", even though not in the Hebrew-language Jewish Bible, and the Greek-language version was the one that the Christian family had all grown up with and had fond memories of.

-- Conversely, the Gospel of Thomas was excluded mainly because the Gnostics were in love with it, and the Gnostics were Not Our Family At All.

So the logic by which the Bible was assembled was family-album logic, not spiritual-inspiredness logic (to say nothing of theological-correctness logic!). And that's what I wish the evangelical Protestants would understand.

Paul, Mark and David, I thank you all for your kind and charitable words.

Forrest, I think you misread me. I never said that you inherited the Bible -- and I don't think you did inherit it, except in the sense that we all inherit the Bible along with Sophocles and Shakespeare and Einstein, as part of the shared cultural heritage of the West. Nor did I ever say that the Bible accords us any special status. I don't know where you get these ideas, but I sense that you are responding, not to anything I actually wrote or believe, but to something that some of my words reminded you of.

Finally, Mark, I'd like to draw your attention to the photo of the guy holding green-dyed hard-boiled eggs at the back of the crowd at the Easter Egg Hunt. Some of us believe this guy was Hepzibah's husband Charlie, a constant embarrassment to her because of the way he carried on at family gatherings. Could "ham" have actually been meant as a verb?

Oct 11, 2006 at 09:47PM | Unregistered CommenterMarshall Massey

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>