When I was young and green and growing like an emerald sprout in the steamy Mississippi Delta, I was an avid churchgoer—my junior and senior years of high school I worked on the staff at the Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly Grounds, served as president of High School Youth for Christ, and led the closing prayer at my high school graduation. Yet in all my religious training no one ever warned me how dangerous the Bible was when read prescriptively, and that is precisely the way I was taught to read it in a Mississippi Baptist church—prescriptively! Taking the Bible prescriptively is what one does when one regards it as a divinely inspired book. My teachers in those early years were not critical scholars and they all believed the Bible reflected a prescription for a successful life, one that was pleasing to God. They seemed confident that knowledge of and obedience to its contents would develop a strong Christian character. During those early years, however, no one ever cautioned me that in reading the Bible I should have to choose carefully between its mosaic of good ideas and bad ideas; and it is essential that readers learn to discriminate between the positive and negative ideas advocated in its pages! For example, the Bible rightly extols the positive qualities of a wife and mother—qualities worthy of emulation (Proverbs 31:10-13), but it also promotes a blatant misogyny that easily misleads the unwary prescriptive reader (1 Tim 2:8-15).
Here is another example of the need to discriminate carefully among better and worse ideas appearing in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Paul compares three religious abilities: love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), prophetic powers, and faith. He claims that the ability to love is the greatest of these three abilities (1 Corinthians 13:13). Unfortunately this judgment is something he seems to forget in Galatians, where he aggressively promotes the right kind of faith over some who disagree with him (Gal 1:6-2:14). Discriminating readers will recognize the need to choose between these two contradictory positions—love can lead to reconciliation, while insistence on the right kind of faith will inevitably lead to disunity—and even violence (church history abounds with such examples). A striving after love, is the ethically more demanding choice (1 Corinthians 13:4), while the other, insisting on the right faith, more likely than not will lead to callousness (Gal 1:6-9). It is far more difficult to treat with love and kindness someone who disagrees with your faith than it is to denounce and dismiss them (as Paul did).
The most insidious aspect of taking the Bible prescriptively, however, is that its authors view reality mythically (myth: things that exist only in the imagination), and subliminally they call for readers to share their mythical views. Yet to accept their views one is required to regard the universe as a battleground between the forces of light (God, angels, Holy Spirit, good spirits, etc.) and Darkness (Satan, demons, evil spirits, etc.). Bible readers generally assimilate such ideas without serious challenge. Yet no formal argument for the necessity of believing in such an unseen world is presented in the Bible; its mythical world view simply reflects the backdrop of Hebrew and Greco-Roman antiquity. Such concepts were in the air the authors breathed and the water they drank.
Now in the late autumn of my allotted years I am hard struck by the failure of the Church to handle carefully the greatest treasure of its historical past. The Biblical corpus is like the corpus of ancient Greek poets whom Plato accused of corrupting the minds of Greek youth by attributing things to the Greek Gods that were untrue (The Republic, 377A-383E). In his ideal state he virtually censored the reading of the poets by the youth for the damage it could do them.* Here is my question: Should the Church learn from Plato’s example, and insist that there be warning labels on Bibles—perhaps something simple like the following: “Caution; contains ideas in part that should not be taken as a prescription for modern life”? There are many types of literature (politics, medicine, etc.) whose authors urge that their ideas be taken as a prescription for modern life. They change with the times. Yet it is precisely because of the Bible’s continuing iconic status in American culture that it requires a warning label. What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, June 26, 2015: “The Sybil’s Wish: A Mythical Encounter.”