Peter Gomes, the late chaplain of Harvard University, writes in The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Head and Heart, writes: One of the greatest ironies available to people who take the Bible seriously is that they may be tempted to take it, and themselves, so seriously that God and the truths of God to which the Bible points may be obscured, perverted, or lost entirely.” (p. 35)
He continues by saying that there is a temptation to see, in the Bible, no further understanding of what we see which leads to an “idolatry of scripture.
I thought about that as I read an article this morning on the CNN Belief blog about the religion of President Barack Obama. It seems that there are a fair number of people “out there” who do not think he is a real Christian. They are troubled by what he has said and done and by what he has not said and done. Author John Blake says in the article that many say that the president is the “wrong kind” of Christian.
Talk like that drives me nuts, because I don’t understand what the “right kind” of Christian is. Is the “right” kind of Christian the one who believes that the poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps even if they have no boots?
Blake says that the president is a “religious pioneer,” who is “challenging the Religious Right‘s “domination of the national stage.” (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/21/to-some-obama-is-the-wrong-kind-of-christian/?hpt=hp_c1) The president is called a “progressive,” but according to clerics quoted in Blake’s piece, many believe that one cannot be Progressive and be a Christian.
The president apparently interprets the scriptures to mean that believers in Jesus are proponents of the social gospel, which compels the “haves” to assist “the least of these.” But many from the Religious Right think that such a stand is not supported by the Bible and say that interpreting the Gospel to mean that government should help the poor smacks of socialism.
It is mind-boggling to me that all of us who read the Bible can and do walk away with such different and diverse interpretations of the words written, but that’s because I believe that since there’s one God, there is one way of doing things. Since God is love and God has no favorites, then this God would want those who have to help the least of these. That’s social gospel talking, through and through …but it is my interpretation. The Bible is not a mathematical formula; there is no quaint equation that mandates that everyone believe and interpret the same way.
That, for me, is a problem. How can there be one God and so many different ways of interpreting what God requires? And, even bigger than that, why doesn’t God step in and do something so that all the different interpretations will fall to the wayside?
For me, the way the Religious Right has tended to interpret the Bible is not acceptable. The Religious Right’s interpretation of scripture has left too many people out, left too many people marginalized. That cannot be my conception of God; I could not worship a God who condoned racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism …God has to be better than that, has to demand better than that.
The CNN article says that the president’s article focuses more on community betterment than individual attainment. That, to me, sounds about right, but the people quoted in the article disagree. The attention paid to community and, more specifically, the “beloved community” talked about by Martin Luther King, has a socialist slant.
At the end of the day, though the president has a concern for the masses, and the communities of God’s people, he is still criticized by even those who believe more in the social gospel than in the fundamentalist way of the Religious Right. Many have criticized him for not doing enough for African-Americans, though he would argue that the Affordable Care Act really does address the needs of that community and other marginalized communities by providing them a way to get health care.
Some who have criticized the president for being the “wrong” kind of Christian say that they haven’t heard him say important things, like, for instance, that he was “born again.” They are suspicious of his Christianity because it is informed and influenced by all of the different religions to which he has been exposed.
But I shake my head. The “right” kind of Christian does and says what? The evangelicals I’ve read have not been very kind, not very merciful and certainly not very inclusive. The God I find in the Bible is all of that, and more.
At the heart of the discontent about the president’s religion, again, is the Bible, that marvelous yet troubling text which leaves so much open to individual interpretation. Gomes says in his book that people say “the Bible says what it means and means what it says.” He quotes Matthew 8:12, where it says the wicked will be cast into outer darkness where “men shall weep and gnash their teeth.” Writes Gomes: “A toothless reprobate asked his hellfire-preaching pastor what would happen to those who had no teeth to gnash: ‘Teeth will be provided,'” was the answer.
The problem is that all of us put our own human, individual interpretations on words that I wish left no room for variable takes. Those who criticize the president for his take on the Bible have their take too. So, who decides who is “right” and who is “wrong?”
There is no answer…there never has been …and there will never be. But I think it’s wrong for any of us to make a judgment call on who is right and who is wrong. At the end of the day, none of us really know. We can all think we are “right,” but at the end of the day, I have to believe that the God of the Bible is a God of love, mercy, forgiveness, inclusion and kindness, in addition to being an exacting God who demands that we do as S/He has asked us to do.
Just saying ….
A candid observation