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Does the Bible Tell Me So?

How Americans Misread the Good Book

Plus: Faith Healing Hoax.

America is in the grip of a biblical frenzy. Books claiming to contain divine instructions fill bookstore shelves (one popular set is actually called the God's Little Instruction Book series). Athletes, who used to just play ball while fundamentalists in the crowd held up signs pointing television viewers to John 3:16, are now shouting biblical slogans themselves. Boxer Evander Holyfield even credited Jesus Christ with his world heavyweight victory. Forty-two percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God, up almost 5 percent since 1987.

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Some of this Bible-thumping gets a bit goofy. A former country music promoter is building an amusement park, God's Wonderful World, featuring a visit to hell complete with blasts of heated air from below. And some of it's scary, because religious fundamentalists are not just preaching their version of biblical values, they're beating the rest of the country over the head with them. Ending welfare, praying in public schools, teaching creationism, eliminating "special treatment" for gays—the whole gamut of politically conservative rallying cries comes wrapped in a biblical halo: It's God's will, and here's the big black book to prove it.

Mainstream religious folk have tried to fight back. Organizations such as the National Council of Churches and the National Council of Jewish Women attack conservative policies. But whatever the political success of these organizations (lately, it's been depressingly low), on the biblical front they've lost the battle. Americans may love the Bible or loathe it. But for the most part, they read it the same way (when they read it at all): as the manifesto of a God who has a lot of laws and a definite inclination to punish those who don't follow them.

Even nonbelievers see it that way. Take New Yorker John Hart, who joined a church Bible study in part to understand the enemy. "One of the big problems is this sense of moral certitude," he says. "There is a God, and God makes rules, and this is what happens when the rules don't get obeyed."

Fundamentalists argue smugly that liberals are losers when it comes to the Bible because they're just plain wrong. But there's an eclectic mix of scholars and writers who don't buy that explanation. Liberals have lost the biblical battle, these scholars say, because, even while they reject conservative interpretations of the Bible, they've been unable to shake free of conservative assumptions about the Bible.

Americans—and not just conservatives—are by nature fundamentalists, says Bruce Bawer, a poet, literary critic, and author of the forthcoming book Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity. "Anything that's not useful is without meaning," he says. "The whole country was settled by people who had to be very pragmatic. When we read the Bible, if a statement has a noun and a verb, we want to believe it's literally true and use it in some way."

That makes the Bible a prickly document. Most of the stories in the Bible—God's creation of the world in six days, Moses' bringing the Israelites out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea, and of course all of Jesus' miracles—are, to a scientific worldview, highly improbable. And a lot of what God is described as doing, from demanding that Abraham sacrifice his only son to striking a pair of early Christians dead because they wanted to hang on to some of their own property, seems downright nasty.

With so much in the Bible to be disliked or discounted, there seems to be little left for liberals to do but engage in the same kind of moral prescriptiveness the religious right has made so unattractive. "Fundamentalists buy into truth as factuality, but Christian liberals have also tended to accept the idea that factuality and truthfulness are the same," says author and biblical scholar Marcus Borg. "The mainline Protestant tendency is to ask what we can pluck from the fire, and extract these rather banal ethical teachings."

The result is a war of "proof-texts." Conservatives "prove" they're right by quoting one biblical passage, and liberals "prove" they're not by quoting another back at them. Take welfare. "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat," thunders the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10. "Give to everyone who begs from you," says Jesus in Matthew 5:42.

And in a war of competing texts, religious conservatives will always be able to make the clearer, and louder, case. Seeking refuge from modern science and a contemporary moral view that allows for abortion, premarital sex, and homosexuality, they find in the Bible facts and rules that give them comfort. Religious liberals have a much more difficult time of it. Faced with an ancient text like the Bible, they feel stuck with either taking it literally and hating it, or wrestling some usefulness out of it by contextualization and extrapolation.

On the vexed subject of homosexuality, for example, conservatives have it easy: Every sentence on the subject in the Bible (all four or five of them) disapproves. On the other hand, seminary professor William Countryman makes a convincing—and thoroughly biblical—case that the teachings of Jesus make homosexuality an irrelevant issue. But it takes him a whole book, Dirt, Greed, and Sex, to do it. In the sound-bite competition that is today's political debate, it's not too hard to figure out who wins.

In the end, "proof-texting" says a lot more about us than it does about the Bible. "We get our behavioral codes from our communities," says Countryman, and then we go to the Bible to prove them. Used that way, the Bible is as malleable as those inkblots in a Rorschach test.

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