Today’s headline in The Huffington Post asks, “Can the Bible Inform the Illegal Immigration Debate?” Before you respond to that question, think for a minute about what the question implies.
Apparently the Bible can inform some debates, the headline writer assumes. It can, most likely, inform discussions about Jesus’ life, or even the meaning of his life. It can contribute important weight to theological conversations, of course. And there is raw information in the Bible, having mostly to do with persons, histories, and locations.
But the question is asked because, as the writer again assumes, there must be topics on which the Bible is not so helpful. Like astrophysics. Or the digital revolution. Or whether the Heat or Thunder ought to be favored in the NBA Finals.
“Illegal immigration,” then, falls into the middle ground between outright Scriptural direction and morally ambiguous head-scratching.
And this is where we Christians get into the biggest trouble. At this point, we are prone to use the search function on our digital Bible, and look up every reference that might use the word “immigrant,” “refugee,” or even “the poor.” Then we would take the isolated verse or verses and build up a case for the thing we already likely believe about the issue.
In another day and time, this was called “proof texting.” It meant simply that you looked for proof of your position in individual, isolated and selected texts. Proof-texters usually had to use concordances to do their work; concordances were thick reference books which listed every word in the Bible and where it could be found.
Today, proof-texters do what I’d call, “Googling” the Bible. They ask, “What does the Bible say about ______?” Then they search for that word in the Bible and read only those references. For example, how should one handle anger? Here’s some good advice. And what should I believe about the afterlife? Paul had this to say. It gets a little tougher when you tackle more modern dilemmas. What to think about homosexuality? Turn to Leviticus … really? Abortion? Try this verse from Psalms. Divorce? Jesus talked about it here.
The problem is that the Bible should not be handled in this way.
For starters, this kind of work does injustice to the intent of the writer. Googling the Bible pulls verses out of context — its literary context, its historical context, its social context! Just to choose one of the examples above, the Psalmist was not making a statement about the viability of human life outside the womb when he waxed poetic about being formed and shaped before birth. He was simply … waxing poetic.
But, as I have mentioned before in relation to homosexuality, the Bible also is not a reference manual. It is NOT “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” as some acronym-happy preacher has put it.
In fact, when the Bible is read as Law, then you are likely to fall into the trap that Jesus himself warned against.
Anytime we read the Bible as answering questions, providing proofs, or solving problems of logic, then it is fundamentally being misread. It’s like reading Harry Potter as a series of sociology textbooks, or “Crime and Punishment” as a guide to criminal law.
In the Huffington Post article, the National Association of Evangelicals attempts an answer about how to read the Bible – it suggests that, while the Bible “does not offer a moral blueprint for modern legislation … it can serve as a moral compass.” The “moral compass” argument does have some legitimacy, though the problem is that the Bible’s moral compass swings in favor of genocide and slavery, in places.
The problem with the “moral compass” theory is that it still approaches the Bible as a repository of divine information, a place to go and assess a given claim – an oracle from which to receive the words of God.
In the article, a Catholic priest comes closest to the best way to view the Bible when he says it “can challenge the operative narrative in our minds and hearts that affect how we evaluate the issues.”
Yes, that’s it — the Bible is a narrative. It is a story, perfectly human in all its complexity and messiness, perfectly divine in all its glory and surprising beauty, about the relationship of God to God’s creation.
Stories are inherently complicated. There are characters who make right and wrong decisions, and there are situations which are difficult and unclear. You read a story to learn deep truth and gain wisdom. You may or may not actually gain information.
But with the wisdom that one gains from a book like the Bible, one is able to make wise decisions about such issues as “illegal immigration” or “homosexuality” or “nuclear weapons,” not because the Bible tells us exactly what to think, but it shows us how to think. The difference is enormous.
So stop Googling the Bible for information. Instead, sit back with a cup of coffee and read it. Make sure you have time on your hands. Enjoy it for all it’s worth.
You’ll find yourself in the story, though you may not come to any conclusions about illegal immigration.