Editors' Note: Guest blogger Rev. Rick Elliott is a Presbyterian minister on disability. He's a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got a masters of divinity at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and did doctoral work at Perkins School of Divinity (SMU). His first book, Faith Journeys of the Heart, will be available in mid-February.
I'll have to admit it hurt a lot -- especially coming from a friend I've had for over 50 years. We began as infants crawling around together in a playpen. Since we lived in the country we were the only kids for miles. So we played together. Over the years we've kept up with each other by visits and phone. Her husband died suddenly at the age of 59. He literally dropped dead. I was the first person she called. I made several visits and invited her to go on a tour of China with me.
I'm a Presbyterian minister and she is a professional potter who has won a number of blue ribbons in the State Fair of Texas. She lives in a suburb of Dallas and I live in Houston. So periodically we'd meet for lunch in a town between us and talk for hours, then go back home.
One particular visit, I was about to take a bite out of a scrumptious piece of apricot pie, when she said, "You're gay aren't you." I hadn't talked with her about my late-in-life discovery, but, I guess, somehow she knew.
Stunned, I said, "Yes, I am," I went on to describe a problem I was dealing with. It was becoming harder and harder to lead a double life that was having physical ramifications. I was struggling to lead a 30-hour week because I didn't have the stamina.
We didn't talk anymore about it and, after a while, she returned north and I, south. On Valentines Day I got a card from her that included a note. She expressed her appreciation for my support and went on to say that she felt I needed to leave the church. Then she went on to say that she'll always love me -- even with the knowledge I was gay. You know what they say -- love the sinner, but hate the sin. It hurt me to the core. I started crying, then tried to think about what to say in reply.
Then it hit me -- what had helped me sort out my faith living in the middle of Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and Pentecostal East Texas. My father had told me continually -- for as long as I could remember -- that I was a child of the covenant. But my schoolmates wanted to know when I was going to be saved.
"Have you found Jesus yet," one asked.
I replied, somewhat miffed, "I didn't know he was lost!" You can imagine how that went over.
Sorting Out My Faith
What I heard that helped me sort it out, came in a lecture from an Introductory Course to the Bible at University of North Carolina by Professor Bernard Boyd, who happened also to be a Presbyterian minister. Here's what he told us, "Let me give you an objective definition of the Bible. The Bible is a Library that is a literature that is ancient, pre-scientific, Semitic, and Eastern. It was written out of a theological bias for a theological purpose."
I sat there with my mouth open, stunned, as he went on to elaborate on what he said. Though stunned I was writing notes furiously.
He said, "It's obvious that the Bible is a library. Everybody knows it is made out of a bunch of books. Most Libraries I've ever been to have a variety of different kinds of books and the Bible is no different."
Then he went on to say that the next part of the definition is important. (Remember this was 1965 before political correctness)
"It is a literature that contains just about every kind of literature known to man. It has poetry, history, philosophical discourses, comedy, tragedy, intrigue, puns, fiction that makes a point, romance and all sorts of literary efforts. Some began as stories told around a campfire to folk who couldn't read or write. There were letters written to folks in a particular place. There were commentators who tried to tell folks that the path they were on would lead to all sorts of trouble. And that just scratches the surface.
"That such a fine piece of literature came from such a third rate people is something to remember. When Solomon wanted to build his palace and the Temple, he had to recruit folks from another state because his folks didn't have the skills to do it. Imagine such a fine piece of literature--the finest in the Ancient World--coming from such a primitive people. That's one way we might think God had a hand in it."
What Kind of Literature We've Got
Our task is to work out what kind of literature we've got as we begin to study it. The first chapter and the first few verses of the second chapter are an example of high Hebrew poetry. So we need to look at it as poetry. When Robert Burns writes that his love is like a red, red rose, we don't automatically think she had red hair, a long skinny green body and if you hugged her you got stuck. But the piece of high Hebrew poetry in Genesis doesn't get the leeway Burns does. Folks treat it like the front page of a newspaper, relating events of an eyewitness account. That tendency is what led to the Scopes Trial and the problem of teaching evolution in schools. As we progress in this class, we'll constantly being attuned to what kind of literature we're dealing with.
The Bible is ancient. Some of it comes from as much as 4000 years ago and some came as late as 50-150 AD. It was told or written to specific people in a time far different from ours. Part of our task is to try to listen with the ears of those who first heard it.
There is a controversy going on about women in leadership positions based on Paul's admonition that women should keep silent in church. In that day Christians worshiped in synagogues. The women were to sit in a certain place with a heavy curtain drawn in front of them. Because of the menstrual cycle they were dubbed unclean. Therefore they weren't allowed to be in the main part of the synagogue. Imagine being in a place where it was difficult to hear and couldn't see what was going on. The women were visiting among themselves while the worship was going on. Paul's admonition is in the middle of his discussion of decorum in worship. What he was saying was that women shouldn't be chatting while the service was going on. That it had anything to say about women in church leadership has no foundation if we listen to the words in its context with the customs of a particular time.
The Bible is pre-scientific. That should be fairly obvious the scientific method came much later than the Bible. Yet the Roman Catholic Church was harsh on scientists discovering new things -- like the earth isn't flat or the sun and stars don't revolve around the earth.
The Bible is Semitic. It arises out of a group of people who've been battling with each other for centuries. Also they were involved in trade because the people of the Bible lived at the crossroads of the world back then. It also is a concrete language that has trouble with abstract thinking. Thus Jews, as they spread around the world, took phrases into their language from the folks around them to express what their language couldn't do.
The Bible is Eastern, coming from folks who look at the world far different from what we do. We Westerners have linear thought patterns--if a, then b and c, etc. The word progress makes perfect sense to us, but is difficult for Eastern-thinking folk to grasp. Eastern thought patterns tends to be cyclical. It's rather like the common placemat at a Chinese restaurant with the times of years that repeat over and over.
And it's obvious that the Bible has a theological bias and written for a theological purpose. It doesn't attempt to prove God; it assumes God. It relates history, but the first priority is theological and not historical.
"Literarily" Rather Than Literally
The Rev. Dr. Boyd explained in more detail, but what he said helped me deal with folks with, what I call, a Cecil B. Demille view of the Bible. Remember the movie the Ten Commandments and the story of the delivery of them. Something from outer space whizzed in and zapped the rock. Folks that gave me a problem tended to see the Bible as something that God reached down and moved the hand than wrote the words.
Earlier I related how primitive the Hebrews were, but the finest piece of literature came from such a people who were only a few generations removed from chasing sheep. This gave me a way how the Bible is the inspired word of God -- that God must have been moving among the people in a way that they were inspired to create this ancient book.
This sensible way of looking at the Bible and letting it be what it is rather than trying to jam it into something of human construction. It's like George Gobel when he was asked to comment on his wife's new Lycra girdle. He said, "It's rather like putting a marshmallow in a piggy bank.
It has helped me cut through those who use the Bible as a way to club gays. When the Bible seems to condemn homosexuality, What it's saying compared to today is like comparing apples and oranges. It is condemning the men who bought young boys as slaves and used them as sexual toys. What the Bible is condemning is an abuse of power, not a mutual expression of love between two people.
I would commend to you Ted Foote's book, Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt: A Theological Survival Guide. Also Shirley Guthrie's book, Christian Doctrine. And I hope you'd find help from my book available in February with Tate Publishing, Faith Journeys of the Heart.
I guess The Rev. Dr. Boyd wanted us to take the Bible literarily rather than literally.
I sincerely hope that my way of finding meaning when all around me were propounding something, in my gut, I knew was wrong will be helpful in your faith journey.