Many do not know context of the Bible
My aikido master was a Buddhist priest. I didn't learn this until after he had thrown me across the mat for about two years. He used to joke that, growing up in San Pedro, Calif., he was actually a Buddhist-Christian.
Biblically based Christianity has so shaped American culture that most of us are unaware of the degree to which our opinions and attitudes are based on it. It influences the kinds of questions we ask and the sorts of answers we expect. Even if you are not a Christian, the influence is subtly there. If you are an atheist, the Christian concept of God shapes even your disbelief.
Add to this the fact that most Americans are nearly biblically illiterate. They have learned bits and pieces in Sunday school or as the images that have pervaded the culture in the mass media. But they do not know the historical, cultural and theological setting of even those bits and pieces, or how they came to be.
Everyone thinks they know the creation story, as in the first chapter of Genesis, but how many know when that poem was written? Or why? Or about what? Yes, it's a classical Hebrew poem written 500 B.C. or later. It was written in affirmation of created matter as opposed to the Persian idea of that time that matter was evil and only spirit was good.
Does it matter? Yes, it matters if such images are going to unconsciously shape your very consciousness and inform your judgment about public policy issues such as teaching science in the schools.
Most Christians are even unaware that there is a rich and detailed heritage of biblical scholarship that is useful for setting all of this in historical, cultural and literary context. We pastors were all taught it in theological school, but how many of us pass it on to our parishioners?
Real estate salespeople are fond of citing "location, location, location." Well, location is important for understanding the value and meaning of something, too, not just geographically, but temporally, culturally and personally.
Is that particular piece of "God's Word" a historical document, a poem, a legend, a political pamphlet? Was it edited or added to? When, and from what point of view? What was happening at that particular time and place that led the writer to say it in just that way?
Would it help to know how that material has been interpreted and used since? Was it always understood in the same way? What is its location? Those questions have answers.
In the current culture wars, folks who hope to create a "Christian nation" use the biblical literature to try to shape public policy. But biblical scholars from within the Christian tradition will often be at odds with the version of the Bible coming from culture war advocates.
It is important as never before to know those answers and to free our own imaginations from the Sunday school and mass-media images we have uncritically inhaled from the Christian culture we all grew up in.
The real irony is that, far from causing people to lose their faith, reading the Bible in full historical, cultural and literary context opens to them a wonderful, fascinating and inspiring literature.
Wouldn't it be interesting for Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy of Honolulu to offer joint adult religious education classes sharing the insights of each rich heritage of serious biblical scholarship? Any takers?
The Rev. Mike Young is minister at First Unitarian
Church of Honolulu and a member of All Believers
Network, an Oahu interfaith organization.