Friday, October 29, 2010

The Problem with "Biblical Family Values"

It's autumn in Ohio which means that the leaves are falling and my mailbox is filling up with political postcards from parties of all stripes. My time-honored practice is to treat both the leaves and the postcards in the same manner. I put them at the curb so the city can pick them up.

It is not unusual for politicians to begin attending church during the election season and to quote the Bible. These are both sometimes met with unfortunate results. Since these people are not usually regular readers of the Bible they often have no clue what it says. Sometimes they know some "famous" verses, but have no clue what they mean.

I remember one particularly embarrassing scene that took place when an important and much debated bill was making its way through congress. The bill was intended to help children in the USA, but was being held up due to the normal, ugly processes of sausage making in Washington. During an interview one leader decided to throw out a Bible verse to support the need to pass the bill. The politician quoted the KJV translation of Mark 10:14a which reads "suffer the little children to come unto me." The politician then insisted that the children had suffered enough and therefore the bill should be passed! I take it this individual had never actually read the verse, but was familiar with it nonetheless.

Another symptom of the clash of politics and the Bible is the oft-asserted claim that politician "X" will support "biblical family values." But as Michael Coogan points out in an Op-Ed piece this week, the Bible can have some very strange family values. Here is a bit of what Coogan has to say.
In addition to the above I can think of other examples of family values that I would not want to replicate simply because they are in the Bible. Abraham denies that Sarah is his wife (twice) and later forces his eldest son and mother to leave home (Hagar/Ishmael). Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped and he says nothing since he is more concerned with what the surrounding people will think. David does a similar thing when Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. And I know of no one who suggests that we should execute a rebellious teenager, although I am sure that thought may have passed through the mind of a few parents.

Coogan's point is well taken. Just because something is in the Bible does not mean that it is something that should be followed. And when we throw around such phrases like "biblical family values" we leave a lot open to interpretation. We often know what we have in mind, but those who hear us do not. The uninformed would be justifiably shocked if they went to research the Bible's family values and came across some of the above examples.

As Coogan points out, we would be better off looking for and communicating the underlying message of the need to love and respect one another. And the best way to do that is not to tell people about our biblical values, but to actually live them out.

6 comments:

  1. Selling a daughter as a slave might of course be the *best* thing for her, and for your family in really dire situations in the ancient world though. People make statements like this and they conjure images of modern chattel slavery, and a morally savage Bible making provisions for a cruel greedy patriarchal people. Odds are though, any laws you find in the OT, would have been perceived as good at that time, according to the contemporary values of the people, based on the needs of their society. Sure, we have to understand the social situation and we cannot just lift those commands and apply them to modern times. But to simply make statements like this about selling your daughter into slavery, without any surrounding context or explanation is to deliberately engender outrage based on misinterpretation.

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  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I agree with you. although I find slavery repulsive, I try to never succumb to the teleological fallacies when reading history.

    In fact, you final point is my point exactly. As I said " The uninformed would be justifiably shocked if they went to research the Bible's family values and came across some of the above examples," the keyword being "uninformed". The problem is too many people do not understand that context and thus get it wrong. Coogan's point, and mine as well, is to see if we are able to find an underlying message that might still speak to us today. Although I must admit, I think some portions of the Bible are so time and culturally bound that there is little we can do other than acknowledge its presence and move on.

    And for the record, slavery in any context or time was rarely if ever a positive experience. In the end no matter how well you may have been treated you were still a slave and nothing more. It is a 20th century sense of guilt for 19th century slavery that makes out ancient slavery to be more benevolent. Slavery is just a bad idea.

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  3. You write: "Although I must admit, I think some portions of the Bible are so time and culturally bound that there is little we can do other than acknowledge its presence and move on."

    IMO, our task for some of this material is imperative and can be very rewarding. Firstly, stepping outside of our own culture to a degree, and attempting to understand some of this material from an ancient Mediterranean perspective socially, really helps us to question our own cultural assumptions and values. For instance, after looking at characteristics of both, I feel that group-oriented/dyadic cultures have much to commend themselves over modern individualist culture. And much of the activity we find surprising in the Bible can be attributed to this difference in values (dyadic honor/shame cultures vs. individualist guilt-oriented cultures). We have to realize that these ancient cultures, were they to view our own behaviors, would be just as utterly shocked and disgusted, if not moreso. Every culture objectivizes their own values to a degree, w/o ever even realizing it.

    Another matter, and equally as important and rewarding IMO, is that of helping modern people to understand and cope with the differences of the Bible, rather than simply live in denial and ignore them, or - worse yet - misinterpret and attempt to apply them in a culture with radically different values where they just won't work. I think, read with an untrained eye, the Old Testament especially can actually be a stumbling block to faith in some instances.

    Lastly, there are still a very large amount of people living on this planet who have a culture much closer to that displayed in the Bible (e.g., a large part of the Islamic world), and understanding can only aid our interaction.

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  4. Dear Anonymous,

    Once again, I agree with you. I am not sure what you are driving at. The purpose of the post was, once again, to address people who are uniformed.Again, as you note, those with and untrained eye.

    I would not be doing what I do for a living if I was not, as you say,

    "Helping modern people to understand and cope with the differences of the Bible, rather than simply live in denial and ignore them, or - worse yet - misinterpret and attempt to apply them in a culture with radically different values where they just won't work."

    you seem to latch onto one or two statements in my post or answers without understanding them in the context. I would also encourage you to use your name when posting.

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  5. Dear Dr. Byron,

    I actually wasn't disagreeing with any of your comments. I was elaborating on what I see as some aspects of the task for biblical scholars. I sincerely apologize if that came off as argumentative. I don't use my real name on the blogs because I've had some fairly negative experiences when I have done so.

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  6. Dear Anonymous,

    No offense taken. Such is the problem with this form of communication. I appreciate the interaction and hope you will continue to stop by and comment. Sorry that I came off a bit strong.

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