Sometimes the Bible says what people think it does. Often it does not. Sometimes it presents multiple perspectives on the same issue. And on some issues it says nothing at all. The Bible is frequently mistranslated, misquoted and misunderstood. Why? For one thing, people usually read it in translations, and without knowledge of its original literary or historical context. And they rarely read it in its entirety, so they end up pulling out small pieces: quotations and passages that seem to say what they want them to. Sometimes they are well-meaning. Sometimes their motives are not so pure.
But this does not mean that we can't use the Bible. It doesn't mean that we can't find what it has to say about the big issues. The Bible's value, above all, is as a guide to lives. And we mean to all of our lives, whether one is religious or not, whether one is Christian, Jewish, or from another religion or no religion. Some people think of fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews as the ones who connect their decisions to the words of the Bible. But that is not correct. One finds scholars, clergy and just folks, from all across the religious spectrum, who read, study and care about what the Bible says on things that matter to them. And one finds many who have never read or studied the Bible who still share a cultural sense of its importance as a foundation for morality and virtue.
The Bible is a source of human experience and of wisdom, and wisdom is something we need. We can argue about which biblical passages are historically accurate, but, still, it is the first history writing on earth.The Bible's oldest prose was written when Herodotus's great-grandmother was not yet in preschool. We can question the morality of any given story or law, but still the Bible is an extraordinary repository of remarkable stories, exquisite writing and revolutionary laws. Indeed, when we argue about these things, we are participating in a 2,000-year-old process that the Bible itself started us doing. You may say, "But there have been times in history (and the present) when people used the Bible for harm: burning 'witches,' attacking 'infidels,' defending slavery." True, but that, precisely, proves that we cannot ignore it. The fact that it has both inspired people to do great good and been used by people to do great harm means that it is really important for us to pay attention to it -- and to get it right.