Tuesday, July 28th, 2020
Why this and not that?
For those who would follow Thomas Jefferson’s lead and take an editorial scissors to the Bible, I have a simple and straightforward question: Why? What is your motivating rationale? Why are you prepared and willing to cross out or cut out this particular passage and not that?
In the curious case of Thomas Jefferson, presidential scissors-hands, his motivating rationale for cutting up the four gospels is easy enough to discern, in historical retrospect. Jefferson held a philosophical commitment to strict naturalism. Like his Deist contemporaries, Jefferson rejected the possibility of anything miraculous. Jefferson was convinced that God just does not do miracles. God does not intervene, but allows Nature to run its course, believed Jefferson. In his estimation, aside perhaps from the initial creation, miracles cannot occur and do not occur, ever. Therefore, any miracle account found in the Bible must be rejected as mere superstition and fable. But lest society fall into godless chaos, Jefferson wanted to retain the high moral ideals taught in the Bible, so he deemed it best to let biblical moral teaching stand. Jefferson’s Jesus was therefore a teacher of high morality, whose idealism led him to a tragic death.
Anyone who sets out to edit, omit, or ignore passages in the Bible necessarily has a motiving rationale. Some Bible editors will clearly (and sometimes even angrily) state why they are intent on omitting or rejecting a portion of scripture. Other Bible editors will be slow to show their hand, but will instead go about their work quietly. Although I think it is easy to see, I should state that Bible editing is not just confined to academic settings. It also occurs routinely within churches. Pastors, preachers, and ministers often serve as deliberate Bible editors. They do so by simply neglecting to bring particularly problematic passages up in public.
To be fair to preachers, ecclesiastical Bible editing is not necessarily a nefarious undertaking. Sometimes it happens rather innocently. Pastor-editors may be motivated by simple confusion or uncertainty. They don’t know what to make of the passages they overlook or avoid, so they wisely steer clear. But ignorance or uncertainty cannot forever excuse a lack of attention or preparedness. A lot of the passages that initially seem problematic and confusing can be deciphered and explained with diligent study. Preachers thus need to apportion enough time to scriptural study and sermon preparation. That is much easier said than done, though, because ministry is a constant juggling act of apportioning one’s time, attention, and effort. Pray that people in ministry are wise in their use of time. Pray also that they get adequate rest.
Finally, to divulge an ecclesiastical semi-secret, political considerations usually stand behind decisions to publicly edit or silence portions of the Bible. Yes, I do mean national politics; but I also mean denominational and congregational politics. To last in ministry, a church leader must be at least somewhat socially savvy. Excessive candor will usually result in an invitation to go serve elsewhere. Smart leaders thus quickly learn the fine art of self-censorship, otherwise more charitably known as discretion. It is a skill entirely necessary for ministerial survival. But it also means that things can and do go unsaid that perhaps should be said. Disagreeable, guilt-inducing portions of scripture get neglected, because the congregants are just not ready (and may never, ever be ready) to hear the hard message. And so it goes. But every once in a while, a preacher will muster the courage to bring the relevant portions of the Bible to light and deliver the hard message. For the preacher, that is a fearsome thing, indeed. Pray that they have the courage to do so when the occasion requires.