Last week, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis appeared on "Real Time With Bill Maher," and got into the exchange that I've linked above. As is typical of most things involving Bill Maher talking about religion, I find the whole thing deeply annoying, particularly because of Maher's continual invocation of the awful and theologically inaccurate idea that "God wrote the Bible."
Christian doctrine has never taught that God wrote the Bible, and I wish that Jim Wallis had called him on that point (though, typically of Wallis, rather than respond to an actual question, he just kept trying to steer the conversation in whatever direction he wanted to talk about). Here's an example from the exchange:
Explain to me how a book that's written by God, who's perfect, has so much... It's pro-slavery, pro-polygamy, it's homophobic, God in the Old Testament is a psychotic mass murder... and I always say to my religious friends: If a pool had even one turd in it, would you jump in?
Derek Flood responds to this point by noting, quite rightly, that this isn't how the Bible should be read or understood:
But that simply is not what the Bible in actuality is. In reality the Bible contains a multitude of conflicting and competing voices, articulating opposing perspectives in the form of an ongoing dispute contained throughout its pages. More concretely, we find an ongoing dispute within the Old Testament between two opposing narratives: The first is a narrative of unquestioning obedience that condemns all questioning (often enforcing this through threat of violence). This is the narrative Maher has zeroed in on. But within those same pages of the Hebrew Bible there is also a persistent opposing counter-narrative that confronts that first narrative as being untrue and unjust, and that upholds questioning authority in the name of compassion as a virtue.
Jesus and the New Testament as a whole are an extension of this second counter-narrative of protest (which explains why Maher says to Wallis "I'm down with you padre, I think Jesus is a great philosopher"). But what is truly remarkable is not simply the difference between the Old and New Testaments, but that these conflicting voices were included side-by-side within in the Hebrew canon itself. The Old Testament is a record of dispute which makes room for questions by its very nature.
This is well said, but it also assumes the prior point that I think is so central in responding to complaints of the kind that Maher is making, namely, it is simply untrue to claim that "God wrote the Bible." The Bible is not a book God wrote, it is a book that human beings wrote about God. What the Bible is is the record of a particular people, in a particular place and time, attempting to come to grips with their experience of a God who at one and the same time is both the author and governor of the universe, and also has a special love and providence for these people
Once you accept the premise that God didn't write the Bible, the question is no longer "how do you reject all that Bad Stuff while claiming to keep the Good Stuff," or as Maher referred to it "cherry picking." If the Bible is a human book written in an attempt to comprehend their experience of a transcendent God, this is a non-issue. In all of their flawed and human attempts to comprehend who God is and what God is doing in the world, the writers of the Bible could be and often were just horribly wrong. They were wrong on exactly the things that Maher thinks they were wrong about: Slavery, genocide, homophobia. And the fact that those things are in the Bible is a lasting testimony to the idea that people in their attempts to faithfully follow God can often fuck up in the most spectacular of ways.
But that doesn't obviate the genuine moral and religious insight that exists in other parts of the Bible, sometimes standing side-by-side with the most awful stuff. The choice is not "All or Nothing" in reading the Bible. The choice is between better and worse interpretations of it, and better and worse discernment of how God is speaking to us in and through it. The Bible is not an infallible book, its writers were not infallible, and we are not infallible interpreters of it.
Of course, this means that there's never any air-tight guarantee that we are reading the Bible correctly or discerning the right messages from it. But this is where I think Wallis's and Flood's insights are particlarly valuable. In the absence of the the idea that the Bible is an infallible guide to everything and anything we might want to know, how should we use it to guide our understanding of God, God's action in the world, and our response to that action? The answer I think is rooted in the the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, and is best summarized in the book of Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."
My theological and moral baseline is rooted in the insight of this passage: If we are honestly attempting to do these things, even if we get it wrong sometimes on the particulars, we are at least following, in an imperfect and fallbile way, the right path.