My Take: Learn about the Bible, even if you don't believe it
April 20th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Learn about the Bible, even if you don't believe it

Editor's Note: Kristin Swenson, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time.

By Kristin Swenson, Special to CNN

"True Grit's" stern little girl Mattie - shoot, the Coen Brothers’ entire movie - dramatizes a single line of biblical text. And the way the film interprets that particular text makes that biblical verse directly related to the governor of Illinois' recent decision to ban the death penalty, a decision which was reportedly informed by the Bible.

The movie’s and the Illinois governor’s conclusions - about capital punishment in this case - are exactly opposite. While Mattie's justice requires death for the man who killed her dad, the governor's has no place for such execution. Yet both have biblical precedent.

So knowing about the Bible not only makes the movies more fun and enables critique of public policy, but it also paradoxically encourages you to think for yourself.

The Bible's long history of development, reflecting many voices, and the fact that it’s usually read in translation invite our engagement with it not merely as passive recipients of a fixed meaning but as unique individuals bringing different points of view to bear.

The trick, of course, is knowing something about the Bible, even if you don’t believe in it. And the more you know, the more intriguing it gets.

If you're not biblically literate, you can get along all right, but you're missing out. It's like a cocktail party with raucous conversation. You're invited, but until you know something about the Bible, you'll be stuck talking about the weather at the punch bowl.

Yes, "True Grit" is entertaining no matter what, and you can take Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn at his word that his death penalty decision has biblical basis, but each invites a deeper understanding. And together, they reflect the Bible's ambivalence - in this case about crime and punishment.

"The wicked flee when none pursueth," a line from Proverbs 28:1, hangs auspiciously on the screen at the beginning of "True Grit."

Knowing that Hebrew (the original language of Proverbs) creates its poetry out a system of parallel lines, might lead you to check out the line after the one quoted in True Grit: "but the righteous are as bold as a lion."

Linking the criminals' running to the boldness of a lion, the biblical verse suggests a world in which courageous good guys chase down the yellow-bellied bad with the same determination, cunning and strength as the king of beasts.

That's our Mattie, at 14 years old a cub, but single-minded in her quest to bring to justice the man who killed her father. Mattie is "the righteous," of course, and the justice she seeks is death.

Because the Bible is sacred scripture, authoritative and instructive for millions of people, many people believe, like Mattie, that certain criminals should be put to death because of what it says.

After all, the Torah, or "law," prescribes execution in several specific cases, including murder.

Yet Illinois Gov. Quinn is said to have consulted the Bible while wrestling with his decision to abolish the death penalty. What gives?

People looking to the Bible for a single, clear, yes-or-no answer about the death penalty will be disappointed, just as they are when seeking a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to abortion or environmental ethics.

For one thing, another translation of torah is "instruction." So maybe those "laws" shouldn't be taken so literally.

Indeed, while the Bible allows for all sorts of killing and would seem to demand criminal execution in certain cases, it also commands "thou shalt not kill/murder," identifies God as the only ultimate judge, and praises forgiveness and mercy.

I don't know Quinn, but I suspect he knows enough about the Bible to know that he also had to think for himself. He wisely considered that our human systems, justice included, are imperfect - and that the wrong person might be pegged for a capital crime.

Knowing about the Bible, no matter what you believe, enables you see not only why Quinn would settle on the ban but also why it was such a difficult decision: sometimes the Bible says different things.

"God said it, I believe it, that settles it," is available for bumper stickers, t-shirts, mugs, and posters. Yet the Bible's multiplicity of voices and complex history invite you to learn more and in the process to add your own voice, thoughts, and deliberations to the conversation.

First, though, you’ve got to learn about it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kristin Swenson.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Movies • Opinion

soundoff (1,814 Responses)
  1. mattmchugh

    "Illinois Gov. Quinn is said to have consulted the Bible while wrestling with his decision to abolish the death penalty. What gives?

    What gives? Rhetorical pandering.

    Any other questions?

    - mm

    April 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  2. Jennifer

    There is nothing intriguing nor interesting about man made propoaganda dressed up in God's alleged words. Man is not trustworthy enough to trust the bible so I'll read Playboy instead thank you very much.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Damn

      Playboy...my Bible 🙂

      April 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Artist


      Man is not trustworthy enough to trust the bible so I'll read Playboy instead thank you very much.

      That is cool, you are a chic *thumbs up*

      April 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  3. Observer

    The logic of believers:

    For anything to exist, God must have created it.
    God exists. Nothing created God.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  4. JC Perez

    This is the silliest article I've read in the past hour. I guess the author should also read the Torah, Quran, Bhagavadgītā, about another 100 books to help Dr. Swenson understand the world. Stop selling your business online "Doctor."

    April 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  5. James

    Read The Lord Of The Rings even though you don't like fantasy. Read the Encyclopedia Brittanica even though you don't like not finishing a series before you die. What a pointless article. Most books have something to offer, or they wouldn't get published. But you should recommend a book that appeals to the reader, not to mention one that makes sense and has interesting stories, unlike the bible or this article. And I can make a judgment based on morals without consulting a book, as well as understand an idiot's rationale without needing to read the Idiot's Guide To Idiots.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  6. A Follower

    God forgives. He gave his son to all humankind to give us the mercy and grace that we need. We are human, we make mistakes, EVERYONE sins. It's not about waking up one day and believing in God. It's not easy, it's a search. You must search deeply within yourself and all different religions to find out what works for you and your beliefs. I love God, and He has made my life so wonderful, and He has helped me with everything in my life. I do question why sometimes things happen a way that they happen, but I find later the answer to my why.

    You may say, "I prayed and God didn't answer." Thank God for unanswered prayers, because it wasn't meant to be. You have something better down the road. God can't say that to you directly, but if you just believe – good things will happen. Listen to God when you're outside, close your eyes and take a deep breath. When you're in your car turn off your radio and look at the world around you. Look at your self in the mirror. Turn the TV off and listen to the silence. Look at what's around you. God created everything. God created everything for YOU. He loves us. Just believe.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • David, CA

      "God forgives" christians do not.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Damn

      Who needs forgiveness from something does not even exist!!! what an irony!

      April 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Artist

      A Follower I think it is time to take your meds. Question, does a god talk to you and do you talk to a god? If so, how long have you been doing this?

      April 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Edward

      God did NOT give his "son". that is a ridiculouse fairy tale created by men......don't blame God for that fictional story. That is a very childish and primitive story created by men....stop being so foolish. By the way just because someoe doesn't believe the Christian fiction doesn't mean they don't believe in a type of "God" or Creator.....we just don't believe in the Christian nonsense.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Edward

      I type fast did not check my spelling.....I'm going to Hell. My apologies.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  7. Dennis

    Is this some christian writer, writing a story, so that she can get some free conversions under her bible belt? Why would CNN run such a stupid story?

    April 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Artist

      A Follower I think it is time to take your meds. Question, does god talk to you?

      April 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  8. Alice

    I´v read it. Horrifying material. Violence all over the place.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Damn

      It's like reading an action (movie) script...full of killing and 6!!

      April 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  9. Azuma

    "but it also paradoxically encourages you to think for yourself."

    Actually, having read the bible, that is exactly the opposite of what it teaches.

    Thinking for yourself is the bible's worst enemy.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  10. Neesh

    There's so little news in the entire world that CNN has to post opinion pieces about reading the Bible. America, and journalism, is doomed.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  11. Marty

    There is nothing that has been given to the planet that represents the ultimate in truth.
    This planet is going through great turmoil. Believe paradigms are losing control and religion siphons the system according to its own will. Pope Leo X, 16th century even said “It has served us well, this myth of Christ. You have been sold a version of reality, through overly valued educational systems you prize and reward yourself for the ability to repeat stories as fact – never questioning the content and method of learning.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Rob

      I agree with you that there is nothing that has been "given" to this planet that is the "ultimate" in truth. Truth is complex, and no one book can ever fully describe that complexity.

      However, I want to say something bold here. I have advanced degrees in philosophy and religion. I've read every major philosophical work in the western tradition. I've read the major religious works of every "big" religion existing today, and some from religions long dead. I teach literature and philosophy.

      I have to say that I think Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching" comes closest to the one text that conveys the fullest human "truths" available to us.

      Just one person's (educated) opinion. Take it or leave it. 🙂

      April 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  12. David, CA

    Read it for the laughs, keep reading it for the violence.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  13. thedirector

    I have read the Bible several times and enjoyed it each time. It helps me understand the people of many different cultures better and gives me a better understanding of history. I think it is wise advice to read the Bible. Just remember that it was translated (several times) by humans who are fallible. If you don't think it is the word of God, fine. But don't castigate others who do.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • David, CA

      thedirector- problem is those "others" who believe that want to drag everyone back to the dark ages based on this tome. They'll have us burning witches and stoning adulterers if they had their way... after all- "it's in the bible" !!!

      April 20, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  14. Sam

    Almost everyone underestimates God. If I was God with supreme intellect, why would i even care to rationalize my wisdom with intuitive but closed-minded people. Atheists are great at seeing the obvious: people can't walk on water, making the world in 7 days, and other things that sound like fairy tales. Science needs to make sense, but for God thats too BORING. He is more interested in complex things like relationships: why do people feel the need to socialize, why do people get jelous, why would a mother sacrifice her life for her child. These things are harder to evaluate because they can't be physically tested.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Damn

      I do not believe in your Sun=Son God I have mine!!

      April 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Actually, scienmtists study all of the things you mentioned. Ever heard of Social Psychology? Various neural studies, etc, etc.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • tanner

      u are putting way to much fantasy "power" into a "fantasy" character...
      your "god" is a concept to help you with your mental health... "he" has nothing to do with life in general

      April 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Eric G

      @Markinfl: No, Sam has not heard of those things. Which is ok, because he doesnt believe in them anyway.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Samster

      wow, Sam...your God sure is boring. What you call complex, wouldn't that me amazingly simple to God, and therefore boring? Once again, the religious lose.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  15. Damn

    I prefer Harry Potter on this crap...reading the Bible should be for 18 years and above...since it's full of 6 stories and por..n tales!!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  16. hf74

    I have read the bible and can quote it better than some priests.
    I have also read and understand other holy texts.

    The irony is that I am an Atheist.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Steve Luke

      The Bible is an amazing collection of books. I was an atheist once, then I read the book of John and accepted Christ as my savior. In the last 31 years, I have learned more and more about the Lord through the Bible. I'm guessing I've read it through at least 50-60 times, but I still learn new things from it.

      I believe what makes our experience different than mine is the quickening of the Holy Spirit. It is entirely possible to read these books and walk away with nothing more than a collection of ideas and facts. But when God takes a hold of your heart and begins to change your mind through the agency of the Holy Spirit, it is an entirely different thing altogether. There is a reason why Jesus tells Nicodemus to be born again.

      I don't think less of you because you are an atheist. I walked in those shoes once myself. I hope that you will some day be a former atheist.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Kyle


      April 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  17. shawn

    your average atheist already knows more about your religion that you do...studies show...

    April 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Josh

      I invite any atheist to bring it.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  18. Marty

    "Religions are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies". "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature". "Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man"Thomas Jefferson "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can change this."–Albert Einstein

    April 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  19. bob

    this is like drug dealers giving free crack away, when will the insanity end .

    how bout reading a physics book or psychology book, that will help the world more
    then some 2000 year old fairy tales that instills guilt and end of the world bs

    April 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  20. davej

    Start your reading with Exodus 20-31 so that you can see right off that it is a silly pile of rubbish.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Chad

      Or read Galatians 2:16 to realize the emphasis you should place on Exodus 20-31. Then read Galatians 2:20 to see what a satisfying life's really about.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.