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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. Kevin

    Broadway and the bible will be my two weak areas if I ever get on Jeopardy! That's the only reason I would consider reading the bible.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  2. awesome

    Has anyone from Illinois actually read this article? Has anyone else picked up on the fact the the author has HER facts wrong? i dont think i give any credibilty to anything she has to say.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Steve Luke

      She is not talking about actual people in Illinois, but characters in the remake of the movie "True Grit."

      April 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  3. EZRA

    Sam

    If you dont take the Bible as a moral guide how would people view the death penalty and abortion? Are they wrong or right? Or is it just matter of the number of votes?
    --------------
    morality has always only been a "matter of votes". Societies decide what is moral and isn't and it chages all the time. If you do read the Bible you can see how many "laws" came and went depending on who wrote what and when. Each book and page is just a reflection of the morals of that time.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Mickey Haist Jr

      The Bible is not a moral guide.
      It is story about God coming to rescue his rebellious creation.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Sam

      I don't believe that to be true in the Bible. There are some differences in the laws required for ceremonies such as killing of a lamb, but i don't see any change in the moral laws such as not killing and stealing and lying.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • EZRA

      Mickey, don't tell me how it ends – I want to see the movie.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  4. Mickey Haist Jr

    Read the Bible. If it's bunk, reading it will confirm. If it's not, then it's not and it'd be good to know.
    A major portion of the world's population likes this book and uses for decision-making. It's a good idea to know what those people are thinking.
    I've read major portions of the Qu'ran because I wanted to know what that portion of the population was basing its decisions on. I've read Dawkins and Hitchens to know what the atheist portion of the pop. thinks about.

    There's nothing wrong and everything right with studying a wide range of philosophies, especially when so many people are basing so much on a certain book.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  5. Jesus of Nazareth

    Believing in a holy book is more or less evidence that you are unable to have an intelligent conversation or think freely for yourself.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Mickey Haist Jr

      Good point.
      People who believe in a book are idiots because a book was written by people who are flawed because they're just people.
      But every person somehow has some intelligence within?

      April 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Rob

      Hey, I believe in the truths in many books. I'm an educated guy. I read and re-read the Bible, the Koran, the Dhammapada, the Vedas, the Analects, and the Tao Te Ching. I get enormous help and wisdom from these books. What's the matter with that?

      April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • fako

      oh, how original!

      April 20, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  6. Rob

    I'm an atheist, but I'm also a teacher of English Literature. Everyone should read the Bible if for no other reason than for cultural literacy. Everyone should also read the other religious texts of the major religions: the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-Vita, the Koran, Confucius' Analects, etc. In today's increasingly global society, we have an obligation to understand one another.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  7. Jill

    Christianity-is-a-Shadow-of-Hinduism
    [Christianity's popularity is due to the fact that its been forced down everyone's throat over the last 2,000 years and because it is superficial and easily digested.]

    Really? Is that why you believe? You were forced?

    April 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  8. Don

    Organized religion is for the ignorant and weak minded. Sheep who have no common sense and fear the unknown like the idea of explaining away what they don't understand by just saying "the man in the sky did it." Organized religion is slavery of the mind. And is good for some people are hollow puppets who would have no sense of right or wrong unless their "preacher"told them so, finny how the "reborn" ones always came from prison where there was someone to tell them right from wrong at all times. Common sense never a question for some. Only the most ignorant sit there locked inside their own cage of invisible walls listening to thieves liars, misers, and child molesters, and all the others hiding behind the bible with their robes and crosses that are no better then anyone else, yet they are to impose what they say is right and their distorted versions of wild stories passed down by generations of people, who we all know are historically inaccurate except for the parts where they are just lying, which we all know humans have done well since the beginning of time. Take what a person says at face value no matter what they wear, a badge, a cross, even a red cross pinned on their lapel. Humans cant be trusted, especially those who let other humans make decisions for them. Now days if you cannot prove your "truth" in the court of law, there is no truth to it at all, its just another story.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • guest

      What if the court of law is just as broken as the people who make it up?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  9. EZRA

    Sure. Whay not read the Bible, or the Koran, the Illiad, Shalespeare. It's all good stuff and the basis for so much of our literature and culture. I don't believe it is the word or god, but worth reading anyway.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  10. RexCraigo

    Nope, not for me. I'm content in my ignorance of the invisible man in the sky.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • JoePub

      Ignorance is bliss.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  11. Sam

    If you dont take the Bible as a moral guide how would people view the death penalty and abortion? Are they wrong or right? Or is it just matter of the number of votes?

    April 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • JoeG

      Are you implying that there is no other moral guide outside of the Bible?

      April 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Sam

      I'd like to know anyone's opinion on whether or not we should have the death penalty or abortion? without mentioning the bible

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

      Sam, while it's important to read the Bible, surely you must understand that morality is possible outside of a Christian worldview. Ever heard of Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism? How about utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, ethical egoism, ethical naturalism, etc? There are multiple ways of looking at issues morally.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • JoeG

      Sam – -The death penalty should be abolished until such time as we are able to assure that everyone convicted of a capital offense has actually committed the crime. If new evidence surfaces, no court should be allowed to not have a rehearing on it or should prevent it from being DNA tested. If it clears the suspect, let him go. If not, then then fulfill the punishment. Personally, I believe the death penalty is overused, but should not be abolished. Some crimes are so heinous that there is no other appropriate penalty.
      Abortion – Should never be banned in the case of ra pe or inc est – the psychological traumas to both the mother and the child post birth are nothing I would wish on my worst enemy. Should never be banned in the case where a doctor has to choose between the life of the child and the life of the mother. Should never take place past the point in pregnancy where science generally accepts that the fetus is viable (somewhere I believe in the 24-27 week range) with the exception of the above. Prior to that, the choice should be left to the woman (or, hopefully more appropriately, the man and woman) responsible for the creation of the fetus in the first place. They are the ones who have to live with themselves afterward.
      See? Not one mention.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  12. awesome

    I what this author knows about the bible or anything else for that matter. She should try doing her reseach before putting her opinions out there. It wasn't Illinois current governor Pat Quin who abolished the death penanlty in Illinois, is was past governor George Ryan. Who, by the way, is currently serving time in prison.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  13. m. sherman

    On the issue of "does God the creator of all things exsit". Say you have these two individuals that see a parked car, the first guy says nice car, I wonder where it's made. The other guy says ha ha, silly guy it wasn't "made" it evolved from a bolt. Then laughingly walks away. Which one of these guys is correct? Please feel free to use your common sense.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Allen Davis

      "It was made.....with MAGIC! Don't question it." "But didn't it evolve from a Model T?"

      April 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • JoeG

      That makes NO sense whatsoever....

      April 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • EZRA

      You got it wrong.
      It;s more like the first guy says – "I wonder whose car that is and who made it" and the second says,"since I can't build one, obviously it was created by a god and put here for our use because he loves us"

      April 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Allen Davis

      BAHAHAHAHAHAHA @Ezra!

      April 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Paul

      It was made through a creator and not a "Magic" stupid like model T was made by the car maker.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  14. Ran

    The Bible was written by Bronze age men—for Bronze age men. Gleen what little wisdom and enlightenment you can.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  15. JoePub

    And the spew of hatred from the Atheist starts in five, four, three, two, one...

    April 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  16. Byrd

    There is not one word or sentence in the Bible that could or should be called literal truth. The whole thing is written in metaphor.

    Example: Moses on the mountain, meeting god and getting the ten commandments = the Periodic Table of Elements 109 -111

    Element 109 is also known as MT and, with Michaelangelo's image in mind, the gap is element 110 (he got one thing, ten commandents), followed by the Trinity of 111.

    Jacob's Ladder = The Periodic Table of Elements. See also Prometheus

    And the fabled Ark of the Covenant is none other than the atomic bomb itself. And they knew that long before Einstein and Churchill had their famous meeting and planned to have America reconstruct that damned thing. And make no mistake that these weapons have been used before on this planet. Kinda hard to find things that have been blown to smithereens for eons.

    The whole damned thing is metaphor.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Allen Davis

      I think you've confused 'metaphor' with 'prophecy'.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Smokey Waterz

      Well, I honestly... Err... Umm.... What the heck did you say, Byrd?

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

      I think he forgot to mention that Convenant, Churchill and Cheeto all start with the letter "C", obvioulsy representing Christ.

      */sarcasm*

      April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Byrd

      No, prophesy has nothing to do with it. The Bible is just where the authors of the Old Testament or Talmud hid the code in case they ever needed it to construct another bomb or Ark. And they were given this knowledge by their so-called extraterrestrial god (Prometheus?), may he and his kind roast forever in his own stinking flames.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  17. Allen Davis

    I think that the world would be a much better place if NO ONE had to read that misogynistic, violent, arcane collection of fables and myths. Clearly, you are biased towards the bible. Humanity would be better served by reading the writings of Siddartha (Buddha) who ACTUALLY existed, and preached a peaceful philosophy (yes, Buddhism is a philosophy) that more people in my opinion should be exposed to. I get the part about the cultural references, but it's just such an outdated arcane tome, that I feel it does a disservice, even to the Christians who believe in it.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Christian

      Reading comments regarding this article was eye opening, to say the least, and I wonder on Judgement Day (even though you may not believe there will be one) if you will attest to these same beliefs as you stand before God (if of course, you don't believe that God inspired His holy word in the Bible, then you won't believe there is a Judgment Day). The Bible is a roadmap for mankind to follow to acquire godliness and wisdom – even the Bible says that everyone knows in their heart that God is real. The Bible also elaborates on the fact that man will not understand the Bible until acceptance of His son Jesus Christ and then the veil be removed – so in essence, if you don't believe in His Son's sacrifice on the cross for your sins – then plain and simple – you won't understand the Bible. I love the excellence of God because His wisdom makes everyone in this earthly realm – a fool and one day – just as prophesied in the Bible – He will return to this earth as He reveals His glory and executes His plan for each and every inhabitant of planet earth- and every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess to His glory, that Jesus Christ is Lord. So in saying that, I will pray for you and everyone else that is a detriment to God and His holy word, that before you take your last breath on this earth, that God will save your soul that you won't have to stand before Him in the state of ignorance that you are in today. God Bless – and do read the Bible – if people did and believed – we wouldn't be in the mess we are in today.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  18. vanessa

    Seriously, people. She was not asking for converts, here. She was asking you to do the work necessary to UNDERSTAND where someone else is coming from. Is that so bad??? The religion-bashing is all well and good, but you have completely missed the point. I read the Q'uran, so that I could understand why some Muslim people think and beahve the way that they do. I've also read works of Taoism, Confuscianism, Hinduism, and Judaism– so that I could broaden my understanding of how to relate to diverse groups of people. That is ALL she is asking. Read it, so that you will UNDERSTAND where people are coming from. But– it seems as though you would rather scream incoherently about how awful Christianity is. In doing so– you are just as much a part of this country's problem as the Tea-party folks are. So, if you have read it, and hated it– fine! But if you haven't read it– and are this offended that someone asks you to read it– I have to say– that is cowardly. What are you afraid of? It is just a book, afterall, right? No supernatural powers, or anything like that, right?

    April 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  19. nick2

    There is some very good advice to be found in the bible. Like do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. But this is in the realm of good hard commonsense, not divine belief. If, however, you accept the fundamental belief underlying monotheism, that you are God – then there is really no need of any intermediary except to behave with the dignity of the spirit that you were born with.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      "Like do unto others as you would have done unto yourself."

      If this is common sense, why are people killing each other today?

      April 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • fuzzynormal

      "If this is common sense, why are people killing each other today?"

      Here's my guess: Because stupid and selfish people lack common sense?

      Now, if someone is stupid and selfish, there's an argument to be made that any book/teachings built on the power of a myth can alter their perceptions in a positive way. The perceptions can be altered in a negative way as well, right?

      Essentially, dumb people can be manipulated and exploited, regardless of spiritual dogma.

      There are no answers, nor should there be, in a journey of faith - just profound questions that hopefully initiate personal introspection. If this isn't part of one's religious journey, then you're not doing it right.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  20. Pole Dancin Jebus

    There's gotta be some aluminium hat wearin, nut job, running for President who is willing to burn the damn thing. Lets check the Fox channel.

    April 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Paul

      Intelligent design is a nu job and eveolution is not ? Thank God, my grand parents are not apes like yours.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • larry c. lyons

      Paul wrote
      Intelligent design is a nu job and eveolution is not ? Thank God, my grand parents are not apes like yours.
      -----
      At least those who know the veracity of evolution know how to spell.

      And please if we're talking of myths and fables (what else is ID) lets mention another:

      It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one's mouth and confirm the fact.

      Paul – take a hint.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:23 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.

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