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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. Mike

    What can it hurt? You might learn something, get a little enjoyment, and for those who are searching, hear a voice from God.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Uli

      Are you talking about reading the bible or taking shrooms?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Mike

      Uli – Frankly, I like BOTH.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  2. Sam

    "God said it, I believe it, that settles it,..." The Bible also condoned slavery. That makes slavery OK? Faith should not be blind faith.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Steve Luke

      The Bible did not condone slavery. It regulated slavery- which is quite different. Read the book of Philemon- Paul urges a man to set free his slave in it.

      April 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Daryl

      Steve Luke, I suggest you read the "10 Commandments", which clearly condone slavery.

      April 20, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  3. gman

    I prefer to read stories about the Flying Spaghetti Monster.....

    April 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  4. Barry

    John and JoeG:

    Regarding your comments:

    It is true that Jews, Christians and Muslims all share a common a common belief in the God of Abraham, and as such, they all share the common belief of monotheism.

    To say that the God of the Hebrews does not exist, would be to say that the God of Abraham does not exist, and this is inconsistent with the teachings of Islam.

    Jews and Christians believe that Abraham’s son, Isaac, was the child of promise, whereas Muslims believe that Abraham’s son Ishmael was the son of promise.

    For a careful, honest, and scholarly examination of Islam and the Qur’an, as compared with Christianity, which was prepared by a well informed Muslim scholar, I suggest you read Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross, by Abdul Saleeb.

    Regarding comments about inaccuracies or errors in my presentation of idolatry (or paganism), I stand by what I have written.

    Secular and sacred literature confirms that the entire world was pagan or idolatrous, until the arrival of the Hebrews, who were late-comers in history. Civilizations had flourished and died out, by the time the Hebrews arrived on the scene; and, idolatry or paganism was the norm. See: the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh; the Babylonian Creation Myth, Enuma Elish; etc..

    The pyramids were distant memories by the time the Hebrews arrived on the scene and presented a belief in one God, who was in complete control of every aspect of the universe, down to the last atom.

    Even the Hebrew Scriptures (viz. the Old Testament) bears out that the Hebrews themselves had a great struggle making the transition from paganism (or idolatry) to faith in the God of Abraham (or monotheism). See: Jeremiah, Isaiah, I and II Chronicles, etc..

    These matters are not in dispute, neither in the secular and academic community, nor in the community of faith.
    I encourage you to review and consider these matters more carefully.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  5. nope

    The bible is written by a group of people who were slaves most of their lives. I'd rather not ascribe to that philosophy as any kind of relevant philosophical or intellectual touchstones irregardless if it 'makes movies better'. Religion has always been the poor man's first introduction to education and 'thinking'.

    I'd like to think that we've moved up in the world since its fabricated inception.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Mike

      Which of the apostles were slaves? This is a new twist! Ah, I see – devised for the sake of some cool, new, undefendable attack on the Bible and Chrisitanity. Very clever. (not)

      April 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  6. Nitrogen

    The bible is a pretty riveting book. Lot's of twists and turns, changes in tone and intent, contradictions and self-fulfilling prophecy, capricious gods and businessman-like antagonists, and one hell of an ending. Some of the best conversations I've had have been about the bible and those that take it seriously. I have met Harry Potter fans who take that book pretty seriously too, but it's easier to brush them off as lunatics since it was such a recent publication. Of course, the impact of literary fiction fades with time. It'll never really go away, but at at least fewer people will rant about it.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  7. Joe

    I want to grow up and become a reprobate atheist! I'm currently a Christian bogged down by accountability for the things that I have done against others and I want to be atheist so I don't have to assign accountability for my actions. I don't want to have to try and be moral, as an athiest you don't have to believe in anything (i.e. morality) because that is a religion christian thing! So, I'm looking forward to joining the mass of athiests and spending my precious life denouncing something that doesn't exist, and maybe even commiting some non-sins! Yee Haw!

    April 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Nitrogen

      Actually, I have met a lot more happy and moral atheists than Christians. Your argument can be flipped around of course. Religion provides a way for people to be forgiven for their actions, so why avoid sin?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Dog Boy

      @ Nitrogen – well written! As others have pointed out, morality and religion don't always go hand in hand. I've seen people use religion as an excuse to misbehave and I've seen athiests perform the greatest acts of kindness.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Mike

      Paul gives a clear answer as to why we should avoid sin even though God gives us forgiveness for them. It is in Romans. Check it out. Or do you just want to "blah" "blah" about this?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • QS

      Joe seems to be suffering from a common case of religiously induced self-righteousness.

      Morality and religion are not synonymous.

      April 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  8. twiddly

    So, you're a PHD and you still believe in fairy tales. Too funny.

    Why don't you also recommend the Koran, the Torah, maybe some buddhist or hindu sacred texts?
    Your article here smacks of christian bias and can't be taken seriously.

    For everything "good" you find in the bible, you can also find something equally "bad".

    April 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Mike

      twiddly – please enumerate some of the "bad" stuff.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • nope

      MIKE – religiously justified incest, slavery, wife beating, murder for starters.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  9. Bryan

    the bible isn't supposed to reflect "many voices", as this writer suggests, its god's word, which has been transcribed by certain people, but it is his voice. maybe this author is not really a religious scholar or she would know this.
    also Jesus said he came to change not one letter of the law (as proscribed in the Torah) but to save people from the impossible task of living as humans within the law, so the bible is not ambivalent as the writer states, both old testament (torah) and new testament (gospels) are consistent and in perfect sync.
    alas, I think the writer's true agenda to portray the bible as merely an interesting read, is clearly coming through in this article.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • asdfas

      You should look the word scholar up in a dictionary. The author is a scholar in the literary sense – she researches the books and traces their origins. She is not one of the blind brainwashed monkeys who take the bible seriously/literally like you.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Artist

      Bryan

      the bible isn't supposed to reflect "many voices", as this writer suggests, its god's word, which has been transcribed by certain people, but it is his voice. maybe this author is not really a religious scholar or she would know this.
      also Jesus said he came to change not one letter of the law (as proscribed in the Torah) but to save people from the impossible task of living as humans within the law, so the bible is not ambivalent as the writer states, both old testament (torah) and new testament (gospels) are consistent and in perfect sync.
      alas, I think the writer's true agenda to portray the bible as merely an interesting read, is clearly coming through in this article.

      --–
      .
      you do realize the bible was cherry picked by a group of men. There were other books presented that were rejected because they didnt jive with the whole. There is no magical word of god, rather this sync you talk of was organized and created gy man. I have to chuckle at the ignorance sometimes.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  10. Uli

    Most people who don't believe the bible, don't believe it because they read it.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Lucy

      And some who have read it have found eternal life and wisdom for the ages.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Uli

      I find the claim of eternal life rather unfounded. Prove this claim please.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Mike

      Certainly not an original thought. Most people have never read the Bible. Even many believers. The Bible says about itself that God gives His (true) believers the power and ability to understand it.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  11. Cary

    I've read parts of it a few times when there was nothing else around in the hotel room and honestly, it couldn't keep my interest. Some of the lessons are important, but there are much better (less convoluted) sources for the same material.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  12. Bob Kolstad

    Two thoughts- read a book called "The Good Book".
    What would the world be like if we agreed to say "You will find out everything you wanted to know about god the minute you die. Everything else is just a waste of time."

    April 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Mike

      Ah, true enough Bob. But just maybe all of those instructions in the Bible on how we can be greeted by him the manner we hope for might important to read, understand, and put into practice before the big event.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Bibletruth

      Friendly LOL Bob.......The scriptures specifically state " the dead know not anything"...that the moment one dies "his thoughts perish"....

      April 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Suzie

      'I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill."
      Mohandas Gandhi

      April 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  13. Becca

    I read my Bible because I believe God's word is true.. It is true and all scripture is God breathed.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • BillR

      Amen to that Becca!!!

      April 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Uli

      Becca bless god.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Lucy

      Right on, Becca!

      April 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  14. ROBERT RAY

    MAN CREATED GOD.GOD DID NOT WRITE A BOOK. GET SOME HELP YOU DELUSIONAL SIMPLE CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Becca

      you are the simple carbon based lifeform. There is a God, and it won't be too much longer before you KNOW that because every eye shall see, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is LORD

      April 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • john

      you should pray to the god of 'No Caps"

      April 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Kyle

      Becca, that seems like a typical delusional threat that comes from bigoted christians.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  15. quisp65

    Understand mankind and be aware of his invention called religion. A variety of different styles lush the human evolutionary landscape.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • john

      wow.. Jesus hated religion too. Bet you never knew you two has so much in common?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  16. BillR

    I will take the blue pill please!!!

    April 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • ROBERT RAY

      NICE WORK NEO

      April 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  17. brad

    Jesus still draws a crowd, doesn't He? Not bad for the corpse of a hippie dead for 2000 years. On the other hand, in Acts 5, Gamaliel advised the Sanhedrin "So my advice is, leave these (Peter and friends)men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!” No wonder Christianity's enemies get cranky. Their exhausted from fighting God Himself !

    April 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Sparks

      I just checked; seems I am not cranky nor am I exhausted and god is no enemy of mine... just the religion known as Christianity.

      Huh funny.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Mike

      Sparks, the enemy is us – not them.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  18. tony

    The stories in the Bible, true or fiction, are played out every single day in our society. If nothing else, the Bible is a reflection of all the things we do wrong. We simple ignore it because it is old or it is too true to our nature and it scares us, but not matter what, the Bible shows us that we keep repeating the same mistakes people have done thousands of years ago. It is a perfect record of human behavior. Something (human behavior) society refuses to manage properly from birth to death.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  19. Pope Higherthanmost

    I like my fiction to be science related thankyouverymuch.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • i dnt believe in fiction

      hahahahah!

      April 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Lucy

      The Bible has plenty of science. Read Job.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • asdfas

      You people are idiots. Reading the bible should be no different than reading greek mythology or the arthurian legend or beowulf yet here you are proclaiming that you'll only read stories grounded in science (way to limit yourself there bro) or scream bias when no bias is present. Morons.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Lucy,
      What science is there in the book of Job?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • john

      i remember being in school and finding out how many times scientist turned out to be completely wrong after many times celebrating their greatness.. thats when i realized what true science fiction was. and started becoming VERY skeptical of scientists claims. especially when people blindly follow EVERYTHING they say like a religion.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Kate M

      The Bible IS science related. The author of this article poitns out how it is realted to social science. So much of our society is based on a Judeo-Christian heritage that you do yourself a disservice to not familiarize yourself with what the book says, if only from a purely sociological standpoint. You claim to want only science, but that is not reflected in an (emotional) choice to ignore the book that has had the greatest effect on societies throughout the world.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      LMAO.
      thankyouveddymuch.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  20. Emmanuel

    Yes, we should read for two reasons even if we don't understand. First, wher the word of a king is there is power. Second, word of God is like llight which dispels darkness resulting in a better understanding of the scripture subsequently.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Artist

      Yes, we should read for two reasons even if we don't understand. First, wher the word of a king is there is power. Second, word of God is like llight which dispels darkness resulting in a better understanding of the scripture subsequently.

      ------–

      And harry potter has magical powers. Keep sniffing the fairy dust. lol

      April 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
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