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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. Chris

    Is it OK to skip the A begat B begat C begat D begat ...

    Seriously, as an agnostic, having read the Bible gives me great ammunition for arguing any side of the issue. And it's great fun at parties.

    Well, maybe that's pushing it.

    The point is, as usual, knowledge is power.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  2. GHale

    What a silly "article." There have been several studies lately demonstrating that non-believers, on the whole, tend to be more bible-literate than believers. The believers are the ones who need to be admonished here.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  3. The one and only God

    Uh, Ms. Swenson? Don't encourage people to read the Bible. I was really drunk when I wrote it. That's why it is so contradictory and badly written. I was absolutely hammered when I tried again with the Quran. And I should not have dropped acid before writing the Book of Mormon.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  4. Wayne

    This is so true, we speak what we do not know or understand. As to the death penalty thing there is this pesky verse Romans 12:19 that we have to deal with. We understand so little of what it really says but don't mind using it to bludgeon others.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  5. IamGOD

    Kids shouldn't be exposed to such violent books..

    April 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  6. Chris

    "Thou Shalt Not Kill"....seems pretty straight forward right? Well that is of course until a few pages later when the same God orders the same people he just ordered never to kill, to go forth and kill anyone taller than a cart handle while they invade the "promised land" which at the time belonged to someone else. So yea, that whole "Thou shalt not steal" thing, a little less than straight forward too. The bottom line is the Bible is a bunch of different texts written by different people, with different intentions, from different periods in history. Then someone came along at the council of Nicea and picked their favorites to make one book out of. The Bible is important and useful as are other ancient religious texts because they offer insight into the human condition and how we used to view and are changing our views of our place in this universe.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Dog Boy

      Yep!

      April 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Believer

      The more accurate translation is "Thou shalt not murder". This excludes self defense, justifiable homicide and war. It is the hatred and anger behind murder that makes it a sin. Jesus went one step further and said if you hate your brother in your heart you have broken this commandment.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • BR

      @Believer
      That's the more recent understanding, but it's irrelevant. It only referred to Jews. What you do to a neighboring population you happened to be warring against was up for grabs. Same thing for s|@very. Lots of rules of what you can do, who you can own, how much they can be beaten, but it stlll only applied to a fellow Jew.

      April 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  7. Artist

    crittle02676

    i get a kick out of people who dont believe. you know everything but the bottom line is you can not disprove anything nor prove anything. creation of man, the universe so on and so on but you are SOOOOOOOO superior to believers. lmao

    ----–
    .
    Same goes for proving zues exists, fairies, unicorns, ra, santa and so one. Just apply a little commen sense and you might be halfway there. Your faith is in man and never was in a god.

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

      Not superior...just supported.....by evidence. It isn't our job to disprove anything. We reject your claims until they can be proven...right along with faeries, goblins and poltergeists.

      April 21, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • BR

      Sorry Artist...didn't notice you were replying to crittle02676.

      April 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  8. maggie

    The majority of people do not read the bible although they have many copies collecting dust on their selves. And they few that do read it do not understand it.

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

      way too broad of a generalization of what 'most people do.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Tony

      You have to read the "New Living Translation", it is written in pretty plain English... my favorite is the book of Daniel. http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-Living-Translation-NLT-Bible/

      April 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • BR

      @Tony
      I've seen it, and there are numerous passages which would be highly contested compared to more traditional versions. If it is so simplfied to be in 'plain English' then it is, by definition, a less accurate translation. Somehow, it still manages not to gloss over the inconsistencies...that should be very clear indeed.

      April 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  9. Content2B

    Compare prophecies that have already come to pass. Nobody ever thought Israel would be a nation again. The BIble said it. It happened. The Bible called the Earth round long before Galileo was excommunicated for saying the same thing. Several books reference events that the entire world will see at once. That was never possible yet these days it's more and more possible. The BIble teaches crop rotations, cleanliness standards, and financial management which if followed no one would ever experience bad credit. It's more than a jumble of words. It's some great advice.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Dexter Skagway

      Where does the Bible say the earth is round?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      It is easy to make predictions. chances are some will eventually come true.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  10. The Divine Lord, The One And Only God

    You are all my children, and I am going to burn most of my children for the rest of eternity because HeavenSent and Adelina and so many others want me to. They really want it. They're just festering to have people who don't agree with them burn burn BURN.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • ibk18

      It sounds like you had nothing better to do but to try to be a troll. Now scratch your crotch, rub your stubble, unglue your large butt cheeks from your chair and get your life together. You are not going to make it as a troll if that's the best you can do.

      April 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  11. George

    I guess with the internet and atheists more emboldened to come out of the closet so to speak; Religious freakoids are getting desperate. They figure its a numbers game. If they can get 1 person that does not believe out of 1000 after they read this trash, that they have done good lmao. Kind of like the puppy dog sale, keep the dog for a few days and than you will be more likely to buy it.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  12. Rich

    The surest way to become an atheist is to read the bible. That ship is messed up.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • john

      you obviously dont know what atheism is

      April 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • maggie

      Because you did not understand it. Very few people understand the bible. The fact that you are well versed in the phylosophy of man that does not mean you can pick up the bible and read and understand it. It is a gift and only God can grant it to you.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Robert

      No Maggie, you are wrong. There are plenty of people out there capable of forming a coherent view on the Bible without needing a devine epiphany to do so.

      April 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  13. crittle02676

    i get a kick out of people who dont believe. you know everything but the bottom line is you can not disprove anything nor prove anything. creation of man, the universe so on and so on but you are SOOOOOOOO superior to believers. lmao

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

      And by your statement you are the pot calling the kettle black.

      Seems the shoe fits either way so why not try a new direction?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Earthling

      That's because we base our understanding and interpretations on real evidence and events witnessed first hand, not on watered-down, plagiarized, rewritten, politically edited and self-servingly interpreted fairy tales made up by ignorant goat herders from 2000 years ago.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • crittle02676

      AWWWW need a hug widdle baby

      April 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • P

      It's not a feeling of superiority! It's a huge relief and the joy of simply being free of the ball and chain you carry around your body and mind. Ignorance is neither bliss nor reality no matter how many times you express it. Take responsibility for your own life and the way you treat others. Don't lay it off on something "bigger" than you. That's a cop out.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • ibk18

      @crittle followed by a bunch of numbers – what a profound and thought provoking question to back your own opinion. Do YOU need a hug?

      April 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  14. Steve Luke

    Does anyone ever convince anyone of anything on these message boards?

    It's like thinking someone will become a Christian because they saw a little fish sign with a cross on the back of your car. I got one on my car, though. Just in case.

    April 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  15. paul

    Corpse?Find me that corpse, and Ill crush Christianity you moron!

    April 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Content2B

      Compare prophecies that have already come to pass. Nobody ever thought Israel would be a nation again. The BIble said it. It happened. The Bible called the Earth round long before Galileo was excommunicated for saying the same thing. Several books reference events that the entire world will see at once. That was never possible yet these days it's more and more possible. The BIble teaches crop rotations, cleanliness standards, and financial management which if followed no one would ever experience bad credit. It's more than a jumble of words. It's some great advice.

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

      Bible said the earth was flat. Get real.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  16. Greg

    Read Darwin, even if you're planning to remain ignorant.

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

      LOL! Good one 😉

      April 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • SK

      I don't believe in grouping people so blatantly. I find that those that are the most anti-religion have had some bad experience with it in the past and/or they have been overly influenced by their educators that believe that they are God. I think everyone needs something to believe in. If that is religion, great; if it is purely cosmic creationism, great. But intolerance for others is not ok. I personally believe that we were created to evolve and adapt to our environment. The more that I learn about the detailed complexity of living organisms as well as the vastness of the universe, I can't help believing there is not a higher power. And yes, there were dinosaurs before people.

      Also, read ABOUT Darwin – he wasn't anti-God, he just observed the ability of life to adapt. Evolution does not necessarily preclude creation.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • brad

      As a Catholic who's read Darwin, I found him less than helpful. Consider the following from Origin of Species:

      "I may here premise, that I have nothing to do with the origin of the mental powers, any more than I have with that of life itself. "

      "Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?"

      April 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Tracy Hayes

      Excellent response!!!

      April 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • ibk18

      @SK – You said it all so well.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • BR

      @SK
      The tendency to dismiss evolution in general, and Darwin specifically, is directly tied to religious dogma. By and large it is expressed as simple argument from ignorance which you yourself use when you write …”I can’t help believing there is not a higher power.”

      It doesn’t take a great leap to find people with bad experiences in religion, but it is rarely the experiences themselves which led to disbelief. They merely created a necessary wedge between the in-group reinforcement and the ability to examine religions claims independently and on their own merit.

      It makes no difference that he wasn’t “anti-god”. Newton and Copernicus were devout Xtians and their research contradicted church doctrine. Copernicus suffered imprisonment for what was considered heresy, but their evidence outlasted the adherents of Bronze Age myths.

      April 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  17. Chaaaaaarles

    If someone who believes in the Bible is going to encourage people to read it even if they don't believe it, why isn't there any encouragement for people who believe in the Bible to read literature from other religions?

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

      Hmm. Good point. I wonder.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • ibk18

      Here it is: I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. I think there are plenty of great things in the Qur'an. Buddists have some inspiring ideas about life as well. The Bible confuses me at times, but I still believe. I'm not going to deny everything else. I don't know if I'm right or wrong. Neither does anyone else.

      I will not try to claim someone's religion, which is a part of their heritage, culture, or what their entire life is based on, is a "myth." It's really disgusting how some of you can so quickly jump to tear down another person and what is really important to them.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • lacoaster

      Chaaaaaarles! You just read my mind. YOU ROCK!!!!

      April 20, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  18. FacePalm911

    I sure hope I'm not my Higher Authority! I also know I need Good Orderly Direction...Mine comes from GOD.

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

      Or could it be the voice in your head... just saying!

      April 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  19. S J Smith

    Anyone every read Jeanne Dixon? Predicted the Kennedy assination and even tried to warn him, to no avail. Who is going to pay attention to anything said thousand of years ago, when we don't even listen to our present day seers? All philosophy, which is really what religion is, is subjective. You take from it what you will. No laws should be governed by any one philosphy. Laws should be governed by good sense, human dignity as well as human & animal rights.

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

      “The Huge dog will howl at night, when the great pontiff will change lands”. Nostradamus made some great predictions too.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  20. Guest

    Though I agree with the author that the Bible (Old, New, Apocrypha) should be read, if only for people to intelligently critique it, I disagree with her argument that it allows for any answers.
    Truly, the only part of the books I enjoyed was the book of Job, as it is not simply dogma or questionable history but a philosophical examination of God, evil, and following Him.
    If one is looking for answers, read "The Age of Reason" by Thomas Paine. Written in the 1700's as a critique of "revealed religion" it is still relevant today.

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

      is dead

      April 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • BR

      Here here! Baron d'Holbach should follow.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • cocoloco

      True: The Bible is not a scientific book, political, mathematical, etc.
      True: The Bible is Historical.
      If it is, its contents are worthy to be studied even if they are to be criticized since one day we must be judged by its content, either we like it or not, or we believe it or not: John 12:47-48 "If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. [48] "He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:55 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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