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. Red

    These comment sections, time and time again, prove to be embarassing to the human race...

    April 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      I don't find it embarrasing at all.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  2. Yesus Christ

    The Bible was and always has been written as a "Play" . The word script comes directly from scripture. The only way the message could be delivered when the original King James was written was by "Actors" telling a story to the masses which could not read or write. Look at the Book as a "Play" and it will have a different and I believe more profound meaning to you.
    God bless you for being able to read and to discuss "GOD".

    April 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  3. Julie

    Thou shalt not kill....I agree, its complicated, very hard to interpret. " Thou shalt not kill" can mean so mean things!!! Idiot

    April 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Julie

      typo, I meant to say "it can mean so [many] things"

      April 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Well dont forget that translation is apparently liberal bias and apparently the true translation is thou shalt not murder.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  4. pazke

    I sat down and tried to read the bible once. You could read the whole thing from cover to cover and still not have any idea what's going on. AND it's all been translated – mostly by people with ulterior motives. This article doesn't read very well, either.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  5. Amanda

    I follow a schedule that takes me through the entire Bible in a year. It is some Old Testament in the Morning, and New Testament in the Evening. I have been doing this for 6 years now, and plan to continue until my last day here on Earth. I hi-lite the things that are touching to me and end up finding new things to hi-lite very year. You can obtain a copy of the schedule on-line.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      I didn't enjoy it enough to read it again.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  6. Pete

    Interesting reads for sure. Believe what you will. Following God's law and having a relationship with God is the only way to live forever.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      That is what people say. But we have no idea whether it is true. Personally, I don't believe God would create a secret club that only certain individuals qualify to enter.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • cgreen64

      I believe in the Bible and have a personal relationship with Christ, it's called faith; which so many people don't understand and dismiss. People can say they don't believe in the Bible or say that a bunch of guys wrote it because they were bored, that's cool and that's your belief, but don't knock someone else because of their faith in something you don't understand or don't want to understand. We are given a choice, if you want it, take it, if you don't, then don't.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  7. Nppa1234

    Why so pat Quinn broke a law of a separation of church and state and is still in office wow. I can't believe people still believe in mythology.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      People beleive in the myth of Evolution, so why not others?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  8. Joe

    Dex, if I may call you Dex, what evidence is available to prove that an inaniment object can form life? How may a floating speck in space evolve to form life? Evidence, please? You can even give me your theory on that!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Human1

      If you feel it is not possible for a "speck" in space to create life, how does it become more possible for that very complicated form of life to come about spontaneously by what we know today as evolution?
      bridges dont just fall apart and come back together spontaneously. they are built.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Dexter Skagway

      Here is a pretty good discussion of the matter. Yes, it is wikipedia, but it is not too bad.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Dexter Skagway

      Oops, forgot the link. Here you go.


      April 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  9. Ryan in Michigan

    The author makes a very valid point. I'm a Christian, and I've read much of the Bible (though not cover to cover yet, I admit), and I've also read some books of other faiths, including the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Origin of Species, the Good Book (Jehovah's Witnesses), and others in the past. Gaining knowledge requires reading, studying, and experience. Just because I don't believe in it doesn't mean I shouldn't have information on it.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  10. Ihaveabridgetosellyou

    I rather watch Star Wars over again. Its the same story, but with light sabers and space ships.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  11. NoBigDeal

    Religion is a nothing more than contrived dogma for the purpose of manipulating human behavior. Religion is, as religion does, sometimes for good, but too often precipitating incredible evil.
    Spirituality on the other hand, is just not that complicated. If you do your best to treat all living creatures as you would want to be treated, and there is a judgmental god, you will have done your best to prepare. If not, you can fade into oblivion knowing you have done all you could, to make the world a better place.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  12. Ed

    What a waste of time reading that trash.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      Just because you can't read, Ed...

      April 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Shane

      You may disagree with Ed but, is it consistent with biblical practices to insult him for that belief? Maybe it's this very type of behavior by someone defending the Bible that causes Ed to be skeptical.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      It could also be my skepticism at Atheists who claim tolerance for all but show tolerance to none that leads to such comments.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  13. perplexed

    Read even if you dont believe. Does that mean you are taking all suggestions to read books on atheism, or belief systems that you don't take to heart? I'm going to guess no

    April 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  14. Sophie

    Dr. Swenson is trying hard to make reading of the bible hip. Laugh. Reminds me of the professors I had in school who tried to be the most popular on campus.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  15. Chris

    "You're invited, but until you know something about the Bible, you'll be stuck talking about the weather at the punch bowl."

    Really? Those are the only two possible topics of conversation at a dinner party? Talking about the Bible at a dinner party is a bit gauche. Maybe once a year at the family reunion.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  16. dxp2718

    There are tons of fantastic books we can learn a lot from reading. There is all sorts of literature to which references are made all the time and, if we are not familiar with it, we are missing out. The Bible is really not on the top of my list of recommendations – maybe start with Shakespeare. Then add Tolstoy, Dickens, and heck...even Dr. Seuss!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  17. totallyfailed

    I tried to, I swear. But even that work of fiction is so darn boring!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Dustin

      I know right!

      April 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      I did it at 10 pages a day.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  18. Observer

    Excellent advise for all the "Christians" who preach it, but don't read it. How many of them actually follow the Golden Rule when it comes to other people?

    April 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  19. JustPassingBy

    I was not raised as a Christian nor read the bible HOWEVER in my 20's I was exposed to the Bible and as odd as this sounds, I "knew" alot of the stories in the bible. I remember thinking "I WISH I would have known even more about the bible because it would have saved me from so many heartaches, today I am a Christian BUT for years I have said that even if I wasn't a Christian I would still obey the Bible. I have been to Israel (2X) Turkey (3X) Italy&Greece and I am amazed how historically accurate the Bible is regarding the events that happened in all of these countries. Anyone (like Atheist Steve) who claims the bible is a book of fables or contradictions has probably never even opened a bible , I have put the Bible to the test & it has repeatedly surpassed my prayers and expectations. The Bible can be just a book to unbelievers but to believers it is literally a book that is ALIVE filled with power that enables us to tackle any situation in life and prepares us to meet our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the here after...God Bless

    April 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Ms.Wise

      then you should read history. then you will know even more. why did you just stop with bible. there is more world history.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      a lot of atheists have read the bible. I'm glad you found it comforting for you in your situation, but there are others who do not receive comfort or agree with the texts, so it isn't a one size fits all sort of scenario.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Julie

      God bless you, too! Apparently He already has!

      April 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Mike

      Amen! The Bible can help us through life,as God has planned for us.There is an after life after this life is over,and I hope people will make the right choice.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      The Iliad also described the Trojan wars and lo and behold Troy was found. I guess therefore this means that Achilles really did fight the god Scamander and was saved by Hera.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  20. No Dummy

    Please. Have you ever tried to read the Bible? Most of it is just "blah blah blah." Some good parts (Reveleations for instance), but theres no way I could actually read the whole thing. Does it ever get to a point? I'd rather read Dickens' Great Expectations a thousand times over, and that's saying something.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • hiyousuckers

      Fact is, and I do mean fact, if you sincerly ask God to help you understand the Bible, He will.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • hiyousuckers

      The Holy Spirit is the teacher, without God, and the One He sent, you will not process the Bible well.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
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About this blog

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.