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. Dean Robertson

    Bible illiteracy is the reason I put together a course in the Bible as Literature 30 years ago. And it's still going strong. We need to read this book for the simple reason that, like it or not, it's one of the most influential pieces of literature in Western culture.
    Thanks for your article and your teaching.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  2. Moses

    The Bible: Best fiction ever written!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • TheOracle8191

      Keep an eye on the next 10 – 15 years. Read the books of Daniel, the Gospel of Christ and Revelation. Then tell me then how much fiction the Bible contains.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Giant1

      TheOracle8191, for how many ceturies have we been hearing that! If you wait long enough, everything will happen.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Observer

      Believers have been talking about the imminent end of the world for 2,000 years and have been wrong for 2,000 years. Of course, this time they know what they are talking about. Sure.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Moses

      To Oracle8191:

      Can you just give me the sort version because I probably won’t read it? Will it be like the immediate judgement that everyone thought was going to come after Jesus died? Thank 'god' everyone didn't hold their breath for that prediction! The Bible, for me, is a human book and Christianity, for me, is a human religion...both created by humans with human errors. I always found it interesting that Constantine pick and choose what stories ended up in the Bible! Gotta love that Roman Empire!

      April 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  3. ccovell

    I am not a Christian but I think the Bible is important reading for anyone living in the American/European culture as the references are so frequent. It is for so many our fundamental mythology. It also helps me to understand the frequency with which it is misquoted and poorly understood by people who allegedly adhere to it precepts. I keep a copy of the Bible along with several other cultural reference books in my reading area and I use them often.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  4. TreeTop

    I've read the Bible, and after having done so it makes me even more baffled that anyone can possibly believe what it says.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • 1underpar

      There is a HUGE difference between a quick read and an earnest effort to understand.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  5. Sinner

    If you don't believe, you actually don't gain anything by reading it, but if you believe in it, you gain everything.

    This is for AtheistSteve,

    Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.


    April 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  6. Stuart

    I have always felt that the Bible and the works of Shakespeare should be read by everyone. There are so many quotes that are made daily from both sources, that it would help everyone to understand the motivations of the speaker using them. Often, you find folks confusing the two, attributing Shakespeare to the Bible and vise-versa. So often, the quotes are taken out of context, and knowing the entire book, chapter, poem, act or play can help one evaluate whether you agree with the thinking of the person quoting the passage.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • ccovell


      April 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  7. An Aetheist

    Everyone should read the bible just like everyone should read books with opinions different than their own. I am an aetheist who went to church and temple, born of a Catholic mother and Tao-buddhist father, married to a man of jewish descent. What I take issue with the intolerance that many display towards people who have dissimilar beliefs. That is what pushed me from religion faster than anything written – the anger, judgement and outright self righteousness displayed by many people who have "found their way to god".

    April 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • 1underpar

      I understand, and shame on any of us who have caused this separation between you and God. That said, God will expect that relationship between the two of you regardless of how ugly his so called followers act! Please reconsider and recognize that there not one of us is perfect, yet God expects us to love Him and honor Him.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • That Guy

      I understand you being pushed away from religion...I feel the same way. BUT, I won't let all the faults of organized religion push me away from God. God doesn't hate anyone, however, it seems like these days Religion hates everyone. Sometimes its hard to draw a line between God and religion...

      April 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Jennifer

      I think another way of looking at her suggetion is that, as an athiest, you should know your enemy. I've read the Bible and parts of the Quran. The only thing it did was confirm my disbelief. But now I can have a conversation with anyone about these religion and know what they are reading into the passages and what parts they have ignored. It helps me oint out their hypocrisy, bigotry and ignorance.

      Knowledge is Power

      April 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • John

      underpar, why is your God so insecure that he needs my faith in him? Can he not accept that I am a loving father, faithful husband and caring friend to those that I meet? How come this is not enough for someone so powerfull as you proclaim him to be?

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

      @John First of all only God knows your heart and only God can ultimately know. As far as the teachings go, the Bible says the following:

      1 John 1:5-10
      This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all.
      6 So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. 7 But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.

      8 If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 9 But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts.

      Therefore he isn't saying you aren't being good enough. You can do many good things but while any sin of any kind exists in you (no matter how small), you cannot fellowship with him because darkness cannot exist in the light. This goes for every single person – he's not singling anyone out. He tells you how to wash away the sin so that you can be with Him. It's as simple as that. He leaves it to our choice too. He doesn't force anyone to choose Him. However, He loves everyone because they are His children and wants them to be with Him. So He has provided a way and given us free will.

      John 3:16 – 17
      16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

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

    From my readings I have gathered a different concept of things than what I've heard others mention.

    God cannot exist together with sin. Therefore if you are a sinner then when you die you cannot go to be with Him. Hell is basically a place where you exist knowing that you can never be with God. Similar in concept to say being forever parted from a beloved person except infinitely worse because it lasts forever without end and He is way better than any person.

    Sin separates you from God because He is good and sin is not good. The only way to clean away the sin is to wash it away and cover yourself over by One who was perfect and without sin and Who paid the price for you.

    We are all given the opportunity to choose what we want to believe and how we want to live. But as the Bible teachings suggest you will follow the guidelines not because you fear punishment, but because you love God and want to be where He is when you die. So in that scenario hell is a self imposed punishment. You don't want to be with Him or to believe in Him so you get what you wish for. Except in death it is assumed that you will regret your decision and yet it will be too late to change.

    So anyway that is what I gathered from my readings thus far. Whether you believe in it or not is purely your choice just as everyone gets to make a choice. No one can force you to choose it. It is entirely 100% up to you and you alone. People can say whatever they want, but only you can decide what you will do.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  9. RandomNerd

    The Bible makes for a most excellent source for D&D games... it's got several campaigns right there in print, and even a perfectly usable deity and religion... 🙂

    April 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  10. Pete

    Wow, some of you people are really lost. Jesus would have loved to hang out with you.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Dexter Skagway

      But we have better sense than to hang out with him or Mohammed or David Koresh or Joseph Smith or Jim Jones.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  11. Hilary

    There are better things to read.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • 1underpar

      Millions of us disagree.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • jadey

      and millions of us DON'T disagree 🙂

      April 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Julie

      How do you know there are better things to read? Like the little kid who wouldn't try the vegetables on his plate...he said he didn't like them so he wouldn't try them. How do you know you don't like it if you've never tried it?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  12. jason

    Yes, please read the bible!
    There is no better way to become an atheist and non-believer than to read the bible. Highly recommended!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  13. Deme

    I pray for all the non believers on this board that one day your heart will soften and your spiritual eyes be opened.
    God is real. You don't know me from the next person but I tell you the truth, plain as day. God has shown Himself in my life. I went to a faith conference twice in my life and had hearing restored in my left ear that was permanently lost and my heart murmur gone.
    I FELT it as it was happening. I was washed in a warm feeling and felt my ear popping as it was being restored.
    I'm a believer. I once doubted there was a God but never again. Not when that happened and doctors couldn't explain it.
    You can take my story as folly but I haven't a reason to lie.
    Pray and ask God to show Himself in your life and just be silent and wait for it. Be serious about it.
    God Bless!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Deme, that's a very touching story and I'm sincerely happy for you, but I feel I must take exception with one of your remarks. I am atheist, but there is nothing hard about my heart. Belief is not a prerequisite for loving kindness.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  14. Sergio

    The book of revelation is now open to for everyone to see. Finally see. Read up on anchient history so you can understand your future. My father has been telling me play by play everything you see in the news.

    You need a really strong grasp on anchient history though. Want to try me? Syria is next they are attacking Israel and they in turn are going to get it bad. Syria will be a waste land soon. Don't believe me? Just sit and wait. My dad has not failed once.

    Listen guys I am not even religious and I cant remember the last time I prayed or went to church, I have known Israel would have their own energy since I was 8 years old. Europe uniting, pope visitng israel all waaaay before it happened. If yall would stop watching reality TV and read the damn book you would know too.

    This article is just stupid some igonramous that is obviously lost in space.....

    If you do not believe me I could care less so dont start with ur athiest crap. I am a scientist, not a religious man and I STILL READ THE BIBLE FOR ANSWERS !!!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Julie

      I agree, Sergio. My husband used to teach Bible Prophecy, so I picked up a lot of it. I can watch the news and say, "there's the fulfillment of one of Daniel's prophecies, there's the fulfillment of something Jesus predicted, there's Revelation...." It's fascinating. A Bible Prophecy teacher could just turn on CNN to teach his class.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • To : Julie

      Your dad is a wise man. To understand Revelation takes ALOT. These tards will never grasp it because they are too caught up with what the Kardashains are wearing. It is so sad that most americans do not know squat these school systems are chruning out garbage.

      My dad actually sent emails to the Texan who owns Zion Oil, before energy was found WAAY before. Zion Oil was searching FIRST. They just didnt have luck and they looked in the same area that the other company found it so they are trying to renew their old permit for that area again, Why do you thik a Texan was looking for oil in Israel? I want you to look up his article as to why. The short is he read it in the bible. Now hes going to be a billionaire.

      The tards on here making comments they are stupid and broke.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Sergio, it is actually quite rude of you to refer to atheists as being full of crap.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      ah so revelations refer to now huh? so please please please tell us what is happening now hasnt happened in the past. war? floods? famine? disbelievers?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • To : Lettuce

      Lettuce I am a worse sinner than you will ever be. I will be right next to you rotting in hell. But that book tells the future. As crazy as it sounds im being dead honest. I do believe in God but I am not religious at all. How can I not, can you tell me what will happen tommorow? The bible has been telling me since I was 8. It has not failed ONCE.

      Heaven and earth shall pass away but MY WORDS will never pass away.

      Sorry athiests ur a bunch of tards who are ignorant.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  15. Laura

    ...What? This article is poorly written and makes little sense. Reading a century old book with multiple different interpretations does not help me understand why someone would take their inspiration for doing something from the bible. This reads like a high school students essay comparing and contrasting a movie and a book. I have nothing against anyone of any religion different from my own beliefs, but that does not mean I wish to spend my time reading their religious texts. Were you to ask individuals in America to read a Quran I cannot help but feel this article would not have been published. Such is the backwards hypocrisy of individuals who preach one thing while ignoring the other option which is oh-so-similar. Don't assume that just by having every individual read the same religious text once over, that it will automatically foster friendship, understanding, tolerance, or any of the above. You can read the bible thrice over and still not understand how some people interpret it the way they do.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Exactly what I was thinking. I could barely finish reading this article because of the way it meandered from one though to the next. I can't believe she wrote a whole book.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Julie

      Exactly, Jennifer. But what is astounding is that she got paid to write this.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      I've read it twice, and I quite agree with you. Why not cite the Koran as well? It contains a lot of similarly incomprehensible stories and fables. None of these books, bible, Torah nor Koran, seem to foster anything but divisiveness.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Romans 1:28-32 should answer any of the non-believers questions.


      April 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  16. Russ

    There is no such thing as a Biblical precendent!! We don't base any laws on heresy or written works of fiction. That includes the Bible. And if religion is so damn good, why do representatives still have to go door to door selling it? Reminds me of snake oil salesmen. You go to church on Sunday, pray for forgivness for all the dastardly deeds you did during the week and then go right back out there and become some of the most hypocritical, immoral, pagans in the world. I don't go to your door bothering you with my atheism, so stay the hell away from mine. I do just fine without you.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Julie

      No need to get angry... but I just want to point out that the ethics in the 10 commandments, don't kill, steal, etc. are the basis for our government's laws. I'm just saying. But, even if there wasn't a Bible, I believe everyone would know in their hearts that they shouldn't commit these crimes.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Curtis

      You are incorrect. America was actually founded by people who belived in the bilbe.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • 1underpar

      Most thoughtful intelligent people who are doubtful become agnostic – to be an atheist requires far more faith than to be Christian.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      I used to resent the door-to-door religious types, too, but then I realized, they believe in absolutes, and those absolutes make them very happy. They're convinced that you could be just as happy, and your soul saved, so that's what they are trying to do. They mean you no harm, so why get all worked up? Just politely say "no, thank you" and close the door. How hard is that?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • John

      I disagree underpar. Those that were indoctrinated at a young age become agnostic once they start to see through the BS. Those that were lucky enough to not have their young minds poisoned become atheist.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  17. Julie

    When people say (as in this article) that it's not clear what the Bible means, i.e., to kill or not to kill, what they are really saying is "I know the Bible says not to kill, but how can I make that jive with the fact that I want to be allowed to kill? How can I kill and make it still sound like I'm following God's commandment?" You know, like wars, executions, and abortion. Killing. "Nice" killing, legal killing that we approve of, so God must approve of it, too. Only makes sense, right?. God said, "Thou shalt not kill." This line was followed by a period...end of sentence. No if's, and's, but's, or maybe's. Thou shalt not kill-all one-syllable, easy to read words. Why do people have so much trouble with it?????

    April 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Tay

      I absolutely agree with you. There is no manipulating what is written plain and clear. No justifying, no making exceptions. Nothing. It is what it is.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Annie

      Isn't it actually thou shall not murder? After the 10 commandments there were several wars were people were killed that God instucted people to participate in.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Julie

      Annie, I see you are one of the people having trouble with the interpretation...I believe he meant what he said and said what he meant. Don't kill. This commandment didn't have any footnotes or explanations.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • TexasBoy

      Julie, you need to read further than Deuteronomy. That's what this article is basically saying. In Deut., we get the 10 commandments and "Thou shall not" this and that. Then in the very next book of the Bible, God tells the Israelites to invade the Promise Land and KILL EVERYBODY in the land – men, women and children. There are lots of examples of this type of dichotomy on a number of different social issues. Then, there are a whole other set of values and "laws" that come into play when you get to the Gospel sections at the end. You already pick and choose which of Gods laws to follow, or your husband or father wouldn't have allowed you to post your comment in accordance to Mosaic law.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • OS2toMAC

      So, it is your god saying "Do as I say, not as I do?" Stories from the Bible: Noah and the Flood, Sodom and Gamorah. Current day: Floods, earth quakes, volcanic eruptions.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  18. totallyfailed

    I'd rather watch the Springer show all day than read that heap of dung.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Doledart

      Probly cauz u kant reed


      April 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  19. Ben Dover

    It is useless fiction, nothing more.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Ceri

      Obviously you haven't read it and you most certainly haven't studied it, otherwise you would know that, apart from anything else, it contains a lot of historical events that are widely known to have happened. Take, for example, the account of the Exile, a pivotal event in the entire Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures... So clearly it cannot be dismissed as 'total fiction' except by those who have no idea what they are talking about.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Ben, it's not completely useless. It does explain why many people behave the way they do. Our culture is rooted in such fictions, so why not become familiar with them?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  20. SerialGunner

    The bible is an evil book! Don't read it or it will curse you!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Curtis

      You are right, it may curse you with happiness in your life. Heck you may even get eternal life after you are dead. You are correct best not to read it.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • John

      Curtis, I'll give you enternal life. It will cost you only 5 dollars. Much less than the 10 percent your church expects.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:28 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.