Five Clues to Tell Whether You're Reading the Bible the Way It Was Meant to Be Read

By Derek Penwell

Taking everything into consideration, the Bible was written mostly by losers for the benefit of other losers.

That’s not a value judgment, just an observation.

Think about it. The various authors of the texts we call Scripture, both the Hebrew and Christian versions, generally occupied the less aspirational end of the socio-political/economic spectrum. Much of the Hebrew Scriptures (which includes the Torah, the Prophets [Nevi’im], and large sections of the Writings [Ketuvim]) were written by people who were defeated and living in exile, or about to be defeated before adopting their new identities as exiles, or having just got back from a semi-extended stay in the Hotel Exile.

And not one writer of the Christian Scriptures (from Paul to the Gospel writers, to the authors of Revelation and the General Epistles) composed their work from any ancient Near Eastern Oval Office on a burled walnut desk with a Mont Blanc in hand. Each of the Christian writers labored in the shadow of the Roman Empire, a form of reverse exile in their own homeland.

In other words, the Bible was mostly written by the folks everybody endures their misspent youth trying to avoid winding up as--that is, losers. Bottom-dwellers. The wrong lunch table crowd. (Again, not an evaluative statement, just reporting.)

So, when I hear mostly white middle class Americans like Lawrence W. Reed, president for the Forum for Economic Education, offer up Biblical interpretations that sound as if they were merely Jesus-y versions of Atlas Shrugged, I get cross. Reed advances the argument that progressives have lied for years about Jesus when they suggest that Jesus would have supported “redistribution to help the poor.” Jesus requiring people, as a function of following him, to give up their wealth to help the poor? An obvious “canard.”

According to Reed, “It may disappoint progressives to learn that Christ's words and deeds repeatedly upheld such critically-important [sic], capitalist virtues as contract, profit and private property.” He goes to great lengths to discuss passages in the Christian Scriptures that seem to touch on the issue of money, in the process painting a picture of a Jesus much less concerned with the “have-nots” than with making certain that no one takes anything from the “haves.”

But it’s hermeneutically dishonest to contort the Bible into a narrative that sees the fine folks on the low end of the power/wealth scale (i.e., the ones who gave us the Bible) wasting a whole lot of time writing a book meant to ensure that, above all else, rich people get to keep their toys from the hands of the predatory poor and their agents--the government.

So, here are a few hermeneutical clues for reading a Bible that was written by losers for losers:

  1. If you’re reading of the Bible only serves to further underwrite your privilege, you’re doing it wrong.
  2. If your Jesus looks more like Ayn Rand than Dorothy Day, you’ve done violence to the text.
  3. If your take on Biblical morality clears the way for you to own a yacht, while simultaneously dismissing food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, and expanded healthcare coverage as harmful government handouts, any attempt at justification comes off sounding like a defense of selfishness.
  4. If you seriously believe that asking the wealthy to use their resources to help see after the needs of the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, or the imprisoned isn’t the personal-relationship-thing you think the Bible is really about, you’ve seriously misread the Bible.
  5. If you’re convinced the message of the Bible is that it’s your job to stand by with a clipboard and a checklist, needing to personally sign off on everyone God finds acceptable, the actual Bible is going to come as something of a disappointment.

Bonus tip: If the Gospels and the Prophets are any guide, the test of scriptural interpretation is the extent to which it pisses off the people at the top of the heap.

Look, I’m not your mom. You can believe what you want to believe. This is America, after all.

You can help to make a world where some eat and some do not, where some are welcome and others are rejected--a world where “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” wind up having to huddle somewhere else, where your wretched refuse have to teem on somebody else’s shore--across the cafeteria, on the other side of town, next to the garbage dump, in the closet … out of sight.

You can do all that--but lets not kid ourselves that the Bible is, you know, cool with it.