Is the Bible “Good News” for everyone, or, does it just seem good to those who want it to be? And how do readers make it good in places that on any honest reading are not (think violence and the treatment of women and slaves). Jill Hicks-Keeton, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sourthern California, has recently published an intriguing book that is highly controversial in some circles (those who do what she describes) and a breath of fresh air in another, an analysis of how evangelical Christians work to make the Bible not just acceptable but good through and through. Her study is called The Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible To Save Themselves. (Available here: Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves: Hicks-Keeton, Jill: 9781506485850: Amazon.com: Books)
I’ve asked Jill to talk about the book in a couple of posts on the blog. Here’s the first, with a teaser for the second!
Millions of Americans report understanding the Bible as the Word of God (whether or not they’ve read it!). The Bible has provided fuel for social reformers and has sparked the imaginations of artists, musicians, writers, and home décor designers. Convictions about the Bible’s universal benevolence regularly combine with capital to influence American politics, law, and textbooks. The Bible garners such popularity in the U.S. that in the last century it has become a commodified good successful enough to be “the best-selling book” in this country, year after year. The Bible enjoys the nickname “the Good Book” for good reason.
Of course, not everyone sees the Bible as fundamentally good, though. Many enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans in the nineteenth century, for example, had to work hard to make the book of their enslavers into one that spoke goodness into their own lives. In the same century, women’s rights proponents in the U.S. alternately approached the Bible with trust, suspicion, or sheer pragmatism. They did not agree about whether the Good Book was good for their cause. Some sought to push the Bible out of the conversation entirely. Still others saw the Bible not as irrelevant but as blameworthy. Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously viewed the Bible as a cause of women’s oppression, even as she used the Bible as a battleground by publishing her own version. The Bible had such the reputation as the Good Book, however, that even Stanton balked at the idea that a guest in her home might reach for a nearby Bible to raise their seat at the table. The Bible would boost no one.
For many, the Bible is bad. Full stop. It can be lambasted as an evil book, an ancient collection of texts with a vindictive deity, murderous protagonists, and outdated or even harmful social norms. For some, it is their own suffering at the hands of Bible-wielders that has led them to reject the Bible. The goodness of the Good Book is certainly not a given.
But neither is the Bible’s goodness an illusion. Better: it’s a construct. The Bible’s benevolence is made and remade. In my recent book, called Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves, I offer a name for this process of making the Bible into the Good Book: the business of Bible benevolence. (You can thank my Baptist upbringing for the alliteration.) “Bible benevolence labor” is the intellectual, rhetorical, and moral work that people engage in to make the Bible fundamentally good—even in the face of biblical contents and historical uses of the Bible that everyone today, for the most part, agrees are bad. The fact that goodness is a contested category and that social mores keep changing means the Bible’s benevolence requires constant upkeep. I suggest that it is important for us to analyze what building materials and production techniques people are using for this purpose and also what those things cost. In other words, what are the consequences?
Bible benevolence is not the exclusive domain of any group in particular. Lots of people are invested in this project, across religious traditions, denominations, and the political spectrum. Almost anyone who reads a Bible devotionally is engaged in a Bible benevolence project. Any time social debates populate the national news and commentators argue about “what the Bible actually says about” an issue, the Bible’s goodness is at stake. For an illustrative case study, my own work has focused on how white evangelical Protestants, a vocal and often controversial subset of religious adherents in the U.S., engage publicly in creative negotiations to square a commitment to the Bible as an unassailable good with historical realities and biblical contents that could pose a challenge to the Bible’s benevolence.
The Bible famously contains disturbing stories of violence against women—think of Genesis 34, Judges 19, Revelation 2. The Bible’s androcentric commands frequently assume women to be the sexual property of men. Numbers 5, for example, outlines a torture routine through which a suspicious man can determine if his woman has been entered by another man. The Ten Commandments presume an audience of men. In the gospels, Jesus sees slavery as normal and mundane. He calls a woman a dog. And the Bible says that women should be silent. Twice.
But sexism isn’t cool anymore, and U.S. evangelicals know it. In a time when misogyny sparks scrutiny, outrage, and exposés, anyone who abuses or disdains women at the very least has to call it something else if they are to be respectable in modern U.S. society. Misogyny has to be rooted out or rebranded. U.S. evangelicals involved in the business of Bible benevolence must render the book good for women if it has any chance of being universally good.
When it comes to making the Bible benevolent for women, Paul is the thorn in everyone’s side. Interpreters of Paul’s letters have long searched for literary analogues from ancient history to situate Paul’s letters in a context that makes the apostle’s words legible to modern readers. This is especially the case when it comes to Paul’s words about women. Passages in the Pauline corpus have been used historically to limit opportunities for women and often feature prominently in arguments over women in church leadership, as New Testament readers search out what Paul might have meant when he wrote about heads, hair, speaking, and silencing.
While historical critical scholars of the Bible can get around criticism of Paul by seeing some of the marred writings to be post-Pauline, not authored by Paul, evangelicals are often reluctant to concede Pauline authorship because of the risk doing so might pose to biblical authority. To understand fully how white evangelicals make the Bible good, we must engage in the fiction that Paul wrote the letters in the Bible that claim to be written by Paul. Doing so in fact makes the task that much more interesting, since making Paul good is trickier when “Paul” is larger than one man can be. More contradictions and more change over time cannot help but give rise to more creative reconciliation projects, as difficult interpretive problems demand ingenious solutions.
One of the most common solutions to the perceived problem of Paul’s misogyny is for interpreters to “recover” an ancient background or circumstances in which Paul was writing that are believed to mitigate the trouble of the troubling passages because they purport to explain Paul’s motivations. If Paul had good intentions, the logic goes, his words can be made good for women. Part of what gives the context-creation strategy its power of persuasion is that the people who use it present their task not as innovating or constructing so much as retrieving something lost. But these folks are in fact not excavating. They are making something. Sometimes, they are making things up.
One pattern I found particularly fascinating (and, to be honest, troubling) as I was writing this book was that well-known, respected figures who perform white evangelical Bible benevolence labor often engage in serious fantasy—historical or sexual or both—to accomplish their goals. Even more fascinating: sometimes those authors making things up for the sake of Bible benevolence are also professional scholars.
More on that next time!
[Again, if you’re interested, check it out here: Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves: Hicks-Keeton, Jill: 9781506485850: Amazon.com: Books)