I was pulling up the old Biblical gem about rabbits chewing cud the other day and my search resulted in several pages defending Biblical literalism and “disproving” the error. The argument broadly goes that, although the Bible says unequivocally that rabbits chew cud, and although rabbits are not ruminants, that rabbits do re-digest their food through a process called cecotrophy. The word which we translate as “chew the cud” today would, when the document was written, have been meant to encompass a larger group of activities, and so although the rabbit doesn’t chew cud by our classification today, rabbits can be said to fall under the qualifications of the original term used.
This is obviously quite a stretch, but it is this statement, shared by many pages making a similar argument, which really jumps out at me:
Simply stated, it is not reasonable to accuse a 3500-year-old document of error because it does not adhere to a modern man-made classification system.
We can extrapolate further; the condemnations against same-sex relationships and gender fluidity rely on a classification system 3,500 years old. Our current understanding of these things is significantly removed from the way the words are used in the Bible. Thus, just as the Bible is not in error regarding rabbits, the Bible also cannot be understood to make any statement about our modern conception of LGBTQIA rights.
You’d all agree, right fundamentalists and literalists?
I consider Matthew Vines’ thoughtful work on biblical exegesis regarding sexual orientation to be seminal. Whenever confronted with the opinion that homosexuality is “unchristian” or “against the Bible,” I refer to this book first and foremost. By opening with quasi-memoir, Vines reveals his own deeply held beliefs, beliefs with closely mirror those of many who would dispute the conclusions of this book, and that gives him an extraordinary authority to be making these conclusions in the first place.
I’ve been somewhat shocked, though, to find that many evangelical literalists don’t find this compelling. They say that Vines uses “loopholes” or misapplies a cultural context to obscure biblical truth. I never imagined that I was biased in support of this book because it affirms my preexisting beliefs; I don’t agree with Vines on most of his theological beliefs in the first place. Still, was I uncritical in reading this book because it provided such a great answer to conservative evangelicals?
It is often hard to take any sort of biblical scholarship on its own terms. For instance, Vines uses some specific translation examples to show how the use of homosexuality in the text carries some connotations which mark it as different than our use of the word today. In fact, homosexuality wasn’t even addressed directly as such in English translations until well into the 60s! This opens a much larger debate about biblical translation and divine inspiration. If the Bible is divinely inspired anyway, then why are there so many translations? Is it only inspired in the original language? If the version of the Bible I’m reading isn’t the inerrant word of God, why should I treat it with such a high view?
The inability of anyone to address these issues directly is why literalists can avoid Vines’ arguments. Instead of engaging with the meat of the argument, they can simply say that they don’t believe in his analysis of the translation, or his reading of cultural context. And what can you say to that? The rules of the debate are fluid, so any dialogue in good faith is stymied. Of course, if anyone knew how to get around this problem, we’d have a much better cultural dialogue between evangelical Christianity and secular belief. As it is, we’re left with trying to engage with literalists on whatever ground they allow us to engage, which isn’t a great way to have a conversation!
I think Vines’ insight that committed same-sex relationships didn’t exist at the time of the writing of the Bible is worldview-changing. You don’t have to know a lot about cultural circumstances 2000 years ago to understand that they would understand homosexuality in some different way than we do today. I mean, you only have to think back 10 years to remember a time when we thought about orientation differently, so of course millennia past would be dramatically different!
I also understand the critique that the Bible should stand on its own, but frankly, it doesn’t. So much of literal interpretation is reliant on a preexisting knowledge of Jewish sacrificial rites, for instance, that we can’t possibly assume that everything within those pages would be timeless and self-contained. It’s why I find critiques of Vines cultural context argument silly; why should we need to know the historical context of Pontius Pilate and regional governance systems, but ignore the cultural systems surrounding same-sex relations?
I’m still going to use this as a touchtone whenever I’m faced with homophobic evangelicalism, of course. And I’ll probably be met with the same resistance I’ve described, of course. But those disagreements are part of a larger pattern of biblical literalists failing to argue in good faith, not a failing of this book’s powerful arguments.