Let’s Get Biblical – Toward an Inclusive Interpretation

Everywhere I look I see sharp lines being drawn around “us” and “them.” With all the insecurity and suffering brought on by a global pandemic, ever more polarized politics, gun violence and police brutality, the climate crisis – the list goes on, people are increasingly disconnected, anxious and afraid. We’re struggling to bring order to the chaos. So, we armor up and stand our ground, defending ourselves against anything and everything that feels like a threat – namely, the “Other.”

“Othering” is not new. I have been thinking about the way we use difference to separate and exclude for most of my adult life as I’ve navigated my own “otherness” as not male and not straight. Almost 20 years ago while in seminary, I was introduced to Miroslav Volf’s work in his book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. The image and metaphor of embrace as an antidote to exclusion has been embedded in my imagination, so much so I needed to include the language of embrace in my wedding vows! Ours will be a life of embrace: I promise to always make space within myself for you, trust and respect you, and always risk vulnerability so that we might share ourselves fully.

As I’ve focused my time and energy on LGBTQ inclusion in Christian spaces, I have been discerning where I fit in the movement for LGBTQ justice and how my work in that space might contribute to the overall struggle for justice connected to all justice movements. As Frederick Buechner writes, I’ve been asking myself what is “the place where [my] deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger”? For better or worse, my “deep gladness” – or as an enneagram 1, I’d say my deep ache for redemption – comes alive as I engage the way the Bible shapes and is shaped by our theology/worldview, and in turn, shapes and is shaped by our lived experiences. In other words, the core of who I am is energized most when I am wrestling with scripture for the purpose of dismantling exclusion and cultivating embrace, especially as it relates to LGBTQ people and faith.

My theology and interpretation of biblical texts have shifted and changed over the years, but in the last several years most of the change I’ve experienced is in the way I conceptualize and subsequently engage the Bible. One voice that has significantly influenced that growth is that of Dr. Cheryl Anderson. Her work challenges and expands my imagination regarding connections between scripture and exclusion and justice. Her book Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation explores how conservative Christianity with its traditional approaches to biblical interpretation has produced a culture of “othering” so pervasive, it has become core to faith identity. Her proposal for “inclusive biblical interpretation” is helping shape my work as I teach and consult about LGBTQ inclusion in Christian spaces.

Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson
Professor of Old Testament
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Anderson writes: “Basically, the exclusion of certain groups and perspectives has become equated with the church’s concept of right doctrine (orthodoxy). As a result, we have come to define ourselves by that which we exclude.” When I drew my identity from within Evangelicalism, we said our identity was solely “in Christ.” The corollary to “in Christ” is “not of this world.” Each community had rules, social norms and ideologies that labeled you “in Christ” or “of this world.” If you did the right things (or avoided the wrong things) and believed the right things (or rejected the wrong beliefs), you passed the litmus test. For example, as Anderson points out in her book, in/out boundaries that take center stage for the “traditional and dominant perspective is most forcefully expressed around two issues: the role of women and homosexuality.” This translates into things like “pro-life” (anti-abortion) politics, anti-trans bathroom bills, rejecting women in leadership and kicking queer kids out of their homes. There is no room for disagreement or difference without getting labeled a heretic.

Anderson “unmasks” the power dynamics operating behind this in/out line drawing, especially in how the Bible is used. “[T]he dominant interpretations, the ‘authoritative’ ones, are simply the ones that represent the historic interests of one particular group – that of the privileged white, Western, heterosexual male.” Drawing from Audre Lorde, Anderson demonstrates how this “mythic norm” or “ideal man” centers the few that fit within it and excludes all others: traditional/dominant biblical interpretations that serve as gatekeepers and dictate social norms necessarily ignore the perspectives of and consequences for marginalized groups.

Her book offers a “critical” and “inclusive” “approach to biblical interpretation that remains committed to both the Christian tradition and the concept of biblical authority,” the goal of which “is to create Christian faith communities that are radically inclusive” where all may thrive and the harm that has been done might be healed.

One of the main ideas I have been meditating on is Anderson’s reframing of “biblical authority.” Recognizing that the conservative/traditional view of the Bible as the “inerrant and infallible Word of God” is used to maintain the status quo of inequity and exclusion, she insists that “a new concept of biblical authority must accompany critical biblical interpretation.” An entire chapter is devoted just to this reconceptualization:

“[T]he concept of biblical authority must be reformulated to capture a more relational dynamic between the Bible and the interpreting community. Like other Christian perspectives, a liberationist perspective holds the Bible as authoritative, but the difference is that, for liberationists, this does not imply domination. Biblical authority does not have to be authoritarian. Instead, a new model for authority is offered that rejects authority as domination in favor of authority as partnership. The ‘authority as domination’ model sees reality as a hierarchy or pyramid, with God at the top and everything else (men, then women, an then nature) assigned an order underneath. More specifically, ‘this paradigm reinforces ideas of authority over community and refuses to admit the ideas and persons that do not (wish to) fit into the established hierarchies of thought or social structures’” (emphasis mine).

“Although this is the traditional paradigm for biblical authority, it is inadequate because it provides ‘a religious rationale for the domination and oppression of the weak’ (those lower down the hierarchical chain), it contradicts God’s welcome to all outsiders (Luke 4:16-30), and, in the midst of our contemporary diversity, ‘it no longer makes sense to try to fit people into such a rigid view of theological and social truth.’ Another harmful effect of the ‘authority as domination’ paradigm is that ‘it discourages cooperation in the search for meaning because it frames discussion as a competition of ideas in which all participants aim at gaining the top spot and vanquishing others.’ The alternative is ‘authority as partnership’; ‘in this view, reality is interpreted in the form of a circle of interdependence.’ Similarly, authority is exercised in community rather than over it, and participation is required rather than submission” (emphasis mine).

As I continue to allow her work to shape my engagement with scripture and my coaching and consultant practices, I will share more. I highly recommend you read her book. You can also watch her presentation “Why #MeToo Matters for LGBTQ Inclusion,” which she says could also be titled, “Why I as a cisgender heterosexual woman am so committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion.”

Next on the blog: The season of Advent is about to begin. Throughout these days leading up to Christmas, I’ll be sharing a series I’ve titled “Wholehearted Advent.” Each week’s theme (Hope, Faith, Joy and Peace) will include a short reflection and my prayer for justice – groaning for the redemption of all creation (see Romans 8:18-27). I hope you’ll join in “eager anticipation” with me.

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