The Love Lens: a Beginner's Guide to the Progressive Bible
Updated: Dec 30, 2019
Let’s face it, the Bible is confusing. Plot holes, inconsistencies, logical impossibilities--and that’s just in the original autographs. A number of the most popular translations don’t even try to stay faithful to the original, choosing ideology over accuracy instead.
The result of all of this, of course, is that the Christian Bible often becomes the tail that wags the dog when it comes to theological debate. From the outside looking in, it seems that the Bible can be used to justify almost anything. Historically, certain "clobber passages" have been quoted to justify slavery, genocide, xenophobia, homophobia and all sorts of other oppression. But for every Westboro Baptist Church spewing hate, there also is and always has been a Martin Luther King, Jr. professing love, peace, and the inherent worth and dignity of every human. Progressive Christians use the exact same Bible as the Evangelicals to support their efforts to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and pursue social justice from the civil rights movement to the modern day. Trying to sort all this out on your own can be overwhelming, even discouraging. Fortunately, there is a key.
The Love Lens
When I was a teacher of rhetoric, I taught my students that any text could have a diversity of meanings rooted in author, audience, context, and so on. Without getting too deep into the theory, we used the metaphor of the "lens." Some people find their clarity looking at the Bible through historical or literary lenses. Some find it in the lens of the conservative evangelical movement, which privileges those clobber passages mentioned above. For the progressive Christian, the lens--or central hermeneutic assumption--is simple: Christians should follow Christ. And Christ was very clear about how scripture should be used.
The Christian Bible is divided into a number of sections. There is the Hebrew Bible, which some Christians call the "Old" Testament, that includes sections for Mosaic law, major and minor prophets, and other writings. Then there is the "New" Testament, with its gospels, Acts of the Apostles, letters from Paul and others, and apocalyptic Book of Revelations. Taken together, these larger sections and the many books, chapters and verses they contain tell the complete story of the Christian people as it has evolved over millennia of councils, synods, discourse and debate. Most of the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were already in place by the time of Jesus, and in fact Jesus referenced them directly or indirectly many times in His ministry. He became known as a Rabbi, or expert in the scripture. In fact, three out of four of the canonical gospel accounts of Christ's life recall an incident where a lawyer or scribe, recognizing Christ's reputation as a great teacher, tried to draw Him out by asking Him to declare which of the commandments was the greatest. Here's what Jesus had to say:
He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt. 22:37-40, NRSV)
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 12:29-34, NRSV)
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Lk. 10:26-28, NRSV)
The fourth gospel, John, although it doesn't recall exactly the same moment, does reinforce the same message:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (Jn. 13:34-35, NRSV).
Simply put, this is a direct declaration, over and over again, that the most important and core part of being a Christian is love. When Christ says in Matthew, "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets," He is directly and unambiguously engaging every word that Moses wrote, and every prophet that came after. When Christ affirms in Mark that love "is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices," it is a clear attack on anyone who holds scripture-based traditions as more important than engaging in love itself. When in Luke Christ commands His followers to love "your neighbor as yourself," He goes on through the parable of The Good Samaritan to show that he means to love everyone, without bias or precondition. And finally, when Christ commands his disciples to love in the Gospel of John, it is part of the Last Supper, His parting instructions to those who will follow. In a theologically vital turn, Christ ends this same supper by speaking to God (the father) in prayer and directly linking His commands to God's own, saying, "for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you..." (Jn. 17:8, NRSV).
This is the Love Lens. To follow Christ--by His own words--means to "hang" everything else on love. To precondition any interpretation or response to scripture by seeing it through the lens of love. Love God. Love your neighbor. The rest is details.
How It Works
How the Love Lens works is simple. Take any theological issue you like, let go of the details and the tradition. Let go of the law itself. Think about your relationship to God and to your neighbor, and think to yourself, "is this love?" In Matthew, for example, Christ declares in defiance of the kosher tradition of the Pharisee elders, "it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles" (Mt. 15:11, NRSV). In the parallel telling of this same incident, the Gospel of Mark goes on to spell out "thus He declared all foods clean" (Mk. 7:19, NRSV). This is in direct defiance of, for example, the laws laid down by Moses in Leviticus 11. Christ tells the Pharisees directly the old laws just don't matter--what matters is "what comes out." For Christ, it is what is "within, from the human heart," that matters (Mk. 7:21).
Now take a more controversial issue--another act forbidden by Leviticus. Take a male lying with a male as with a woman (Lv. 18:22; Lv. 20:13). This is a serious, contentious, ongoing controversy among the various branches of the Christian family. Evangelical conservatives, for a variety of reasons, interpret these passages through the lens of legalistic tradition as a blanket prohibition of homosexuality as practiced today, even by two loving, consenting adults. More liberal theologians often look to the original language and context to interpret these as references to specific acts, such as men molesting boys, that have nothing to do with consensual adult relationships. Both sides find ample support for their arguments in these and other Biblical passages. In a debate framed by trying to understand what Moses intended, there will never be any clear resolution. But looking through the Love Lens--following Christ's actual words and example--this entire debate itself is moot. Is there a resolution that practices love of neighbor, even if, as in the Good Samaritan or the Pharisee Elders, that neighbor lives their life differently than you? Framed in those terms, the answer ought to be obvious.
God, as it is so frequently said, is love. Is it any surprise, then, that the Son of God calls us to interpret any law or tradition through the lens of love? When Christ calls to the "human heart" as the ultimate judge of faith and morality, He does so knowing that when the human heart leans toward love, it is then and only then it will find its way to God.