By Austin Cline, About.com Guide
July 19, 2011
It's hard to take seriously Christian claims about the importance of the Bible to their lives and religion when they have so little knowledge about it. I'm not just talking about the history of how it developed and how it's been used. I'm talking about the fact that so many Christians believe that things which aren't in the Bible are actual Bible verses.
Some are paraphrases that are similar to actual Bible verses, which is an easy error to make. Some don't have anything to do with the Bible at all -- and in some cases contradict actual Bible verses. But people still believe them. Why? Because they are statements which reinforce what people already believe and they are all too happy to accept biblical authority for what they want to believe.
Here are some popular statements that people think can be found in Bible, but which aren't really there:
"God works in mysterious ways."
"Cleanliness is next to Godliness." ...
"God helps those who help themselves."
"Spare the rod, spoil the child."
And there is this often-cited paraphrase: Satan tempted Eve to eat the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden.
It would be bad enough if this were just limited to "the average Christian in the street," but it's also true to people who study the Bible and should know better:
"In my college religion classes, I sometimes quote 2 Hesitations 4:3 ('There are no internal combustion engines in heaven')," [Steve Bouma-Prediger, a religion professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan] says. "I wait to see if anyone realizes that there is no such book in the Bible and therefore no such verse.
"Only a few catch on."
Most people don't recognize that favored sayings and ideas don't really come from the Bible because they want to believe that they come from the Bible. The authority of the Bible is such that this belief reinforces for them the truth and validity of whatever idea is being expressed.
Belief that something is in the Bible provides a comforting assurance that what they believe also happens to be what God wants and, moreover, side-steps any possible debate over the matter. If it comes from the Bible then it's God's Will and if it's God's Will then there's no legitimate basis for disputing it, disagreeing with it, or rejecting it. Adopting this position is a lot easier than actually having to develop your own arguments in defense of an idea.
"Most people who profess a deep love of the Bible have never actually read the book," says Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who once had to persuade a student in his Bible class at Middle Tennessee State University that the saying "this dog won't hunt" doesn't appear in the Book of Proverbs.
"They have memorized parts of texts that they can string together to prove the biblical basis for whatever it is they believe in," he says, "but they ignore the vast majority of the text."
Honestly, if you believe that something like "this dog won't hunt" appears anywhere in the Bible and actually use that belief in defense of the saying, then I think your right to ever use the Bible in defense of anything at all has been irrevocably lost. Actually, I think a lot more about you, too, but I won't go into that...
The worst and perhaps most significant example of attributing to the Bible something that doesn't appear there is the popular saying "God helps those who helps themselves." Not only does it not appear in the Bible, but it's arguably contrary to some things which do appear in the Bible -- at least in some of the ways this saying can be used.
The passage is popular in part because it is a reflection of cherished American values: individual liberty and self-reliance, says Sidnie White Crawford, a religious studies scholar at the University of Nebraska.
Yet that passage contradicts the biblical definition of goodness: defining one's worth by what one does for others, like the poor and the outcast, Crawford says.
Crawford cites a scripture from Leviticus that tells people that when they harvest the land, they should leave some "for the poor and the alien" (Leviticus 19:9-10), and another passage from Deuteronomy that declares that people should not be "tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor."
"We often infect the Bible with our own values and morals, not asking what the Bible's values and morals really are," Crawford says.
This is a useful piece of evidence of the degree to which religion in America is uniquely "American" -- infused with American culture, history, politics, economics, and assumptions. American Christianity is recognizably Christian, but it is also quite distinct from Christianity everywhere else because of the extent to which American assumptions have infused it.
This isn't unique to America, of course. At every place and time throughout Christianity's history, it's absorbed elements of the surrounding culture -- politics, art, economics, etc. Some of it is retained and passed down to future forms of Christianity; some of it is dropped and forgotten. It's precisely Christianity's ability to adapt to local conditions that has helped it spread so much. A more rigid system would not convert so many people and cultures.
I think Crawford is mistaken to say that these are cases of local cultures "infecting" the Bible or Christianity. After all, the Bible was itself created out of local cultures at particular times and places. The Catholic Church even recognizes the fact that the New Testament was produced by and for early Christian communities and thus not every element is necessarily something that binds every future community of believers.
So some people are simply in denial of the fact that their religion and religious beliefs are shaped as much by their own cultural, political, and economic beliefs as by scripture and tradition. Others are in denial of the fact that this not only always happens, but was in fact instrumental in the creation of those scriptures and traditions. They are all in denial of the fact that religion is a product of human culture, politics, and economics, and so we shouldn't expect to find anything else.