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Walking on water? How liberal Christians interpret the Bible


Liberal Christians are making themselves heard alongside their conservative brethren, and that's a promising development. A religious left would be a welcome addition to the national debate.

But what exactly sets these groups apart? The issues of abortion and gay rights are obvious benchmarks, but they're only the symptoms of a more basic divide. The answer, I believe, lies in how the Bible is read. Is it fact or metaphor? The work of God or man? Does it dictate precisely how we live our lives or only inform our existence with meaning and challenge?

Traditionally, the liberal Christian has approached the Bible with an eye for metaphor rather than fact. There is an eagerness to explore cultural and historic context. As a liberal Christian, I have been inclined to interpret the Bible for my own purposes, to uncover what resonates for me today. Where the fundamentalist finds unerring truth, I have looked for poetry.

The Virgin Birth might speak of moral or spiritual innocence, not an unbroken hymen. The Resurrection might be viewed as the rebirth of the human spirit, not of a corporeal body. Lately, though, I've begun to question this approach, and to recognize the dangers inherent in such a loose and personal interpretation of ancient texts. I fear that we lose too much. Easter, for instance.

The turning point came during coverage of The Da Vinci Code controversy. In response to a suggestion that the movie should open with a disclaimer defining it as fiction, Sir Ian McKellen suggested that the Bible do the same.

"I mean, walking on water?" the actor asked Matt Lauer on the Today show.

Even my liberal mind recoiled at the words. Of course, Jesus walked on water. Why shouldn't he? He's the son of God. If he didn't actually walk on water, what fun is there in that?

In a similar vein, a professor of philosophy recently explained to me that when Christ said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:23), he didn't mean it literally. He meant that the particular man standing before him was controlled by an obsession with material goods and that each of us has our own addiction to break. Well, maybe. But isn't the passage stronger if we take him at his word? Give it all away, be like the lilies of the field, find God.

The problem, of course, is that so much of the Bible is morally abhorrent when taken literally. Slavery is condoned. Women are suppressed. We've got to give away all our stuff.

But a literal reading of the Bible gives me two options that an open, poetic reading can't provide. First, I can fail. I fail every day that I stockpile funds against an uncertain future. I fail when I pass judgment or deny a gift when it is asked of me. Even better is the second option: I can disagree.

Jesus tells a parable of 10 virgins who hope to attend a wedding feast (Matthew 25). When the groom is late, the girls are forced to wait until dark. Five of them think ahead and fill their lamps with oil. They get to the feast and are given entrance. The other five come unprepared and are shut out - shut out of Heaven for lack of planning.

The moral of the tale goes against everything I was taught as a child. Clearly, the five virgins with oil should have shared with their friends so that everyone could go to the party.

Things get worse after the Gospels. In his letter to the Romans, Paul ignores Christ's dictum to "judge not" and writes that homosexuals deserve to die (Romans 1:27-32). I can put that passage in historic context or I can take it literally and recognize Paul as both homophobe and hypocrite.

He also tells us that women should keep silent in church (Corinthians 14:34). I can give the statement a cultural context or I can treat it as fundamental truth and note that Mary Magdalene was the first to recognize the risen Christ (John 20:16). Paul's not a victim of his culture; he has lost touch with the very foundations of Christianity - in his own time.

The Bible is so rich in imagery and plot that everyone who reads it reads a different book. It's new each time we pick it up.

But let us read it actively, with the strength of our convictions. We get to be angry. We get to disagree. And we get to believe in miracles. In the end, what separates the liberal Christian from the conservative lies not in how we read the Bible but in what our conscience tells us to accept or reject. We have to pick our battles and have the guts to stand up to Holy Scripture.

And yes, Sir Ian, the guy walked on water. No question.

Playwright Norman Allen is the author of "In the Garden," a play that explores religious issues. He lives in Washington. His e-mail is nrmallen@aol.com.

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