Can I read the Bible wrong?

by Bo Sanders

A number of my friends and even some family were at a huge gathering of Christian leaders last month in South Africa.  I was following the sessions online. The conference had  assigned somebody to sit at a computer at the back of the auditorium and periodically type in some of the snippets of what was happening on the stage. It was great.

Confession: I love this kind of thing. Its nice to know what was going on and what the tone of the conference was even if I can’t go. Mostly I enjoy finding out things I would have missed- like that Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar were sitting on stage together talking.  I did not even know that was on the program!  Now I know to go look for that audio so that I can listen to it.

I know that this kind reporting is inexact and I am sure that much is lost in translation – the content is completely out of context… so it is with great caution that I make too much of a judgment about what came up on my screen.

With all of that said: I was truly upset by what came up on the screen.

The nationally known author and pastor was talking about urban outreach and why God loves cities. The speaker is a big fan of his city and has actually gotten into trouble before for suggesting that cities are where God is at work and saying that he feels bad for people who minister in rural settings. He was preaching out of the book of Jonah and I was interested is what he was saying.

He got to that famous passage in chapter 4 where Jonah is mad with God that the Lord had compassion on these foreign people. Then comes the magic appearance and subsequent disappearance of the plant, which only adds to Jonah being upset.

10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Then, after some explanation about the importance of evangelism, this sentence came up on my screen: God said “Jonah you love plants, but I love people.”

I thought to myself and then said loudly to my computer screen : that is not what was going on there at all!

Now I should stop at this point and clarify that I am very committed to all sorts of diverse ways of reading the Bible. I think that there are probably several good ways to read most texts. I am very open minded and try to be affirming of as much diversity as I possibly can. So please understand that I am not saying “I read the Bible right and if you read it differently then you read it wrong.” I should also say that I am not merely making a big deal out of what one person said on one occasion that I was not even present for. I hear this kind of thing all the time – it is prevalent in the circles that I was raised in and that much of my family is still in.

Here is what I am saying: there are bad ways to read the Bible, in that once they are in place, they prevent you from reading it any other way – including the way that would let you be confronted by the original point of the text.

Here is my problem with that way of reading Jonah:

1. God loves plants and people.  That is not a fair dichotomy. If you ever eat or breath – then you should loves plants too. God made them. God called them good.  God never said that were not good. If you don’t like plants because you prefer a cement jungle – that’s fine…but don’t project that onto God.

2. Jonah wasn’t attached to the plant. Jonah was concerned about his own comfort. He wasn’t upset that the plant withered, he was upset because his shade went away and he then had to sit in the sun and pout! He could no longer sit comfortably in the shade, leaning up against the stock, and be apathetic.  Now he had to be uncomfortable being apathetic.

3. Reading that passage wrong actually prevents you from seeing what was really going on there: Jonah didn’t care about that plant in the same way that he didn’t care about the Ninevites. He cared about himself. As long a Jonah was personally comfortable he was not concern about these people – it has to be said – of a different race.

That is what was going on with Jonah and that is what the story is suppose to challenge in us. Thinking that this is about loving people more than plants A) completely misses the point and B) prevents you from looking into the mirror of scripture and seeing  Jonah.

I am not fond of saying that somebody reads the Bible wrong. But when we use bad either-or thinking (whether you call in Dualism or Binary or whatever) it becomes a real problem. Thinking that there is a split between “loving plants and loving people” becomes a place holder – it takes up the space of interpretation. I think to myself “I’m on the right side of that divide : I love people”.  I pat myself on the back without realizing that passage is not about plants, it is about racism. Jonah’s attitude toward Nineveh was problem – not that he “loved plants”.

This bad reading of the Bible (plants-people) has left me satisfied that I love people more than plants and so I do not look for deeper meaning in the text. The second way of reading that text (racism) leaves me unsatisfied and on the wrong side of the lesson to be learned. I am apathetic in the same way that Jonah was. I may not be as flagrant in my protest of God meeting “others” where they are and in ways that are not my ways, but I have a Jonah heart and the text confronts me with that.

This is not about Nineveh being a city. It is not about loving plants more than people. It is about racism and apathy! When I get a bad reading of the Bible that occupies the interpretive space it blocks out the real challenge of the text because instead of the challenge – the challenge’s  place is already taken by self-satisfaction and apathy. The result is that I missed the opportunity to be confronted with my own complicit racism.

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One Response to Can I read the Bible wrong?

  1. Ray Levesque says:

    I got to spend a week with Rene Padilla and his wife (before she passed) and learned a great deal about working among the poor of Argentina. What a treasure of a man!

    As for reading the Bible wrong — of course that happens all the time. What might be an even better question is – did the teacher already have a conclusion before finding the story of Jonah or is he claiming that all he taught you was learned after the ready.

    Recently in the time of Yom Kippur, Jonah is traditionally read, and it is all about “teshuvah”, the notion of returning to God, or repenting. It’s hard to tell if Jonah or the people of Ninevah were better at returning to God. As with other native stories, there are many levels we can learn from as we reflect on Jonah. But only a select few will ever teach that this is about people who love plants versus those who love people. Maybe he was smoking plants as he prepared his lecture… (a secret plant lover?)

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