I Was Taught To Read The Bible As Literal, And I Have Some Thoughts On Amy Coney Barrett
The weeks leading up to my engagement were not fun. There was no anticipation of a celebration, no giddy whispering of my excitement to friends. Instead, I was spending hours in my senior year dorm room, pouring over my family’s copy of “Vine’s Concise Dictionary of the Bible,” trying to parse the differences between two English translations of a certain New Testament verse, so I could write an exegetical analysis to deliver to my father in order to justify my decision to go ahead with my plan to marry my boyfriend against his wishes.
My boyfriend had called me with rage in his voice after he had asked my dad for his blessing. I could hear him trembling as he explained that the blessing had been granted, but permission had not, because it was not on my dad’s preferred timetable (we planned to marry eight months later, but my dad thought that was too long to wait and that sexual temptation would cause us to “stumble”).
Our pushback on his ridiculousness was met with a stone wall: We were “deliberately rejecting his authority over” me and he had the power to tell me not to marry this guy if he pleased, and I needed to respect that ― the Bible said so.
The text in question was 1 Corinthians 7:37, which is part of a longer passage discussing the merits of celibacy and marriage. Most translations conclude this section with Paul arguing that if a couple has self control over their sexual desires, they would do well to remain virgins. But my father’s preferred Bible translation, the New American Standard Bible, slips in the word “daughter” before “virgin,” thereby changing the whole verse to suggest Paul is giving a father permission to deny his daughter her marriage for the sake of her spiritual development.
My father was adamant that this meant he had biblical authority to refuse me his blessing and permission for my marriage. As I was still a true believer at that point in my life, I wanted to convince him of his misinterpretation of this passage and win an unwinnable power struggle through playing his game by his own rules.
So I spent hours pouring over translations and academic texts exegeting this passage, emailing with professors at my college who taught biblical Greek, parsing out the reasons why the word daughter was in this passage about engaged couples.
This wasn’t new. My childhood had been shaped by regularly returning to the Bible for direction on behavioral mores and manners. Raise my voice in anger at my sibling? I would be told to go copy out all the verses from the concordance entry on “anger” and to tell my parents what the sum total of the Bible’s teaching on the subject was.
Everything went through this process ― the Bible serving as a meat grinder to pulverize and process my growing pains and evolving emotions. I spent so many hours of childhood hunched over the open concordance on my bedroom floor, my knees red and my legs falling asleep as I read down each narrow column, searching for the verses my dad demanded, wishing I could be reading mystery novels instead.
The author doing Rod & Staff homeschool math homework in 2000.
The reasoning behind this exercise and method of interpreting scripture was taken from another passage, similarly taken out of context with its most baldly literal reading: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, New King James Version), which was taken to mean that if it existed in life, the Bible had something to say about it, and that was really all Christians needed as a tool for learning how to live well.
This meant that every decision could be weighed against a literal interpretation of scripture. Homeschooling was a biblical mandate taken from Deuteronomy 4:1: “You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” This meant, my father said, that parents who allowed other people to educate their children were abdicating responsibility mandated by God. So we were homeschooled.
Every passage was up for grabs for this literalist interpretive agenda, no matter the context. Psalms was not songs. Ecclesiastes was not poetry. Revelation was not metaphor. We believed there was nothing wrong with taking literature written for a vastly different audience in a different era with different cultural norms and applying it directly to contemporary culture and living.
“Inerrancy” is a little political game that biblical scholars like to play with the English translation of the scriptural texts and have been playing since Christianity came to the United States. If it’s in the Bible, it is deemed holy by God. If it’s in the Bible and thus deemed holy by God, it must be his perfect will. Thus, the United States government’s continued endorsement of slavery (Paul sent a slave back to his owner and told him not to provoke his master any longer), the lagging acknowledgment of the rights of women (women in the Bible didn’t own property! Women are told to keep the home!), among other issues.
All of this, of course, disregards the fact that the canonization of the Bible as we know it was a politically motivated and highly disputed process brought about by the urging of Emperor Constantine I to shore up his intent to make Christianity the national religion of the Byzantine Empire. (I’m not a historian; this is the gist. There’s more to it, including a bit where St. Nicholas punches someone in the face, but all that is beyond the scope of this account.)
But then in college, as a literature major, I took some Bible courses and was stunned to realize that the analytical tools I was skilled at using in my English classes were applicable to these other courses. I had never considered this a possibility. Though I do not identify as a cis femme, because I presented that way, the blanket reverence for Scripture as inerrant ― and also only up to exegesis, or analytical interpretation, by men ― rendered it untouchable to me up until that point. It was what they said it was: the end.
Now I came to realize that I had not only always had the tools to crack it open and read it for myself, but that there was a great tradition of centuries of scholars before me who had read the Bible with an eye to genre, to historical context, to outside sources for corroboration ― and many of them were women.
How powerful texts are read will always be a political discussion, as it was with the canonization process for the Bible and as it was with my choice to assert my legitimacy as a reader and thinker by interpreting the texts my father was using to manipulate my life’s course in ways that questioned the credibility of his personally preferred English Bible translation.
All of this history is brought to mind as I watched the coverage of the Amy Coney Barrett juridical confirmation hearings every day after I finished teaching.
The overwhelming sense I get as I watch these hearings is how bizarrely similar the originalist methods of reading the Constitution … are to the biblical literalist methods of approaching Scripture. Neither interpretive mode allows there to be room for growth in the community or society built around these documents.
When I was a teenager studying civics in a fundamentalist Christian home, I was taught that the Constitution was to be revered, that the founders were men of God to be honored, and that our country was God’s chosen nation, intended to be a “city on a hill,” a beacon of truth showing the international community how a Christian society ought to be. We believed that the U.S. had fallen away from this calling and that we were to right the course of history by being active citizens, nudging policy little by little toward a biblically-based and -run legal system, and bringing glory to God by doing so. Of course, none of this is terribly new now that we’re four years into reaping the fruits of the labor of Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell and others like them.
But the overwhelming sense I get as I watch these hearings is how bizarrely similar the originalist methods of reading the Constitution, which Barrett has stated she follows, are to the biblical literalist methods of approaching Scripture. Neither interpretive mode allows there to be room for growth in the community or society built around these documents. Paul probably never thought that his writings in Romans about pedophilia would be interpreted as condemning queer love, just like the authors of the 14th Amendment probably never considered that text to be the basis of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Humans are not static. We grow and change and evolve. I eventually left both the church and my husband (it turns out, marrying to escape a cult isn’t a good enough reason to marry anyone), and then, later on, lost my fear of offending men in authority. I embraced my bisexuality and questioned normalized gender constructs, beginning to date cis women and queer people as I began to understand myself as queer, both in orientation and self-identification.
I have lived a lifetime’s worth of personal evolution in my 31 years, more than many people experience in 80 years of living. But many of us evolve at some point and find ourselves looking back at a past version of ourselves, saying, Oh wow, why did I like that?
The day the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges in favor of marriage equality in the U.S., I was across the globe in Central Asia, happily hungover from a one night stand with a woman I’d had a crush on. We read the news together in bed, and she laughed, saying it was good to have sex with a woman for the first time on the day same-sex marriage was federally legalized. I kissed her in my glee and wondered what my earlier self would think of everything that was happening.
I still love the Bible ― as literature. I no longer think I have to outsource my reasoning processes to its pages, but I am grateful for the glittery bits of wisdom and beauty that have stuck with me from it. I also no longer interact with it with the reverence I once did when I saw it as a living being with inscrutable knowledge.
The author, left, at Pride Denver with friend Shanna Merceron in 2019.
Just like me, much of America’s community of legal scholars has moved beyond a similar kind of reverence for the Constitution. It is precious and valuable, but it was also written by men who enslaved their own children, men who thwarted non-landowners from having basic rights, men who condoned ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous peoples on this land. What’s more, it needs to be interpreted in relation to the world we live in ― not the one it was written in.
The magical thinking of Amy Coney Barrett and those like her, which refuses to apply context and nuance to reading the Constitution, abdicates responsibility for harm done to humans on the basis of giving the decision-making power regarding human rights to a document that never considered the people whose rights are at stake in the first place.
My father likes to defend himself for the psychological harm he wreaked on my siblings and me through his cudgeling of us with the Bible, saying he was only doing what he thought was right, per the Bible ― an abdication of his responsibility as a parent to protect and nurture his children without causing them irreparable harm. The Bible didn’t make him do those things; the Bible was his tool. And I know that he truly believes he was being good to us, just like Judge Barrett genuinely believes that if she is confirmed to the Supreme Court, she will be doing good through administering her interpretation of justice for our nation’s citizens.
But having come out of this community, I know differently. And I’m worried.
Eve Ettinger is a writer, editor, and educator living in southwest Virginia. They teach at a rural community college and edit nonfiction for The Rumpus. Their podcast, co-hosted with Kieryn Darkwater, is Kitchen Table Cult, a biweekly discussion of politics, theology, and current events through the eyes of two Quiverfull escapees. They are working on a memoir.
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