A school district in Utah has banned the Bible. This isn’t exactly a big news story for Australia, nor the United States for the matter, and yet the New York Times is reporting it. Even The Age has published a piece via AP. Perhaps a Fairfax Editor thought the story warrants sharing here in Australia. Or maybe, if the suspicious part of me speaks for a moment, the aim is to work up a little outrage in Australia and motivate a Bible ban in our schools.
When I initially came across the story I didn’t think much, but now that it’s considered newsworthy for an Australian audience, let me explain why I think the ban is ridiculous and yet, let’s admit that the Bible is a dangerous book.
Yes, the Bible is dangerous. The words of the Bible are not designed to merely inform or tell a story, they are written to transform those who read, and yes, even to change the world.
The Bible is honest about its aims. It doesn’t seek to hide or manipulate the author’s intention. For instance, the book of Hebrews explains,
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)
The Bible is many things. The Bible is history, law, and poetry, it is prophecy and preaching. The Bible is also a story; from Genesis to Revelation the Bible tells the greatest story the world has ever known. The Bible is a human document and it is a Divine word. The Bible can be studied and analysed, and it can be admired and sung, it can confuse and anger, it can nourish and give life and joy.
The Bible is confronting. Let’s not pretend that the words and message aren’t provocative and uncomfortable. These Scriptures challenge the status quo and confront assumptions and life commitments. The Bible exposes our deepest inclinations and desires. The pages have the ability to stimulate thought, stretch the intellect and breathe life into the soul.
The Bible is without doubt the most influential writing in all history, and the most vital. Civilisations have risen and fallen on account of these words: the notions of equality between men and women find their origins in the Bible. The concept of ultimate justice and that this justice is good and fair, believing in a distinction between church and state, the idea of emancipation, and even ‘secular’ all find their roots in the Bible.
The Bible doesn’t mimic any given culture but has the remarkable ability to speak into every time and place. Just as the ministry of Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Daniel each confronted the cultural and spiritual norms of their society, it is also the case with the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles, and this remains so today.
The Bible is confronting because it is real to life. The Bible doesn’t provide us with religious escapism. We are confronted with the reality of evil, and the truth of human sinfulness, and the nature of a God who judges. There is of course an irony at work here: School libraries are filled with stories about sex and violence and racism and bigotry. I’m still shocked by some of the books my children have studied in English classes. The messaging and moods of some English texts is confronting and sometimes disconcerting. It’s not just the English novel, but I remember the non fiction books that I would pick up in the school library with images of warfare or social unrest. Think of the horrifying images of the holocaust or the Vietnam war. And let’s not forget the internet and how (at least in the State of Victoria) school kids are given access to ‘educational’ websites that contain pornography and all manner of harmful ideas.
The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat the human condition, as we might find in many a classroom psychology book (and even some churches!) The Bible is real and raw, and that is a good thing. The Bible healthily counters the ‘she’ll be right’ mentality and the ‘you be you’ sloganeering that dominates today. We need a story that is honest enough to explain that there is a major problem in this world and we can’t fix it, and suggesting so does little more than play into the hands of the very narrative that is diminishing lives and relationships and even the environment.
While the current story is coming out of Utah, this board decision isn’t completely unheard of in Australia. For example, the Victorian Government squeezed out Bible lessons from school classrooms several years ago. More recently, if specific Bible teachings are presented to individual persons (about sexuality and gender), you can fall foul of the law and face criminal charges with 10 years imprisonment.
The Bible does more than confront and challenge. The Scriptures have a remarkable ability to comfort and bring peace and healing. The Bible is God’s word of love to a messed up and sinful world. The words are written so that our conscience might be aroused and restored, and convinced that God is both right and good, holy and merciful. We won’t understand the great bits of the Bible without reading the hard bits. At the heart of the Bible is a message of reconciliation. God is, as Jesus wonderfully explains in the parable of the prodigal son, the Father who longs for the wayward to come back to him. The Bible is a word of reconciliation.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
By removing the Bible we may live off its memory for a little while. The fact is, the air we breathe is filled with Bible truths:
‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’.
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”
“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”
“Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth”
Banning the Bible will hardly protect the younger generation. All this does is breeds a temporary dishonesty about where our greatest ideas and values come from. The longer we cut off the oxygen supply, the faster we will lose the very key ingredients required for living and civil society.
The banning of books is as old as literature. Hate is a strong motivator, as is fear. To be honest, there are plenty of books that I believe are dangerous, and I’m happy to warn people about their messages. There is a vast difference though between informing people about a book’s content and removing those same volumes from libraries and blowing their ashes into the wind.
In 2018, the Chinese Government began work on a new version of the Bible, to ensure that the Bible affirms ‘socialism’ and doesn’t contain ideas that might subvert the Government. One can imagine how distorted the Holy Scriptures will become once this atheistic, militant, and totalitarian, regime has finished their rewriting project. In many regions of China, it is already difficult to own and read a Bible, let alone teach this book in a semi-public setting. Preaching ‘Jesus is Lord’ is likely to end in arrest and possible imprisonment.
As one Chinese Pastor shared,
“without the permission of the authorities, you can’t organize a Bible study. And if you do get permission, you’d better hold it in a Party-approved religious venue, at a Party-approved time, with a Party-approved leader and using the new Party-approved Bible, which contains quotations from Confucius and, of course, Xi Jinping.”
Not even Christians are permitted to change the words of Scripture, let alone a Government or school board that wishes to change and control its message.
“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Peter 1:24-25)
Banning the Bible, or any part of it, is absurd. Its literary contribution is without parallel, and its historical import is paramount. The Bible isn’t just a book from yesterday, it is for today: the Bible’s power to persuade and present a reality greater than ourselves and yet including the self, is stunning and one worth our younger generation reading for themselves.
No doubt there will be a spectrum of reactions to the Utah school story. There will be people who strongly support the prohibition and hope that the ban will spread further. There will be some Christians and some libertarians who will go into full-on meltdown. I suspect many more, both Christians and non Christians alike, will view the school’s decision as overreach and a pretty juvenile response to the uncomfortable words of Scripture.
Yes, the Bible is dangerous, confronting and challenging. That’s pretty amazing, for who wants to believe in a God who does no more than parrot back our own thoughts back to us? If we want our children to better understand the world and to find answers to the greatest questions, surely it makes sense to let them read the text that has achieved such great good. As Jesus says,
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”