New Speaker of the House Mike Johnson recently commented that he is a “Bible-believing” Christian, and all anyone needs to do to understand his view on any topic is to read the Bible.
Politicians of every stripe often trample faith by flying it. In a widely circulated article, minister and biblical scholar Guy Nave raised questions such as whether Bible-believing Christians believe Jesus was crucified before Passover, as reported in the Gospel of John, or after the meal, as reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
It’s dangerous to oversimplify complex issues, and the issue of hermeneutics — how we interpret texts — represents one of the toughest challenges in human relationships and faith. For heaven’s sake, look at how challenging it is to fully grasp not a 2000-year-old text but one just 100 years old.
Despite Frank Baum being a genocidal racist, his 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the subsequent 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz offer a powerfully transformative message that has transcended generations. It even inspired the prequel-novel-turned-musical Wicked.
The underlying message of this living story becomes much more profound if we know the original book’s historical context. In terms of how Oz was inspired and how we understand its nature and message, what lessons does this recent piece of literature offer our approach to ancient sacred Scripture?
“Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in (context) anymore.”
Like most of you, I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz, although I’d never read the book. In college, however, I had a 1984 edition of Robert Devine’s textbook America Past and Present. In the chapter covering the 1890s, a highlighted sidenote page rocked my world. It explained Baum was a zealous supporter of politician and three-time-Democratic-presidential-nominee William Jennings Bryan. Yes, he’s the guy who was the prosecutor at the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, where a Tennessee teacher was charged with teaching evolution. (Thank goodness we are past making laws aimed at prosecuting teachers for teaching ideas.)
During the 1890s when Baum started writing Oz, an economic controversy was raging over whether to keep the gold standard or switch to a bimetal standard of gold and silver. The gold standard was seen to favor the wealthy.
At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan, a passionate proponent of elevating the middle class and poor, delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech, considered one of the most important in U.S. history. Extending his arms to form a cross, he charged the forces favoring the wealthy, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” As he was leaving the stage, bedlam broke out as he was hoisted onto attendees’ shoulders and carried about the arena.
America Past and Present describes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as political allegory promoting Baum’s passionate agreement with Bryan. As such, Dorothy represents the common person. She is whisked away to Oz, “Oz” being the abbreviation for ounce.
There, she encounters the Wicked Witch of the West — representing Western voters favoring gold due to the Gold Rush. Representing Northern swing voters, the Good Witch of the North gives Dorothy silver slippers that the movie makers switched to ruby to take advantage of new color film technology. Dorothy is sent on a journey to the Emerald City — emerald green representing greenback dollars — to find better fortune. And to get there, her silver shoes must walk on a road made of yellow — aka gold — bricks. Along the way she meets the Scarecrow, representing agricultural workers; the Tin Man, representing factory workers; and the Cowardly Lion, representing …. Who? Do you know? Can you guess? Baum thought Bryan and his followers were not, as it turned out, cowardly in opposing the powerful forces of greed.
The general symbolism of Scarecrow and Tinman is more obvious, even apart from the specifics of the bimetallism controversy. However, discerning the particulars of the symbolism of the Cowardly Lion and other elements requires a knowledge of the historical context and the author’s perspective.
Isn’t all that symbolism fascinating? Doesn’t it add a new layer of depth to this beloved story? I imagine most folks are like me and had no idea until reading a commentary. Hundreds of years from now, will people be debating if Oz actually happened rather than being allegory?
“Oceans of ink have been spilt debating whether biblical stories like Jonah and the whale or Noah’s ark are allegories or historical events.”
Now, let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that most of us had no idea about the symbolism of the Oz story, and it is, as of this writing, just 123 years old. If we are so detached from the formation, meaning and message of a work that’s just over a century old, how the healthy youngster are we supposed to plum the depths of the Bible with stories millennia old?
Take, for instance, that it likely is not clear why I just used the phrase “healthy youngster.” It helps to know that in the introduction to his novel, Frank Baum wrote, “Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.”
Despite the acknowledged power of allegory, oceans of ink have been spilt debating whether biblical stories like Jonah and the whale or Noah’s ark are allegories or historical events. Many fear that saying part of the Bible is “fiction” means all of it is “untrue.” This is a false dichotomy. If allegory is so powerful, why should Scripture not use one of the most effective ways to communicate capital-T Truths? No one debates if Jesus’ parables actually happened. Why is our faith so threatened by the thought of the stories of Jonah and Noah being allegories?
Regarding the Hebrew story of Noah, a Bible professor privately told me something like this: “How wonderful that the Israelites in exile took the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic — a story of a great flood — and baptized it into their own faith.” In other words, arising from their wicked enslavement, the Israelites took someone else’s story, changed some of the characters, and made it pop-u-lar in their own culture. See what I did there? It’s like the story is growing with us.
Of course, there actually have been floods of epic proportions. So what if Noah and his family are fictionalized characters to describe righteousness, perseverance and the presence of God in the face of life’s trials — like being flooded by Babylonians and sent into exile? Yes, some Christians will say fictionalized Noah undermines the genealogies leading to Jesus. But you exist even if your family oral tradition turns out to be wrong about your great-grandmother being half Cherokee.
One of my favorite quotations comes from the late, great Madeline L’Engle. In A Stone for a Pillow, she wrote, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally.”
“Why aren’t more Christians brought up with the possibility of non-literal readings of portions of Scripture?”
Why aren’t more Christians brought up with the possibility of non-literal readings of portions of Scripture? At least two reasons are rooted in social and economic politics.
First, pastors risk losing their jobs when broaching non-traditional views. Second, theologians at academies are at the same risk. I once heard a Baptist university professor say, “A trustee told me he would support me as long as I never put anything in writing. In most of academia, the rule is ‘publish or perish,’ but in much of Christian academia, the rule is ‘publish and perish.’”
Amid such risk, how do we learn when to take Scripture literally and when to read it metaphorically? And might one person read a passage literally and one metaphorically and both apply it to their lives in transformative ways? Absolutely. The problem comes when insistence on taking it all literally becomes a stumbling block. Thus, what’s a silver- or ruby-shod pilgrim to do?
“Some people (with) brains do an awful lot of (empty) talking, don’t they?”
In seminary, I was in a class with a student who almost daily asked questions in which he name-dropped theologians like Karl Barth and seemed to be showing off his knowledge rather than genuinely seeking information. Our professor, Gerald Borchert, an amazing biblical scholar, was, at the time, working on translating Ephesians for the New Living Translation. At the end of one class, sitting directly in front of the lectern, the pedantic student droned, “Dr. Borrrrrcherrrrrrt, as we endeavor to write our exegesis papers, do you want us to write based on our own interaction with the Word, or do you want us to use commentaries as a crutch or chair — if you will — to work our way into the Word?”
Borchert drew a breath. He removed his reading glasses. Eyes blazing at the student, he said something very close to this: “Let me tell you something. Before accepting a call to ministry, I worked at a law firm in Canada. One of the partners in that firm went on to be prime minister. I studied under Karl Barth’s former teaching assistant. I am fluent in four languages. I hold three graduate degrees and six post-graduate degrees. But when I sit down to read my Bible, I have a Bible in one hand and a commentary in the other.” He extended his glasses like the point of a saber across the lectern and jabbed them toward the student as he said, “You don’t know everything; you need a commentary.”
However, it’s only because I went to seminary and spent several years as a pastor with a book allowance that I have multiple sets of commentaries. My education also means I know a bit about what to look for in a commentary. But what about the average layperson?
It is essential to find an approach that is not narrowly dogmatic to left or right and that is understandable.
What are laypeople to do? Sure, there’s the internet, but it’s a Wild West mess. In preparing this article I learned Colorado Christian University offers a handy “Commentaries by Viewpoint” chart. It identifies the range of bias from conservative, moderate or liberal to the more balanced ones that span the spectrum. Interestingly, in the reading-level column, only two are listed as “pop,” and both are strictly conservative. This means laypeople have no apparent choices for commentaries that are balanced and user friendly. Turning to the internet is convenient, but there are so many bad apples.
“Come along, Dorothy. You don’t want any of those apples!”
Traveling the yellow-brick road of pilgrimage goes better with help. However, we must be careful. There are some wackadoodle opinions out there, as some will rightly see my ideas that I myself might later repudiate. Yet, compared to many with more traditional viewpoints, my opinions are rooted in an assurance of my human frailties rather than an assurance of a market on truths or Truth.
Yes, we have to distinguish “little-t truths” versus “big-T Truth.” I once read an astronomy book that said the escape velocity of Mars is about 5 kilometers per hour. Based on my reading of the overall text, I thought, “Whaaaaaaat!? If that were the case, I could just run and jump off Mars!” I compared multiple sources and learned the actual escape velocity of Mars is about 5 kilometers per second. The fact the astronomy book said “kph” rather than “kps” was a little-t mistake that didn’t change the overarching big-T truth of escape velocities.
“As for you, my fine friend, you’re a victim of disorganized thinking.”
It seems folks need the Bible to be inerrant because they need the security of black-and-white thinking. To be sure, it feels safe — right up until we allow ourselves to look behind the curtain and find a truth that doesn’t fit. To insist Scripture is inerrant is to use a dogmatic term the Bible doesn’t even use for itself. Additionally, the word “inerrant” means there must be absolutely no errors. If our faith is based on such black-and-white thinking, it creates a faith crisis for believers who encounter evidence of errors, and it gives fuel to cynics who see faith as mere hocus-pocus because of all the sleight-of-hand dogma and mental gymnastics needed to claim the Bible is inerrant.
If we claim the Bible is inerrant, we must be able to defend it, and this simply can’t honestly be done. If Scripture is inerrant, there must be no errors. One error requires that we not use the word “inerrant.”
To make this super fair, let’s use the words of Jesus. In Matthew 19 the Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is permissible. Addressing a patriarchy where a man could leave his wife for younger models, consigning their first wife to almost certain poverty, Jesus says it is not permissible. Referring to Deuteronomy 24:1, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” In other words, Hebrew Scriptures — the Bible of the day — allowed for divorce. But Jesus replies: “Moses … (not God) … permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
So, there it is: Jesus says the Bible is wrong about divorce. That is one error.
Furthermore, regarding Jesus saying, “It was not this way from the beginning.” This calls to mind, John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word.” In this context “the Word” doesn’t mean the Bible. It means transcendent, eternal Truth.
But, if there are errors in the Bible, how do we know what to believe? I mean, the Bible says, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” If it is inspired by a perfect God, isn’t it perfect?
“There’s no place like home.”
Of course, it’s circular reasoning to say, “The Bible is inspired because the Bible says so.” Similarly, irony abounds in my using the Bible to say the Bible is not inerrant. Still, there are biblical reasons for not saying more of the Bible than it says of itself.
First, in the New Living translation of 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.” Other translations say all Scripture is “profitable.” No translation I’ve consulted says, “All Scripture is “perfect.” So why do we insist on saying more about the Bible than it says of itself?
Second, and even more foundationally, the Bible is not the only thing the Bible reports to be inspired. In the Genesis 2 creation story, God breathes life into Adam. Thus, humanity is God-breathed. Do we expect perfection of humanity? Absolutely not. We are flawed pilgrims with a travel journal that reflects our flaws. Like Dorothy and her companions, we are lost, muddle-headed, heart-broken, cowardly pilgrims searching for home.
In seminary, I was taught that, as opposed to the absolutism of “inerrant,” the word “infallible,” as used by some, means Scripture will “bend but not break” — like a GPS that might not be aware of the latest construction but can adapt to alternate routes. In the dictionary, though, the first definition of “infallible” is “incapable of erring.”
Yes, words change meanings based on usage, but theologians seem to be splitting hairs. Maybe we need a new term, or maybe we try too hard for one adjective to capture something so sacred. To borrow a phrase from singer John Legend, in the “perfect imperfections” of Scripture, we are assured of our connection to past and present and the longing for finding home in the arms of a parent awaiting a prodigal child.
To that extent, Scripture is a sacred travelogue of past travelers to help us on our own peril-fraught journey to spiritual connection. In college, I first heard the term “dynamic” applied to Scripture. It avoids the pitfalls of “inerrant” and “infallible.”
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “dynamic” as “characterized by continuous change, activity or progress.” That which is not changing is dead. If God is alive, and God breathed life into humanity and into the process of scriptural formation, it stands to reason Scripture is alive like us and with us.
“Lions and tigers and (bigots)! Oh my!”
Just as we hurt ourselves and others by insisting on “all” in an all-or-nothing approach to biblical inerrancy, so do we harm our spiritual selves if we choose “nothing,” which cuts us off from the benefits of fellowship. The belief the Bible was breathed through imperfect people does not mean we need to throw out Scripture’s merits for our spiritual journey. We certainly don’t need to throw out the baby Jesus with the dirty bathwater of dogma or the shortcomings of people of faith.
When my son was in middle school, he was in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz. His teacher asked me to write the program notes. I wrote that Baum missed his own point about companionship. Baum was a racist who wrote at least two editorials explicitly calling for the annihilation of Native Americans, and this may have motivated the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. There is great overlap in the words Baum used to describe Native Americans and words used in the dialogue of his novel’s terrifying flying monkeys.
I ended my program notes: While Baum’s racism “is a tragic thing to remember, it fits with one message of this wonderful story: We all have weaknesses that need to be fixed by our strengths … with the help of new friends.”
We need not cancel Oz because Baum was a racist, and we need not throw out the Bible simply because it truthfully portrays the flawed thinking of flawed people. Turning the light of context on the subject means we can be inspired by God-loving and God-loved flawed people.
“Of course, some people do go both ways (to bigotry).”
In our hyper-partisan, polarized contemporary context, another lesson from Oz relates to Baum, his hero William Jennings Bryan and Bryan’s presidential campaign opponent, William McKinley. It’s easy for modern folk to disdain Bryan and his zealous prosecution of John T. Scopes for teaching the theory of evolution.
Sadly, Bryan’s final act before dying overshadowed a career of championing the poor and challenging corporate greed. After his crowd-electrifying Cross of Gold speech, the Pullman company offered him a private train car for his return trip, but “he declined, not wishing to accept corporate favors.” (I’m looking at you, contemporary politicians and judges who need to follow this example.)
Yes, Bryan was supported by Baum, a genocidal racist. It’s not fair, however, to connect Baum’s agreement with Bryan on bimetallism to Bryan agreeing with Baum on Native Americans. After all, Bryan posed for a friendly photo with Native Americans. When McKinley was subsequently elected president and then assassinated, Native Americans, including Geronimo, offered tearful tributes to the president.
However, prior to his assassination, McKinley authorized the invasion of the Philippines, ultimately telling a group of Methodists his decision was based on the desire to “Christianize” the indigenous people. Since Spanish Catholics already occupied the country, we can presume McKinley meant to Protestantize them. Nearly 40,000 Philippine natives were killed, compared to 4,000 Americans.
Thus, from Baum and McKinley, we must remember sin is nonpartisan, and neither the Bible nor faith must ever be used to justify slaughter.
“That’s a (verse) of a different color.”
What if we approached the Bible with the care required to understand The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its corresponding movie? What if, in our black-and-white thinking, we say with reverence, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in context anymore!” and then look at Scripture through the lens of humility and relationship?
In the New Living Translation, Luke 17:20-21 reports, “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’”
“But anyway, Toto, we’re home!”
Engaging Scripture in context both requires and generates power. This power involves our intellectual, emotional and spiritual selves in a complex process that must not be reduced to a political bumper sticker.
In human development class, we learn that we grow from dependence to striving for independence. Ultimately, however, maturity both requires and brings forth relational interdependence — what Christianity calls koinonia. It is a great paradox that independence comes from the empowerment of interdependence — of being connected through the wisdom of historical insights to apply to our present and future. That is home.
How to get there? Well, to paraphrase Glinda the Good Witch in Oz — and Jesus in Luke 17: We’ve always had the power. We just have to learn it ourselves on a journey together with a sacredly tattered map and a mysterious guide.
Brad Bull earned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology with a minor in creative writing (Carson-Newman, 1988), a master of divinity majoring in pastoral counseling (Southern Baptist Seminary, 1992), and a Ph.D. in human ecology with a cognate in counseling (University of Tennessee, 2005). He has worked as a hospital chaplain, pastor, university professor and currently serves in private practice as a family therapist in Tennessee and Virginia. His counseling and retreat website is DrBradBull.com.