Jim Wallis, left-wing evangelical preacher and person who runs the Sojourners organization (and associated magazine), was on Real Time with Bill Mahar and I have to say I was not impressed. I’ve never been impressed with Wallis, nor most left-wing evangelicals, and this is exactly why.
I should point out that I am not the biggest Mahar fan, either, for various reasons, but I think he brings up a really good point here which is that Wallis kept avoiding answering the questions. And that makes sense, since the questions don’t have very good answers. He doesn’t want to cop to the fact that he wants the Bible to say the things he likes and only the things he likes.
I would like people to take the Bible literally when it says “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Reza Aslan (the lit major and Ana Mardoll fan in me sees the irony there) points it out the problem really well when he says, “What you don’t like is figurative, what you do like is literal. The reason the Bible matters…is not because it’s true or false, it’s because it can mean whatever you want it to mean.”
And that’s where I get stuck. I get that Wallis agrees with me on most issues, though his desire to stay “neutral” about things until fairly recently is disturbing, but I have trouble with him because he’s still making an argument that makes no sense. He avoids discussing why we should take his interpretation of these stories literally and somebody else’s figuratively.
Now, I would argue that we don’t need those stories and that his morality has informed his Biblical interpretation, not the other way around. If the Bible is to be taken seriously as a social justice text, it should be easy to read as such, and not require the backflipping that Wallis and those like him have to do in order to make this book say the things it damn well should say. Instead, we’re left with this interview full of distractions and subject changes because Wallis can’t give a good reason why I should pay attention when Jesus says to love one another, but ignore it when he says that you should never get divorced.
Honestly, the most coherent I’ve ever heard anyone be on the subject is Fred Clark, who has argued repeatedly that the Bible is a collection of stories around a certain theme. I still don’t agree that that means that there is any indication of a savior or a need to be saved at all, but his general idea is to take none of it literally and to be honest about his application of outside morality to how to reads the book, since it’s not a source of authority in and of itself.
I think if Wallis et. al. want to make a case for their interpretation of the Bible, they need to stop pretending that it’s obvious that Jesus agrees with them and start explaining this book the way Clark does: as a collection of ancient stories that, when taken together, lean toward suggesting a more just society. Like any other collection of stories, there are good parts and bad parts. There are times when even the ostensible “good guys” do horrible things. But the main theme is that through all of that, eventually love and justice overcome, which is not a bad theme for a story. And then, like a Tolkien novel, you read the appendices and you see that bad stuff still happens.
I admit, as an atheist and the certified owner of a literature degree, this is a bit self-serving. I would like to see fewer people treating the Bible as if it has any sort of authority in and of itself. I would like to see it treated like any other short story collection and be open to literary criticism (a post-colonial reading, for example, could be really fascinating considering how often Israel changes hands). That being said, trying to treat it any other way leads to what we see in this video with Wallis: red herrings, No True Scotsman fallacies, question begging, and abrupt subject changes. It’s all you really can do if you don’t want to just say, “I like these parts, so they’re true, and the parts I don’t like aren’t because of reasons.”
So I really would like to be on board with Wallis. I appreciate his alliance and, now that he’s finally come around on the LGBT thing, I appreciate his evolution. I wish there were more vocal evangelicals like him. But he needs to look at his arguments very closely, because he’s no Harry Jackson, Rick Scarborough, or Mike Huckabee, all of whom are used to blatantly lying about what they believe and shifting the conversation to avoid hard questions. Jim Wallis isn’t a good enough liar to be able to hold these positions and still sound coherent, so it’s time he looks for a way to communicate his message without sounding like he can’t even explain it.