A review of Permission Granted by Jennifer Grace Bird
The Apostle Paul gives a command in 1 Thessalonians 5:26 that no one obeys, at least not that I have seen. Paul commands “greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.” There isn’t a First Century time cap on this command; it has no cultural caveats from what I can tell. Yet none of us are eager to kiss our brothers. Apparently, “The Holy kiss” is particularly important among many Anabaptist denominations. These groups include the Apostolic Christian Church, the Amish, the Schwarzenau Brethren, and many conservative Mennonite Churches, including the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.
But what I find even more intriguing than its actual practice among some groups, is that given Christianity’s propensity for rigorous theological debate and sectarianism, whether or not we should be swapping spit with one another and calling it “Holy” isn’t ever disputed. As Christians, we love to fight over all kinds of issues. But I don’t see a lot of conferences dedicated to exploring the biblical foundations of holy kissing. My guess is that no one is really that interested in obeying this portion of scripture or there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of cultural currency associated with the issue, and so practically we ignore it. Which begs the question, why do we choose to so vigorously defend some aspects of the Bible and quickly dismiss others? Maybe this reveals the real power behind the Bible isn’t the authority we grant to its words, but the authority we grant to those institutions and people who claim to rightly understand its message.
In 1539 at the behest of Thomas Cromwell, acting on the authority of King Henry VIII, an English translation of the Bible was commissioned. This “Great Bible” became known as the “Chained Bible” because it was literally chained to the pulpits in churches—and as most of the population was illiterate, providing these authorized translations were considered a progressive step forward, eventually leading to the Bible becoming widely accessible to all those who desired to read it and apply its wisdom. Today there are over 1500 translations of the New Testament alone, yet in many respects the Bible remains chained by the gatekeepers of interpretations and dogmas who insist on communicating “correct” understandings of these sacred texts.
It is in this milieu that many now find themselves caught in the crossfire of competing perceptions of the Bible, between fundamentalist on one side insisting that the Bible is the Word of God without any errors and progressives on the other who attempt to treat the Bible as just another book among the many tomes crafted by human ingenuity. As with so much of the binary thinking that seeks to divide us in these present times, it is personally refreshing to find serious scholars who are willing to make the effort to bring people together, especially around such a beautiful and profound book as the Bible. Jennifer Grace Bird is such a scholar, and I found her book Permission Granted: Take the Bible into Your Own Hands to be one of those rare works that served to both challenge and confirm my thinking when it comes to my understanding of the Bible. Dr. Bird’s work was also helpful in working through some of my own thoughts and experiences as it relates to the influence of the Bible on my life.
I grew up in a small rural Pentecostal Church that in my formative years gave me a beautiful gift of love and appreciation for the Bible. As a child and young person, I was encouraged and rewarded for committing large portions of the Bible to memory, which at the time was The King James Version of the Bible. Memorizing these beautifully profound verses and stories gave me a foundation for understanding weightier concepts of literature later in life, and certainly improved my overall reading comprehension. Through the stories of Scripture, I was also given moral and ethical values which served as a gateway for thinking about the oft-difficult issues of life and the navigation of teenage angst. The Bible also served as a template for contemplating larger existential questions of meaning that would become preoccupations of my mind. But ironically perhaps, it was many of these same passages that eventually led me to question the dogmatic certainties asserted by my church and the Pentecostal sect to which we belonged.
My church insisted on a very narrow understanding of eternal salvation that put it at odds with most of orthodox Christianity. With a list that is too long to enumerate here, it ran the gamut from sophisticated debates over the nature of the Godhead to rather mundane issues, albeit afforded disproportionate eternal levity, like whether or not men should grow facial hair or if women should wear pants. Thankfully, the Bible was instrumental in helping me navigate away from the abusive doctrines of my youth, but in many ways as I have continued to explore the contours of my faith, the certainty I once embraced has also been a stumbling block to discovering the joy that should accompany a walk with Christ. This is where I found Jennifer Bird’s book helpful. Dr. Bird doesn’t insist on antagonizing those of us who hold the Bible dear, by denying its importance, relevance, or influence on our faith. Rather, she instead invites us to examine the passages, with their popular interpretive lens that have caused a great deal of harm.
At the outset, Bird extends an invitation to consider the purpose behind the Bible and the purpose behind our own existence. Logically, she applies the wisdom of an experienced teacher in asking us to consider “if you believe that God created you with the mind that you have, why would God say that you can apply your mind to everything in this world except for how you read the Bible?” Unfortunately, in too many places of religious practice, we are encouraged to turn our minds off and simply “Believe the Bible.” This kind of blind faith, Bird points out, doesn’t lead us to Christ, but rather leads us to often dangerous understandings of the Bible that stymie our flourishing.
Bird skillfully walks readers through many of the Bible’s intriguing and often controversial subjects such as violence in the biblical narratives and gender roles in society, and she then devotes entire sections to exploring continuity of details and doctrines throughout the Bible with helpful charts that serve to give readers clarity in their own thoughts as they wrestle with these difficult passages. One especially intriguing chapter entitled “Sex: Who, What, and Why?” seeks to answer the questions of cultural mandates prohibiting and endorsing a variety of sexual relationships throughout the pages of the Bible. Many readers may find it surprising that when terminology is used in the endorsement of “Biblical marriage” that this may not mean exactly what they thought it did. Because women were seen as property, they were often mistreated as such and subjected to a multiplicity of abusive relationships including rape. Bird points out that “Because women were viewed and valued differently at the time than they typically are today, women were not consulted in the exchange. Biblically speaking, a woman rarely had a voice. This reality alone, ought to make us pause and think before passing along an idea simply because it comes from the Bible.”
Certainly, while I do believe that in many respects the Bible was light years ahead of its culture setting, in regards to the treatment of women, and other obviously evil cultural practices such as slavery, Permission Granted challenges my thinking, even on these points by asking probing questions of these kinds of defenses. For example, conflicting messages are often attributed to both Jesus and Paul on issues such as marriage and sexuality. One such instance in the teaching of Jesus is found in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 where he is questioned in the context of “Levirate marriage.” Levirate marriage was the practice where when a “man dies without having any male children to carry on his name, [and] it was up to his brother to marry (or just have sex with) the widow and have children with her.” Jesus was questioned by the religious leaders of his day, as to which husband would a wife rise to be with in the resurrection in a family of seven brothers. While Jesus points out that marriage has no significance in the afterlife, he doesn’t take the opportunity to disavow the cultural practice. This is problematic because even if the cultural expectation of Levirate marriage has fallen out of practice, the underlying assumptions about the status of women are still informed and perpetuated by these and other biblical passages that treat women as the property of men.
Paul is no less complicated on these issues and perhaps more so, because as Bird points out, depending on which purported Pauline epistle one is reading, Paul seems to dispense different and often conflicting advice. First Corinthians seven is a classic text on marriage and sexual relationships, whereas Bird points out:
“Paul tells couples not to withhold (the sex part is implied) from each other, and he says this to both the man and the woman. He even affirms that women ought to have their own husbands. This is progress to speak about a woman as more than the property of a man! He also says that when married, your spouse has authority over your body, and likewise you do over your spouse’s body. Please do stop to think about the implications of this claim. I have seen married people literally flinch out of concern when this line is read out loud. Did Paul have good intentions? Most likely. Does this mean that he was spot on with every piece of advice he offered? No, it does not.”
Bird’s observation that the instances in the Bible where the marriage and relationship advice is given, the advice most often centers on the endorsement of certain sexual practices to the exclusion of others, focusing exclusively on the physical acts and not the accompanying feelings or relational context of the sexual acts. Human sexuality is far more complicated than the mere physical mechanics of sex. Yet these biblical passages often result in weaponized interpretations that condemn behavior without examining the complexity and beauty of sexuality as the gift of God.
Admittedly, Jennifer Bird’s book Permission Granted makes me uncomfortable in many instances. It is uncomfortable to allow oneself the liberty to ask difficult questions of sacred texts—texts that have served to inform and guide much of my existence. What I appreciate about Dr. Jennifer Bird is that as she seriously deals with the many problematic portions of the Bible resulting from a tradition that takes these passages literally, with understanding for what kind of dissonance this can create in the hearts and minds of people like me. Dr. Bird writes, “I recall a sinking feeling in my own gut as I mulled over these issues initially. A change in something so central to a person’s worldview can be deeply unsettling and disorienting. . .If those concerns apply to you, my intention is not to leave you in the lurch, with your entire faith system challenged. My ultimate intention has been to have you look at where you have placed your faith. Is it on the words in the Bible or on the God the Bible points to?”
Ultimately my faith, and any genuine faith must avoid perpetuating harm to humans in the name of love for God. How can I reconcile dehumanizing or delegitimizing the existence of those who are the image bearers of God and in the same breath say “Jesus is Lord?” My dogmas are not God, and all of us would do well to critically examine the theological dogmas and eternal certainties that have been passed to us in the name of God.
In the final analysis, Permission Granted helps me understand that it is precisely because of the influence of these writings in my life, that I must ask these questions. To blindly accept biblical mandates without scrutiny reduces my belief system to superstition and not any kind of genuine faith. If I only believe what I read in the Bible, then my Savior might as well be the Easter Bunny because it certainly isn’t the Living Christ. The God that I serve isn’t afraid of my difficult questions. The God that I worship isn’t limited by inadequate vocabulary or archaic cultural experiences. My Savior lives. My Lord continues to speak.
This knowledge doesn’t make me more likely that I will greet you with a holy kiss, but it does make it more likely that I will genuinely love you even though we may disagree—even if we disagree about our understandings of what the Bible has to say.