[Brought to you today by freelance Threat Quality writer Josh Wimmer. Have something that you need written? Perhaps you ought to employ a writer.]
My church’s Bible Conversations group dealt this week with Mark 10:2-12, which reads as follows:
Some Pharisees came and tested [Jesus] by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
“What did Moses command you?” he replied.
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
This was, as many if not most of our readings are, a difficult passage for a set of socially liberal folks such as ourselves. Divorce is never an especially desirable outcome, but that said, sane people acknowledge that there are some very good reasons for it. The most obvious is the need to escape from an abusive marriage — if a woman leaves a man who beats her and subsequently remarries, is Jesus really saying she’s an adulterer? That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we want to get behind, the one whose words we routinely accuse our fundamentalist counterparts of twisting. It really, unequivocally sounds more like the Jesus the fundamentalists love.
Worse, in this case it was hard to fall back on some of our typical defenses. “Well, you have to read it in the context of Jewish culture at the time” didn’t really work because we can be certain that even back then, plenty of women were being abused. (And it would have been even harder at that time, if not impossible, for them to obtain divorces, so calling such women adulterers was just more of a slap in the face.) Evidence for the old standby “According to scholars, it seems likely that Jesus didn’t really say that” was also lacking; and anyway, if you break that one out too often, it really waters down the whole point of something like Bible Conversations (and, y’know, your Christian faith) in the first place.
Confounding us further were the apparent contradictions between this passage and Jesus’s message in other parts of the Gospels. Just a few verses earlier, for example, in Mark 9:43-48, he’s telling his audience that it’s better to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye than to sin — so why the seeming zero-tolerance policy on being severed from your nuptially grafted-on flesh when the stuff you were born with is fair game? Why in Matthew 8:18-22 and even more strongly in Luke 9:57-62 is it OK to up and ditch your familial obligations? Why just a few verses after the divorce question, in Mark 10:29-30, is it suddenly laudable and reward-worthy to ditch those obligations?
Now, these sorts of contradictions are frequently pointed to by many unbelievers as proof that the Bible is not really divinely inspired, and that consequently, any religion founded on it is without merit. And that is certainly fair! I hear what they are saying. If God is so almighty, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that He could provide some clear instructions for His children. In fact, it seems downright unreasonable that He has not.
But on the other hand, that presupposes that there are clear instructions — that is, a general set of rules that can be universally applied — for divorce, or for any of the other big issues we face down here on the Prime Material Plane.
Perhaps my favorite thing about my boyfriend Marshall McLuhan is that his key work, Understanding Media, not only highlights some of the unconscious prejudices associated with a visual, book-based culture such as our own — for example, that we reflexively expect a clear, peg-in-the-hole-able answer to most questions — but that it actively undermines those prejudices. Understanding Media does not provide much in the way of clear, slottable answers so much as it raises interesting points in such a way that you’re forced to engage with what McLuhan is saying, whether you end up agreeing with him or not.
I mention this because the practical effect, at least on our Bible Conversations group, of all the contradictions in the Bible is that when we’re faced with a passage covering a very important matter like divorce, we’re compelled to grapple with it. The only intellectually honest approach (and the God I believe in is nothing if not very much pro–intellectual honesty) is to consider the relevance of commitment as compared with the importance of personal safety and comfort, and the significance of this particular command taken in context with the rest of the Gospels. Ultimately, what it boils down to is that whatever choice we end up making, we have had to think long and hard to get there. Of course, in Bible Conversations, we have the luxury of not having to come to a particularly clear conclusion, but even so, we’re constantly reminded of the near-impossibility of applying unswayable fiats to the always nuanced condition called life.
And that, to me, is really what a healthy religion ought to do for us. Now, I’m not saying the early Christians meant for the Gospels or any part of the Bible to be written this way — I’m not saying they knew what they were doing, the way Marshall McLuhan did. Nonetheless, I am glad of how it has worked out.