by Scott Culpepper
Growing up in a traditional rural Baptist congregation, I was introduced at an early age to many nineteenth century hymns. One standard that we sang routinely was Phillip Bliss’ “Wonderful Words of Life.” We weekly expressed our desire to immerse ourselves in the healing words of scripture by extolling the power of those words of “life and beauty” to “teach us faith and duty.”
I have reflected a lot on the power of words and how we hear the words of scripture in recent years. Personally, I am still in the process of working through years of experiences in a very spiritually abusive environment at my alma mater and former academic institution. Distortions of scripture to support unethical attitudes and actions became the tragic norm in that situation.
Publicly, we are all dealing with the spectacle of a presidential campaign season in which words have been hurled by candidates in the most debased form possible to justify misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and general disrespect for humanity. Sadly, many of those who have used such language claim scriptural warrant. Even worse, they have quoted scripture to support their case. This phenomenon goes far beyond the clumsy attempts of Donald Trump to cite “Two Corinthians.” Prominent evangelical figures such as James Dobson and Franklin Graham, who have indicted contemporary American culture as inherently immoral for years, are now actively citing scriptural precedents to support a man who is the antithesis of every ideal they spent their lives endorsing.
I have to wonder what Honduran immigrants think when they hear the “wonderful words of life” used to justify systems that enable abuse. How is it possible for a woman to see those words as bearers of “life and beauty” when she is lectured on the virtues of “godly submission” in the midst of physical or emotional abuse? Can she find the dignity of a divine image bearer in those words when others are using them to argue that an abuser’s right to forgiveness is more important than her right to respect? How were those eighteenth and nineteenth century slaves able to find a gospel of liberation through the fog of interpretive rationalizations the masters had imposed on the text to protect their social and economic system? Do Native Americans hear the promise of better days to come in our proclamation of the truth that sets us free or do they simply hear sick irony, the continued propagation of the words used to justify their own oppression?
Scripture should always come with a label that reads “Handle with Care.” Those words have power. And that power can be used for good or for ill. They can be agents of healing or weapons for wounding. We see it illustrated over and over again throughout the course of human history. It is recognized by those who are believers in Christ, but also by many who are not. The powerful see potential to steer us with those words. They use them, abuse them, and infuse them with distortions that ignore the original context and spirit of the text.
Can we rescue, restore, even redeem the words of scripture from these abuses of the text? I have pondered that question a great deal in my own pilgrimage. Words that stirred my soul and infused me with hope in my younger years still have the power to move me. But when I read them, there is sometimes a disturbing undertow in the background, an echo of voices that used those words to justify abuse, hatred, and immorality. Separating the text from those voices and experiences is easier said than done. Even when they seem absent, those voices have a way of suddenly sneaking up on you. Unsummoned and uninvited, they still come. Will they ever be stilled? Should they be stilled, or do they serve as an important reminder that only a thin line separates words of life from words of oppression?
Americans will need the healing words of scripture more than ever on November 9 to begin to bring us back together, maybe even, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, to rediscover “the better angels of our nature.” Unfortunately, the “wonderful words of life” will receive a wary and weary reception from an American public sick of seeing the Bible presented as a series of political proof texts. Christians will need to be intentional about presenting those aspects of the biblical texts that proclaim a different sort of kingdom, one which subverts and overturns the oppressive structures of the kingdoms of this world.
Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.