Back in the 1990s, I was involved in the launch of a new publication, and I attended a workshop in New York to be sure we were crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s. One of our teachers explained that we would need to decide first off if we were going to publish a magazine with “edge” (such as The Nation or National Review), or one that avoided provocative opinions on hot issues (such as Saturday Evening Post or Martha Stewart Living).
Of course, most publications offer mixed fare, but it’s useful to distinguish those which strive always to be amiable to the exclusion of conscious affronts to the general reader’s sensitivities, and those quite willing to sacrifice gentility (though not civility, one hopes) in the cause of truth.
We decided we would not shrink from applying edge to our pages, and it occurred to us that our reference point, the Bible was a book with considerable edge. While Scripture is full of comforting and gracious passages—regarding the Lord’s shepherding in Psalm 23; regarding the rest promised for those who labor and are “heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28); regarding “living water” in John 4; regarding the glories of heaven in Revelation 22—it also has great cutting power.
Indeed, the Bible speaks of itself in these terms. Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” And, as Jesus said in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
In his memoir, “Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss”, former “Saturday Night Live” regular, Tom Davis of Franken and Davis, chronicled a life of prodigious drug consumption. Not surprisingly, he befriended drug guru Timothy Leary. He recounted their times together, including a phone conversation where Leary asked him what books he was reading. When Davis said he was trying to read the Bible from cover to cover, Leary exclaimed, “Oh no—there goes another one.”
Davis urged him to relax: “You don’t have to worry about me. Maybe you’ll feel better if I read you something really good that I just found in it.” With Leary’s okay, he pressed on, reading 1 Timothy 1:9-11 in the old King James. It declared that the law was “not made for the righteous man.” Rather, it was made for “the ungodly and for the sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers. For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons . . .”
Laughing, Leary exclaimed, “Whoa! That was wonderful! Thank you for that.” Being two very laid-back fellows, they rolled their eyes at the “over the top” language, but they had to recognize that this was a book that didn’t fool around. It had edge. (And one suspects there was a touch of nervousness in their laughter.)
Though modern translations speak of the “sexually immoral” rather than the “whoremongers,” and the expression “slave traders” is less weird to the modern ear than “menstealers,” there’s no diluting the force of those verses. In fact, the newer versions can be more provocative, as when “them that defile themselves with mankind” are shown to be “men who practice homosexuality.”
The message to the church should be plain. While the Bible is a boundless source of blessing and encouragement, it is also a book whose words can sting and divide, and efforts to disguise this truth should embarrass those who presume to be ministers of the Word.
Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Seminary’s Nashville extension. This column first appeared on the blog of BibleMesh, online at http://www.biblemesh.com/blog.