As a freshman at Georgetown University, it took me several months to come to grips with my unexpected desire to study theology — mostly because I’m an atheist. When I first told my family about my new plan to double major and concentrate in biblical studies, they thought I was joking.
At first, I justified my approach to biblical studies with a reluctant acceptance that the Bible is politically relevant and a strong conviction that it shouldn’t be. I found myself searching for the very worst parts of the Bible in an effort to discredit it entirely, which naturally reaffirmed my belief that it had no place in our political system — and made it too easy to overlook the parts of the biblical text that would later complicate my opinions.
After a few semesters of this rather ungenerous approach, I came to recognize that a book central to the lives of so many people deserves more thoughtful and honest engagement. A closer, more open-minded look at certain portions of the text revealed something I had previously been hesitant to acknowledge: Many elements of the Bible that have traditionally been misrepresented by the political right, such as portrayals of women in the text, can and should be reinterpreted to advocate for progressive politics.
One of the first places I began to see the potential for such a rereading was in one of the Bible’s best-known stories. A common but incorrect interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in chapters two and three of Genesis has played a long-lasting role in societal views of female inferiority. In this story, God creates the first two humans in the Garden of Eden and instructs them to nurture their surrounding environment. God also forbids them from eating the fruit of a particular tree, and when they disregard this command, they are expelled from the sanctuary.
Traditional interpretations of this story often cast the blame for the whole incident on Eve by suggesting that she tricked Adam into eating the forbidden fruit. Many artistic renderings of the scene portray Eve as a malevolent seductress whose actions quite literally cause the downfall of humankind. Adam, meanwhile, is a helpless bystander, an innocent victim of the first woman’s evil inclinations.
Yet the actual words of the text’s New Revised Standard Version English translation read simply: “She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” No textual basis for the vilification of Eve alone seems to exist; Adam appears to be a willing participant in the pair’s disobedience. Dishonest alternative characterizations of texts like this one create the opportunity for the right to selectively use the Bible to defend intolerance. The exploitation of biblical texts for conservative political ends — for instance, denigrating and sexualizing the first biblical woman to justify controlling the modern female body — must be prevented by correcting such interpretations.
The Bible holds far more potential for progressive advocacy, however, than what a clearer reading of one simple story can realistically produce. Finding that potential generally takes more than correcting misconceptions about what the text literally says. Reinterpreting the so-called patience of Job as a means of addressing gun violence, for example, will involve reading more closely between the lines to find the story’s implicit commentary on power dynamics and human agency — the very types of qualities that have ensured the Bible’s enduring and profound emotional impact on its readers.
One of my professors frequently describes the Bible as an exploration of what it means to be human, and after years of resisting the idea of its existential significance, I’m finally convinced that he’s right. I certainly do not intend to argue that everything in the Bible is wholly good — I still take issue with many of its stories and their implications. But much like the aspects of human life that the Bible reckons with, the text contains a level of complexity that deserves more nuanced analysis than either side of the political spectrum typically affords it.
Correcting the narrative surrounding Genesis chapters two and three redeems Eve in a way that allows us to read her story as an affirmation of gender equality rather than a challenge to it. But reinterpreting biblical texts should also come with a new understanding that religion is not a necessary opponent of progressive politics. Ultimately, the value of progressive biblical interpretation lies in the recognition that the secular left has largely missed the opportunity to see religion as an ally — and given the inescapable fact that the Bible’s role in politics isn’t likely to fade anytime soon, that’s not an opportunity I plan to ignore any longer.
Haley Talati is a senior in the College. Between the Lines appears online every other Thursday.