When Symon Hill started writing a book about the parables of Jesus, he didn’t turn to commentaries and sermons, but to people who had never heard the words of Jesus before, including atheists, trade unionists and sex workers. The result, The Upside-Down Bible, is a revelation.
THREE YEARS AGO I was in a fetish club in the Midlands, leading a workshop on the Bible.
We were surrounded by a variety of interesting equipment, along with notices emphasising the importance of consent. In a small circle, I shared biblical passages with people attending a fetish-related conference in the venue.
We looked at Luke 7, in which a woman kisses Jesus’ feet. “It’s pretty kinky, isn’t it?” responded one participant.
As the group enthusiastically discussed the meaning of the passage, I was filled with enthusiasm for what could be gained by exploring the Bible with those who are unfamiliar with it. Experiences such as these gave me the idea of a book based on this very concept.
I used workshops, informal conversations, social media and interviews by phone, email, Skype and in person. I spoke with people from several religious and non-religious backgrounds. As Christians, we have become so used to hearing standard interpretations in church that we can miss crucial aspects of a passage that first-time readers will draw out.
I am not an academic and I make no claim that the people I spoke with were any sort of representative sample. What I do say is that their insights can serve as fresh starting-points for exploring the words of Jesus. In the book, I quote both first-time readers and established scholars to explore ways in which Jesus’ teachings can be applied to life today.
At times, I sought to interview people whose experiences or beliefs seemed particularly relevant to the passage in question. What do trade unionists make of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard? How do sex workers react to his comments on prostitutes? What do Jews say about the good Samaritan?
The contrast between new readers and (most) Christian readers was perhaps strongest when it came to Jesus’ teachings about money.
Non-Christians naturally respond to Jesus’ stories about money by talking about money. It may seem odd to say that Christians rarely do. We have spent years listening to sermons which suggest that when Jesus talked about money, it was only a metaphor for something else. Like Jesus’ original listeners, most first-time readers are more concerned with the everyday necessities of life than with doctrines about the nature of God.
The most striking example involves the story usually referred to as the parable of the talents. A nobleman goes on a journey, leaving three employees with money that he expects them to multiply. On his return, the first two are rewarded for making money, while the third is punished for failing to do so. In Luke’s version of the story, the nobleman then has his enemies killed in front of him. In Matthew’s version, the money is measured in “talents”, a unit of currency at the time. This has a convenient double meaning in English for those who believe that the story is about God rewarding those who use their gifts and abilities well.
Of all the passages I explored, this was the only one in which the comments of literally every first-time reader contrasted sharply with the usual Christian interpretation. When I began discussing the story with non-Christian groups, I would ask, “With which character do you most identify?” The usual answer was, “The third servant.”
This was followed by all sorts of observations and comparisons. One reader, Samantha, identified with the third servant’s fear. As a disabled person, she said it brought to mind the fear of disabled people under the UK government’s disability assessment regime, which “passes unfair judgement, punishes them and forces them to subterfuge”.
I have never known anyone who is new to the text to say anything positive about the nobleman. One workshop participant said, “He’s a bastard.” One of the most amusing comments was: “The rich man is Alan Sugar and one apprentice refuses to take part in the challenge because it’s so awful.”
Chaminda, an economic journalist, suggested that Jesus was saying: “When powerful interests handle money, their sole pursuit is generating more money from it, and in doing so they reward those who made more money and punish those who did not.”
On one occasion, I triggered an audible collective gasp when I told a room full of people, “Christians usually say that the nobleman represents God.”
There seem to be a growing number of scholars whose views are more similar to those of first-time readers than most Christians. They suggest that it is the third servant Jesus wants us to emulate, speaking truth about the reality of unjust money-making, rather than colluding with it.
I discuss a range of contrasting interpretations in the book. Several first-time readers produced comments and observations with which I was far from comfortable. During my research, I heard Jesus described as manipulative, extremist and sexist. Reflecting on some of these comments, let alone writing about them, could be quite a struggle.
Many readers’ responses were complex, mixed and hesitant, showing a nuanced approach to Jesus’ words. A number of readers – though by no means all – gained a more positive image of Jesus, or a curiosity to find out more about him.
I wrote this book as a Christian. Jesus is my Lord and Saviour. Yet these words have little meaning if I am not prepared to consider Jesus’ teachings and actions as well as his death and resurrection. It is much easier to discuss obtuse doctrines than to wrestle with how to live out Christ’s teachings in daily life and politics. My research has convinced me that God can use non-Christians to help Christians take Jesus’ words more seriously. God’s good at irony.
The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published by DLT for £9.99 in paperback or e-book.