Is the Bible too ‘abusive’ and ‘offensive’ to be read in public?

29 November 2022

“Are we willing to tolerate religious perspectives that we might find offensive?”

In his ‘Thought for the Day’, journalist Timothy Stanley mentions the case of street preacher John Dunn, who was arrested for preaching from the Bible. In court, the Crown Prosecution Service argued that parts of the Bible are “abusive” and “no longer appropriate in a modern society.”

Stanley agreed that the Bible is offensive. But does that really mean we should stop it from being read aloud in public? He concluded: “The alternative is to censor or to silence people of faith, and that would be highly illiberal.”


Read the full transcript below:

Good morning,

In November 2020, a street preacher was arrested in Swindon accused of homophobia.

His case has now been thrown out, but not before the Crown Prosecution Service reportedly made an interesting observation.

I quote, “there are references in the Bible, which are simply no longer appropriate in modern society and which would be deemed offensive if stated in public.”

Some commentators detected a threat to free speech from an institution that was going beyond its remit to comment on theology.

Speaking as a Christian, however,I can’t deny the accuracy of what the CPS said.

The Bible is considered to be the word of God, but it is also a historical document.

By contemporary standards, parts of it are outrageous.

There’s a fierce debate over whether the Bible should be taken literally or figuratively, or the right way to translate it, but there’s no escaping that it is set in a society that practice the death penalty, when women were of a lower status and when men could own slaves.

Sometimes the Bible challenges these inequities. Elsewhere, the modern reader, steeped in high minded liberalism, might feel that it falls drastically short.

An example, the other day I was stunned to read the following words in the book of Peter: “Servants be submissive to your masters with all respect not only to the kind gentle but also the overbearing.”

You see, Peter says that God has a special place in his heart for people who are punished for things they didn’t do, and who take their beating without complaint.

The model is Jesus.

For the Son of God was crucified despite being innocence incarnate and he forgave the men who did it.

The book of Peter is not a political manifesto. It’s a religious testament.

21st century ethics tend to emphasize how the individual can contribute towards social progress, and religious people are, of course, very concerned with that too.

But for many of them, the Bible is chiefly about building a personal relationship with God.

The focus isn’t upon fixing this world, but finding a path to the next.

A secular, hyper rational society like ours is always going to struggle with a theology that encourages self denial, rejecting the material for the spiritual or that says suffering and poverty can enrich the soul.

So, it’s inevitable that some critics see religion as preserving the worst of the past.

But, if our goal is to build a tolerant society I pose this challenge.

Are we willing to tolerate religious perspectives that we might find offensive?

The alternative is to sensor or to silence people of faith, and that would be highly illiberal.

29 November 2022
BBC Radio 4, Today Programme

Find out more about John Dunn
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