On “The Letter Killeth”

“The Bible is the inerrant, infallible and perfect word of God in the original autographs.”

Growing up Southern Baptist, I was exposed to this type of language all the time. If it was in the Bible, it was true. Period. One would expect that as one gained education, they would eschew such beliefs. I was the opposite. The older I got, the more determined I was to prove that the Bible was THE WORD OF GOD (all caps to simulate the perceived thundering divine voice from on high).

The first sermon I ever preached was about people not taking the Bible seriously enough. Upon completion of the fiery address, I received a standing ovation. I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after college, while there I continued along the same path of legalism. That is, until I got a phone call from a dear Southern Baptist mentor pastor, who told me he was dying.

For the next few months, I spent as much time as I could with him. As the end approached, he invited me into his room for a talk. In those moments, he revealed to me that he had lived his life as a closeted gay man. To put it mildly, all my ides of the truth of scripture exploded. I’d never made room for someone to be morally gay in my interpretations of scripture, and yet here was someone whom I now knew to be both moral and gay. While it took much time, this moment led me to the much healthier relationship with scripture I have now, i.e. scripture contains words from God rather than being THE WORD OF GOD (again, simulating the perceived thundering divine voice). To put it most simply, I got over my addiction to loving the Bible and started loving God.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon one of Rev. Jim Jones’ few written works, The Letter Killeth. The text is meant to be this great treatise that delegitimizes the Bible by providing examples of errors and inconsistencies. For about two dozen pages, Rev. Jones points out every error he can think of – and, knowing him – also some he borrowed from other sources. As I read through the text, nothing really struck me as all that new. I’d read it all before. But, what did strike me as new was the connection that I felt with Rev. Jones.

In many ways, Rev. Jones wasn’t all that different from a young me, a fundamentalist in every sense of the word, just in a different direction. Rev. Jones was just as addicted to proving scripture inaccurate as much as I was to proving scripture accurate. Both paths lead to tremendous evil.

Ultimately, the adoration of a particular stringent point of view about a religious text is always a power play. It’s always an attempt to control. Just as Rev. Jones used anti-Bible fundamentalism to control, so too do many Christians (including me/what I was being taught to do) use a pro-Bible fundamentalism to control.

I’d argue that Rev. Jones never got over his addiction to hating the Bible, because he believed that the Bible was one of the only things that could ever keep him from completely making himself God, due to the admiration that many of his followers still had for the Bible.. The truth of that is perhaps evidenced by the fact that a number of elderly folks still had their Bibles with them in Jonestown even after they were told not to. On any given day, these types of forces play out in all sorts of religious contexts. Surely, it is our fundamentalisms that ultimately destroy us.

I’ve heard theologians/biblical scholars try to make the argument that Rev. Jim Jones went astray when he started perverting the scripture. I think it’s wiser to say that the tragedy of Jonestown began when Rev. Jones became an anti-scriptural fundamentalist (determined to define a religious text instead of taking lessons from it). You see, fundamentalism around religious texts is always deadly, no matter which way it goes.

Recently, a little old lady asked me a question following one of my sermons: “So what’s the lesson, preacher?” I’ll make it plain. Love God. Love others. And don’t get bogged down in the fundamentalist bullshit.

(Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor, theologian and activist living and working in Arkansas. Dr. Hood’s extensive work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including in the Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Los Angeles Times, WIRED magazine and on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR. He writes regularly at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jeffhood/.

(Jeff’s other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Love Is the Word and On the Power of Love: A Peoples Temple Agricultural Parable. The collection of his articles for this site appears here. He can be reached at jeffrey.k.hood@gmail.com.)