I’ve got news for you, Toto: We never were in Kansas!

A letter writer to the St. Albert Gazette wonders what in Heaven’s name (as it were) possessed the Sturgeon Valley Baptists to declare on their church sign “We’re not in Kansas Toto. We’re in Sodom.” The letter writer demanded an explanation.

I’ll tell you right off that I raced to Woodlands Drive, my handy-dandy digital camera burning a spot on the car seat beside me, to get a snap of this message for my small collection of offensive-sign photos. Alas, by the time I got there, the Baptists had moved on. Their sign this morning merely admonished us all to heed God’s warnings. Including the one about Sodom, presumably.

The letter writer wanted to know what the Baptists’ message means, and to whom it is directed. I have a possible explanation: Perhaps they want us to be more environmentally responsible?

At any rate, that’s the message I like to take from the tale of the two unfortunate asphalt-producing towns and their sister cities of the plain: Oil towns beware! This means you, Calgary! You too, Wichita!

Yeah, I know, there are other explanations too – like, say, the one in the Mishnah, which suggests the sin of Sodom was … wait for it … property crime. Or if you want a purely Biblical explanation, Ezekiel 16, verses 48-50, suggests the sin in question may have been overeating, plus pride and a bad attitude toward the poor – more warnings for Albertans and Kansans to heed!

Whatever. You’d expect the Chamber of Commerce of the surviving oil town next door – that’d be Zoar, by the way – to come up with a more palatable alternative explanation than overuse or misuse of hydrocarbons.

Mind you, none of this does much to solve the problem of dealing with people who believe everything in the Bible is literally true. First, of course, it’s pretty hard to accept a single literal interpretation if the Bible offers more than one on the same topic. (See the passage from Ezekiel, above, plus, of course, Genesis 19, all of it, for the traditional explanation of how Sodom went wrong.) Second, the people nattering at you to do this inevitably refuse to take their own advice. That’s the trouble with Biblical literalists: they always they pick and choose what to be literal about.

Speaking of Toto and Kansas, as we were, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament takes a dim view of the activities of the friends of Dorothy, Toto’s mistress. Leviticus 20:13 is your guide if you want to make this point.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, however, whatever you happen to think about that one, Leviticus and its companion books of the Pentateuch are not a good guide to how to conduct yourself in the 21st Century.

For example, do Biblical literalists really believe that we should kill our children if they curse us? (Leviticus 20:9) Or if they work on Sunday at Starbucks? (Exodus 31:15) Or if they become Buddhists or Mormons? (Deuteronomy 13:6-9) If any of them do, and they act on that belief, they can count on a visit from the Mounties and an inconveniently long stay at the expense of Her Majesty!

Likewise, do modern Canadian Biblical literalists think it’s a big deal to plant tomatoes and petunias in the same flowerbed? (Leviticus 19:19 says do not do this!) To wear garments made out of both wool and linen? (Leviticus 19:19 again.) To eat a scallop? (Leviticus 11:10-12) To wink? (The Bible is death on winking. Among numerous references, Proverbs 6:12-13, has this to say: “A naughty person, a wicked man … winketh with his eyes.” So, no winking. Got that?)

There’s plenty more in the Old Testament that’s happily ignored by those who claim to believe the entire Bible is God’s inerrant word. Here are a few more items under the general Biblical ban: charging interest (Exodus 22:25); yoking oxen and donkeys together (Deuteronomy 22:10); or grabbing the private parts of someone who is trying to beat the snot out of your husband (Deuteronomy 25:11-12). (Wives who resort to the last item on this list will be relived to know that the prescribed penalty is not death, merely having the hand they use chopped off.)

Nor is there much relief from this in the New Testament, I’m sorry to report. A commonsense reading of the Gospels indicates that Jesus was in favour of pretty much all of the foregoing rules, except maybe the one about the scallops. St. Paul was every bit as cranky as the Old Testament prophets, except that he didn’t have much time for heterosexuality either.

In other words, if you have an ounce of sense, it’s pretty hard not to conclude that even from a thoroughly Christian perspective most of the specific rules of conduct set out in the Bible reflect the cultural context of the era in which they were written. Biblical literalists implicitly recognize this by the large number of Biblical rules they ignore.

Which gets us back to the case for environmental responsibility. What better Biblical lesson for our times could there be than that we should husband Earth’s resources? If nothing else, we can conclude from this that if we insist on digging up brimstone, we should at least have the common sense not to light a fire on top of it – no matter what we happen to use to strike the match.

So, in answer to the Sturgeon Baptists: No, Toto, we’re not in Kansas. We’re in Alberta. So listen up!

One Comment on "I’ve got news for you, Toto: We never were in Kansas!"

  1. Aaron says:

    I recently read a very humorous book on Biblical Literalism, entitled The Year of Living Biblically, wherein author A.J. Jacobs attempts to fulfill every letter of the law. While some laws are ridiculous (like linen and wool), there seems to be a scientific case for them. In certain climates, a mixture of linen and wool creates some sort of electrical disruption that can create skin irritations.

    If you read Leviticus 19:19, it can be interpreted both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, don’t mix your cattle, your seeds or your fibers. Why? That’s because of the figurative translation: the Jews were warned by God not to mix their culture and practices with those of other nations and tribes. So, if you were to practice these rules in a literal fashion, it would be a tangible reminder of the greater lesson at work. When the rules are lived out of context and without meaning, they become hollowed out and devoid of any life-giving abilities. But if one lives them with their true intention in mind, then the truths are revealed.

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