Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Biblical Literalism and "Burning to Read"

Recently, in conversation with someone, I mentioned that I have a background in Religious Studies, and on occasion, teach the subject in universities. The question was then put to me: “Don’t you think there’s a conflict between religion”

The question is a natural one, given our current global religious environment. In the West and the Middle East, there are 2 apparent approaches to religion—the secular approach, and the fundamentalist approach. In terms of society and politics, this is really where the religion/science line is drawn—secularists are tolerant of religion, but science, logic, and reason are championed as the way to truth. Fundamentalists react against secularism, and feel that only God (as defined by said fundamentalists) can show us the true way. How do they know what God wants? Scripture.

I’d mentioned in an earlier posting that I was reading a book entitled “Burning to read: English fundamentalism and its Reformation opponents” by James Simpson. I’ve finally finished that book, and it’s given me a lot to think about with regard to religion and society, and the idea of Scriptural authority.

The translation of the Bible into English is considered to be one of the great “liberating” events of history. No longer bound by the traditions of a corrupt Church that served as interpreters of God’s word, the common people could now read the Bible and make judgments for themselves. Liberalism traces its roots to this time in the 16th century, which is actually a tremendous irony. Simpson argues that the translation of the Bible did not make us more “free”—it bound us further, creating an atmosphere of suspicion, paranoia, moral authoritarianism, and violence. This appeal to Scriptural authority, called “Biblical literalism”, leaves its adherents “painted into a corner”.

Before I look at Simpson’s evidence, I will just state my view up front: Biblical literalism is bad. Bad, bad, bad. Did I mention that it’s bad? Human beings already have fractured souls, and this just shatters everything beyond repair. It turns God and the Great Mystery into a petty absurdity, and causes people with any common sense to reject the whole idea of God as ridiculous. There IS an alternative way to look at the “God” idea, but that is completely lost in today’s society. Either you’re a literalist, or you’re an atheist. The Catholic Church—the only institution in my humble opinion that still has ANY grasp of meaning in Christianity, totally blows it by focusing on stupid shit like abortion and gay marriage—trying to play the same game as the fundamentalists.

OK, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest—Simpson makes several points throughout the book. The first has to do with the idea of Scriptural authority, argued by Martin Luther, and supported by Bible translators like William Tyndale and George Joye. Simpson uses the term “evangelists” for those supporting this Protestant view, so that’s the word I will use.

The evangelist view of Scripture suggests that it is God’s literal word. It should not be “added to or subtracted from”, so the text must be taken as a whole (i.e., no verses out of context), and anything outside of Scripture can be dismissed as error. In order for this point of view to have any credibility, Scripture must be clear and simple, and its meaning transparent. Indeed, the evangelists claimed that Scripture was so simple, it spoke for itself, and no theological commentaries were necessary.

It’s not hard to see how this immediately gets messy, but Simpson also goes on to talk about what that Scripture actually says. The Old and New Testaments of the Bible are vastly different. The God of the Old Testament is irrational and temperamental; the reader gets the message that this God cannot be appeased. More accurately—God tells us what He wants, but there is no way we can do it. Ha-ha. So this throws out the idea of “good works”—nothing you can do will win you any favors, so there’s no point in thinking that. The casual literal reader at this point will realize that they are doomed. As Simpson says, they take an “abject” attitude towards the text, because it is hateful.

So what’s the good news? In the New Testament, Jesus suffers for our hateful, sinful nature, and in Jesus alone is there salvation. We see where the idea of “Once I’m born again in Christ, my old life is dead, and I am saved” comes from. But there is a problem. In order to create a flow between the Old and New Testaments, the concept of an Elect, a True Church, came into being. The doctrine of predestination has its roots here—God already knows who is saved through Jesus, but you don’t. Ha-ha once again.

So—where does all this leave the “liberated” reader? In a fearful, paranoid spot, I would imagine. He or she must determine if they are one of the “Elect”—and they do so by interpreting “signs”. Simpson accurately notes that this is trouble, leaving the door open for “hearing voices”. Frequently, the suffering and death of the evangelists at the hands of Henry VIII and his chancellors was seen as a “sign” of election—they should be pleased to suffer for the Truth. But it is all too convenient to convince oneself about the interpretation of “signs” from God. Even those who believe they are saved suffer from the uncertainty that they can’t really know for sure. This not only leads to self-righteousness (I’m more “right with God” than you are), it also leads to extreme proselytization. The reason that certain Christian groups feel the need to knock on your door and convince you of their beliefs is a testament to this uncertainty. If everyone else believes they have the truth, they will feel more secure.

Which brings us to another point of Simpson’s—the reliance on Scripture suggests a distrust of God. God needs to put his terms “in writing”, as it were. And, like a lot of legal jargon, it’s difficult to interpret. Protestantism has so many splinter groups precisely for this reason—the “simple and clear” text obviously is not so simple. Even Tyndale, in his first translation of the Bible, had to provide an extensive commentary, as readers could “fall into error” by incorrect interpretation. So much for the text speaking for itself.

The last major point in Simpson’s book relates to history and tradition. If the Catholic Church was in error for so many years, as the evangelists claim, then how could God have allowed humanity to err for so long? Evangelists tossed out as irrelevant any and all traditions that were not Scripturally based. In short, they throw away most of history, leaving us suspended in a single point in time, with no past to refer to, and no way to go forward and create future traditions. If nothing matters but the Bible—a narrative of events and traditions (yes, traditions) from a particular place, time and culture—how is there room for anything else? He discussed Thomas More’s attempt to argue against this Scriptural literalism (and More does have some good arguments if you get past some of the venom), but More eventually weakens and falls because he’s trying to fight his opponents by the very method he’s opposed to using. The Catholic Church still has this problem today, which is why they are lumped in with all other flavors of Christianity in the “secular/scientific” worldview.

The book was a fascinating, if not somewhat weighty read. I’m quite passionate about the subject, because I am very distressed by the state of people today, and I feel this literalist worldview has contributed significantly to the problem. There is no need to read the text literally, and no need to take sides. Amma said it best on her talk before the Interfaith Center of New York: “Spirituality is like a piece of sugarcane. The scriptures are the outer husk, and inside is the sweet spirituality. One must suck out the sugar and discard the husk.”

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