Monday, February 14, 2011

Promising New Popular Discussions of Bible and Its Cultural Use: Jay Michaelson and Laura Miller

Some years back, I remember Oprah interviewing several doughty defenders of the bible on her talk show.  Though it's entirely possible my memory has burnished this or that detail and so the story I'm about to recount is not exact in all particulars, this particular interview (along with the primary points it made, about which I trust my memory) has stuck in my mind for a number of reasons.  The bible's valiant defenders were all strapping men (who also happened to be African-American).  Oprah exhibited admirable feistiness in standing up to these oh-so-certain, oh-so-smug big men who overtowered her, several of them, by a foot or so.

And as these big men defending the bible informed her that the bible is most certainly "against" homosexuality and homosexuals and men "laying" with other men, Oprah replied, "You don't even read the bible, do you?  You don't even know what you're talking about.  You're just repeating words someone else has put into your mouth.  And you don't know any better, because you haven't read the book you're talking about."

The men laughed.  They weren't ashamed in the least to be exposed as frauds.  They didn't have to be ashamed, since hardly anyone at that time on the American pop-culture scene except people like Oprah Winfrey was standing up to this particular kind of abuse of biblical texts by biblically illterate men.  By men who assumed that the bible not only lambasts men "laying" with other men, but assures their dominance as heterosexual men.  Over Oprah and everyone else in the world.

I thought of that Oprah interview--and Oprah's courage in standing up to her opponents at a point in American cultural history in which this standing up required real courage on her part--all over again in the fall of 2009, when a gay man, Jack Price, was viciously beaten by Daniel Rodriguez and Daniel Aleman in Queens, New York.  And when one of their friends who defended the beating showed up proudly sporting a bible verse on his arm, the one from Leviticus 20 which condemns to death a man who lies with a man as with a woman.  

You know the one: it follows the four preceding verses, which call for the execution of 1) anyone who curses his/her parent, 2) men who commit adultery (both adulterer and adulteress to be killed), 3) men who have sex with one of their father's wives (ditto), and 4) men who sleep with their daughters-in-law (again, ditto--both to be executed).  And it's followed by a verse telling you that, as you choose your wives, you can't marry both a mother and a daughter--you have to choose between them (although you can definitely choose a mother of one family and a daughter of another).  And by verses instructing the Jewish community to cut off anyone who has sexual relations with a woman during her menstrual cycle--as well as the woman, of course, too.  And to stone to death anyone who consults a psychic.

Because most Americans who spout bible verses are woefully ignorant about the complex set of books spanning many centuries and many cultural arrangements from which they're grabbing those verses, and because the mainstream media have long colluded in keeping Americans selectively ignorant in this respect while feeding their easy impression that the bible is "against" homosexuality, I'm happy to see a shift recently towards a new and more honest grappling with the meaning of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, in mainstream media discussions of these topics.

Cases in point: at Religion Dispatches today, Jay Michaelson expertly deconstructs the widespread misreading of the biblical traditions about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, noting that, with their strong condemnation of inhospitality and exploitation of the poor, they more properly refer to Tea Partiers than those whom Christians of the right want to label sodomites.  And at Salon, Laura Miller comments on Timothy Beal's new book The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book.  Miller notes that though Americans own kaboodles and kaboodles of bibles, few of us know much at all about how the bible was compiled, about what biblical scholars say biblical texts mean, or about the texts themselves.  Because we don't read them.

Though we do so love to quote them.  Or, at least, to quote what we think they say, like, "God helps those who help themselves."  We're especially fond of those nifty, highly selective quotations when they seem to condemn someone else and to justify our unjustifiable behavior.

As I say, I think it's all to the good that there's new, more honest and more scholarly informed discussion of the popular pervasive use of the scriptures in American culture and politics these days.  And as I've also noted in comments on these threads recently, I really don't buy the argument that Catholics can be excluded from this discussion, since Catholics aren't and haven't ever been biblical literalists.

In my view, one of the most pernicious consequences of the U.S. Catholic bishops' alliance with the religious right in the last few decades has been the infusion of American Catholicism with a strong dose of old-fashioned American-style Protestant evangelical fundamentalism.  That strain is everywhere in American Catholicism today, and it's growing.

And Catholics are sitting ducks for it precisely because they haven't been very much schooled in bible reading or bible interpretation.  And as this culture of biblical literalism has grown in American Catholicism, at the very same time, the bishops have cracked down on theologians and have assured that many adult Catholics in the U.S. receive hardly any theologically sound religious education appropriate to adults (and to children being taught to memorize the catechsim).

As a result, when any bible huckster comes along who appears to be spouting a verse that appeals to the selective and ignorant reading of the magisterium in which many Catholics engage--say, "Male and female he created them"--Catholics uncritically make common cause with said huckster.  And are, in this way, every bit as susceptible as other Americans to the charge of using scripture selectively and ignorant to reinforce unexamined prejudices that cannot be upheld, if we read the scriptures carefully and grapple with what is first and foremost in them--love, justice, and mercy.

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