Friday, February 3, 2017

Emerging All Over Again in American Culture — Biblical Literalism (but Strictly Limited Literalism Ignoring Constant Command to Welcome Strangers)

Emerging all over again in the wake of the nameless one's pseudo electoral "victory": biblical literalism. It just never seems to go away in American culture. It's peculiarly American, and not really found in Christianity outside the U.S. except insofar as Americans have exported it.

The belief that anyone can and should take every word of the bible literally and obey every word in it implicitly is, if you'll pardon the expression, downright nutty. "The bible" is a collection of books written in languages hardly any biblical literalist can even read, over a span of many centuries. Those books are chock-full of contradictory texts, texts no one would dare take literally (the command to dash the heads of our enemies' children against the stones?!), texts that would drive anyone who tried to take them literally around the bend (Origen is said to have castrated himself because of the gospel statement to pluck out your eye if your eye offends you).

From a Jewish perspective, A. J. Jacobs wrote a wonderful book about his experiment in following — literally, scrupulously — every command in the Jewish scriptures for a year. The book is entitled The Year of Living Biblically. As he discovered, trying to follow every command in the Jewish scriptures literally, all of them at once, is plain crazy. It makes for craziness in the person seeking to do this, and in everyone connected to that person.

Jacobs undertook that experiment and wrote about it not to mock scripture, but because he believes in and respects scripture — and saw that the literalist approach leads in the opposite direction. The most significant Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, had the same insight.

Barth writes that biblical literalism, biblical fundamentalism, actually undercuts the power of the biblical texts by pretending that they are clear, simple, easily understood, and can be reduced to a simplistic set of formulas. As he said, the approach of biblical literalists really locks the biblical texts up in a box controlled by those who claim they follow and understand every text literally, and have control of the lock-box.

He and other theologians have noted for centuries now that we inevitably have to choose what's most significant in the biblical texts as we live in response to them in different cultural settings. We end up choosing a canon within the big, nutty canon full of conflicting texts, and we orient our faith around that canon within the canon.

For Christians, one significant way to read the bible is to read it by placing Jesus and the gospels at the enter of our biblical reading, as a kind of critical fulcrum. What contradicts the example and words of Jesus (e.g., cruelty to the stranger, anywhere it might be countenanced in other texts) is to be moved to the margins as we read the bible.

On the basis of that kind of reading, the human community eventually decided that all the texts blessing and taking the practice of slavery for granted were to be moved to the margins and not to be taken literally. Today, we're still — many of us — embroiled in the impossible task of pretending that the topics of homosexuality and abortion are central to the biblical text, when they are simply not mentioned there and were not envisaged by the biblical writers.

While we ignore — even as we claim to read and obey the bible literally, every word of it — the scads of texts having to do with God's displeasure at our ill treatment of the poor, the stranger, the widow and orphan . . . . We have a nice little game going, we American "Christians." It allows us to congratulate ourselves on what fine followers of Jesus and the bible we are, while we simply throw to the wind most of what Jesus actually said and stood for and exemplified in his behavior, as described in the gospel stories.

See Alan McCornick's two outstanding recent postings on the theme of "cherry-picking" bits and pieces of the scriptures as we engage in the enterprise of interpreting them: here and here.

No comments: