Thursday, August 27, 2009
Biblical literalism just escapes me
"When people read the Bible, the works of Homer or any other ancient text, they link themselves to the people who read these words millennia ago.
" 'We have read the same text,' they may think, 'So we are alike.' This happens particularly within religions. Modern Christians who read the Bible, for instance, may imagine themselves to be like the ancient Christians who read the same Bible.
"But nothing could be further from the truth. ..."
Read all of
By Paul V.M. Flesher
via the University of Wyoming
Religious Studies Department
Literalism is a sign of a failure of imagination, a failure of understanding, and a failure to take the text as only what it is, a sign indicating something far larger. If one does not read with the understanding that one is encountering, in effect, an arrow pointing away from itself, believing the text is the Word, rather than testimony to it (this goes for everything from pulp fiction to Holy Writ), then one isn't reading.
If we can't believe the Bible literally, why believe it at all?
One may believe in the One to whom it testifies, and may be led to the One to whom it testifies by it.
But a sign is not the road.
A signifier is not the signified.
A word is not the Word of God, though it may be a very good word, sometimes literal, sometimes (like in Philippians) hynmnody (vs literal), sometimes metaphorical, sometimes analogical, sometimes poetic, sometimes mythical, but always about the Word of God in whom one may believe, in the only possible way one can do so.
I could never believe in the Bible. The Bible itself tells me to believe in Christ in so many more ways than just the literal because the human person responds to creation and revelation in so many more ways than just literal assent. How much more are we than mere literal speakers, hearers, writers, responders?
Why they Psalms? Why proverbs? The words themselves indicate genres other than the literal.
Apocalyptic, eschatological, hortatory, gospel preaching ("I tell you the truth, faith is like a mustard seed"; literal?), even epistolary is not strictly a literal genre by necessity.
Truth is not literal all the time. That is why literature often leads us back to it.
In other words, the best we can do is hope that any of what the Bible says makes some kind of human sense to us at all. Passages that seem so clear to us today may have had a totally different meaning to the author and his or her intended audience; and that's OK. Some passages of Scripture that we pass over in silence were once central to an understanding of God, such as the Song of Songs.
I accept the testimony of the Bible not because of a long process of rational argument in favor of this position. Rather, I accept the testimony of Scripture because it points me to the reality of God, God's grace, and God's history of loving care toward creation in a way that helps me make sense of events in my life and the life of the communities of which I have been a part. Any rational explanation on the acceptability of Scriptural testimony comes up against the fact that we are dealing with a bunch of really old writings in dead languages from a world with which all of us, no matter how closely we study, are completely unfamiliar. Even the best we can do is guess at meanings.
Take Paul, for example. Very progressive for his time (Peter, too, eventually). But was still a neanderthal, by present standards, when it comes to slavery and even women -- because although he was progressive for his time, he still is backward for our time.
So, I am perfectly comfortable tossing such like as women "silent" in the churches, etc. Also, since I'm not of the Levitical priesthood, I'm not too keen on adhering personally to some of those things, or insisting that others do.
Does that make Scripture less than authoritative? Not to me. Not if Scripture is seen as sacred because of its place in our collective history as Christians, and not because of it's alleged source. Because it's source is the hands of men inspired by their search, and their encounters with, the Divine. Pretty heady stuff. Stuff to be taken very seriously by us as descendents. But not very much of it very literally.
I don't get this leap in logic, much less accept it. I is a defensive cliche of the anxiety of conservatives.
The psalms are predominantly not written in a literal mode, and much less are "recording" or "reporting" of events. They are immensely subjective, provocative and intuitive meditations on the experience of the differences between fate and faith, God and destiny, sorrow, guilt, redemption, hope.
And yet they have sustained the faith of people writing from cultures as diverse as second century Egyptian hermitages to twelfth century Irish oratories to seventeenth century Russian exiles to twentieth century Canal builders separated from their families who stayed behind in Jamaica.
There is no common understanding of the literal meaning of the Psalms, much less literal agreement on what they mean to each reader.
The Gospels as complex sermons act in much the same way, and so, too, Genesis.
Who knows what was literally history for the whole sweeping sections of Isaiah? No one. And yet, Isaiah functions within the Christian Bible and as Christian literature far, far from a literal mode.
The Book of Revelation is scripture and yet the Church has yet to find a normative way to understand how it is Christian literature. This fact alone suggests that the literal is only one of many ways in which the books and various genres within the books function for the church as Holy Scripture.
And as for the Song of Solomon, it is profoundly alive today for Jews, for Jewish spirituality, for a sacramental approach to an understanding of marriage, of sexuality, and of the breadth of Scriptural genres.
And it is personal to me -- though dead to
GKS: my wife and I included a long reading of it in our own wedding.
"My sister, my bride..."
And I can tell you it operated as spiritual scripture that day; it broke people up, touched them deeply. It established for the community that day that God, passion, sex, and relationship are a holy communion.
By the way editor, you misused its, in your scree--using "it's allegeed source" is blasphemy according to Clark 5:1, and it has to be taken literally
Lincoln, Gandhi, Aquinas, MLK. They selected what they wanted to believe and then they set about persuasion. Now, humility was a great part of what they selected to be included in their cart of what they wanted to believe.
Otherwise, it seems to me, that if selection is not an option, then we are in the realm of science or logic.
It's the selecting that partly qualifies the quality of faith.
For me, intellectual rigor is part of forming my criteria for selecting what I want to believe. So is community. So is the rule of faith received from the centuries of holy witnesses, and so is my own witness in commitment to sacramental practice.
From these (scripture, tradition, reason) and embedded in my Christian family, we form our faith and set it to always seek greater understanding , continually and critically selecting what we believe in the great wide world of God's creation.
Agrarian protestantism and reactionary Catholicism have protected themselves by wishing the world were static, and modeling stasis.
It's not very pretty.
Nothing is static!
God is still speaking!
Hints and glosses of The Word can be found in "the' Bible -- as well as in the "texts" and experiences of other "faith" traditions.
Christianity is an ethic wrapped in "beliefs," not a belief or set of beliefs.
As Christians, out chief exemplar of the ethic we're to follow is one sage known now as Jesus of Nazareth, as best as we can grasp from Scripture, and the historic experience of the church.
The historic experience of the church is mixed in its ethic.
Sometimes, all I can claim for a doctrine is Gaitherism -- as in Bill Gaither! -- as in, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there's just something about that name ..."
Often, when I'm honest, all I can say is I follow Barbara, and Robin, and Feodor, and Geoffrey -- and others who are, by their own example or admission, trying to follow Jesus.
Which means that WE -- not just I -- are selecting what we want to believe.
And when I am most at peace, I'm not "believing" much at all, if by that what is meant is "I give intellectual assent to (fill in the blank) "facts" or assertions).
What I'm doing is trying to live a certain way -- a certain Way -- trusting in God, and agreeing with a great cloud of witnesses that Jesus of Nazareth, who our ancestors in the Way interpreted as the Christ, left a great example of the way to live that Way.
I've got a mystical streak, I do.
Just because we feel something, or agree with it, doesn't make it reliable, any more than some good 'ol boy politician trying to convince you he's for the people while lininghis pockets. Prove it..
James 2:17 --Faith without works is dead.
But of course we can't take that literally
do you suppose God, if there is one, since we can't take the bible literally--is up there laughing at oru foolishness?
How could a profession that is, what, only four hundred years old?, bear any applicability to biblical interpretation?
It's like a doctor asking for diagnostic criteria.
In spite of his career addiction to journalism, I've found him very reliable.
Luke was a journalist? Really? Who paid him for it? And on what, exactly, did he write down his "on the scene" notes?
My Sunday School taught me he was a preaching physician.
The bare words on the page are dead. The Spirit gives them life. Living them, in the power of the Spirit, gives them meaning.
Clark, I would respectfully submit that your description of what comes "after" literalism is set aside leaves out a crucial actor in the interplay of reading the Bible (at least for me). One can read the Bible in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and come away with all sorts of conclusions concerning it. When I read it, I believe that the one to whom the sign points is there with me. In my intellect. In my emotional response. In my reflections. I struggle with passages at times. Others seem not just clear, but almost invisible.
While I think Feodor and I would agree that the diversity of literary genres makes any attempt at "completion" difficult, I would submit that a faithful reading across the genres, with an awareness of them as signs pointing away from themselves, might yield an appreciation for the abundance of faith God placed in the intellect and imaginative capacity of we the most beloved of creation.
When she was in seminary, my wife took a class entitled "Preaching in the African-American Tradition", offered by the Rev. Dr. William "Bobby" McLain. Her final sermon for that class included the observation that the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was made from the wood of the tree from the Garden, the tree that bore the fruit that caused humanity's fall. Now, there is nothing "textual" about that observation. There is nothing in the Bible that points to such a bold statement. Various writings, in Hebrew and Greek, spanning hundreds of years, various editions and elisions, could hardly lead one to such a conclusion. Yet, this statement is not just a bold faith claim, an insight into the hermeneutic circle embedded in the history of God's dealings with humanity, or fanciful poetics. It is a trust in the testimony of Scripture, and a trust in the guidance of the Spirit leading one's reading and struggle with a text. Her insight on this connection has been central to my own faith journey in the many years since she first read it to me.
A "literal" reading of the Bible could never yield such a conclusion, or so bold a statement. TO me, however, the "truth" of this observation is far more powerful than any "literal" claim I have ever heard from the mouth or read from the pen of a Biblical literalist. The medium between the text and the reader is not only the interplay between contexts. It is the Triune God working with us and the text.
And he begins his second journal (wherein journalism comes from--an account of the day's events) with "In my former treatise, Oh Theophilis, ..." --Acts 1:1.
Uno. This chat has gone all over the place from my objection to biblical literalism, and that's fine. But if I thought that not being able to take the Scriptures literally in all, or even most, instances was a threat to my faith, well, I wouldn't be in seminary.
Dos. And I may have said this befoee: If the Only God, the only Christ, one has encountered is the one one hs read about, then one hasn't actually encountered God or Christ -- no, that's overstated. One in that can has barely begun to suck the milk bottle, in my humble opinion.
Tree. I love this, in answer to Clark's wondering what God thinks of our theological foolishness: http://eruditeredneck.blogspot.com/2009/06/dung-deal.html
Actually, I accept all of the Bible. The question is whether I adhere to all of it, and that answer is "no." For example, I have no idea what to do with the Nephilim. :-)
Re, James 2: 17 ... "Faith without works is dead."
I agree with James -- and I disagree with Martin Luther, who would have preferred James be excised from the Canon.
And, saludos on prompting such exegesis (wow) for thoughts and words on the eternal.
He didn't need money? "Being a doctor, he could afford to work for free"? What kind of SUV did he drive?
God, man, how many assumptions do you intend to string together in three sentences?
And where do you get this stuff?
My open tone follows your veiled one.
And from where I come from, academics very seldom huff and puff about things they are not trained to speak to. But then, every Southern man seems to think he is well equipped to speak for the Bible.
If Clark were a dog, I'd say he's a terrier, the kind of happy, bouncy critter who JOYS in getting under people's feet, yipping at their heels, swiping food when no one is looking, and jumpin up in your lap when you'd really rather he not. With a big heart.
If Feodor were a dog, I'd say he's a trained German shepherd, territorial, defensive of his various domains, sure of himself and initially suspicious of everyone else.
Both of y'all are Texans, BTW, and it shows through both breeds. Feodor, however, is self-Galvanized Yankee, which he also wears on his sleeve.
And I admire y'all both.
I guess the civil war cracks is fair game since I imagined you bein a bare butt poodle rubbin his hinder parts on the rug...heck, I still do when I has the worms.
Sorry bout them mets...caught'em on tv last week, and all 75 people in the bleachers looked really disappointed
if we can't be lippant about lie an drelition, where is that writen?
Clerk thinks open opposition, carried out in completed, much less substantive, thought, is being uptight. He'd rather it be repressed, as in his own practice.
Kind of Snopesian, it seems to me: typical tortured Southern indirection.
And if not being a "standard" academic means not being able to spell colleague -- or not caring -- then I hope they keep non-standard academics on that side of the Mississippi.
Now, if you want to make a practice out of satire, like Bill, that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish. But then don't pretend you saying anything helpful or substantive about biblical interpretation.