Power of Story Is Layered, Even in Scripture

5 05 2007

I hope I’m doing the right thing, or doing the right thing right, by reprinting this here with full credit. It’s from a short-term personal blog experiment called “Subversive Christianity” that will be permanently deleted on May 19. The suggestion was made that readers “grab” anything they really liked and wanted to preserve, so that’s what I am doing —
and btw, the blog’s header defines “subvert” as
“to turn over; to reveal what is hidden; to uncover roots; to undermine false structures; to rediscover true foundations; to bring what is hidden into the light; to get to the heart of the matter; to prepare for renewal.”

(Snook-cocking salute to Dawn’s DayByDay Homeschooling blogroll for my discovering this in the first place)

Saturday, May 5, 2007
Bible-thumping: the bastard child of bible-reading

Christians who insist on a literal reading of scripture frequently (although not always) call themselves “inerrantists.” As outlined in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy signed by over 200 evangelicalists, inerrancy need not lead to a literalist reading of scripture, but it comes so close that spill-over is entirely likely. Inerrantists are wary of “higher criticism” because they think it threatens to relativize scripture–it’s improper, asserts the authors of the Statement (Article 18), “to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose.”

The Statement also denies that experience and tradition carry the same weight as scripture (Article 2), and all but says that divine revelation ended with the New Testament (Articles 5 & 7). God wrote it–I believe it–End of discussion! is the bumpersticker summary of the Chicago Statement.

Now, the curious thing is that many inerrantists believe that their literalistic reading the Bible is a return to roots–to that ol’ time religion, unadulterated by all this modern exegetical rigamarole (after all, “exegesis” = “exit Jesus”) that denies the Word and undermines the possibility of a saving personal relationship with Christ (whatever this means). For them, shaking off modern “interpretationism” and getting back to the pure way in which the first Christians read their Bible is the goal.

This nostalgia is curious because in fact the early Church Fathers read scripture quite differently than contemporary inerrantists think they did.

One of the many problems with the inerrant approach to Bible reading is that it has a short historical memory. At best, it stretches back to the Reformation’s espousal of sola scriptura. Hard as it is for inerrantists to accept, the patristic Church wasn’t Calvinist or reformed, and it didn’t endorse the kind of inerrancy spelled out by the Chicago Statement.

The Fathers of course considered the Bible to be divinely inspired and the most universal of all books. A few of them insisted that it absolutely superceded the books of pagan philosophy, while others took a less uncompromising attitude to the philosophers (and this tolerance would increase as the centuries progressed). But all understood scripture to be different from other books and deserving of veneration.

But this acceptance of the divine inspiration of scripture didn’t mean that the Fathers endorsed a literalistic reading of it, nor that they assumed that revelation ended with it. The patristic Church accepted two propositions that run counter to contemporary inerrancy: first, that the scriptures must always be read within the context of the Church, and this necessarily means that experience and tradition are also vehicles of revelation. In short, the Holy Spirit’s work is both continuous and communal; second, that there’s more than one layer of meaning embedded in scripture, and to assume that the Bible should be read literalistically, “noninterpretively,” is naive at best, willfully deaf to the full richness of revelation at worst.
Church Fathers were unanimous in their presumption that there are two general “senses” of scripture: the literal and the spiritual. Not infrequently, the distinction was expressed in terms of exoteric and esoteric meaning.

In the preface to On First Principles, for example, Origen asserts that “the Scriptures were composed by the Spirit of God and that they have not only a meaning that is manifest but also another that is hidden as far as most people are concerned.” . . .the point here is that the assumption of scripture’s multiple senses was simply a given in the early Church’s landscape.

Staying on the level of the literal wasn’t sinful, perhaps, but it was superficial.
Recognizing that there are at least two levels of meaning in scripture–I say “at least two,” because the spiritual level was frequently subdivided into subcategories such as moral, allegorical, and anagogical*–the Church Fathers also recognized that sometimes conflicts would arise as to how to interpret any given passage. On what level is it most appropriate to read some texts? If commentator A says literal, and Commentator B says spiritual, how to determine whose is the best reading?

There’s remarkable consensus among the Fathers. Origen says that a scriptural passage may be understood literally when it’s “reasonable” and “not unworthy of God” to do so (On First Principles, 4.2-3). Augustine teaches that the rule is based on “love”: any passage that promotes love of God and neighbor may be read literally with no harm (On Christian Doctrine, 3.15.23). John Cassian says that scriptural passages may be read literally if doing so causes no interior harm to the reader (Conferences, 8.3).

In short, the Fathers assumed that the general thrust of scripture was to direct humans toward a God who is compassionate, just, loving, not contrary to the dictates of reason, and so on. Any scriptural passage which seems to suggest otherwise needs to be read interpretively, not literally.

Inerrancy a return to the simple faith of our fathers? Not quite. It’s more regression than return.
*Rabbinic exegesis likewise accepts this layering of meaning in sacred scripture. A quick overview of this wonderfully rich approach, which informs both Talmudic and Kabbalistic traditions, is here. Thanks to Henry Carse who introduced me to PaRDeS back in 1999 when I studied under him at Jerusalem’s St. George’s College.

Posted by A deacon, by the grace of God, at 4:09 AM

Labels: bible-thumping, biblical inerrancy, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Church Fathers, exegesis, Patristics




18 responses

5 05 2007

The Technorati profile page lists ADeacon (Kerry Walters) as the author to credit for the above.

6 05 2007

I just found that blog and it’s closing. Grrr.

Literalism and the mindset behind it has become so prominent that if I mention I don’t believe in it I often get questions about whether I can really call myself a christian. This comes from believers and non-believers.

There’s also the idea that using reason and criticism and your own mental faculties to decide what you should take from the bible is wishy-washy and inconsistent. Peversely I’ve seen non-christians who claim to respect fundies because ‘at least they’re consistent’ (a good look at Leviticus might put that lie to rest – Are they really sacrfinc their animals properly?). It seems ridiculous to me that those who endorse literalism value the image of consistency more then the use of intellect and reason.

I could growl about this issue all day. Really, I need a release. Something like a whack-mole-game where literalist pop up and I can smack’em with my Oxford NRSV.

6 05 2007

Thanks for sharing this. Though it was not new to me, I’m glad to see the distinctions are appreciated between those who are able to question and THINK about the faith choices they make and those that blindly follow without asking questions.

In my own catholic experience, I have seen a divide due to the history of how the Bible was viewed as well. Because it was viewed as so multi-layered and complex, and due to the belief in further revelation, the Bible was sort of “guarded” from the masses. We were fed our “scriptures” at mass with the priest’s interpretations, that followed the church’s doctrine, so that we would all see it the same. In the past, we were discouraged from reading the Bible without having some Church guidance in our interpretation of it, to be sure our interpretation was aligned with Church doctrine. But things are changing in the Church, by necessity, and I personally know quite a few THINKING Catholics now. 😉

6 05 2007

I know you two have young children so you are likely much younger Thinking Parents than I, here on the other side of the half-century divide from you. 🙂 If there is any wisdom or advice I can pass back, that I wish I hadn’t had to learn the hard way myself, it’s about homeschooling and religion:

There are some literalists who apply their biblical inerrancy to homeschool politics. It’s not the rightness of the god they believe in that sets them apart. It is their need to believe in their own righteousness, and they will protect that at all costs. Pointing to their god and his commandments for living is what makes them feel right about everything and everyone. It is certain security and complete identity in a world they just can’t cope with well otherwise.

I’ve suffered through “discussion” with homeschoolers so obsessed with literalism and absolute, inerrant meaning that they come to hear anything I say as wicked devil-talk from JJ the antichrist. Literally! There are homeschool moms reading this right now who would shut me up or strike me down in their righteous zeal to “protect” the true, pure homeschoolers in their own tightly closed fold of belonging and belief, to keep the outside world at bay socially, economically, legally, culturally, educationally. A closed circle of them literally conspired to try it (shutting me up or striking me down) in the past, and felt very righteous about it too!

Such literalists as I have encountered are unable to see or hear a problem from alternate points of view, unable to ask and explore any question that god hasn’t already prescribed the definitive answer to. Their imaginations are nonexistent and they have little or no sense of humor, hence don’t and generally CAN’T connect comfortably on any social or learning level (much less a collaborative problem-solving level such as political action) except with similarly literal folk. I’ve known a couple afflicted to an almost autistic, sociopathic extreme and unfortunately that’s not hyperbole; I DO mean it quite literally.

It is hard to recognize them as different from any other homeschool individualists unless you pay attention and know what you’re looking for, and believe that it even exists. (I did not, it was just too absurd!) They will speak English and string common words together in ways that SEEM like reasonable discussion, unless you happen to get involved enough to ask questions, start to fisk what really is being said, extrapolate effects and express concern, etc. Then as the ugliness and perversion of literalism begins to show through their veneer of righteousness and moral pronouncements for all, they may collectively turn on you, in a frenzy of irrationality (like a barroom brawl) because literally nothing is more important than preserving their belief in their own righteousness, and you have just made yourself the most immediate threat to it.

It’s a singleminded kind of ruthlessness I guess you have to fall victim to yourself, before you can really accept that nice people could be possessed by it.
(OH – and they tend to repeat and repeat and REPEAT the same stubborn point or two endlessly, without considering what’s happened to advance the conversation since the first few hundred iterations . . .)

Unfortunately their private mental problems affect others in widening ripples, in the same way pornography fixation can corrupt men’s healthy relationships with real living, breathing women and children, and eventually become a society-wide influence perverting our economy, the media and Internet, divorce and custody laws, etc. These intolerant literalist minds (often abused as children themselves) become obsessed with what they believe is god-mandated homemaking and homeschooling, to the point that they MUST attack anyone who challenges their very narrow grip on reality, or invites them to find more flexibility, humor and diversity of ideas and perspectives. It’s literally too big a threat to their single security for them to “tolerate.”

6 05 2007

Public school has righteous literalists too, lots of them!
I also understand that better now than ever before.

Not as an example but because it does connect sort of, I wrote Kay’s school blog last night to comment on the new uniform dress policy in her district. She defends it as good for the learning environment and others are opposed.

I don’t really have a position but I did have a new thought about the issue, which was to wonder if Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect of the standardized, dehumanizing institutional situation would be furthered, by making all students dress alike as inmates do, and church ladies used to, not to mention religious uniforms from headcoverings to the full-body coverings of the Taliban’s rule that led to such casual, constant abuse of the wearers. Does the prescribed ritual and choirboy uniform of the institutionalized catholic church help create the dehumanizing anonymity that may have worsened the decades of child abuse exposed recently? It is only a question, not an answer or an argument, because I don’t know and maybe nobody does yet. The point is that it’s the question of a lively and curious mind that really wants to know and thinks it is important to find out the “right” answer either way. I think we should all want to know before we make up our minds about what is “right” to do to kids in institutions.

6 05 2007

JJ, I have been in the same homeschooling groups with people as literal as you describe. I couldn’t go to the park days any longer because of the open threats and coercion of children, and unbelievably actual spankings! (One child in particular was taken off to the side, out of view, but not out of earshot.) I spoke up on-line and provided information for alternatives, and “Biblical” justification for being kind to your children rather than “lording it over them” and beating them. Some responses were condemning, some tolerant, and some were grateful! BUT I do know that some people cannot tolerate any “whys” in their life. It is too threatening to their sense of self and security. Still others of us think we can handle all the whys until some hits that one spot and asks us, “Why do you….?” 😉

As for uniforms creating a good “learning environment”. Ha! That’s funny to an unschooler who believes the whole world is a learning environment, isn’t it? 😉 I think it makes schools sound even more like prisons, taking away more rights of children-what to put on their own bodies!

As an aside, and somehow loosely related to all of this, I posted on my blog today about this “Christain” e-mail about prayer and school and whatnot, that is going around. I don’t know if you would receive something like this, but if you’re interested and want to see my response is, it’s here: http://learningalwaysandallways.blogspot.com/

6 05 2007

JJ – I’ve known those literalists! Not so much in real life. Literalism and fundamentalism hasn’t really caught on up where I am but online…ew. I’ve fled to secular and atheist message boards because christian homeschooling inevitably means literalists and how in the f*%^ am I supposed to hold a conversation with someone who thinks the rapture is coming and dinosaurs lived alongside man?

Your description of them was sadly perfect.

6 05 2007

Well, I am glad to know you guys! 🙂 🙂

6 05 2007

OK, I’m going to bookmark this to read at a time when my brain is working. It looks like an incredible discussion, and one I want to be a part of, but a (unnanounced to family and IRL friends) new little life is sucking my brain cells and energy right now. I’ll be baaaaack!

6 05 2007

Congrats and we’ll see you in the second trimester when things are all sanguine and easy! 🙂

6 05 2007

The feeling is mutual, JJ. 🙂

6 05 2007


7 05 2007
Another Cloud on "Home Education" Clarity Campaign Horizon? « Cocking A Snook!

[…] dear, do I hear resurgent thunder threatening, that this program’s publicity could cloud the pure absolute meaning of “home […]

8 05 2007

Doc linked a strange site called “Ladies Against Feminism” last week, more perverse literalism and with art, of homemade, old-fashioned dresses as more feminine and biblical than anything before or after the 1950s (surely robes and sandals and camels walked by slaves would be literally more authentic, if that really were the point?)

Their stance throughout is is that the Bible (Old and New books) calls for this approach to womanhood, as the infallible and “reliably” translated word of God. Thus we all were created in God’s image and that’s how women were made. Then they go on and on about how differently men and women are built, not equal nor eqalitarian but each sex meant for complementary purposes, incomplete except together as one.

Jerry Maguire flashes in my mind. 🙂

But so far no illogic to the tale. It hangs together as power of story until this:

Any versions which alter the words of Scripture or change male terms into gender-neutral terms are untrustworthy and should not be promoted or used by Christians or churches.

HUH? Surely God the Great and Powerful Oz is not a humbug, the incomplete male version only, pretending to be the alpha AND the omega? To be true to the infallibility of the story’s substance, you need language that best represents a god complete within, a god without any sex parts to hook up with others or if you prefer, a god with all possible sex parts in one integrated being — hence all those translations and meditations that assign sex parts real or allegorical to god MUST be fallible and human, not to mention pretty icky once you stop to think what it would mean as “literal” truth.

8 05 2007

You know “literal” is all about words, getting meaning from words and believing that one meaning is absolute because it is written that way. Which as you can see, I tend to mock at every opportunity. 🙂

So I was just thinking, that maybe truer, more complete spiritualism would exist in a realm NOT of words, that humans (male and female) would reach in nonverbal meditation and sensation — sex for instance, with all that transcendent completing going on! But say you don’t want to touch that, then what about more traditional religious advice about avoiding confusion by avoiding words and lines of text and human linear-lawyer-system thought?

I googled silent Christian contemplation and was amazed.

As an aside, the funny part to me is is that even writing about not using words is fraught with word-meaning confusions. The very first link I opened used the phrase “corporate worship!”
Wow, the homeschooling clarity movement would HATE that confusing use of layered words, I thought, sounds like corporate charter schools appropriating worship and preachers colluding with them to do it. . . 😉
it’s from a book called Keeping Silence by McPherson, page 90.

HOME EDUCATION is like that, for us. Impossible to reduce to mere words, especially words issued by literalists to tell one circumscribed, legalistic version of the real story. Do some “Christians” feel the same way these days, I really wonder, that they are being limited and defined by the least among them, those who can’t understand and believe in many stories on many levels at once, cannot comprehend ambiguity and connected dots in a grand curve of their own interpretation, also just can’t live and let live, must impose the letter of their law on everyone along one straight line? (no curves allowed!) Aha, a response therein? — you can’t literally be prolife if you won’t live and let live?

22 07 2007
Sundance and Butch Could Teach the Blind, Bankrupt French « Cocking A Snook!

[…] the law, in the sense that it isn’t controlled or circumscribed BY the law. You might say I’m a subversive thinker : “Subversive Christianity” – -the blog’s header defines “subvert” as “to turn over; to […]

10 10 2007

“So I was just thinking, that maybe truer, more complete spiritualism would exist in a realm NOT of words, that humans (male and female) would reach in nonverbal meditation and sensation — sex for instance, with all that transcendent completing going on!”

It’ funny that I just read this today, because this past week I listened to a very enlightening CD which discussed Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Human Body”. Apparently, the Pope stated that sexual union (in the context of marriage, of course) was one of the most full, complete expressions of the Holy Spirit in human form. When we humans are united in sex, we are more united with the fullness of God. Wow!

Or maybe we just interpret it that way! 😉

10 10 2007

Either way, definitely spiritual to humans and communicative of meaning. 🙂

But this is a good example, don’t you think, of an act like sex or homeschooling NEEDING layers of interpretation and understanding, not just binary good or bad, yes or no, spiritual or sinful. For sex, we have to define “marriage” of course — not easy these days! — in legal, spiritual and cultural ways. Then even supposing we could universally settle those meanings and rules to one clear meaning, the goodness and badness of marriage acts as we understand them will be affected by all sorts of things like whether it’s protected, whether it’s fruitful, whether it’s mutual or unilaterally experienced, sublime or grudging, whether children witness it, etc etc —

I loved the true story about the dead Frenchman who was “married” to his fiancee by the head of state in a civil ceremony, presumably because she was already pregnant with his child. Did you ever think about that one, in a predominantly Catholic culture?

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