A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

What is scriptural literalism? This is the debate or discussion taking place at the God or Not God Carnival. A scriptural literalist could be one who rejects the various genres which make up the Bible presuming that every story is written to record some event, but I can't think of any religious author who would make such a claim.

Or the phrase could relate to those who speak of the "plain meaning" of the text. I wouldn't be as troubeled with such a view if it wasn't usually linked up with three other things; a failure to recognize the role of the interpretator, the problem of relating a passage in isolation to the whole of a text, and relating passages to a religious framework.

If these are not acknowledged then having a discussion over the Bible can be frustrating at best. The best antidote is a sense of history where we can seek to understand the historical context of the texts we're reading, where we can examine our own history to see what we bring to the table and the history and meaning of the religious faith from which we are operating.

The first can be done through reading up on historical critical scholars in biblical studies. There's a slew of volumes written for the layperson who is trying to develop a sense of the historical context. My own congregation, for instance is doing a series on the historical Jesus some of which is reliant on the work of the Jesus seminar.

The latter two can begin to be addressed by addressing what primary principle does one hold fast to by which the meaning of texts can be related to each other and related to one's religious committments. Sometimes it's described as the gospel within the gospel. The quote I posted a few days ago from Augustine can be an example.

For Augustine the principle he urged from which to read scripture was that which lead to the increase in the love of God and of neighbor. For Martin Luther it was salvation by grace apart from the works of the law. For many feminist theologians, it's those passages which affirm the dignity of women and the vulnerable in a given society.

Whatever it is, this becomes one's guiding light in making sense out of the diverse accounts in scripture. Everyone has something like this. The key is to recognize that we are in fact doing it, thus taking ownership of the way one orders and makes sense out of scripture. To do that of course is to recognize our role in this process.

Some are uncomfortable with this, because it brings home the limits, historical and otherwise, in our use of the Bible and other sources in making religious claims. But I'd argue this is a good thing to embrace. It reminds us that we are human not God. That our readings are an engagement with other people over the centuries, not something ahistorical and above criticism and revision.


At 7:05 AM , Anonymous Tim said...

Hmm, interesting. Makes me think of one question: what do you see as the most important bit (verse/phrase-sized chunks, or an abstract idea) in the Bible?

For me it's any time Jesus said "Follow me", which, given that I have to admit the existence of other humanoids as well, means I'm closest to Augustine there, but obviously I won't disagree with Martin Luther either. Other views welcome :)

At 2:47 PM , Blogger BruceA said...

The fact that people can approach the Bible in so many diverse ways, and still get meaning from it, is part of what makes it inspired (in my opinion). When we read the Bible subjectively, we open ourselves to a personal encounter with God.

Literalism, on the other hand, strips the text of its richness by trying to force it into a single meaning that might not speak to everyone.

At 10:01 PM , Blogger prodigal sheep said...

Literalism is not so much a way of reading the Bible as it is a way of foreclosing on any possibility of real reading.

It's proponents effectively deny the reader the right or opportunity to understand, question, interpret or contextualize the text on his/her own. There is one and only one revealed meaning, and the Christian's duty is to read the text with that meaning already firmly planted in mind. Explanation and interpretation are permitted so long as they conform with the received schema.

In this respect, fundamentalist protestantism is not so far apart from orthodox Catholicism. Both rest their dogmatic assertions on appeals to an inerrant authority -- whether it be biblical inerrancy or papal infallibility. Fundamentalism simply denies the role that tradition and authority plays in its 'reading' of Scripture, whereas Catholicism acknowledges it. Both positions are authoritarian and run counter to the bibilical notion of a God whose self-revelation was never -- and could not be -- confined to either a book or an apostolate.

At 9:29 AM , Anonymous Chris T. said...

PSheep, I find fundamentalism to be rather far from even the most orthodox expression of Roman Catholicism.

First, papal infallibility is actually a relatively new thing in the life of the Roman church. It's an innovation of the 19th century. It would be more accurate to describe authority in the Roman Catholic Church as divided between Scripture and the Magisterium, which far from being the pronouncements of a single person draws on the long interpretive tradition of Christianity. Not to mention that while fundamentalists are extremely individualistic in their interpretations, being willing to schism over the slightest difference of interpretation, there is a very palpable sense of theology being done for the Church in the RCC.

There are authoritarians in Catholicism, and there is no doubt that the Church is more centralized than it once was. But I don't think a comparison to fundamentalism is warranted.

At 9:20 AM , Blogger bleedingisaac said...

It’s also interesting to me how differently Jesus read the Bible than his more liberal “followers.” Jesus seemed to believe the tale of Sodom and Gemorrah happened literally and used it to threaten others with (Matthew 17:22-36). Similarly, Jesus talks about the Jonah story as if it were true and makes parallels to his own life (Luke 11:29-32). Jesus seems to believe that Abel (son of Adam and Eve supposedly killed by Cain) (Luke 11:51). It appears Jesus believes that manna (magical bread) came down out of the sky for people to eat (John 6:49).

Similarly, Jesus reads other passages like a fundamentalist. To prove a point about his right to be king, he relies on one single word (i.e. “Lord”) in one of David’s writings (Matthew 22:43-45). Sounds like a “literal, historical” point of view to me. Jesus uses the tense of the verb “am” to prove a point about the resurrection (Luke 20:37-38). Jesus proof-texts a Psalm to keep from being punished for making himself equal to God (John 10:34-35).

Jesus also disagreed with most of your mainline protestant scholars about the authorship of the books of the Bible. He attributes the Torah to Moses (Matthew 19:7, 8; Mark 7:10, 12:26; Luke 5:14; 16:29,31; 24:27, 44; John 1:17; 5:45, 46; 7:19). He attributes “both Isaiah’s” to the same “Isaiah” (Mark 7:6–13; John 12:37–41). He believes Daniel wrote the book of Daniel (Daniel wrote Daniel: Matthew 24:15).

Do you believe the founder of your religion practiced the same hermeneutic that you do? If not are you a better representative of true Christianity than Christ?

At 1:58 PM , Blogger Dwight said...

"Do you believe the founder of your religion practiced the same hermeneutic that you do?"

Yes and no. It's clear that the Gospel authors are pulling together strands of scripture in service of a particular religious vision. But I doubt that they were cognizant of that fact.

And yes I doubt they had the same approaches to scripture than what a mainline scholar would have today. Maybe they did believe in a literal Adam and that Jonah was fish food in a way few of us could believe today.

The Gospels are an interpretation of the faith. So is Paul's work and Augustines's work and what folks today are currently doing. I'm not sure why one method should be priveleged over another outside that it is congruent with the best of what we know about the world.

If we believe that this is God's world and that something of God may be found in increasing knowledge of it, than seeking a religious understanding (in this case how we make use of scripture) that is congruent with such a thing seems to be the most faithful response.

At 5:25 PM , Blogger Athana said...

One shouldn't have to "interpret" a sacred text. You feel the need to "interpret" the bible because you dislike almost all you see: thousands of verses about the beauty of war; the gorgeousness of violence; the enchantment of hating homosexuals and witches; the stove-hot jealousy of the guy our children are supposed to emulate; and on and on and on.

The emperor has no clothes. Look at him: he's violent. He's jealous. He laughs at your misfortune. He gets off on training people for war, on killing whole cities, on twisting fathers into killing their sons. Want specific verses? Come read my post "Erzebet Dug Her Own Grave -- Literally." It got posted to the Carnival late.

At 4:41 PM , Blogger Dwight said...

"One shouldn't have to "interpret" a sacred text."

One should have to interpret any text, sacred or not. The issues I raised are ones faced with someone making sense of Aristotle as much as the Bible.

"thousands of verses about the beauty of war"

I think your doing a bit of exageration here. Taking some passages from the conquest accounts, a few books in the Bible, is not a sufficient basis for even describing the overall direction of the Bible on such subjects.

Your quotes of Isaiah on your blog post ignores the vision that God would have for the world in that book, where swords are beaten into plowshares and war is studied no more. It also ignores the non violence of a central character in the NT: Jesus.

I never see passages such as "wisdom is better than weapons of war" Ecclesiastes 9:18a listed on your site. Probably because they would take away from the absurd characture your making of the Bible.

"the enchantment of hating homosexuals"

The Bible has nothing to say on homosexuality. It does refer to same sex relations, some of them in a negative way (the attempted rape of the angels at Sodom), sometimes in a positive way (the story of Jonathan and David).

It should be noted, that some churches have been *ahead* of secular society when it comes to gay and lesbian inclusion. The Quakers came out with supportive language in the early 1960s. A number of denominations were also ordaining women decades before they had the right to vote.

I raise this not to deny the religious right and it's power in today's politics but I find it odd that they have, for you, determined the sole basis of reading the Bible and determining what is Christian thus ignoring a whole range of churches, ideas and people who think differently on such things.

What purpose does that serve? Our own liberal protestant campus ministry shares and works with the local pagan community and we're able to learn from each other, benefit from each other because of this. I think that model, not the model of rhetorical warfare that you've chosen for your site is going to make a better difference in the long run.

At 10:16 AM , Anonymous tallil2long said...

Well, the Bible has a lot to say about homsexuality. It does this by voicing only ONE approved outlet for human sexuality. Read it in Genesis: "For this reason God created them male and female..."
Everything else reinforces this stricture. Now, setting aside the occasional Biblical proscription against homosexual acts, we can still see that homosexuality does NOT conform to the male/female marriage relationship.
Now, for the homework.

A) Compile a list of all the euphemisms the Bible uses for sex: "knowing", "lay with", etc. Now see if any of these apply in the story of David and Jonathan.

B) Compile a list of sex relations that are clearly APPROVED in the Bible that do NOT conform to the hetero-marital rule.


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