Biblical literalism

“It’s Not Me, It’s the Bible.”

An article from the Huffington Post came through my Twitter feed this evening that compels me to get theological again. The article is sadly typical and tells the story of a man who was told he could not play music in his church any more because he was gay.

The minister was quick to say they are not a “church of hate” and that the musician, Chad, is still welcome to come to services.  Do the people who make these kind of statements really believe that the person will take them up on the offer?  “Sorry about the whole being damned to hell thing, but if you want to come worship with us, it’s fine.  Just want to make it clear we disapprove of you.  See you on Sunday!”  They can’t really imagine such a thing, can they?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been delving deeply into the letters of Paul lately.  It is Paul who provides the New Testament ammunition for people who feel strongly that homosexuality is a sin.  (By any way you count references to homosexuality are few in the Bible.  None attributed to Jesus. Our emphasis on it is of an entirely different proportion than it is in the Bible.)

Some will point to Leviticus and Deuteronomy for support, but because Christians have not found it necessary to abide by all of the other Jewish laws included there: dietary laws, temple ritual and circumcision, the argument that we should be bound by only the laws from these Old Testament books that happen to deal with homosexuality is not particularly strong.

Most Christians who feel that homosexuality is a sin try to make a distinction between the desire and the act.  It is not the person, it is the activity.  If they would only stop doing those dirty deeds there would be no problem with them being gay.  The pastor in the Huffington Post article takes this position:

“We love our neighbors as ourselves. No matter what you hear or read, that’s what we practice here.” he said.  “…The difference with Chad is that he switched from struggling with his sin to embracing it.”

Here is the problem:  Paul specifically condemns homosexual desire.  In Romans Paul says that as a punishment for idol worship: “God gave them (the Greeks) over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”  (Romans 1:27-28)

It is shameful lust not only shameful action.

But don’t get too comfortable.  It is not only homosexual desire that is a sin for Paul, it is any desire, the desire for status, the desire for wealth, and good old fashioned heterosexual desire.

When it comes to the last on that list, Paul believes that the ideal is for all people to remain celibate as he is.  “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

The best thing he has to say about marriage is that it is a lesser evil than promiscuity.  It is better not to be married, he says, but “as a concession” if men are not able to control their desires, they should marry and render to their spouses the affection due them. Marriage, in Paul’s mind, is a way to contain desire. “If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Being married puts the fire out.  (1 Corinthians 7:1-9)

In Paul’s view humans should not desire anything carnal and of this world, their desire should only be for God.

Straight members of Cross Point Church, do you ever burn with desire for things other than God?  I bet you do.  Do you even try to “struggle with” your desire for your husbands and wives or have you crossed over to embracing your sin?  Do you “struggle with” your desire for more money and status such as better job titles or have you actually started embracing that sin?  Shouldn’t you all be fired from the church?  Be thankful for God’s mercy.

If having no worldly desire except for God seems far too high a burden for human beings, you’re right.  We are not perfect.  We are human beings not angels.

Paul describes the human predicament in Romans: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Paul and Jesus both say, in too many places to cite chapters and verses, that God knows we fall short and he loves us anyway.  We are brothers and sisters and our duty is to love one another.

In Paul’s theology Christ’s sacrifice is the answer to the problem of our complete inability to live up to our highest expectations of ourselves.

Remember that Paul immediately follows Romans 1 with its condemnation of homosexual desire (and lots of other stuff) with Romans 2.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?”

It is not your place to pass judgment on man, that right belongs to God.

I, personally, do not feel that a Christian has to embrace every part of Paul’s world view.   I happen not to think that desire is sinful, whether homosexual or heterosexual.  The question is whether sexuality is expressed in a spirit of love or exploitation.

But even if you affirm that you must agree with every one of Paul’s beliefs, there is no basis in scripture for defining sin as “pointing out other people’s shortcomings while overlooking your own.”

The main test for how to behave towards others is whether or not you are acting with love.

“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Galatians 5:14)

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

So to the people at the church who were involved in the decision detailed in the Huffington Post I would ask: How did Chad Graber feel when you, the members of his community, told him you did not think he was moral enough to share his music with you any more?  Do you think he felt bathed in your love?

200 Years from Now It Will Still Say…

(Joel) Osteen has repeatedly tried to tip toe around his stance on homosexuality, telling Piers Morgan in October of 2011 that he’s not “mad at anybody” and doesn’t “dislike anybody,” while reiterating his belief that the scripture says homosexuality is a sin,” and “two hundred years from now, the Scripture is still going to say that.”

This is a quote from an article on Huffington Post which quotes Osteen as saying that he doesn’t believe heterosexuality is a choice, but he still thinks homosexuality is a sin.

What he says about the text of the Bible being unchanging is true.  We have locked in what we consider to be scripture at this point, and even as society changes the words will not.  So what do you do with texts that are talking about an ancient way of life, about slaves and eunuchs and the demon possessed? Aren’t we fairly happy that we don’t have people performing animal sacrifices in our churches?

Two hundred years from now the Bible will still say: “If any man takes a wife … and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones …”

I’m hoping we won’t follow that rule 200 years from now either.

He is Risen Indeed!

James Carroll, writing for the Boston Globe, has a very nice article on the significance of Easter. 

This is a follow up in theme to my past article on Biblical literalism and the symbolic value of Biblical stories.  I cited an article in The Christian Century lamenting our inability to read the metaphoric meaning in artistic and spiritual texts. 

“A literalist imagination— or lack of imagination— pervades contemporary culture,” wrote the article’s author, Conrad Hyers.

In today’s Globe, Carroll asks what would happen if there had been a video camera fixed on Jesus’ tomb, and what if it showed nothing?

…would Christian faith thereby collapse?

Of course not. Why? Because the resurrection of Jesus is addressed not to a machine but to the eyes of faith. The example, though, demonstrates the modern fallacy — the way a post-Enlightenment religious imagination gets easily sidetracked into questions of “scientific’’ or “historical’’ proof. What “actually’’ happened on Easter and in the days after? Were the laws of nature upended by a “miracle’’ or not?

…It trivializes what Paul means when he says “appeared’’ to reduce it to mere apparitions. There are apparitions in Virgil’s “Aeneid,’’ and in all kinds of ancient narratives. Revived cadavers are irrelevant. No, Paul is declaring that believers were enabled all at once to grasp that the abandoned Jesus was ultimately exalted by the one he called Father. That is what believers saw. Paul does not say how it happened.

The death of Jesus was not the end of the story. Indeed, with the death of Jesus, the human story is transformed, with death perceived now as entry into the ultimate reality — who is called God. Human destiny, therefore, is not nothingness, but meaning… Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was not a suspension of the laws of nature, but a fulfillment of them — a personal event without being physiological, a real happening without being “historical.’’ Christian faith is not in “after life,’’ but in eternal life, which is beyond categories of time. “Life,’’ as Jesus himself said, “life to the full.’’ To be fully alive is to be aware of being held here and now in what does not die, and in what does not drop what it holds. God. Resurrection is the word Christians have for this awareness. And why should it not have ignited the ancient world?

The Red Letter Christians today ran an article Do I Deny the Resurrection by Hugh Hollowell, which touches on the same theme.

“Do I deny the resurrection of Christ?” Hollowell wrote, “I can do no better than to quote Peter Rollins on the subject.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

Hollowell concludes: “If I act hateful, or in fact, less than loving to my neighbor, I have denied the resurrection… And I can believe whatever you want about what happened that Sunday morning, but if I am not using what power I have to help God bring the Kingdom into fruition, to help make it on Earth as it is in Heaven, I don’t expect you to call me a Christian.”

In the Beginning Was the Word

Not long ago I was watching a documentary on The History Channel and one of the interviewed scholars noted that Biblical literalism— interpreting the words of the Bible as literal rather than metaphorical— is a modern invention.  The scholar noted that this way of reading the Bible only dated back to the 20th century.

We most strongly associate Evangelicals and conservative Christians with a literal interpretation of scripture, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that modern atheists and agnostics also discuss religion within the framework of Biblical literalism, and their rejection of faith—our rejection as I was raised a good agnostic Unitarian—is a rejection of a literal interpretation, which is easy to attack as irrational and anti-intellectual.

The God that atheists do not believe in is the one described literally in the Bible’s pages.  They reject miracles because they cannot be scientifically or historically true.  They point out the contradictions from one Biblical story to another.  If they contradict, then there cannot be “truth” in them.

It is popular among secular humanists to reject the supernaturalism of Christianity while praising the historical Jesus as a wise teacher. (Who can really argue against “blessed are the peacemakers”?) Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to take this approach. He literally cut his Bible apart and excised the miraculous and mythic.  The resulting “Jefferson Bible” was a collection of the scientifically and historically believable sayings and events in the life of a human Jesus.

But what he edited out, along with the myths, was the powerful symbolism—the art of the imagination, the metaphorical understanding of the nature of life.  In Jefferson’s Bible there were no angels, no wise men and no resurrection. There was, as Stephen Prothero wrote in “American Jesus,” a son of a carpenter who “did little more than wander around Galilee delivering pithy moral aphorisms.”

Back in 1982, Dr. Conrad Hyers wrote an article for The Christian Century on the topic of Biblical literalism and the lost art of thinking symbolically, he wrote:

The early ethnologist R. R. Marett is noted for his dictum that “religion is not so much thought out as danced out.” But even when thought out, religion is focused in the verbal equivalent of the dance: myth, symbol and metaphor. To insist on assigning to it a literal, one-dimensional meaning is to shrink and stifle and distort the significance… Religious expression trembles with a sense of inexpressible mystery, a mystery which nevertheless addresses us in the totality of our being.

The literal imagination is univocal. Words mean one thing, and one thing only. They don’t bristle with meanings and possibilities; they are bald, clean-shaven. Literal clarity and simplicity, to be sure, offer a kind of security in a world (or Bible) where otherwise issues seem incorrigibly complex, ambiguous and muddy. But it is a false security, a temporary bastion, maintained by dogmatism and misguided loyalty. Literalism pays a high price for the hope of having firm and unbreakable handles attached to reality. The result is to move in the opposite direction from religious symbolism, emptying symbols of their amplitude of meaning and power, reducing the cosmic dance to a calibrated discussion.

There are different ways of understanding “truth.” There are scientific truths, mathematic truths, historical truths and then there are the other kinds of truths: the poetic, emotional, artistic and mythological truths.  These are truths that are best revealed through parables, metaphors and art.  Powerful imagery matters. The stories we tell matter.

We have, for example, been telling stories of death/destruction and rebirth throughout time and across cultures; from the floods of Gilgamesh and Noah to the resurrection of Jesus. These stories have been passed along from generation to generation because of the deep spiritual truths they contain. Thus they have the power, not only to spark our imaginations, and provide us a cultural context for art and expression, but also to bind us together with other human societies throughout time.

I contend Jefferson had it entirely backwards when he took the scissors to his Bible. If you had a choice between losing all evidence of the historic person of Jesus or losing the story of a being who was resurrected, then Jesus would be the much smaller loss. Fortunately, we have both the “pithy aphorisms,” the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus which continue to inspire and the tales of miracles and wonder and even if it is one of the least accurate translations from a scholarly standpoint—we can still respond to the poetry of the King James Bible.

We have the capacity to explore the world with science and reason, and the intellect to use those tools to make the world a better place.  Our rational minds and the scientific method need not be incompatible with a sense of wonder or worship.  In our celebration of rationality, let’s not forget the other birthright we have as humans—the ability to think and communicate symbolically—the ability to share powerful stories and to find truth and meaning in them.