Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bible?!? Are You Effing KIDDING Me???

Rating: GT

A few years ago, my orientation to biblical scholarship was as an interested onlooker; I enjoyed the idea of biblical scholarship and was excited about the prospect of devoting time and energy to doing some of it myself. I believed it to be a useful and necessary tool for Christians who are struggling to live into their faith, and that therefore Scripture must be read in context so that its true meaning could be grasped and applied to the differing contexts of our own lives. I believed further that everything in Scripture is relevant to us and God is always good and loving if one reads it correctly.

It was my experience that the interpretations that came from biblical scholarship, whether referred to as such or as “literal reading,” were often misused for personal reasons. Some people, especially the conservative right, but also people on the liberal left and others who are off the chart altogether, like to distort Scripture to support their own agenda of oppressing people they don’t like and maintaining their own image of superiority and power over everyone else. Growing up as a middle-class white kid in the Texas Bible Belt I heard Scripture quoted as justification for censorship, subjugation of women, physical abuse of children, beating and murder of gay men, rape and murder of lesbians, racial genocide, exploitation of native peoples, assassination of medical professionals providing abortions and reproductive services to women, atrocities against Jews, and the active opposition of AIDS research and education.

In response, I became hypersensitive to the danger of elitism in the reading of the Bible and the interpretation, “literal” or otherwise, of God’s Word. Elitism thrives in and perpetuates an atmosphere of secrecy: These Are Mysteries You Can’t Possibly Understand, So We’ll Just Tell You What To Believe. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I had developed a strong personal reaction against the secrecy in which abuse thrives. I learned that truth is powerful and destructive to the status quo and therefore feared by those who perpetrate abuse. My desire to engage in biblical scholarship had everything to do with my desire to claim the Bible as mine, not theirs.

I chose to read the stories of war, such as the Book of Joshua, as pure allegory in which the enemies of the Israelites were not actual human beings, but figurative representations of Danger: sometimes physical danger, but more often psychological or spiritual danger. This made it OK to rout it out completely and subject every embodiment of it to the ban. This required a good bit of doublethink on my part, as I knew that there was some historical evidence for at least some of the military conflicts described, but anyway it was so long ago and people’s moral and ethical ontologies were so different then that for our purposes today they might as well be folktales…so we’ll just treat them as such. I think being, as I said earlier, a middle-class white kid from a so-called "good family" made it the path of least resistance to just turn a blind eye to the fact that these are stories of genocide. Oh my, that’s distressing. Let me see if I can’t find some big words to comfort myself with. And maybe I’ll just happen to casually mention my collection of “Sweet Honey In The Rock” CDs.

Now, on the other side of some formal study of the Hebrew Bible, I see the Book of Joshua very differently. I now read this story as descriptive of exactly the way in which we torture and murder and exploit and destroy our fellow human beings in the name of God, today, right now. Now, today, in this moment, on this blog, I lift up this book and say, Do you see? Look, look at what we are doing. This is not someone else. This is me and you, right now. We have enacted the ban on Afghanistan, on Iraq. We have enacted the ban on the homeless. We have enacted the ban on every man, woman and child infected with HIV. Are we saved? Are we the "new Israel," supposing ourselves somehow different or better or closer to God than the "old Israel"? Do we imagine that we are getting it right where our spiritual forebears did not? Because we are behaving exactly like this. Only we've gotten a lot better at it.

This story is our birthright. It holds up a mirror and shines a big spotlight, not on who we ought to be, but on who we have been and who we still are. For this reason, the Bible—all of it—has to be available to all of us, not just a few specialized academics and not just those with the chutzpah to claim they read it “literally.” The Bible must be laid out for everyone, delved into and pulled apart and discussed in depth by as many people as possible.

Does this mean there will be a lot of mistakes, a lot of trouble, a lot of disagreement and tension? You bet it does. Is it efficient? Not even a little bit. So what? The most efficient thing we have learned to do is annihilate life. Mercy is not efficient and life is not free of tension. If we are ever to stop choosing death, if we are ever to begin to choose life, we must annihilate the fortress in which we have imprisoned the sacred. We must relinquish the notion that God is under our control and needs our protection from the misunderstanding of people with whom we disagree.

This is what I would write and teach and preach and shout on the street corner until they haul me away. This is what the intentional, deep, brain-wracking study of scripture has done for me. This is how my life has been irrevocably changed. For good. I hope-I pray-for good.

yours in the struggle,


At 3:09 AM, Blogger aaronjasonsilver said...

Finally someone that makes some sense!! Congratulations on your unusual ability to understand the ancient context that the bible was written. It was not written by one person. It was written by many and over many centuries. There is an important point that I would like to raise that I think the author of this blog was eluding to and that is that a translation such as the bible is, is only as good as the translators ability and objectivity. In fact homosexuality according to REAL biblical scholars, and by REAL I mean scientists that have no religious agenda but to discover the truth. They were not trying to prove or disprove biblical text. In fact many came from religious backgrounds and because of their findings they were flexible enough to adjust their beliefs according to their findings. It did not make them atheists if that is the fear of some. What many of the findings in fact showed, is that homosexuality was an integral part of the everyday lives of the anxient peoples during biblical times. We are very fortunate that we have mountains of written records about the everyday life of the ancient Greeks and the Romans and also of the region of which many of the biblical stories took place. Within this mountain of written records that incidently all corroborate each other. There was obviously no conspiricay back then just for the sake of protecting homosexuals. Homosexuality was just spoken about as a non issue as many other behaviors of the ancients were. These written records were written for many reasons, some of which were for the sole purpose of recording day to day life of that period and just as a matter of fact. They would have been remiss not to mention a part of their lives that included sexuality in all of its forms. During those ancient times homosexuality was actually not only performed by gay men and woman by by straight people as well because it lacked any stigma. Homosexuals in fact were respected by the ancients for their creativity and they were believed to have easier access to their male and female aspects which was known even back then that we all have both traits. There are many accounts once again corroberated by the mounds of evidence recorded by many of the cultures within the regions spoken of often in the bible that same sex unions were very common and celebrated joyously by many members of the villagers that they lived. Being fluent in two languages as I am, I can understand very well that mistakes can easily be made because for one; there is a big difference between being fluent in two or more languages and being bilingual. Being biligual the person would have a huge advantage of knowledge of the languages over someone that is merely fluent. Someone bilingual would understand the nuances within all languages, which is very important in understanding humor,context etc. Also there are words in some countries that mean something completely different in another country or region that speaks the same basic language As an example of my ignorance;I speak
English as my mother tongue,but I also speak Spanish fluently. However, as an embarrassing yet humorous anecdote, when I was visiting Costa Rica, I asked the maid for towels by using the word, toallas, meaning towels in just about all spanish speaking countries. I however didn't know that toallas in Costa Rica meant tampons. You can only imagine the red faces that I and the maid had upon my bizarre request. She had no way of knowing what the hell I wanted tampons for. Well, anyway we got through it with laughter and red faces once we figured out the mistake. I'm apologize for leaving such a long comment but I felt it was worth mentioning how easy it is to make mistakes in translation. Thank you for your time. Aaron Silver

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Max Rainey said...

Aaron, nice to meet you. Drop in anytime and comment as long as your little heart desires! Your book looks interesting, by the way. [For you lurkers who are wondering, "what book?", just click on Aaron's name above and then click on My Web Page...]
Yes, language is an incredibly limited and imprecise and flawed mechanism for the Really Big Subjects--you know, like, God, for example--and yet, it's the Really Big Subjects that are most worth the effort to talk and write about. Language, besides being flawed and imprecise, is also fluid, malleable, and performative. As you so brilliantly illustrated with your anecdote about the towel/ons.
anyway, thanks for stopping by. Come on back, ya hear?

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

goodness, it's a great relief to have someone put the whole biblical genocide tale into words other than "Aaaahhh..." (à la Hank Hill). much of the old testament has always been a bit of a conundrum for me, both in its seeming irrelevance and its horror. definitely the kind of thing for which i need a guide.

matt puckett

At 7:48 PM, Blogger Max Rainey said...

So glad you dropped in!
Next time you comment, though, leave a link to your site so the lurker/surfers can catch your action.
I play your CDs in the car all the time. Makes the commute actually joyful, as opposed to just off-pissing.
You make the rockin' world go round, bud.
yours in the struggle,

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Alexis said...

Ok, that was cool!

sometimes . . . no "often" people forget that the bible is more about a community's reflection on its relationship with God than it is a "manual" of black & white aphorisms, and "THE" encyclopedia of world history, and ugh. . . ."science".

If we remind ourselves of the bible's true value - as a mirror, and as an account of how different communities in different times struggled to respond to the presence of God in their life then I think we can fully appropriate what it has to offer.

And yes, as you say that means pulling it apart, looking at it under a microscope - just as the early fathers did.

It does raise an interesting question though - does this mean that what we write, today, is somehow a continuation of that reflection? If so - how will it be read in future?

At 8:46 PM, Blogger Max Rainey said...

Alexis-- good questions! I believe that yes, emphatically yes, YES, I say, what we write now--and what we think and speak--is absolutely and unequivocally a continuation of humanity's reflection on our relationship with the Divine. The closing of the Biblical canon in the 5th century C.E. did not signal the end of that relationship! nor of our reflection on that relationship.
As to how what we write (and think and speak) will be read in the future, well, that is precisely the question posed by the school of Biblical scholarship known as "ethical criticism." Ethical criticists ask, "How will a given reading affect Chrisitans, non-Christians, human society as a whole? What are the ramifications for the reader/hearer of this particular reading?"
Of course, it is impossible to know for sure exactly what will result from any of our actions. Ethicial criticism brings these issues to the foreground and promotes the idea that we must take seriously our responsibility to think about the ramifications of what we write and think and say about Scripture--which is why it is so vital that we proceed with humble and listening hearts as we sally forth to tapdance in the minefield of Biblical exegesis.
yours in the struggle,


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