Monday, August 8, 2011

I'm Literally on Fire with the Spirit!

Someone last weekend drew my attention to an article at the Huffington Post, "4 Reasons Not to Read the Bible Literally," by one David Lose, who's written a book on how to read the Bible but doesn't seem to know much about that subject.

Lose begins by expressing his displeasure at the results of a new Gallup Poll which found that 30 percent of its respondents believe that the Christian Bible should be read literally. I thought the poll questions were especially badly designed, blunt instruments that couldn't get much useful information from anyone.
  • The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.
  • The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.
  • The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts.
I suppose, if I'd been asked, I'd have to go with the third option, but I'd have balked at it. But look at the first two: are "actual" and "inspired" the same thing? Why'd they change the adjective? The second option doesn't rule out the third, because the Bible is both ancient and contains fables, legends, history, moral precepts and more. (Neither the letters of Paul nor the Revelation fits into that list.) If it's "inspired," that means Yahweh chose to inspire fables, legends, history, moral precepts and more; not exactly a radical notion. The question for any reader will be how to read and understand that content.

My first reaction to that thirty percent figure, and to the forty-nine percent who answered that the Bible needn't be interpreted literally, was that they were meaningless, because most people don't know what "literally" means. They commonly use it as an intensifier, to mean "totally" or "virtually" or even figuratively. In order to know what those poll numbers mean, you'd have to ask a lot of other probing questions. The one person I've met who claimed to take the whole Bible literally backed down immediately when I asked her about some of the more difficult teachings, like becoming eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. "I didn't mean you should take it all literally!" she said. I'd bet that a good many of the thirty percent would react exactly the same way.

But Lose immediately jumps to equate "literal" with "inerrant." They're not the same thing, as I've pointed out before; indeed, they're incompatible. In order to maintain the belief that the bible is free from error, the faithful are forced to interpret it very non-literally -- by interpreting the six days of creation as six ages of geologic time, for example, or by arguing that when Jesus said that his disciples must hate their families and their own lives, he was using a semitic idiom that meant "to love less." Modern conservative evangelicals emphatically do not take literally Jesus' teaching that a person who divorces and remarries is committing adultery against the former spouse, or that if their eye lead them to sin they should pluck it out, or that if someone strikes them they should turn the other cheek, or any number of other teachings ascribed by the gospels to Jesus. But then, neither do liberal Christians who think that Jesus was a great moral teacher.

Lose points out that "Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally." True, but then neither do Christians today. Nor does this mean that their interpretations were necessarily valid, especially if they were developed in the service of inerrancy. "Earlier Christians -- along with almost everyone else who lived prior to the advent of modernity -- simply didn't imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate, a concern only advanced after the Enlightenment." Still, few earlier Christians doubted the factual accuracy of the Bible. The usual way of getting past inconsistencies was to harmonize them, as in the different accounts of Jesus' cleansing of the Temple (discussed by Lose), or the wildly discordant reports of Jesus' appearances to his followers after his resurrection. Believers and scholars alike simply pasted them all together.

Incidentally, a similar attitude prevailed with respect to other authoritative ancient writings. It wasn't until fairly recently that Plato's dialogues began to be read with the same critical eye that the Bible received; even though it was obvious that many elements in them weren't factual, philosophers tended to assume that they were an accurate picture of Socrates and his teaching. The epics of Homer got the same treatment. The writings of competing sects weren't examined critically, just denounced as demonic fabrications. Another approach assumed that the events described in ancient writings really did happen, but over time they had become encrusted with legendary additions, so that human heroes were exalted into gods, and natural events were inflated into supernatural ones in order to impress the credulous.

A similar rationalizing method has been applied, even by conservative scholars, to the miracles of Jesus: he didn't really walk on water, his frightened disciples saw him walking through the surf and misinterpreted what they saw; he didn't really raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead, she was in a coma and just happened to wake up when he came into the room; or Jesus himself didn't rise from the dead, he swooned on the cross and was nursed back to health by Essene healers led by Joseph of Arimathea, who sneaked into his tomb through a clever hidden entrance. And so on.

Lose concludes that literalism "undermines a chief confession of the Bible about God."
Rather than imagine that the Bible was also written by ordinary, fallible people, inerrantists have made the Bible an other-wordly, supernatural document that runs contrary to the biblical affirmation that God chooses ordinary vessels -- "jars of clay," the Apostle Paul calls them -- to bear an extraordinary message. In fact, literalists unwittingly ascribe to the Bible the status of being "fully human and fully divine" that is normally reserved only for Jesus.
Again Lose confuses literalism with inerrancy. I also don't think he's right about inerrantists' view of the biblical writers and characters. The theme of fallible human vessels is the mainstay of many a fundamentalist sermon. It's not the writers, but the guidance of the Holy Spirit that makes the Bible trustworthy for them. But the real trouble with Lose's argument is that he's still basically an inerrantist. Properly interpreted and understood, the Bible on his account offers a "confession about God." To believe that, I suppose, requires "faith."

Lose inadvertently lets the cat out of the bag, though, when he admits that Saint Augustine's acceptance of Christianity was blocked for a long time because of "the notion that Christians took literally stories like that of Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale. It was not until Ambrose, bishop of Milan, introduced Augustine to allegorical interpretation -- that is, that stories can point metaphorically to spiritual realities rather than historical facts -- that Augustine could contemplate taking the Bible (and those who read it!) seriously." Augustine's mother was a Christian; couldn't she have disabused him of "the notion that Christians took literally stories like that of Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale"? Maybe it was because many Christians, then as now, did take such stories literally.

And how far are Christians supposed to go with these metaphorical interpretations? One of the selling points and central dogmas of Christianity is that God acted in history, not in myth. The events recounted in the Bible are supposed to have spiritual meaning, but that doesn't mean they didn't (supposedly) happen. So, does David Lose believe that Jesus was literally born to a virgin? And whether he was or not, what "spiritual reality" is pointed to by that story? Ditto for the miraculous feedings of thousands with fish and bread, or the miraculous healings, or walking on water. And what about the death and resurrection of Jesus? Does Lose take those stories literally? As an atheist, I have no doubt that Christians find "spiritual" meanings in the stories of the Bible. But since Christians often disagree about the meanings conveyed by their stories, which ones should I believe?

One of my favorite examples of this problem is the fourth chapter of the gospel of Mark. Jesus tells the parable of the sower to a crowd. After he's done, his disciples ask him privately what it means. Jesus expresses surprise that they don't get it, and explains that he teaches in parables so that "those outside" will not understand what he means, so that they won't repent and won't be saved. He then gives his disciples an allegorical interpretation of the parable: the sower is the preacher, the seed is the preacher's words, the different soils on which the seed falls are the different listeners. That's the secret meaning Jesus wants to keep away from "those outside," and I'm not alone in finding it much ado about nothing much. Jesus' deliberate withholding of understanding, and therefore of salvation, from most people is morally shocking. Matthew gives a different account, and modern scholars do their best to interpret the story so as to make it less offensive. If Jesus had secret teachings about the spiritual significance of his preaching and actions, though, they're lost, and we'll never know what they were; interpreters disagree widely about what it's all supposed to mean.

Another example: I fully agree that the book of Revelation is not to be taken literally. My question is how to understand it on any level, though I'm more interested in what you might call sociological questions. The author strung together his bizarre symbols with angelic interpretations of their meaning, or part of it. By the time the Revelation was written, there was already a tradition of such books, and the angelic guide who explains extravagant visions to a confused human seer is a convention in that tradition. But we know very little, maybe nothing, about what the people who wrote such books thought they were doing. The symbols were readymades, probably even older than the oldest apocalyptic book we have, the book of Daniel. The writers borrowed them and adapted them to the political situation of their own time. We know that while early Christian believers understood that difficult symbolism was involved, they believed that the world was going to change radically, and soon. We know this because of Paul's struggle with his congregations as set forth in his letters, to get them to behave responsibly (keep working, be good citizens) without denying that the End was indeed near.

It's not just because I'm an atheist that I believe that much of the Bible was meant to be taken literally. The writers believed in the Exodus, in David and Solomon's kingdom, in Jesus' miraculous birth and wonderworking career; they also believed that these events had spiritual meaning. I'm just lucky that I don't think anything important hangs on what their meaning is. It's actually serious Bible scholars who are most likely to read the Bible literally, and liberals who are likely to get all the details wrong.