Thursday, July 31, 2014

Biblical Literacy for Thee, But Not for Me

The Supreme Court's ruling on Hobby Lobby prompted a lot of complaints by liberals about biblical illiteracy -- the biblical illiteracy of conservatives, that is; their own was of less interest to them.  So, for example, a straight Christian friend linked to this article on biblical literacy in America.  The author's qualifications appear to consist of having written a couple of village-atheist tracts; he doesn't appear to be particularly biblically literate himself.  For example:
The Right has successfully rebranded the brown-skinned liberal Jew, who gave away free healthcare, was pro-redistributing wealth, and hung with a prostitute, into a white-skinned, trickledown, union-busting conservative, for the very fact that an overwhelming number of Americans are astonishingly illiterate when it comes to understanding the Bible.
Notice, by the way, that the author, one CJ Werleman, left a verb out of the final clause of that sentence.  No biggie, I do it all the time -- but I fix them when I find them, and apparently no one at Alternet (where the piece originally appeared) noticed it before it was reposted at Salon.

More important, Werleman endorses a popular (among liberals) but at best half-informed conception of Jesus: that he was "brown-skinned," for example (nobody knows what Jesus looked like, but Christians have always visualized him in ways that suited their own parochialism).

As for "liberal," I don't know any sense of the word in which Jesus can be classified as one.  The gospels represent him as a hellfire-preaching end of the world preacher, a faith healer and exorcist, probably not very "inclusive" of non-Jews, and downright reactionary on sexual matters: no divorce and remarriage, extreme sexual repression ("if your eye leads you sin, pluck it out", become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven), and extremely divisive (I have come to bring not peace but a sword, and to set brother against brother and parent against child.  He rejected blood kin in favor of the chosen family of himself and his followers.  By modern US standards he looks like the founder of a cult, not any kind of liberal, and he'd be no more attractive to today's liberal Protestants than to today's evangelicals.  At the very least, it's anachronistic to apply any 21st century American political category to a first-century Jewish religious nut.

As for "hung with a prostitute," I suppose he's referring to Mary Magdalene.  There's no biblical reason to suppose that she was a prostitute -- that's a much later misinterpretation.  The New Testament has only a few vague and conflicting references to her, and the different writers seem not to have known much about her.  (Which is one more indication that the gospels were not written by Jesus' original followers.)  They confused different Marys -- there are several of them in the New Testament -- and various unnamed women in the gospel stories.  But, you know, if you're the Good Guy contending with Bad Guys, it's okay to just make stuff up.  (Incidentally, these last two paragraphs are taken from a comment I wrote to the article on Salon, after other commenters challenged me to back up my claim that Werlemann was biblically illiterate and unacquainted with real New Testament scholarship.  For what it's worth, no one corrected what I wrote there.)

In response to the link on Facebook I linked to my post "Gay Christians Say the Darnedest Things!", and one of my Christian friends replied:
Sometimes the best thing you can say in a debate of this kind isn't, "NO! That's not what the Bible says!" but rather, "Hmmm... I don't think that's what the Bible says, but let me spend some time looking it up." This is easier than ever with websites and apps like Bible Gateway, which enable you to search on key words or concepts, as well as by book, chapter, and verse.

I had an art history teacher tell me once that most pre-modern, Western art is based on two subjects: Greek mythology and Bible stories. Without these two foundations, you're culturally illiterate in many ways.

I had never heard the argument about the lack of vowels in the Hebrew alphabet. That was a new one to me. I agree with you that the structure of the language probably isn't important; what would make translations difficult are the other things you mentioned, like archaic terms and spelling errors.
Now, I do usually refer to "what the Bible says" when it's relevant in debates with Christians, or non-Christians for that matter.  I'm well acquainted with Bible Gateway and other such useful sites. I am not as conciliatory as my friend recommends, at least when I'm butting up against Christians and non-Christians whose initial stance is quite full of themselves and their pretended knowledge, and generally very antagonistic to people whose understanding of Christianity is different than theirs.  (And actually, it isn't "archaic terms and spelling errors" that make translation a difficult task, though they don't make it any easier.)

Then, while I was traveling last weekend, I found a copy of Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007) in a library book sale.  It looked useful, and the price (fifty cents) was right, so I bought it.  Browsing through it later, I found this anecdote:
Historian Martin Marty tells a story about a heated debate at an early Methodist convention concerning whether Methodists should build seminaries to educate clergy.  Rising to oppose the idea, one bishop said that faith was strongest in a soul unfettered by book learning.  If pressed, the bishop said, he would opt any day for a preacher without education over a preacher without passion.  A critic then asked the bishop whether he was thankful for his own ignorance, to which the bishop unabashedly answered yes.  "Whereupon," Marty writes, "the critic moved that the convention sing a Te Deum, since the good bishop had so much for which to be thankful."

This story encapsulates the nineteenth-century battle inside American Christianity between piety and learning -- a battle that learning lost.  In Marty's telling the bishop plays the fool.  But for many American Christians, then and today, willingness to be a fool for Christ is a mark of true faith.  Christianity is about loving Jesus; it does not require knowing much of anything at all.  How did religious ignorance become a sign -- perhaps the sign -- of genuine piety?  And what lessons might this story of our fall into religious illiteracy hold for Americans today? [87]
Marty's story is amusing, and a reminder that biblical illiteracy is not a new phenomenon in America, as Prothero goes on to show.  (Werleman quotes a professor of New Testament to the effect that "All the research indicates that biblical literacy in America is at an all-time low," and cites polling data that show how ignorant Americans are about the Bible today -- but no evidence to show that things are any worse than they used to be.  Typical.)

But it seems to me that Prothero is overlooking some things.  It's not just for "many American Christians today" that foolishness for Christ is a mark of true faith: it's a New Testament value, and a tradition in historical Christianity. The apostle Paul exulted that the Gospel was a scandal to the learned and rational, and that God's wisdom was foolishness to the world.  According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus rejoiced "in the Holy Spirit": "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight."  And don't forget that Jesus and his followers were proudly unlettered and unlearned, at least by the standards of first-century Judaism.  So it's at least arguable -- and I think likely -- that the Methodist bishop Martin Marty mocked was appealing to Jesus' own teaching, and the teaching of early Christianity.

True, there has always been tension in Christianity on this matter.  Most early Christians were poor and uneducated, which they viewed as something to be proud of, just as the Methodist bishop did.  But at the same time there were always a few Christians who had some education. Paul and Apollos are the most famous in the first generation, and whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke had some learning and, scholars say, a good Greek literary style.  By the second century, some Christians with philosophical and rhetorical training were getting restive about their sect's reputation, so they tried to show that one could be Christian and smart.  But they were the minority, and relatively insignificant until Christianity became the official Roman cult, which led to a need and opportunities for Christian intellectuals and other professionals.  It also meant a formalization of credentials: possession by the Holy Spirit was no longer enough to give a teacher authority.

The dismissal of learning is not limited to the old days.  I've mentioned before, I think, a gay Christian minister who declared his knowledge of the Bible and explained to a student audience why the Bible didn't 'really' condemn homosexuality.  He made a number of non-trivial errors, so I challenged and corrected some of his statements.  I might sound arrogant when I say "corrected," but I think it's a fair claim, because he didn't disagree with my corrections.  Instead he promptly disavowed his knowledge of the Bible and told the audience that you don't need to be a biblical scholar to be a good Christian.  Whatever you think of that assertion, it fits neatly with the Methodist bishop's position.  If that's the case, who cares about biblical literacy?

Someone might wish to distinguish between being a biblical scholar and being biblically literate.  Fair enough, but I'm not a biblical scholar myself.  That's why I think it's significant that the gay minister tried to discredit what I'd said by implying that I was one, which is a safe move to make in front of an audience of young American Christians: it's an example of the very anti-intellectualism that liberal Christians are denouncing now in their opponents.

How knowledgeable does one need to be about the Bible to be a good Christian?  I have no idea, but I suspect that one doesn't need to be knowledgeable at all.  For one thing, the first few generations of Christians did not have the New Testament because it hadn't yet been written or compiled, and they are generally regarded as exemplars of ideal Christian faith.  For that reason alone it's fair to doubt that knowledge of the Bible is essential for Christians.  For another, the idea that learning of any kind is an obstacle to genuine piety is prominent throughout the history of Christianity.  It might well be true; as an atheist it's not for me to say. Certainly, as I've noticed before, most Christians show very little interest in becoming biblically literate, yet they feel free to deride others who are probably no more ignorant than they.  Whatever the real test of Christian piety, it doesn't consist of book-learning.

My position is that if you're going to make statements about the Bible, whether you're a believer or not, you need to be informed.  And that takes work, and time.  It means not just reading some web pages or even reading a book or two about the real Jesus, but reading a variety of material from a range of positions.  That's what I did when I started reading about Christianity over thirty years ago.  I'd encounter a generalization about Jesus in one book that sounded reasonable -- but then I'd read another that showed me how the first generalization was inadequate at best.  Only after I'd read several dozen such books and articles, and read through the New Testament a few times, did I develop a critical sense that enabled me to form an informed opinion -- and contrary to what some people have said about me, I am not very confident about my own picture of Jesus and early Christianity.  My knowledge is more negative than positive: I know what isn't true, better than what is.  My atheism was confirmed and strengthened by the experience.  What I learned generalized to other areas of knowledge, as I learned to think historically and to evaluate evidence and arguments.  It kept me busy for several years, but it didn't feel like work, because it was so exciting intellectually. 

I don't really blame people for not having or taking the time to do what I've done, but I don't feel any need to respect them when they spout misinformation.  Sure, they become defensive when they're corrected.  Where would they ever have learned to become comfortable with being wrong and admitting it?  Certainly not in most schoolwork, where mistakes are punished, rather than treated as something you learn from.  My example (as well as that of many professional scholars) ironically may support the idea that biblical knowledge is not essential for Christian faith.  If anything, seriously studying the Bible (or anything else. really) may interfere with certainty, and certainty is what Christian faith is all about.

Here's one more helpful quotation from CJ Werleman that illustrates what I mean:
Invariably, Christians dismiss these complicating and contradictory biblical laws with an, “Oh, that’s the Old Testament” defense. Typically they then claim the New Testament supersedes Mosaic Law—the 613 commandments of the first five books of the Old Testament. But Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
Werleman seems to think that simply quoting Matthew 5:17-20 refutes the "'Oh, that's the Old Testament' defense."  If he is, as he would like his readers to think, knowledgeable about biblical scholarship, he must know that these experts disagree about what Jesus meant by that saying.  Remember that the crucial word is not the English "fulfill" but a Greek word that doesn't quite equal the English one, and that Jesus himself didn't speak Greek but Aramaic; I don't know which Aramaic word underlies the Greek one here.  But the Greek word is as ambiguous as the English one.  It might mean "to complete", in which case Jesus did mean to "abolish the Law and the Prophets": his mission would mean that the original covenant between Yahweh and Israel had run its course, done its job, and would no longer be needed when the Kingdom of Heaven was established on earth.  Remember too that Jesus did (according to the gospels) set aside and explicitly reject certain commandments, so his disavowal of intent to abolish the Torah is slightly disingenuous.

(I once talked to someone who was surprised when I explained some of what was going on in that passage from Matthew.  He said he thought that the Law Jesus mentions was the Cosmic Law or some such.  For some purposes, you can of course interpret any text you like to mean anything you like.  But if you want to know what Jesus was talking about here, you need to know that "the Law" refers to the Torah, the "Law of Moses" as it's sometimes called, and the issues Jesus is talking about are specific to first-century Palestinian Judaism.)

Notice also that Werleman ignores "the Prophets" in that saying and focuses on "the Law."  According to the New Testament, Jesus did intend to "fulfill" the Hebrew Prophets.  They had foretold what the Messiah would do, so Jesus' actions were meant to fulfill their predictions, which of course were God's predictions.  (A prophet is a person through whom a god or goddess speaks, like a ventriloquist.)  One problem for this claim is that Jesus didn't fulfill "Old Testament prophecy": the passages cited in the New Testament are taken out of their original context and reinterpreted to make them seem to fit Jesus' career.  A few are even made up.  Even the figure of a single, godlike Messiah is problematic from a biblical point of view: there isn't such a figure in the Hebrew Bible, but many diverse Messiahs.  Biblical scholars are divided on the meaning of Matthew 5:17-20; contrary to Werleman, citing it doesn't prove a thing.  What it means will depend on which school or tradition of interpretation you come from.

If Werleman were right that Jesus didn't mean to abolish the 613 commandments of the Torah ("the first five books of the Bible," as he calls them), then modern Christians -- including liberal ones -- should be observing all those rules: keeping kosher, avoiding certain foods, and so on.  That would include obeying the Levitical prohibition of sex between males, presumably including the mandated death penalty.  I don't think that's what Werleman wants, but who knows?  His article is as half-baked and incoherent as any religious-right rant.  And he doesn't stand alone.
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(I made the meme at the top of this post using an image I found here, from a painting by the Christian artist Nathan Greene.  Credit where credit's due, though I hope no one will imagine that my meme expresses Greene's beliefs.  Just sayin'.)