Sunday, February 24, 2013

An Antidote for Literalism

... and maybe liberalism too.  Just a brief word of warning: I was going through the folder of unfinished posts and I noticed that this one was mostly done.  I indulge in slightly more than my usual snark about Christianity here, though, so if you get tired of my gratuitous snipes at Jesus (as opposed to bad so-called Christians who twist his teachings), you might prefer to pass on this one.  If you enjoy gratuitous snipes at Jesus, however, sit ye down and listen.

Roy Edroso has a good smackdown of Rod Dreher over at alicublog, Dreher being another of those neo-paleoconservatives who mysteriously gets access not merely to the usual suspects but "mainstream" corporate media. Wikipedia locates him variously "in National Review and National Review Online, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, Touchstone, Men’s Health, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications." Dreher had a crisis of faith while covering the priestly abuse scandal, and left the Roman Catholic Church for Orthodoxy, which seems to have become a haven for numerous persons who consider John Paul II and Benedict XVI too damn liberal. Try to imagine a comparably left-wing Christian publishing in any of those places, except maybe the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.

In comments, Edroso's regulars referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). You all know it, don't you?
25 And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE.” 29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. 31 And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ 36 Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”
Edroso labeled Dreher a "garden-variety Jesus freak with a mean streak." One commenter queried whether that wasn't a bit "redundant." It probably is, but what else can you do if you seek to follow in the Master's steps?

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the better parts of the gospels, I agree.  If you want to read it in historical context, though, it will help to translate some of the sectarian categories into terms that are meaningful today.  "Good Samaritan" has become almost a term of art, referring to a good person who helps strangers in need.  But for Jews in Jesus' day it was almost a contradiction in terms.  Judeans and Samaritans had a history of conflict that had often led to bloodshed.  To cast a Samaritan as the good guy in his parable, while good, respectable religious figures -- a priest and a Levite -- appeared as bad guys was deliberately provocative.   So replace the priest and the Levite with whomever you think of as good believers, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a liberal Episcopal archbishop, say, and the Samaritan with somebody bad: Fred Phelps, for example, or Maggie Gallagher, or Sarah Palin -- whomever you find it easy to despise.

One gospel story that liberal Christians don't dwell on so much is the one about the Syrophoenician woman, which I'll share with you here, supplying an interlinear translation into plain English.
But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He was saying to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Unfortunately in English we don't have a feminine equivalent for "son of a bitch." That's what Jesus was calling this shiksa, or her daughter. "The children" are the children of Israel (Matthew makes it explicit in his version of the story); "the dogs" are the nations. Apologists have tried in many ways to get around Jesus' racist refusal to heal the woman's daughter. One popular approach has been to see it as an "acted parable", in which Jesus only pretended to be a dick as a lesson to his disciples, perhaps letting the woman know by the merry twinkle in his eye that he didn't really mean it. That works better with Matthew's version; here in Mark it's better to take it as face value.
But she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” And He said to her, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.”
And he said to her, "Haw haw haw! I was jus' funnin' with you, little lady! Now go on home."
And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.
C'mon, whatchoo complainin' about, the lady got her wish, didn't she? If this story stood alone in the gospels, my cynical reading might be off the mark. But Jesus frequently has these little moments of spite, irritability, and hatefulness. One of the better known is the blasting of the fig tree, in which Jesus sees a fig tree by the road, and, being hungry, he decides to pick him some fruit. But he finds the tree bare, because it isn't the season for figs. So, he curses it: "Let nobody eat from you forever!" And when the disciples see the tree later on, it's all withered and shit, which will teach fig trees not to fuck with the Prince of Peace. This story has often been interpreted as another acted parable, with the tree symbolizing Israel, which refused to recognize its Messiah, and so deserved to be cursed. But did it? (According to Christian mythology, it had been Yahweh's plan since before creation, foretold in the prophets, that Jesus would be "rejected" and crucified. If all Israel had rejoiced and welcomed Jesus as the Messiah, Yahweh's plan for all mankind would have been frustrated, and he'd have to send us all to Hell because Jesus hadn't died for our sins.)

Aside from this exemplary tale, the gospels often show Jesus chewing out his disciples as well as anyone else who doesn't give him exactly the answers he wants to hear, when he wants to hear them. "Get behind me, Satan! You think as men think, not as God thinks!" Well, why shouldn't they? Thinking as God thinks would be usurping God's place.

These stories show why simply complaining about "literalism" won't get you very far, and why rejecting inerrancy is more important -- as well as more difficult for most people.  You can't really interpret a parable literally anyhow: it's not meant to be taken at face value.  The story of the Syrophoenician woman also can hardly be taken literally, but most interpreters work hard to make sure Jesus comes out of it looking good.  You can tell that it isn't always easy for them, because he behaves quite badly here, as he often does in the Bible.  But at the same time, stories like these can be useful for atheists.  The parable of the Good Samaritan, especially, doesn't rely on the "supernatural" or on belief in gods to make its point, and can give almost anyone something to think about.  The same is true, really, of the second story, despite its miraculous frame: can't atheists read Homer, or the Greek tragedies, or even Plato's dialogues with pleasure and benefit despite their theistic underpinnings?  This is why I get cranky when someone dismisses the Bible as "fables told by Bronze Age goatherds" and the like -- aside from the minor fact that the Bible is not Bronze Age but Iron Age and later.  Even in the Bronze Age, people were not essentially different from us today, and modern secularists have their own myths and fables that need skeptical attention.