Tuesday, May 24, 2005

What is Biblical Literalism?

The Senator had been after me for at least a week to get him a copy of James Wolcott's Attack Poodles, which I did, and along the way I picked up Bishop John Shelby Spong's The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love.

Spong, a retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, NJ (he's originally from NC), is notorious or heroic, depending on your perspective, as a religious who believes the Bible is essentially a historic epic, a compilation of narratives, myths, and strands of wisdom, but that which is nevertheless, infected by the primitive thoughts of its eras. The Bible is not, he says, the so-called Word of God. For those of us raised in the literalist, fundamentalist tradition, Spong's arguments are surprising. And in many cases illuminating.

Now, I should probably point out that there are very few individuals or orders that take the Bible absolutely literally. Most who claim to do so really have no knowledge, let alone intention, of returning to a strict constructivist understanding and implementation of the various laws demanded by books such as Levicticus, or think people picking up sticks on the Sabbath should be executed (Numbers), or think the slavery stipulations of Exodus are reputable. Most of this contingent seems unaware of the teachings of Jesus as well, but that's for another day.

In Sins, Spong challenges the conventional fundamentalist use of Biblical passages relating to the environment, women, homosexuality, children, and Jews. Unlike many religious liberals, Spong doesn't merely allege that the fundamentalist right has misinterpreted these verses or misapplied them, he alleges they shouldn't be used at all as guidelines for living because they arose from the beliefs and values of the people of the time and shouldn't be understood as divine authorizations.

His arguments are clear although fairly thorough so I won't replicate them here. Read the book.

But I do want to begin a dialogue or at least a monologue about the Bible, how we should understand it, and whether with the advance of civilization since antiquity, its moral positions continue to be valid.

While the Bible as Myth argument has its own challenges, I'll choose today to focus on the problems associated with the literalist view.

The first set of problems concerns those statements or actions from the Bible that are either illogical or highly questionable if not detestable. I would include in the illogical subcategory those various prohibitions, such as those against homosexuality, as well as the various rules related to cleanliness and uncleanliness, some of which specifically related to women, during their times of menstruation and after giving birth. The highly questionable or detestable incidents involve those where God is recorded as having killed the sons of Judah (Genesis), the killing of 70,000 Jews because of David's sin of numbering the people, Elijah calls down fire on messengers from the king, etc.

A somewhat related problem concerns those cases in which past Biblical injunctions have been proven faulty or undesireable. Assumptions about the earth as the center of the universe (which Galileo challenged, and was threated with excommunication or worse if he didn't recant, which he did) represented in part by Joshua's commanding the sun to "stand still" so as to preserve daylight needed to rout the enemy. As we understand now, the sun doesn't "stand still" for us. We move around it. For Spong, verses like this are a real issue, demonstrating the Bible's lack of credibility. I'm not sure this is the case. As one biblical commentary put it (an apologetic defense, obviously), this could be thought of as merely a figure of speech, such as when we say things like, the sun rises, or the sun sets. Neither of those comments are literally accurate, but just ways of expressing what we see. But in any event, the Catholic church of a couple hundred years ago used the Joshua passage as indicating Galileo's fault. Galileo was eventually proven correct, and the Roman Catholic church got around to apologizing in 1991.

For Spong, later scientific discoveries, such as those by Newton, Einstein and Darwin, challenged conventional views derived from a literal reading of scripture, and provide additional evidence that the Bible should not be interpreted literally, particularly in the case of miracles and other tricks. Again, I'm not sure that the discoveries that the bodies of earth operated according to fixed principles is an argument against miracles. If God is outside of time and space, and omniscient, than He or She can control the forces of nature (even making the "sun stand still").

But if the case against biblical literalism and infallibility on the basis of natural discoveries is less than totally convincing, the problems stemming from Biblical statements regarding sex, women, children, and slavery deserve greater inquiry. It is to this that I will turn in a further post.

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