Archive for February, 2009
My wife is reading Job. I asked her this morning if she read the book as allegory or as literal history. She replied that she did believe it to be literal history. She said it didn’t seem like something someone would make up. In other words, it didn’t seem likely to her that it would be made up.
Very interesting to me, because I would see it as allegory for exactly the opposite reason: it does not seem like something that is true history. The beginning of the story is comprised by fantastic events, God and Satan dialoging, and a series of seemingly impossible catastrophes descend upon Job. And the dialog is a perfect setup for the dialog between Job and his “counselors,” the counselors providing the perfect counterpoint to Job, and then God providing the perfect counterpoint to the counselors. It seems like a story set up by the author to convey his thoughts about God.
I have come to a conclusion through this conversation – that the reason my wife reads Job as history not allegory is that all her life it has been preached and taught to her as actual history. Sermons in our religious tradition speak as, “When all of Job’s children were killed…” not, “Where the story of Job in the bible teaches that…” So we proceed to read Job through that lens, accepting that they have correctly taught from the book. I viewed the bible in much the same way.
Something amazing but subtle occured during the conversation, we had a rational and calm talk about the bible. That’s been rare for us this year. I really believe that conversations like this are critical, much more so than any firm arguments or case I could bring up against the bible. They are the small building blocks of rational and critical thought in my wife’s life towards religion and the bible, and the building blocks of rational discussion between the two of us. As Bethlin commented on my last post: …I’m discovering that a good argument and a little support can go a long way toward making peace with the “other.”
In his textbook, “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings“, Bart Ehrman writes regarding the gospel of Matthew:
Understanding this second way in which Jesus fulfills the Scripture for Matthew helps to explain certain aspects of the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (chaps. 1-5) that have long intrigued scholars. Think about the following events in rough outline, and ask yourself how they might have resonated with a first-century Jew who was intimately familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. A male child is miraculously born to Jewish parents, but a fierce tyrant in the land (Herod) is set to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm in Egypt. Then he leaves Egypt and is said to pass through the waters (of baptism). He goes into the wilderness to be tested for a long period. Afterward he goes up on a mountain and delivers God’s Law to those who have been following him.
Sound familiar? It would to most of Matthew’s Jewish readers. Matthew has shaped these opening stories of Jesus to show that Jesus’ life is a fulfillment of the stories of Moses (read Exodus 1-20). The parallels are too obvious to ignore; Herod is like the Egyptian pharaoh, Jesus’ baptism is like the crossing of the Red Sea, the forty days of testing are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the Sermon on the Mount is like the Law of Moses delivered on Mount Sinai.
I read this to a Christian friend who remarked, “That’s awesome!” when I finished. Meaning they were amazed that God would order the life of Jesus in that way to mirror Moses’ life.
My point (or agenda!) in reading it was to highlight the way the gospel writers use literary techniques to paint a picture of Jesus. In other words, it is not necessarily history. In other words, the bible is suspect as a source of reliable truth. And odd passages like the flight from Egypt are not found in other gospels. The writer is using it to make a point — Jesus is like the second Moses. Just the opposite of the way my friend interpreted the same passage.
The conservative Christian can look at the exact same details so differently, literally instead of symbolically reading the passage. Which is simple, it just presupposes the bible is real history in the case of both Moses and Jesus. Which to me is an absolutely amazing assumption to make.
Sure, it is a technically possible reading of the bible, but is it likely that that really happened? I say it certainly is not a likely accurate reading. To me it is as plain as day that the gospel of Matthew is painting a literary picture here. Especially in light of the fact (if I remember correctly) that the story of the flight from Egypt is unique to the gospel of Matthew. Attributing it to a literary device is to me a much more natural reading/understanding than believing that only Matthew (the eyewitness Matthew no less) recorded this remarkable magical series of events.
Perhaps nobody was too concerned at that time if it was actual history or not. But to me to believe firmly that it is real and literal, that we can (and must!) base our lives on this account of the second Moses, is intellectually untenable.
So where am I going with all this? Just to say that it is interesting that two people can look at the same thing very differently. And for me it is very hard to process and accept that in this case. It should not be hard to accept that someone thinks differently than I do, but it is when it seems demanded that I must believe a certain way by conservative Christians.
I think I must have believed it that way myself at one time, but my memory does not serve to inform me well. I probably did, or at least was willing to give it mental assent without fully believing in it. Either way, I didn’t or wouldn’t look at the bible critically. Maybe that is why it seems important to me now, trying to find ammunition against the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and literalism.
In reality to many Christians it just does not matter that much, as long as they have their faith, as long as they have Jesus, not even the gates of hell can stand against them. Most certainly not a plain reading of the biblical texts. Just like it didn’t matter to me.
You can’t just make the voice of doubt go away by drowning it out. By trying to sink it with affirmations about what you want to believe, or what you think you should believe. Or worse, what others want you to believe and think you ought to believe. You can’t drown it out by praying more fervently, by singing louder, by turning up the volume on your worship CD, by serving harder, by seeking better, by talking to the right people, or reading the greatest books. Once doubt finds its voice, it is there to stay. It always was there, it just had a hard time speaking up over the din and had to shout a bit louder to be heard. When it is finally listened to though, it quickly grows in confidence.
Because the more doubt speaks, the more you realize it isn’t speaking lies, it is simply commenting on how things actually look to you. And even if what it is speaking isn’t always right, even if it may be mistaken at times, and if it may change from time to time, it is really truly what you think. And what you think, how you see the world, is based on how you see things, not on how you are supposed to see them. And that is not a matter of what is Truth and what are Lies, it is a matter of who you are. And that isn’t anything to be afraid of listening to. It isn’t the monster in the closet or a demon in your head. And things that provoke doubt might be doing that because they are reality, facts which are in conflict with what you believe. And there isn’t anything wrong with you, that is who you are.
fighting for space, can’t take a shot with someone’s hand in my face, forming my own opinions, step by step, pushing a little farther, a little harder, raising the bar for what people expect of me, inch by inch, creating a little breathing room, thinking for myself, believing what I really believe, speaking for myself, speaking my own words, not the words of another, seeing the world through my own eyes, not through someone else’s lens, believing a naturalistic explanation for something, even if it is hard to understand or doesn’t completely make sense, breathing…
Must be Monday…
Just had to post this comic, I see it in other blogs from time to time…
It is a gross caricature of the fundamentalist perspective, and as such is apt in some ways and in others probably not so much. But I really enjoy the critical part.
I often feel that pursuing knowledge is frowned upon by people, if it doesn’t support their accepted understanding of “faith.” The pursuit of knowledge is seen as dangerous. Well not all knowledge, only the kind that doesn’t lead to our understanding of what you should think…
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” becomes the litmus test for the knowledge being pursued. Well what constitutes the fear of the Lord? Believing what the bible says. So any “knowledge” that doesn’t lead to more firmly believing the bible is all true is just foolishness.
Circular logic… And the irony of this comic is the degree to which this circular logic is extolled as virtue.
The fundamentalist is passionately excited to exhort people to explore their faith, test it, see if it is true, search the scriptures, and experience it. These things are explored on the emotional level, the subjective level. And books are written which are filled with chapter after chapter of that which cannot be tested beyond one’s emotional experience or submission to blind belief in the ideas themselves.
But when I ask if the texts themselves can be critically examined I am met with blank stares at best, but typically blank responses. The wall comes up, the wall that says, “I will not allow myself to contemplate your question.” I think that is what it means to, “hold every thought captive to Christ,” for them. And responses attacking means by which evidence can be weighed are spoken, without my even bringing up any information which could contradict their sense of biblical inerrency. It is very frustrating, I feel like I am in a vacuum chamber, deprived of oxygen.
Lewis’s Trilemma (or the Lewis Triumvirate) is a syllogism intended to demonstrate the logical inconsistency of both holding Jesus of Nazareth to be a “great moral teacher” while also denying his divinity. … The trilemma is often summarized either as “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”, or as “Mad, Bad, or God”.
I was thinking about Lewis’ “Trilemma” after a discussion with a friend about the bible, in which I felt I was told in so many words that we really cannot critically examine the texts of the bible to determine if they are reliable and true. Having read of the flawed logic of the trilemma, I felt it applied to this view of the bible in the same way. I actually think it highlights the logical flaws in the trilemma.
With apologies to Mr. Lewis, my paraphrase is below:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about the bible: I’m ready to accept the bible as a great teacher of morals, but I don’t accept its claim to be the work of God. That is the one thing we must not say. A book which was merely a book and said the sort of things the bible said would not be a great moral book. It would either be the work of a lunatic — on the level with a book that says it is a poached egg — or else it would be the work of the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this book was, and is, the Word of God, or else it is the work of a madman or something worse. You can shut it up for the work of a fool, you can spit on it and burn it as a work of a demon or you can fall at its feet and call it the Work of God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about its being a great bibliographical teacher. It has not left that open to us. It did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that it was neither the work of a lunatic nor of a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that it was and is the Work of God.”