24 May 2007

Why it's hard for me to criticize biblical literalists

. . . and other comments on the Bible and life

This week I read two fascinating authors on the subject of literal interpreters of the Bible, and they helped me to put some thoughts together on why I sometimes feel reluctant to criticize these interpreters.

First, permit me an aside on vocabulary. I don't use the word "conservative" because (aside from specifically Quaker usage of the word) I don't believe that literalists and fundamentalists are "conservative" in a theological or historical sense. They may think they are, but in their zeal to gain debating points they've often departed from the long-term consensus of the church concerning Biblical interpretation. Also, their insistence on literalism often rests on reasoning from consequences--"if you allow flexibility in interpreting one passage, then the authority of the whole Bible is ruined"--which is unsustainable logic at both ends. Certainly something that is "conservative" ought to rest on firmer foundations. So I am using the term "literalist" instead of "conservative," but in all fairness, there are no true literalists, either. Different people draw the line between literal assertions and metaphors in different ways, with varying degrees of self-awareness.

Both of these authors, Donald Miller and Joel Carpenter, speak about the role of the Bible in specific social contexts, Miller in what he calls "new paradigm" churches in the USA, and Carpenter in what used to be called the Third World.

Many of us in North American and European Quaker circles are accustomed to arguing about the legitimacy of mining the Bible for rules and models and debating points. Some of us get devotional goosebumps from its ancient eloquence, and experience being drawn closer to the Holy Spirit by the experience of meditating on the Bible. Some of us are comfortably caught in a mesh of linkages between doctrine and Biblical passages. We may even assume from habit that a passage means a certain thing when on its textual face it may not. I gave an example here recently--the passage that is often cited as proof of the Bible's plenary inspiration and inerrancy, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, makes no such claim. More than that, of course, our present Bible was not even assembled when Paul wrote those words, and literalists rarely seem to acknowledge that a lot of work by human committees had to be done before that assembly was completed--with some variations in the resulting canon among different broad traditions of Christians.

While some of us find all those doctrinal/biblical linkages reassuring, others are repelled by any hint of authority for the Bible. They see the varying emphases in the Bible, and the diversity of sources and viewpoints, as contradictions and therefore as fatal flaws in any claim of plenary inspiration or final authority. In fact, the more the literalists insist on spinning their way around these apparent contradictions, the more their enemies delight in pointing them out.

All that is familiar territory for many of us, leading to many false dichotomies (such as "mystical" vs "biblical," about which more below) that confuse and irritate Friends. But in the settings described by Miller and Carpenter, the Bible plays a far more direct and functional role in daily life. Joel Carpenter's article in Christianity Today is actually a review of a new book by Philip Jenkins; Carpenter says:

Jenkins uses the Anglican controversy over sexual morality to enter into the Bible as read by southern Christians. Their biblicism has been called traditional, literalistic, conservative, and fundamentalist, but Jenkins concludes that none of these labels really fits. Rather, the southern Christians' Bible is more immediate in its address to their realities. African and Asian Christians revere the Bible and identify with its cultural setting and worldview. They see it as sacred text, with words of power, to an extent that has been lost to much of northern Christianity.

Time and time again I've seen exactly this among Quakers in Latin America and Africa. And I've come to see that there's a hierarchy of reasoning: First there's an acceptance of the Holy Spirit's formation of the Scriptures, and of themselves as believers. The same Holy Spirit has been at work forming the sacred text and forming themselves as persons and people of faith. That's an important relationship, not one to be debated casually and cerebrally.

Having accepted that crucial linkage, a believer can then secondarily talk about interpretation and biblical criticism, but at that point the defensive or undermining motivation of Western (Northern) debate is missing. That realization has made me decide that criticizing apparent bibliolatry is a bit more complicated than I once thought. Motive plays a huge role: is my style of dialogue corrosive or does it build up the other person's warm understanding of the Holy Spirit's role in Bible and life? As I try (rightly, I want to believe) to uncover naive and even oppressive interpretations of Scripture, am I also learning new things about the empowerment that my dialogue partner is experiencing--an empowerment that may be an entirely new experience for me?

There are so many examples of this immediacy, but one that I remember vividly was from a member of Burundi Yearly Meeting living in exile in Nairobi, Kenya. In describing his desire to go back to Burundi to rebuild a Christian community devastated by genocidal civil war, he quoted from the book of Nehemiah. For him, the story of Nehemiah the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes, weeping at the reports of destruction from his home town of Jerusalem, was not just a nice parallel, it was a case of close identification, provided by the Holy Spirit to confirm his own intention to return to Burundi and begin the task of reconstruction. The Holy Spirit spoke through the Bible, saying, "This is your story, too. And you too will experience the same empowerment I gave Nehemiah."

As I was musing on this difference in approaches to the Bible, I was also reading Donald Miller's Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium. Instead of pulling his point about the Bible out of context, let me quote fairly extensively, and see if you don't catch the parallels between the contemporary churches he's describing (Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Fellowship, and Hope Chapel) and the Quaker past/potential future:

[page 66] From our interviews it is apparent that the cultural relevance of new paradigm churches, including their contemporary style of evangelism, plays an important role in their growth and the strength of their members' conversion experiences. As Greg Laurie explained in discussing the Harvest Crusades: "If they [nonbelievers] are going to reject the message I preach, let them reject it, but let them reject the message and not all the peripheral things that are secondary." By being culturally current, new paradigm churches aim to keep nonbelievers from feeling alienated by any style of dress or ritual associated with Christianity; instead, they want any objections to stem from the content of the teachings, which they refuse to compromise.

In relation to the rapid growth of new paradigm churches, it would appear that there has been a happy coincidence between the leaders' cultural suspicion of bureaucratized institutions, including religion, and their theological conviction that access to God is through the Holy Spirit rather than through man[sic]-made institutions. Specifically, new paradigm Christians believe that direction for daily living comes from the Holy Spirit, especially as one studies the Bible, meditates on its meaning, and seeks in moments of solitude to hear the will of God for one's life. All other claims to divine revelation are secondary, including the dictates of clergy.

It is precisely this view of the Holy Spirit that legitimates a decentralized, laity-empowered church. It directly challenges the legitimacy of a hierarchical structure, as it forcefully raises the question of why another human being should supersede the authority of the relationship between God and the individual. In this view, the Holy Spirit leads laypeople to establish programs and to engage in acts of service. New paradigm church members believe there is no reason why these instructions should percolate down from the top of the organizational hierarchy (although the Holy Spirit speaks to pastors, also).

[pages 180-181] Drawing on the theories of the German sociologist Max Weber, we can say that religion becomes progressively routinized over time. The founding prophet's teachings are rationalized by followers to harmonize with the prevailing worldview, and over time simple acts of religious expression take on more abstract levels of symbolization. Priestly roles are identified, sacred texts are canonized, roles and procedures become more and more distanced from the transforming source of the sacred.Taken to an extreme, religious institutions become encrusted bureaucracies that survive with low levels of commitment, primarily through habit and because they are integrated with other aspects of institutional life.

It is from this religious context that reforming movements emerge, often stimulated by social-political events that send large numbers of people in quest of a more adequate meaning system. Religious "primitivism" has a long history of appeal, with individuals abandoning the encrusted form of religion and searching for its earliest expression, before it was encased in doctrine and ritual. Religious life that appropriates the primitive forms typically has very little distance between the leaders and the people. Believers achieve direct access to the realm of the supernatural, which more domesticated forms of religion, over time, have found increasingly unseemly and magical.

Applying this model to new paradigm religion explains, among other things, why clergy dress like ordinary members, why they insist on biblical literalism (i.e., as a way of undercutting more authoritarian claimants to power), and why they emphasize lay ministry.

Here, biblical literalism contributes to empowerment in a slightly different way, although it's clear from the testimonies of converts liberated from addictions and anomie that they, too, experience the connection between Bible and Holy Spirit.

That slightly different element is the democratizing assertion that the individual believer, however unsophisticated in the ways of academia or seminaries, can trustfully read the Bible and draw his or her own conclusions. Furthermore, since Bible study is almost the most basic building block of social life in this subculture, they're never really alone in trying to discern biblical guidance--but this grassroots empowerment frees them from dependence on cleric or seminarian. How more quakerly can you get?

From all this, I don't feel any obligation to accept without comment biblical interpretations that seem unsupportable and actually unhelpful to me. There's neither intellectual integrity nor evangelistic integrity in that kind of silence. But it does mean that my trajectory has to be Godwards and start from a centered place--and neither defensiveness nor destructiveness come from that place.

One more passage from Miller--and that's the one where he discusses the Quaker roots of the Vineyard movement with John Wimber, one of that movement's founders:

[page 48] Wimber followed [his friend Dick] Hine into an Evangelical Friends church in Yorba Linda, which nurtured his new faith. Describing the influence of the Quaker church on his current beliefs, Wimber states: "Some of the people who mentored me were deeply committed to Quaker values and practices, and I committed myself to them. And so I am not a culture-current Quaker--I do not hold a lot of the views that many of them would espouse today--but I am nevertheless thoroughly committed to Quaker theology and practice in its ethos. I would probably be more of a seventeenth-century Quaker in that I have been very impacted early on by George Fox and by some of the early writers who expounded and established the Quaker movement." Wimber explains that his Quaker roots are particularly reflected in his concern with the poor and his commitment to social justice. However, he rejects what he views as the Platonic metaphysics of much of Quaker mysticism and instead firmly professes a biblical worldview.

I can vouch for Wimber's ongoing friendly attitude toward Friends, including his participation in a Friends United Meeting seminar for pastors not long before I joined the FUM staff, and his ongoing friendship with our colleague Mary Glenn Hadley and with several Friends pastors. (I also noted a small but discernible tendency of frustrated Friends leaders to get involved with the Vineyard movement.) But I wish I had been able, before Wimber's death in 1997, to challenge the dichotomy he poses between what he calls our "Platonic metaphysics" and a firmly-professed biblical worldview. I'm sure he saw what he saw, it's just that Quaker mysticism doesn't have to be Platonic--and it's not as if Vineyard people haven't gone off on strange tangents of their own.

By the way, one of the concerns that blocked some Vineyard-tempted Friends leaders frustrated by our ambivalence toward leadership, and seemingly toward new life of any kind, was Vineyard's lack of support for women in leadership. Judging by this pdf-format letter, that issue has finally been addressed with clarity at least equal to the situation among some Friends pastoral yearly meetings. If the Vineyard movement became equally clear about peace, I wonder whether we Friends would suffer a more significant exodus.

This link between Bible and life is something I've experienced, too. When in my room at Carleton University in 1974, I read those words Love your enemies, they read me, too. They burned right through me; my defenses against God were in ruins, but my jaded and angry mistrust was healed, too. For me, everything changed on that day.

Lynn Gazis-Sax (Noli Irritare Leones) has done me the honor of including me in the blogs she named for Thinking Blogger Awards. I say "the honor" because she's the very definition of "thinking blogger." That's not just because of the cluster of fascinating and important subjects she routinely covers, it's also her wonderful combination of depth, playfulness, Christian humanism, and ethical passion (not completely separate qualities in my opinion) that flavor her writing.

Before I *gulp* name my own nominees, here are the Thinking Blogger Award meme rules, copied from her blog:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.

2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,

3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn’t fit your blog).

Here's my list, with apologies for anyone who might already have the award. I'm sticking to blogs that seem to be current (that's a hint, Bob R.).

1. Sean Guillory: Sean's Russia Blog. Listed for many reasons, but especially for being politically progressive without losing a wider perspective. And for amazing patience with the zoo that is his community of commenters.

2. Contemplative Scholar: Embracing Complexity. I don't know whether she shares even 10% of my theology, but I never fail to be inspired by her humanity.

3. Todd Rhoades: Monday Morning Insight. Someday all evangelical commentators will be this candid and approachable. I'm not holding my breath.

4. Scot McKnight: Jesus Creed. Maybe he'll be off the list after he finishes his commentary on the Song of Songs, but probably not. (Also, his list of links is unbelievably addictive.)

5. Simon Barrow: Faith in Society. My reliable and thoughtful guide to the more fertile corners of the Anglican and ecumenical world--not that Simon hasn't also been affected by Mennonites and other congenial spirits....

Righteous links: Oh, Mr. President, with a charism of political discernment like you have, why don't you do the thinking for all of us? ... And while we're grazing in beliefnet territory, enjoy this great interview with Shane Claiborne. My favorite line: "We're going to stop complaining about the church that we've experienced and try to become the church that we dream of." That's the difference between Shane and me: I'm still going to complain. ... Serve God, Save the Planet. [Friday PS: Christian college campuses join in, at least some of them.]

Speaking of awards, the Blues Foundation site lists this year's Blues Music Awards winners. One of my favorite blues musicians, Charlie Musselwhite, was a big winner this year, with four awards. My favorite blues podcast, The Roadhouse, had two podcasts, #116 and #117, devoted to nominees and winners.

Memphis Slim on the piano and Matt "Guitar" Murphy provide about as much sonic pleasure as you can pack into three minutes and seventeen seconds.


Bill Samuel said...

Back when we had the "traveling meeting" in our area where Conservative Friends and other Christian Friends would visit liberal meetings, I have never forgotten something that happened when the traveling meeting was at my then home meeting.

Someone from my meeting, in an after-meeting session, queried the Conservative Friends about whether their vocal ministry was usually based on the Bible or on their personal experience. A Conservative Friend responded that they don't make this distinction, that for them these are not separate.

This represents the kind of identification you observe as common among Southern Christians. It also relates to the "emerging church" perspective of a continuing story including the Biblical narrative, the story of the church in all its forms, and our contemporary story. This rejects the distancing from the Biblical story that can occur in both fundamentalist (putting it on a pedestal or making it a set of rules really limits your true interaction with it) and liberal thinking.

George Fox would sometimes indicate that he had a revelation of truth, and then later would find it in scripture. This is very interesting, as he was someone who had already read the Bible numerous times.

Early Friends emphasized the primacy of direct revelation. Fox and the others understood that you couldn't get to the truth just by reading scripture, although they firmly upheld the truth of scripture. Rather, their view was that Christ our present and living Teacher shows us truth, and then we can search scripture and confirm that it was indeed Christ we heard.

I assume other readers have had the same experience I have had of reading a passage many times and just not understanding it or it sounding like something that did not seem to be from God, and then at some point reading it and the truth speaking clearly to me through it. This is described as the scripture being opened.

I've had far less experience with Southern Quakers than Johan. My impression is that you'll find them all along a continuum ranging from the early Quaker experience to a fairly typical fundamentalist view.

Quakers have no theological problem with women in ministry in any role we accept. However, my impression is that pastors are predominantly male in every mainly Anglo North American YM which is mainly pastoral. The only North American YM where this is not true, to the best of my knowledge, is Alaska, which is rooted in a very different culture and has very few Anglos. Unlike Vineyard, our YMs don't say that while we at the larger level don't have any problem with women in ministry, local churches are free to have a different perspective. However, most any YM Superintendent will tell you that there are churches in their YM who don't want women presented to them as possible senior pastors.

Robin M. said...

Johan, even if I didn't already agree with Lynn's tag, this post alone would qualify you as a thinking blogger.

Thank you for helping me to understand a little bit better.

Johan Maurer said...

Bill and Robin, thanks to both of you for slogging through a long and dense post!

Bill, I remember our then-superintendent of Indiana Yearly Meeting, David Brock, addressing a plenary session of our yearly meeting. With unconcealed frustration, he basically asked how many centuries we'd be preaching equality before yearly meeting superintendents would stop having the "one-third" experience in pastoral searches. As superintendent, if he suggested a woman as candidate for a pastorate, one third of the meetings would find a way to say no right up front, one third would put the candidate at the bottom of the pile, and only one third would treat her equally with other candidates.

That was ten or twelve years ago. I wonder whether the situation has changed.

Anonymous said...

In the Born-Again Evangelical church I grew up in, 2 Timothy 3:15-17 was used to prove not only inspiration, but divine Authorship of the 66-book canon. I was shocked when I heard for the first time about the last 13 verses of Mark, in a Divinity School course I audited in 1971.

I recently finished reading Bart D. Erhman’s, “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.” Erhman describes the history of the Textual Criticism field. How the scholars came up with the rules of thumb they use to decide most cases of discrepancies. (For more info on textual criticism: http://www.earlham.edu/~seidti/iam/text_crit.html )

In my web-surfing I found out that most of the facts in Erhman’s book are well known, and pretty much "ho-hum" within Divinity School circles. They are only a BIG DEAL, because of the shock for average pew warmers who had no idea about the complexities of Textual Criticism, the decisions made for them when it comes to Canons, and when it comes to Translations. But more importantly, it is a MAJOR DEAL because the Bible has become for many their primary source of belief.

In his introduction Ehrman writes about how after graduating from Moody Bible Institute, he was warned by many that he wouldn't find too many Christians at Wheaton College, where he was headed next.... Then, after graduating from Wheaton, was warned by many that he wouldn't find too many Christians at Princeton Divinity School, where he went to pursue his Doctorate...

I'm sure most of us can relate to this...

It has taken me a lifetime to accept that some of us need the type of "narrow" focus preached at Moody, while some of us need the different type of focus preached at Wheaton, while some of us are doing just fine with a “personal” revelation as you describe in your blog. (I’m not looking forward to those Meetings for Business in Heaven, and how we will achieve consensus...)

The “hot topic” in the Born-again church I grew up in was whether going to the movies is a sinful activity. Sometimes I feel our discussions then are not that different from the discussions within Quakerism: Some Christians need a spelled-out list of rules and regulations. (For the Jewish equivalent see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/613_mitzvot.) The problem begins when we try to impose our style of relationship with God on everyone else.

Faith implies uncertainty. Some of us try to eliminate this uncertainty by coming up with interpretations of Scripture which support our theories. We all do it, some of us less conscious of where we divide literal from allegorical.

If our Faith is based solely on Biblical Inerrancy and on Church Traditions, then we have a problem. Especially since the core issue -as I see it, - is how to explain my experience, my own relationship with God. I’ve always thought it a bit of a contradiction, to push for personal relationships with our Lord, but at the same time try to dictate the content of that relationship.

The problem is many congregations seem to be making -what would appear as- an effort to base our Faith on a book: The story of Jesus is true because a book says so. So that any doubts regarding the book would affect directly belief in Jesus. Belief in the book would seem to be primary. This may be why the sign on a church near my house drives me crazy every time I drive by it: “A Bible-believing Church.”

I have a relationship with God. I can’t explain this relationship. By definition it surpasses all understanding. However, the description of this relationship closest to what I experience is contained in the books commonly known as the bible. (Belief in the book is secondary.) The change I would propose to the church sign mentioned would be at least “A church believing in the Jesus of Scripture,” or simply “A church striving to follow Jesus.”

Bibles continue to be published with the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman (Whomever is without sin cast the first stone,) which is not in the oldest manuscripts. Bible publishers have the thorny issue of trying to decide what corrections to insert into new Bibles. Whole denominations could boycott if passages supporting favorite doctrines are messed with.

Does it matter?

It matters if you've been taught that every word of the KJV is inerrant. This is what many of us grew up with. (Actually I grew up knowing the Reina Valera was God's own version.)

What does taking out of the KJV the Trinitarian formula of 1 John 5.7–8 do for our Faith? Apparently not much, since a good portion of todays printed bibles do not have this formula, used at a time to support belief in the Trinity. (The NKJV still has it.)

I’m not suggesting abandoning the bibles. Keep on reading and studying whatever version or canon you feel led to. But I’m concerned about the effects to believers whose Faith is based on the book first. I know it is possible to survive the cataclysm of abandoning the current Bibliolatry of the Fundamentalist believers. But it is very painful; and so unnecessary.

The Bible continues to be used in Christian congregations as if what we have in our hands is the Literal, Inerrant Word of God. You and I may know better, but when the rest of the congregation finds out that scholars have known all along, and allowed thirteen verses of Mark and the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman to continue to be printed in current bibles, the logical conclusion most of us would take is that we have been lied to: by people who judged it made no difference for orthodoxy.

So, Do I have issues with Literalists? I guess I do. But I have not figured out the balance between respecting someone’s personal journey toward God, and condemning beliefs that make our Faith more and more unbelievable. With friends like these...

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

My favorite Quaker blogger (with the too-long toes) has got a shiny tag now to emphasize his gifts.

I lived in the Midwest for a while and I cannot recall that any of the...fundamentalist, literalist, conservative, whatever the incorrect label for this is, Christians I knew were at all perturbed by textual criticism.

The argument they always gave was that every jot and tittle (indeed!) in the Book, KJV only, of course, had been vetted by God. Every meeting of men to decide on the canon had been guided by God. Every slipping of an additional line into the text by a deceptive scribe, and every removal by an errant one, had been guided by God whether those scribes knew it or no. All the decisions of humans on the canon, every alteration to the translation, every misspelling, every seeming contradiction had been shaped by God and God alone, and humankind could claim no credit either in the Book's authorship or in its design. The contradictions would right themselves when the reader chose to read in submission instead of in defiance. The canon was God's canon! God had chosen to thrust out the Infancy Gospel, or the Gospel of Judas, and on and on...

As for the other versions of the Bible, they were in terrible, devastating error, and their devotees would come to know this on the Lord's day.

The story Johan tells of the book of Nehemiah and its personal meaning to its reader reminds me just a little, too, of the old stories of church members who would divine the right course of action in a quandary by going to the Bible and opening it at random, choosing to interpret whatever verse their eyes rested upon first as God's means of speaking to them.

Few of us would turn back to the days when the hierarchy of the church made up the only convoluted conduit a peasant had to God. This acknowledgment must be the answer to the question of whether the democratization of God is sufficient recompense for what seems, at times, like a turn to bibliolatry. Would that every woman and man could keep a peace with life after turning to the book of Nehemiah.