Beating around the Bush

You know things are bad when another president who couldn’t win the popular vote criticizes you. Don’t get me wrong—criticism is good. In my academic existence (on life-support for over a decade now) I’ve received plenty. The point is you can’t improve if you’re not willing to take a few blows. Defensive academics don’t survive long. The problem seems to be, if I may speculate from my knowledge of biblical studies, the word “criticism.” Growing up, one of the last things I wanted to have was criticism. Already overly self-conscious of my sins, criticism only felt like making an already bad situation even worse. Then I was introduced to biblical criticism.

Biblical criticism sounds like the worst kind, but in reality it’s absolutely necessary. The idea is to study the Good Book rationally. I knew, and still know, many people who believe biblical criticism to be evil. If you trust any history—either secular or divine doesn’t matter—you quickly learn that nothing is simply one-sided. The Bible itself offers examples of this: did God or the Devil tempt David to take a census? Just how many angels were in that tomb on Easter morning and who arrived there first? Only one answer can be right. Criticism is, typical of academics too long out of the sun, a poor word choice. Nobody’s picking on the Bible. All the biblical critic is trying to do is to find out what it really says by asking questions of the text.

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That’s the heart of the matter. Autocrats don’t like questions. The assumption that the inherent authority of a position should be unquestioned undermines any attempt at democracy. As I was often told in church—Christianity isn’t a democracy. Our political system, we’re told, is. That why checks and balances were built into it. Either extreme and the applecart is upset. No matter what believers believe the same applies to biblical studies. Some rampant Harvard toadyism remains, but for the most part we recognize that a scholar with—shall we call them “critical skills”? may emerge from even a school shorn of ivy. We understand that’s how learning works. No one’s above criticism. Only those with something to hide can’t take their lumps like the populace that allow them to claim the name populist. Nobody likes it, but we all have to take criticism from time to time. Even the Good Book.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

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Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.

America’s Book

AmericanBibleOne thing that would be difficult to overstate is the influence the Bible has had on America. In our increasingly secular society, it may seem like the Bible has lost its edge. Then comes a presidential election and the Bible is headline news again. Actually, it is present all along in more subtle forms, causing embarrassment for those who think it’s just puerile mythology. Many useful aspects of this may be glimpsed in Paul C. Gutjahr’s An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States,1777-1880. Thorough, insightful, and at times even witty, this reader-friendly analysis probes many aspects of how the Bible has impacted society in ways long forgotten. Who remembers that there were “Bible Wars” in the nineteenth century? That Bible publishing could at one time make one wealthy? That Bible illustrations caused scandal because bare-bosomed biblical ladies appeared in the pages of sacred writ?

The Bible is America’s book. Although Gutjahr only covers about a century of the story, there’s no question that the Good Book has roots that reach down into the sixteenth century and branches that continue to sprawl into the twenty-first. Some of it may be chalked up to civil religion, but the whole picture is more complex than that. From earliest days the colonial invaders drew on their understanding of the Bible to justify actions that really can’t be justified, and assuaged their guilt with the same holy book. Medieval European culture held the church and its founding document in high esteem, and when the Reformers broke from the hierarchy, the Bible became, well, sola scriptura. It was the Protestants who were annoyed enough at the situation to seek a life in somebody else’s land.

Once here, however, the Bible became foundational. Schools were established to teach students to read, and the main reading material was the Bible. A moral society, it was believed, would be founded on such curricula. Colleges were built primarily to train ministers. Revivals periodically swept the land. We currently live in the days of mega-churches. The elites sometimes overlook the appeal of the Bible to the average person. Here is a book that offers hope. And even if it’s rough, a love to those who don’t get their share of the culture’s spoils. It is more than a book. The Bible is a symbol. On his inauguration George Washington not only laid his hand on it, he also kissed the Bible before the crowds. If, like me, you didn’t know that, I suggest An American Bible as a reminder of how it has brought us to where we are. Borrowing a term from its sub-title, it too is a good book, and it serves to remind us of the power of an idea.

Receive History

Sacred texts, without readers, are mere artifacts. While so evident as to be trite, this truth lies behind the area of biblical studies called reception history. Perhaps from the earliest days that some books were considered holy, those who studied them wondered primarily what the original author meant. That was, after all, why the texts were preserved as special—they possessed a quality that other writings lacked. Over the centuries this perspective gained nuance and sophistication. (Despite what some secularists say, the study of the Bible can be quite scientific. Some of it is so technical that even specialists have a difficult time following it.) Until last century, however, one aspect remained unchallenged. The goal was to reach what the original author meant. The enterprise of exegesis is geared toward that end. Strip away the reader to get to the writer.

thumb_IMG_2069_1024Meanwhile sacred texts, such as the Bible, continue to develop their own lives in culture. While today’s facile use of the Bible in politics may seem to be something new, the use of Scripture in government is as old as this nation. It easily goes back to European explorations of text, and perhaps even to Asian exegesis before then. Even though the founders of the United States were unquestionably Deists, for the most part, they also were biblically literate. Even the Enlightenment recognized that the Bible held a privileged place in western civilization. Perhaps it was not the only sacred text, but it was a sacred text to many thousands, or millions, or people. Such a pedigree is wasted only with great loss to all. Enter reception history.

In the days of ecclesiastical hegemony, the church, however defined, had the right to interpret Scripture. With the growth of literacy and education the possibility of understanding the Bible spread to any who could read, or had ears to hear. We have only to glance around to see the ramifications of that today. While students may not know who Moses was in the Bible, they can tell you Christian Bale played him in a recent blockbuster. They may not know that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, but they can tell you he was a troubled, if not somewhat psychotic, devotee of God. At least in popular culture. And that is merely the thinnest veneer of the surface. The idea of sacred texts remains embedded in our worldview. It would seem that if we want to understand ourselves, reception history will unearth vital clues.

Biblical Script

The popular perception of the Bible generally does not match the actual contents very well. Like most books, the Bible has its highlights: Creation, Flood, David and Goliath, Jonah, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jesus, the Apocalypse. Between all the fascinating narrative, however, come the instructions. More instructions, in point of fact, than most people would care for. Nevertheless, over the centuries the Bible has acquired an aura in western civilization. It has become what some colleagues call an “iconic book.” It is this aspect of the Bible that stands out most clearly in the Fox series Sleepy Hollow. I wrote a post about Sleepy Hollow as I began to watch the first season on DVD. The headless horseman is an agent of the Apocalypse, and clergy and witches play a prominent role in the story. I wondered if the role of the Bible would diminish once the audience was drawn into the conceit of the four horsemen thundering out of Revelation into Sleepy Hollow. Just the opposite, in fact, occurred.

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As the series unfolds, the Bible is drawn more and more into the story. Demons and detectives both want to get their hands on it. Not to read the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but because the Bible contains esoteric information. Those “in the know” can unlock its secrets and thereby save society. Ironically, this is a subtextual version of the biblical metanarrative. It is all about (from the Christian perspective) salvation. The means, however, are quite different. Jesus is not really part of the Sleepy Hollow story. The Bible belongs to George Washington, cryptically bringing politics into the story. The text is not secure; there are extra verses in Washington’s Bible, just as there are many excised bits in Thomas Jefferson’s. Washington leaves instructions for saving his fledgling nation from the evils that roamed its shores during the Revolution. Or is that Revelation?

Right up to the cliff-hanger ending of season one, the Bible comes back time and again, focusing the viewer on its magical qualities. It is a book of secrets and mysteries. Meanwhile in the real world, biblical studies positions are being slashed from universities as if the horseman’s axe were anything but fictional. We don’t want to know about the real Bible. Politicians, real ones, use it as their own sword to force their personal faith agendas onto the electorate, but we generally do not even understand what the Bible really is. We’ll fund economics, that dismal science, and business, and maybe even actual science. The humanities, however, the stuff that makes us human, we will gladly call luxuries and deny them fiscal security. So the Bible grows in stature even as it diminishes in stature. Those who don’t know the factual Bible can easily be swayed by the fictional one. Are those hoofbeats I hear in the distance?

Creating Diversity

Informed opinion is a chimera. I write that as someone who has time to read only the news stories my wife or my friends pass on to me. Once in a while one of those stories makes me feel less bad about being uninformed. A recent piece by Slate author William Saletan looks at polls regarding Creationism. The piece, picked up in the New Jersey Star-Ledger on a recent Sunday, demonstrates that although the United States is a nation of Creationists, we don’t agree about what that means. What becomes clear to me when I read such stories is that people who believe in the Bible seldom read it. Or at least understand it. Creationism “is not a thing” in the Bible. Many accounts about how the world began are represented, and the main point seems to be that it’s important that it was the God of Israel who did it rather than the competition. The first couple of creation accounts are compelling with their insistence that people are special, and that we are in charge while the owner is away. In fact, however, creation is a minor point in the story. It just has to start somewhere.

Those who set out to read the Bible, I suspect, begin to stumble in parts of Exodus and generally give up once they reach Leviticus. Although the main point of the books of Moses is the rules, the modern Christian finds the story more engaging. And the creation accounts of early Genesis are among the stories people actually read. They do make for a great, if contradictory, tale. They have, however, little impact on what people are supposed to do. Ironically, those accounts have become failsafe political devices. We vote according to how old we think the earth might be. We are special, after all.

Saletan’s point in the article is that the finer we parse the questions, the more divergent opinion becomes. The Bible doesn’t say how old the earth is—it’s really not a point of any significance to the story—but if you’re going to take it literally, you can do the math. Few literalists truly take the Bible literally. Logic very quickly breaks down as Genesis 2 follows Genesis 1. Americans are told that the Bible is literally true, but such a view literally makes no sense. We are committed to it, however, as we somehow equate believing in stories to be more important than understanding what those tales are trying to say. The polls, according to the article, make the point abundantly clear. When it comes to understanding the Bible Americans are very committed, if very confused.

Just one Creationist museum.  Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

Just one Creationist museum. Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

True Literalism

Biblical literalists make strong claims for selectively obeying the Bible. It isn’t so hard to do in the short term, as numerous books on people “living biblically” have shown. You can get by for a year without trimming your beard or going out on a Saturday. You can even survive without eating pigs. Still, the moral codes that political literalists cite tend to have their own empowerment in mind: prevent women, gays, or those of other races from getting ahead. Stone adulterers and sassy kids. The Bible will set us straight! The finer points of the law, however, have likely never been observed. Even biblical scholars will confess that Leviticus can be a tough go. It sometimes helps to make diagrams as you read along to try to follow the intricate rules. Still, since Leviticus is the only place to find anti-homosexual rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible, we’d better go on reading it, right? It is worth it to feel better about ourselves. Superiority rules!

I was thinking about Leviticus 25 recently, the chapter about the sabbaths of the land. The concept may have sound environmental principles encoded in it: after working the land for six years, you leave it fallow on the seventh and live off of what you’ve stored up during the presumably bumper-crop years. The same principle lies behind rotating crops—the land needs a rest. There’s no evidence, however, that this was ever really put into practice. It is notoriously difficult to feed everyone in a subsistence economy, and deliberately not growing food for a year will almost certainly lead to disaster. Read a little further though. Every fiftieth year, Leviticus 25 mandates, that which you have bought from your neighbor should be returned. “Ye shall not therefore oppress one another” is one of the more easily overlooked rules in the Good Book. Any land sold is only on loan for, at most, forty-nine years. I’m still waiting for the book entitled My Fifty Years of Living Biblically.

The biblical term for this collective lack of selfishness is called Jubilee Year. Ancient Israel was, at least on vellum, an egalitarian society. Each person had promised land allotted to them. Economic hardship (such as sending a child to college) might necessitate selling all you have. Fear not—hopefully before you die—what you sold will be retuned to you and the system will even itself out again. It is a profoundly beautiful idea. It has, of course, never been taken seriously. So as we see the literalists massing as candidates begin gearing up for another cycle of elections, I think it is only fair to ask to see their mortgage papers. A visit to the county records bureau might be in order. I think maybe somebody has been holding out on land I’m biblically owed in upstate New York. Just don’t tell any Native Americans about this, for it seems maybe they have the most of all to benefit from taking the Bible literally.

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