Tag Archives: Bible

Viewpoints

WomanistI first heard of feminism in seminary. Growing up as a poor, uneducated fundie in a small town, where would I have learned about it? I came to it naturally, though. Being raised for several years by a single mother I knew that women were just as smart and resourceful as men. I guess I was surprised to learn that others didn’t see it that way. This was in the eighties and angry feminism was around—I was occasionally attacked in class for my naiveté. After all, I had attended Grove City College not because of its conservatism but simply because I didn’t know any better. This is a lengthy preamble for a book that would’ve helped me a lot as a youngster, although I wouldn’t likely have known to read it. Nyasha Junior’s An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation is a very useful guide to those who don’t really know what womanism is.

I’ve been in biblical studies long enough to know that I really don’t know much. There are critical approaches to the Bible I’ve never even heard of. Not too shabby for a field that has already been written off as moribund by the academy. In any case, the title “womanist” doesn’t really say much beyond an implication of gender. Junior’s book explains that. Womanism didn’t really grow out of academia as much as it did out of African American women’s experiences. I admit that it took this book to teach me that. What is really being addressed, however, is how womanism is becoming, or is starting to become, an interpretive school. The Bible is in the public domain. It’s anyone’s book. Indeed, it strikes me as odd that translators copyright their work, especially if they believe it is the word of God. The word of God comes with a price tag, I guess. African American women have long been readers of the Bible. What, though, characterizes this method?

That’s the question with which Junior wrestles in this informative book. Just as being female doesn’t make a scholar a feminist, she notes, being an African American woman doesn’t make one a womanist. And we all approach texts with a method, explicit or not. “Objectivity” doesn’t really exist and even literalism is an interpretive approach. Junior traces the history of both feminism and womanism, especially in regard to biblical interpretation. Her struggle should reflect that of any scholar—how do I regard the text regardless of my demographic? While many churches have slumbered in doctrinal dreams, progress in reading the Bible has marched forward. The real danger often comes in the form of labels. This book, written just as a method is starting to be formed, is a trustworthy guide to both the history and to the larger questions.

Take Your Time

PleasuresOfReadingReading is fundamental. Those of us who grew up hearing that slogan have never forgotten it. The part that I wish had stuck better is just a touch shorter: reading is fun. Or it can be. Should be. Alan Jacobs’ little book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is like an extended essay on the subject. As a professor of literature, Jacobs has considerable experience encouraging people to read, and in his book he makes a case for reading what you want to read (reading on a Whim, he calls it). Wisely he recognizes that many would-be readers are discouraged by being instructed to read that which they don’t find appealing. I learned quite a lot from the suggestions contained herein, and I’ve been reading so long that I thought I knew pretty much what I needed to know about it. Perhaps the most fundamental issue (apart from reading itself) is that many of us expect to be told what to read. We second-guess our own judgment, feeling we need an expert to tell us how to do it. Like singing in public, it’s intimidating to come across someone better read than oneself. Jacobs advocates reading what gives you pleasure and not worrying about what others think.

Recognizing that readers are spoiled for choice, Jacobs addresses, among other topics, rereading. And taking notes. And reading slowly. I recall speed-reading courses advertised, ironically, on television. At college you could take courses in improving your quota of pages turned. There is a specific kind of reading, as Jacobs notes—reading for information—where this may be helpful. This is different than reading for pleasure, or even reading for understanding. In the case of the Bible (Jacobs taught at Wheaton before moving on to Baylor) many people, he suggests, read for information rather than for understanding. When reading for pleasure taking your time is a virtue. Getting to know a book requires rereading. We need to make time for what is important.

Jacobs makes the point that readers are a minority sect. There have always been fewer of us than there have been of those who don’t read. We are, in his words, a tribe. We can generally spot one another. Those of us who can’t walk past a bookstore will recognize ourselves in the pages of this meditation. Those who spend long hours with books become like them, in some respects. Familiar, layered, and requiring more and more attention. Like the reading that it advocates, this book itself is a delight to read. There is so much in this brief volume that it’s difficult to summarize in the short-form writing that I use on this blog. I found myself wishing for an index so that I might find my favorite passages again. Then I realized that perhaps this absence was intentional. Maybe I’ll have to reread it, taking notes as I go. What a wonderful thought.

Holy Castle

ManHighCastleReading about Philip K. Dick prompted me to read one of his novels. But which one? Some Amazon pick-up lockers on the way to work are painted with a mural of The Man in the High Castle. I haven’t seen the series, but there was the paperback, facing out, at the local independent. It’s been a while since I’ve read Dick, so I have to find my legs for his style. I’m surprised at just how much religious language he uses. Our cultural biases tend to insist that intelligent people aren’t hoodwinked by religion, but it does, nevertheless, appear. The premise of Dick’s novel is based largely on I Ching, the “Book of Changes.” Indeed, the conclusion of the novel relies heavily upon it. Along the way, however, Dick shows his sacred mettle when it comes to Judaism and Christianity as well. His prose is sprinkled with biblical quotes.

More than just a surface awareness, The Man in the High Castle offers some deep reflection for the reader. Mr. Baynes, seated on the rocket to San Francisco, ponders the Nazis who’ve won the Second World War. Reflecting on their hubris he considers how they’ve come to think of themselves as divine. “Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.” This gave me cause for pause. Apart from Dick’s narrative, the idea of divine anthropophagy is in keeping with much human experience. We often consider ourselves masters of our own fates. Many, however, find themselves dangling like a spider from a web over the fire. Not that of Edwards’ Hell, but simply that of human circumstance. The Nazis didn’t win the battle, but listening to today’s political rhetoric, they may have won the war.

Nobusuke Tagomi explains to Baynes how I Ching, a 5000-year-old book, is alive. “As is the Christian Bible; many books are actually alive.” Far from poking fun, Dick suggests there may be something to all this mumbo-jumbo after all. We are conditioned to mock, dismiss, and ignore religion in this world where rationality leads to presidential races such as this one we’re currently suffering. Follow the trail back, I suggest. Look for clues. Philip K. Dick isn’t the only secular writer who knew more than the average person about what fascism looks like, and about the role of religion in its downfall. The novel may not be easy to read. It demands much of those who approach it. Nevertheless, it preserves the truth that many books, indeed, are alive.

Biblical Stories

The Bible had quite a week last week. It went from being vetoed as the “state book” of Tennessee to making it onto the list of the ten most challenged and banned books of the year for the first time. Did you ever get that feeling that you should’ve thought a bit more closely about career options? I mean, the Bible’s not half bad. Yes, it has some naughty bits, a few instances of cursing, and adult situations. There are homicides, suicides, and genocides. It endorses slavery and advocates religious intolerance. It’s not all bad news, however.

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We find it easy to make summary judgments based on our own tendency to elevate human products to divine status. That which is most holy, after all, becomes the most profane when it’s defiled. The Bible itself can be like any other book. Printed on paper, bound between two covers, it contains ideas that must be interpreted. There’s no such thing as “just reading.” Even that road sign that says “slow children” is open to hermeneutics. What is objectionable is the use to which the Bible is put. And that use is objectionable due to the claims made about it. Saying that God rolled up his immaterial sleeve and took a transcendent pen into his incorporeal hand and began to scrawl is a bit naive. We know that people wrote the Bible—and much of it is sublime—and other people compiled it into a book that eventually acquired sacred status. It wasn’t born holy, it had to grow into it.

Once the Bible became objectified it turned into what people eventually use all objects for: a weapon. We can take sticks and stones and break your bones (no, that’s not in the Bible), and we can take paper and ink and hang you as a witch. Or pillory you as a liberal. Or say that it forbids the love you feel in your God-given heart. Something strange has happened here. The Bible’s not a bad book. It’s a bit on the long and repetitious side, but it has many, many memorable sayings and noble sentiments. Entire civilizations have been based on it. Or readings of it. They’ll ask you to put your hand on it and swear in court, and then they’ll ban it so your kids can’t read it. It’s been a tough week for the Good Book. Somehow, however, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it because people love a conflicted story.

Foundational Books

Over the weekend I visited one of my favorite used book stores, The Old Book Shop in Morristown. It’s neither huge nor fancy, but it has the feel that is so important to the restless mind. The feel of not knowing what you may find. The mystery of discovery. As I browsed, it occurred to me that although books of all varieties lodge here, the predominance of the old books tends toward the religious. The books associated with the church have survived for their centuries, closely followed by the classics—what was once considered the purview of the educated. I suppose one might argue that the breviaries, hymnals, and Bibles indicate overprinting on the part of overzealous presses, but I know that’s not the whole story. In fact, until quite recently the educated were expected to be religious as well. There was a kind of humility at work here. Even scientists respected the God who’d put all of this into place. This was not so much overprinting as it was meeting a prevalent need.

In early America, for example, if a household owned a book, it was more than likely a Bible. Bibles existed in profusion due to—putting it most crassly—demand and supply. People wanted to have a Bible. Particularly Protestants who’d been taught that it alone held the key to their salvation. There are some things you just don’t leave to chance. As that era continues to fade and people unload the books they no longer need or want, the Bibles and hymnals and prayer books make their way to antiquaries and I spend my weekends browsing among them and pondering how we came to be in this place.

Education—books—is/are foundational to our society. Books may be messy and lend to clutter, I’m told. In our apartment they climb in stacks alongside overfull bookshelves like ivy up the side of a tower, and yet I find them difficult to release. There’s knowledge here for the taking. The visit to the used bookstore inevitably leads to finds I hadn’t expected. There were no Bibles in my hand as I checked out, but no matter. I’ve got many Bibles at home. I’m aware that building requires foundations. Architecture may change over the centuries, but old foundations remain for millennia. To be educated is to be aware of them and appreciate them for what they are.

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Bible Use

In the current presidential race, it seems, the Bible hasn’t been as large an issue as it has been in the past. Bluff, bravado, and bullying seem more the order of the day. Goliath rather than David. This makes me think of the varied uses that the Bible has had in American life. It has been used as a spiritual guide, a textbook, a set of moral principals, a grimoire, and a science primer, as well as a political playbook. It is versatile, the Good Book. It has been prominent in American society from the very beginning, but clearly its prominence is starting to fade. Not likely to disappear any time soon, the interesting question is how people use the Bible, often without reading it. This is what scholars call the “iconic book” aspect of the Bible. It is performative—it acts in a way that has an outcome, no matter what the intent of the user. As I’ve argued in academic venues, it has become a magical book.

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

Wondering whether this is a new situation or not (I deeply suspect it’s not) I’ve been reading about the Bible in early America. Almost all the reference material points to the “official” uses of the Bible—that by statesmen and clergymen (both classes of “men” in the early days) with almost nothing of how it was used in private. This question involves some exercise of the imagination since there are few data. Would not a family, struggling to survive, see in the Bible a powerful book? And would not a powerful book be capable of subverting the laws of nature? Reading about the witch trials in Salem, we see that thunderstorms and other “prodigies” were considered magical. Surely one could use the Bible for unorthodox purposes? There’s little to be said in the absence of evidence. The use of magic in the colonial period, apart from the trails of witches, was not unusual.

How do we measure the ways the Bible was used when nobody beyond interested parties, such as clergy, wrote about it? Mr. Trump even tries to quote it from time to time, but since his citation that sounds like a joke opener, “Two Corinthians [go into a bar],” he seems to have let that hot potatoe drop. The Bible, seldom read, remains a powerful book. The source of its power, I suspect, is in its use by the common people. Many people are familiar with it, and believe in it. Some have even read it. It remains, however, one of the great mysteries among the early European settlers. We know they had their Bibles with them. How exactly they read them, when not under the eye of the preacher, we apparently have no way of knowing.

Bible Search

The Bible is, in many ways, not suited to internet study.  Let me explain: this artificial world of the internet is based on searchability.  To search for something, you need to have a distinctive word, a keyword, or catchphrase.  As perhaps the most successful book of all time, the Bible has undermined its own uniqueness.  How many books are titled The Gun Bible or the Dog Bible or substitute your favorite noun Bible?  Web searches for “the Bible” bring up a large number of relevant hits, but then quickly devolve into other Bibles.  Too many Bibles. Not only has the noun “Bible” been appropriated, so have many aspects of its story.  Particularly the Good Book’s penchant for using short, common words for titles of individual books.

Search for Mark, or John, for example.  Don’t bother adding the word “Gospel” since it too has become widely utilized to give any popular subject an air of authenticity.  Not only did the four evangelists write such books—the Gospel according to Biff, Trump, the Simpsons, or Bruce Springsteen will likely pop up ahead of the original fab four.  Or consider the books whose names became common nouns: genesis, exodus, numbers, judges, kings.  Then there are the ambiguous titles: Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Acts.  Sure, you can lengthen them out a bit: Acts of the Apostles, Song of Solomon, the Proverbs of Solomon, but the results you get tend to skew evangelical that way.  Job is just a non-starter. Do you mean employment or enlightenment? Do I need to get a job or to get Job? At least it’s not a popular name for kids.

The other area where the Bible’s success works against it in the computer age is its success at giving names to people.  In a culture so biblically based, the Bible has been treated as a name-list for newborns for centuries.  Even though the Anabaptist penchant for using prophetic names has faded from popular culture, there are plenty of Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, and  Ezekiels out there.  Even some minor prophets, too.  Amos, Micah, Zechariah.  (Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai haven’t particularly caught on.)  Daniel, David, Joseph, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.  We live in a world of biblical nomenclature.  There’s even more than one Jesus running around.  (Jesus, is, of course, Greek for Joshua, so there may be even more than one might suspect.)  I spend a good bit of the day searching various biblical material online.  I wonder if anyone ever imagined, over two millennia ago, that a three-letter name was bound to cause problems in a world of billions? Were it submitted for publication today, the editor would’ve sent the Bible back to the author for a rewrite, along with a list of suitable keywords.

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