Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bill Maher's 'Religulous' and Biblical Interpretation. Part I

Abraham and Isaac, by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1634)

Last year I bookmarked a post from Loren Rosson's blog The Busbody called "It's the End of Biblical Studies as We Know It, and Chris Heard Doesn't Feel Fine." The title was in reference to some remarks made in review of the biblical scholar Hector Avalos' book The End of Biblical Studies.
"Hector's thesis is that the Bible is—despite all the rhetoric to the contrary—irrelevant (and maybe even harmful) to life in today's world, but biblical scholars 'conspire' (in a sense) with religious and media organizations to keep an illusion of relevance alive."
Here I'll quote Rossen's observations on that topic verbatim, maintaining that "the bible will never lose its vibrancy for all of its irrelevancy."
The most fascinating thing about the bible is that it comes from a culture which many of us find alien and unpalatable (honor-shame), and that it can provide only limited support for modern agendas, however liberal or conservative. That's what makes the book so vibrant on its own right, even to me as a non-Christian. Ironically, I find it easy to warm to the biblical writers in all their flawed and convincing personalities. They were struggling to make sense of the world as they knew it, sometimes commendably, sometimes not. Funny thing is, I don't know that we do much better than they did.
It's an interesting issue to ponder, especially considering that Hector Avalos was once a child evangelist and Pentecostal preacher, and is now lecturing on topics such as How Archaeology Killed Biblical History. Is it true? Is is true that a whole slew of biblical scholars in the academy who write not only for other professors but for the mass market as well, have taken form criticism to the extent that they have deconstructed and critiqued themselves out of their own faiths? If so, is it disengenuous of them to hang onto their tenure teaching books they find to be at best irrelevant for today, but perhaps even harmful, thereby making a shipwreck of the faith of their students and other readers? Do they keep on doing this... just because they invested so much time and money into making a living this way, and don't know what else to do with themselves?

Is this a fair indictment, or is there a different way we can look at "healthy" forms of biblical criticism? Do certain types of literalism invite ridicule?

While there has been a rise in fundamentalism, there certainly has been more and more pushback these days too. Atheists and agnostics are becoming more vocal and militant concerning the Bible and its contents. Bill Maher has made a stir recently with his new movie Religulous, sharply ridiculing those "who believe in talking snakes."

I've never cared much for Bill Maher, going all the way back to his show Politically Incorrect. I think his puerile and dismissive ridicule of religion and people of religious faith does tremendous harm to the progressives who've associated with him and to their causes. Besides, there is hardly anything original about what he's trying to put across. Voltaire was doing this with far better intelligence, satire, wit and humor with his Dictionnaire Philosophique and Candide back around 1760.

What I was really surprised to learn, when about a month ago I came across Kerry Kennedy's new book Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, is that Bill Maher is a lapsed Catholic. I had no idea. I'd always assumed that he'd been raised in a Jewish household. I thought I'd heard him once say on his show "I was never a very good boy at Temple." As it turns out, though, his father was Catholic and his mother was Jewish. His father took him to Mass every week until the age of 13, when Humanae Vitae was issued. His father stopped going after that.

I haven't seen the film yet, but in a way, I'm curious about it. One thing that I heard about the movie is that Maher interviewed the Vatican's best Latinist, the affable Carmelite Fr. Reginald Foster, and the former director of the Vatican Observatory, Jesuit Fr. George V. Coyne. According to some reviewers, these two men came across "better" that everyone else in the film, and this causes resentment in certain other quarters. I saw this for instance, on a fundamentalist blog:
Way to Go Vatican!

10/03/2008 - James White

Roger Ebert mentioned the following in his review of Bill Maher's Religulous:

His two most delightful guests, oddly enough, are priests stationed in the Vatican. Between them, they cheerfully dismiss wide swaths of what are widely thought to be Catholic teachings, including the existence of Hell. One of these priests almost dissolves in laughter as he mentions various beliefs that I, as a child, solemnly absorbed in Catholic schools. The other observes that when Italians were polled to discover who was the first person they would pray to in a crisis, Jesus placed sixth.
···Yeah, there you go. Rome in all her glory.
I haven't seen the movie, seen a transcript, or seen any video clips of those interviews yet, so it's hard to say what my reaction would be. Denying Hell would certainly be problematic. I don't know what they said about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, if anything.... To suggest, however, that the world wasn't literally made in six days, that the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale is allegorical, and that dinosaurs and people weren't walking around together on the planet 5,000 years ago is not problematic. As was noted here:
Coyne patiently explained that the Bible offers, not a modern scientific explanation of the origins of the universe, but rather a theological cosmology and that Catholic belief is therefore perfectly compatible with the theory of evolution. After this brief sensible clarification, Maher cut away and we never heard from Coyne again. I’m convinced that a half hour with him would have cleared up much of the comedian’s confusion. A telling point: when Maher introduced Fr. Coyne as a “Vatican astronomer,” he quipped that that description seemed an oxymoron. But why should it? For Catholics, there is no conflict between the truth of science properly laid out and the truth of religion properly interpreted, since both come from the same divine source.
How should we look at literalism? How should we do biblical interpretation? Some thoughts below from the late Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S. What may be problems for others may not necessarily be problems for us.
Q. Surely it scandalizes people to hear that not everything told us in the Bible happened literally?

I am not certain how universally true that is, since increasingly we are getting a more sophisticated audience, at least in the First World. I suspect that by osmosis from elementary and high school education, people have already realized that parts of the Bible are not literal accounts of factual history. Whether it scandalizes them when that is said under church auspices probably depends on the way in which it is said.

I have never thought it helpful for someone to get up in a pulpit or classroom and announce that this or that biblical incident never happened. My favorite example of bad taste, bad pedagogy, and perhaps bad theology, is for someone in a church setting to proclaim, "There were no magi." I know quite well that there are serious reasons for doubting the literal historicity of the incident of the magi in the Matthean infancy narrative. Nevertheless, the statement made with absolute surety that there were no magi goes beyond what biblical scholarship can prove. It is very difficult to support with evidence such an absolute negative, and so even on a purely scholarly basis one should not state it. Pedagogically, I do not see how such a negative bit of knowledge can be spiritually helpful to the audience, and making statements in a church setting presumably has the purpose of helping people to grow in knowledge of God. How would they be brought closer to God by knowing that there were no magi? Theologically, such a negative statement distracts from the true import of the story and by implication conveys the idea that this story is primarily concerned with communicating facts.

In my judgment, the way to preach or teach the magi story in a religious setting is to present the beautiful Old Testament background of wise men coming from the East bringing God's revelation about Israel. (I'll not go into that background, but it lies in the heart of the Balaam story in the Book of Numbers.) In this way the audience can come to understand Matthew's message that these Gentiles, drawing upon a source of knowledge available to them, namely the reading of the stars, have come to adore God, even if they still require guidance of the Hebrew Scriptures to find out precisely where the King of the Jews has been born. When one shows the audience the extent to which the Matthean infancy story is retelling symbolically stories from the Old Testament, one may be conveying to them by implication that this story of the magi is not literal history. But one has not made a point of the lack of historicity, and one is not distracting from the story's theological value. And so to answer your implied question, I think there is nothing scandalous about preaching or teaching each biblical book in its proper literary genre, history as history, parable as parable, when the preacher or teacher has sensitivity to both the purpose of the book and the purpose of the communication.

Let me point out an implication of this, even if it may not have been an implication of your question. Sometimes, because they fear scandal, some would say that it is better to treat a nonhistorical narrative as history and thus cause no problem. That is a dangerous misconception. God's truth should be served by nothing less than the best of human perception, and we endanger acceptance of divine truth when we teach anybody something that by our best scholarly standards is thought to be false. Sooner or later, those who hear the preacher treating Jonah as if it were history, or the first chapters of Genesis as if they were science, will come to realize the falsity of that presentation and, as a consequence, may reject the inspired divine truth contained in those chapters. In treating any passage of Scripture one need not raise problems that the audience has no way of understanding or of suspecting; but a discreet silence about extremely complicated issues is not the same as teaching or preaching something thought to be false. In preaching the infancy narratives (as distinct from giving a course in a university) I do not go into all the complications of historicity. But neither do I explicitly or implicitly suggest that all the incidents therein are history and must be believed. We probably need to be careful about underestimating the sophistication of the audience. I wonder if one were speaking to a fifth grade grammar school class about the star that rose in the East and came toward Jerusalem and came to settle over Bethlehem, would there not already be on the lips of the children a question as to whether all this happened, or is it "just a story." The challenge to the teacher or preacher may be to walk a middle line between affirming that all this happened literally and suggesting that it is just a story. It is a story in which God's inspired truth is communicated to us.

Q. But how far do we go in not taking biblical stories literally? I don't have much problem about the world not being created in six days and life developing by evolution, but what about Adam and Eve? I've heard my pastor state that we have to believe that those are real people.

While sometimes I would like to give pastors equal time by offering them the chance to clarify what they stated, it may well be that your pastor did state exactly that. Certainly when I was in the seminary, I was taught a very literal approach to the existence of Adam and Eve. In part that was because of a response of the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission at the beginning of the century specifying that certain parts of the Genesis story should be taken literally, including the appearance of the devil in the form of a serpent. We were told that we had to accept as factual that the first woman was formed from the first man and there was a unity to the human race in the sense that all human beings were descended from that first set of parents. If your pastor was trained before 1955, that is probably what he would have been taught. But in 1955 the secretary of the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission announced that Catholics now had "complete freedom" with regard to those earlier responses of the commission except where they touched faith and morals...

The genuine religious concern in the Adam and Eve story is that, whether there was one set of parents or more, they were all created by God in the sense that God breathed into them a living soul. Furthermore, they were created good, and not evil, even as we are created good and not evil. Nevertheless, there is in human beings a basic sinful tendency which goes beyond personal sins we may commit; and this basic tendency toward evil is part of the corruption that human beings have introduced into the world, not an endowment by God. Thus we could preserve the core of the concept of "original sin" (even if that terminology is not technically biblical but reflects more the articulation of St. Augustine and other early Church Fathers). We could also recognize how well the ingenious biblical story of Adam and Eve conveyed the idea of sin and its origins and not think that we will find a better modern substitute for telling that story. There is a middle position between what you heard your pastor to say by way of insisting on the literal historicity of the Adam and Eve story and a destructive and inaccurate statement, "There were no Adam and Eve."

While Catholics would share the concern of the fundamentalists about the essentials of the Christian faith, we would be able to distinguish between holding on to the doctrine of creation and a view of creation that rejected evolution. The last would not be seen to us as a fundamental of the Christian faith. Moreover, since this reaction came within the confines of Protestantism, some of what Roman Catholics would have called upon as support for these doctrines, for instance, creeds and the traditions of the church, could not be invoked. The whole effort was to prove the doctrines from the Bible, with the understanding that the only way this could be done was to maintain the literal meaning of the Bible. The contention was that any departure from the literal historicity of all parts of the Bible opened the way to a loss of faith in the fundamentals.

I have intended to be brief in my response to this question, so I do not wish to go into the differences between fundamentalists and evangelicals. For all practical purposes, what your question presupposes and what my answer presupposes is a literalist reading of the Bible to support Christian doctrine. I applaud some of the doctrinal stress of fundamentalists but I disagree thoroughly with the method they employ. In my judgment, a literalist reading of the Bible is intellectually indefensible and is quite unnecessary for the defense of the basic Christian doctrines.
In Part II, I'll be posting about biblical interpretation according to the Australian auxilary bishop Geoffrey Robinson, author of Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus.


Liam said...

Wow, Jeff -- there's so much to talk about here.

First, Raymond Brown is a rock and roll god. Such a peerless scholar and at the same time, great pastorally.

Second, I think faith that is really alive is challenging, and how to read the Bible is part of that challenge. Both fundamentalists and those believers who reject the Bible as unimportant are taking the easy, but less rewarding, way out.

Third, I think Bill Maher can be a riot, but he's very sophomoric when it comes to religion. He does the same thing that all the "new atheists" (Dawkins, Harris, and the execrable Hitchens) do... take the worst examples and generalize from them, ignore all the beautiful and intelligence in religion (they act like there were no intelligent scholars of religion), and then make stupid, simplistic, and uninformed statements about religion being responsible for all the wars in history, etc. Hey, I was like that when I was 17, but I was 17. These guys are eternal adolescents.

Maher is less than honest with himself when he says his problem is with the "certainty" of religious believers. He is very certain that religion is just "made up" and only about "talking snakes," etc.

I might see the movie if I get the chance, because it probably is funny, but I don't think Maher is capable of really challenging belief, since he obviously knows nothing about it.

Jeff said...


Thanks for reading all of that through, and for the thoughtful, thorough comment. I'm very much in agreement with you.

Fr. Brown was really something, and he is greatly missed. If I had to name two church-men who've passed away within the last ten years or so who were a great loss to both the Church and to humanity, they would be (no disprect intended to JPII) Raymond Brown and Cardinal Franz König.

crystal said...

I'll have to read Ebert's review - he is or was a Catholic so he probably has an interesting take on the movie.

I like Coyne. I read about him a couple of years ago when he (a Jesuit) was replaced as head of the Vatican Observatory. Some said it was because he was too liberal and thought intelligent design was ridiculous, others said it was because he was ill with cancer.

I'm really confused about the importance to give what's in the bible. Some of it is used to keep people down, like the stuff about gays and women, and I think it's not really "the word of God", but if I can't count on what's in the gospels, then I feel kind of lost.

Thinking of some modern day biblical scholars, like Borg and Crossan and NT Wright, and even Ben Witherington, I wonder how they feel about the subject.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

I think most of them would say that even if certain events can't be taken literally, it doesn't make them any less "true." I think you'll like what Bishop Geoff Robinson has to say. Witherington hasn't said anything about Religulous yet?

How's the machine doing?

crystal said...

The machine :) can go to the internet (as long as I don't turn it off, I think) but it can't run discs - that makes it freeze and the screen goes black. I don't know what's wrong :(

Ben does post a lot about movies - the latest one I saw was about a western with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenseon - but I didn't see mention of Religulous. He's pretty liberal for an evangelical - he's an Obama fan.

Jeff said...


Have you ever checked out Jim Wallis' blog?

crystal said...

Yes - Sojourners? That's right, sometimes I forget there are liberal evangelicals.