Thursday, October 09, 2008

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

The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, by Gustave Doré (1868)

There is no historical or archaeological evidence that this event ever took place, other than what we've read in the Gospel of Matthew.

That, in and of itself is not sufficient evidence to prove that it did not occur. Whether it actually happened or not, it is "true" nonetheless. Just within recent memory, we can simply ask the residents of the small towns of Darfur and Rwanda, of Ossetia, of Sabra and Shatila, Samarra, Srebrenica, etc..., etc..., and they will tell us.

Bill Maher, of course, would simply lay all of this kind of violence and wanton killing on the madness of religion, but as war correspondent Christopher Hedges points out, it is not as simple as that. He's seen the evil up close and personal many times before.
The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated by fear, greed, and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters, who rise up from the bottom of their own societies and terrorize all, including those they purport to protect.
Enough of Bill Maher and Religulous anyway. I like how Mike McG. summed up the whole flap over it on dotCommonweal and asked the appropriate question:

Seems like we're in for a reenactment of a well-worn script:
- Iconolast mocks religion.
- Traditionalists, as embattled literalists, are wounded, outraged.
- Progressives, as liberated sophisticates, 'get' the iconoclast and contextualize his critique.
- Traditionalists denounce the mockery and exaggerate its import.
- Progressives display disdain for those who seek 'security through certitudes' and affinity for iconoclast who seek a more amorphous 'truth.'
- Solidarity narrowed.
- Polarization magnified.
- Time for a new script?
Well said, Mike.

In Part I, it was questioned whether or not the Bible, supposedly the product of an ancient "honor-shame" society, is still relevant for postmodern society today.

Have we ever considered it strange that so many of us put such faith in the inerrancy, infallibility, inspiration and wisdom of a small, obscure desert tribe of antiquity, surrounded by powerful neighbors, struggling to hold their nation together and to meld the tribal Gods of the Canaanite El (Elohim pl.) and the Hebrew war-god YHWH into one God in which to pledge unflagging fidelity, in opposition to Baal and other members of a pantheon?

The Pope and the bishops are currently meeting in Rome for a Synod on the Bible. As I said in Part I, I wanted to post up some of the thoughts of Australian Auxilary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, author of Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus. I've read most of the book, and it's a fascinating critique and self-examination of the Church. I'm not sure I agree with 100% of everything he says, but I thought that at the very least I'd post up what he says about properly understanding the Bible. I'd be interested in hearing what other people think of it.

The bible is one of the two great sources of our religious knowledge, containing abundant treasures of divine wisdom of great grandeur and beauty. There is a problem, however, in that the divine wisdom that is reflected there is inextricably mixed with the human wisdom (and lack of wisdom) of the human authors of the bible, and it is a most difficult task to separate the two.

Alongside the stories of good people, the bible contains stories of bad people as well. Together with sublime religious thought, it contains many insights that were at best partial and much that is far from sublime. A poem that begins as a profound spiritual longing,

By the rivers of Babylon -
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion,
can end as a bloodthirsty call for revenge,

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.
It contains examples of good deeds we are meant to imitate, bad deeds we are meant to avoid, and mixed deeds where we must distinguish the good from the bad. It contains profound sayings that are reflections of divine wisdom, and sayings that reflect no more than human and even worldly wisdom…

The bible is, therefore, a dangerous book on which to base claims of divine authority for human words, and the practice has done untold harm.

Replica of an Assyrian bas-relief showing Hebrew captives playing harps

The Story of a Journey

God could have chosen a group of people who lived at an oasis in the desert, a people separated from all the movement of the times by the desert that surrounded them. Under the influence of divine inspiration, this group of people could have contemplated the grandeur of the heavens, plumbed the depths of human nature and written a book of sublime spiritual poetry. But God did not do this.

Instead, God led a particular group of people to a narrow strip of land, Israel, blocked by the sea on one side and the desert on the other. Because the desert blocked other routes, all land traffic between Asia Mid Africa, and Africa and Europe had to pass through this narrow funnel. The inhabitants met a constant migration of peoples, armies, merchants, ideas and religious beliefs passing from one of those continents to another, making it one of the most turbulent places on earth. For almost all of their history they lived under foreign domination.

If God wanted a book that contained only pure divine wisdom, unmixed with any human ideas, God might have chosen the tribe at the oasis. But if God wanted a book containing a mixture of the divine and the human, and the story of a god who spoke to people, less by divine oracles from heaven, and more in and through the turbulence of the world around them, then Israel was the perfect place.

The bible is the story of 'a people's long and painful spiritual journey through a world of turmoil towards a deeper understanding and a higher morality. It does not present us only with the perfect end- product, but contains the beginning and the middle of the journey as well, the false paths as well as the true ones.

Scholars of the bible believe that the people who fled from Egypt were utterly convinced that they had experienced a genuine action and presence of their god in their escape and in their coming into the land of Israel. Most scholars now believe that they then told the story of this escape, not literally, but in vivid, imaginative, powerful and highly effective stories. What we find in the bible, therefore, is neither a literal account of exactly what happened nor pure fantasy, for the authors told of a real and divinely-assisted escape from slavery, but they did so by "talking in pictures". "Ihe evidence we can gain from all sources supports this view and is so strong that it can no longer be sustained that Christians must believe that each one of these stories tells the literal truth of what happened. The ancient Hebrews, like many other peoples, told their factual history through pictorial stories, and many Christian problems began only when people began to reverse this process and take the stories as factual history.

The Prophet Jonah (Sistine Chapel), by Michelangelo, (1508-1512)

Three Stages of Understanding

Most of us have gone through three stages in our understanding of the stories recounted in the bible.

The first stage occurred when we first heard the story as children and probably believed it literally. Thus I once actually believed that a prophet named Jonah was swallowed whole by a large fish and spewed up onto the shore three days later. Children have a good understanding of the word "story", and I would hope that in the future children will not be told anything that must later be contradicted.

The second stage occurred when we came to understand that the stories were not to be taken literally. Thus my increasing knowledge of science led me to understand that the presentation of the universe in the first chapter of Genesis is not intended to be scientific, e.g. that one cannot speak of "days" before there was even a sun. For many people this stage is experienced as liberation: "I no longer have to believe all that nonsense I was told. I'm free." As a result, many never reach the third stage.

The third stage occurs when we realise that the writers of these stories would have been quite disconcerted to think that anyone would take their stories as literal accounts of exactly what happened. They were always nothing more and nothing less than stories designed to tell important truths.

Thus I have come to understand that the person named Jonah in the book bearing his name was not a real flesh and blood person but a symbol, a personification, of the whole Jewish people of the time, and the book is a powerful message about the obligation of this people to hand on to other nations the message of God's love that had been given to them. In the story Jonah was told to go to the hated Assyrians and tell them of God's love for them. But he believed in a god in whom justice came before mercy, so he was convinced that the Assyrians should be punished, not loved. He took ship and headed in the opposite direction in order to avoid God's command. The storm, the fish and the later visit to Nineveh are a story, including deliberately comic elements (e.g. cattle repenting), about God bringing the people of Israel back to their obligation to reach out to other nations, even the most hated.

The inspired message of the book was that God loved all people and that the people of Israel were meant to share with others the gifts that God had given to them. The whale was nothing more than "talking in pictures", a story designed to convey this inspired message in a manner that was both powerful and easy to remember.

Because of the way in which the Western mind has been trained to think, there is the danger that some people will be unable to move to this third stage of understanding, where story and symbol reign. They will conclude that, because many bible stories are not "true", that is, accurate literal accounts of what happened, they are, therefore, "untrue" and can be ignored. We must always try to move to the third stage and ask why the story is contained in the bible and what the people who put that story there might be trying to say to us.


Meg said...

Very nice, I've enjoyed these 2 posts. Don't forget my favourite interpretation of Jonah, that God will get you in the end: you can run, or you can hide, or you can get swallowed by a fish!


Jeff said...

Hi Meg!

I'm glad to see the Hebrew class is going well.

you can run, or you can hide, or you can get swallowed by a fish!

Sometimes I look at the betas in our fish tanks and think "If you were bigger than me..."


Liam said...

"Blessed are the cheesemakers?"
"It's obviously not meant to be taken literally. It refers to all manufacturers of dairy products..."

Another great post, Jeff. I enjoyed Geoffrey Robinson's take on the whole thing.

A month or two ago, IPAO and I went to a presentation of a film about Liberian women at Riverside Church. Three of the women were there, and spoke. The minister who introduced them talked about their stories and remarked that "narrative theology" was as important as systematic theology. Certain truths, certain understandings, can only be communicated through narrative means -- through the telling of story, factual or not.

Great images, btw.

Garpu said...

I think (especially in the days of instant communication) we've lost a sense of narrative. I remember growing up hearing stories about life, the universe, and everything from my grandparents. How many people have time for that now?

Jeff said...

Hi Guys,


"Hear that? Blessed are the greek."

"The greek?"

"Well apparently, he's going to inherit the earth."

"Did anyone catch his name?"

"Oh it's the Meek! Blessed are the meek! Oh that's nice, innit? I'm glad they're getting something 'cause they have a hell of a time."

I'm certainly not out to deconstruct anything, and I don't think Robinson is either. After all, Jesus did teach in parables.

Building narratives and oral traditions are sort of becoming a lost art. I wish my kids could have heard the stories my grandparents could tell. I can't tell them half as well.

crystal said...

I remember reading about Geoffrey Robinson in The Tablet. Think I posted something about his book too a while ago.

I'm one of those people stuck between stage two and three. I really want the gospel events to be more than stories. I want to be able to say, "Jesus said X" or "Jesus did X" and if I can't, how can i figure out what it means to be his follower?

My spiritual director used to tell me the gospels were not sources of information, but aside from that and religious experience, what else is a religious life or belief to be based on?

Ow, my head hurts :)

Jeff said...

Hi Crys,

Yes, I remember when you did post about Bishop Robinson. The Australian one.


As to the words and deeds of Jesus, yeah, I know what you mean. I turn once more to my guy Ray Brown for the short answer...

Q. 38. When you were asked about the historicity of the New Testament, you responded largely in terms of Paul's letters and their authorship. What about the Gospels? How reliable are their portraits of Jesus?

Very often an overall response is that the Gospels are not biographies, and in general that is true. Normally a biographer has the primary intention of writing a full life of an individual, recording all that we can know about him or her. Two of the Gospels (Mark and John) tell us nothing about Jesus' origins, birth, or early life before his encounter with John the Baptist. Mark never mentions the name of Jesus' legal father (Joseph) and John never mentions the name of his mother (Mary-yes, he speaks of "the mother of Jesus" but he never gives us her name; if we had only John, we would not know Mary's name). Those lacunae exemplify the absence from the Gospels of a considerable amount of biographical material that should have been included were the evangelists writing biographies of Jesus.

Yet I would point out that, while in general the Gospels are not biographies, the Gospel According to Luke, since it is joined to the Book of Acts, which narrates a loose type of history of the early Christians, and since it does have a story of Jesus' conception, birth, and youth, would come closer to the appearance of a biography than any of the other Gospels. Also, while no Gospel gives us a complete or dispassionate account of Jesus' life, all the Gospels give us some historical data about the circumstances of his life, his words, and his deeds. Therefore the statement that the Gospels are not biographies does not in any way rule out that their portraits are more than simply theological evaluations - they are interpreatations of a real life, real words, and real deeds.

He goes into much more depth of course. That's from his 101 Questions & Answers on the Bible by Paulist Press, which is short, cheap, and easy to read. I recommend it highly to everyone.

Jeff said...

As for the miraculous, I like what Brown said here:

Miracles must be dealt with, in my judgment, in the same way as the sayings of Jesus. If one goes behind the Gospels (and the evangelists surely believed that Jesus did miraculous things) to earlier tradition, one finds the evidence for Jesus as healer to be as old as the evidence for him as speaker of parables. Thus in terms of the antiquity of Christian tradition I find no reason to dismiss the miraculous from the ministry of Jesus. Indeed, one of the oldest memories of him may have been that he did wondrous things-a memory that could have circulated not only among believers but among nonbelievers. The Jewish historian Josephus has a famous passage on Jesus, at least part of which seems to be authentic. In the 90s he wrote (Antiquities 18.3.3; #63); "He was a doer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure." To my mind both those elements, doer and teacher, are part of the authentic tradition.

See questions 45-51 starting here.

crystal said...

Thanks, Jeff. I'll look that book up. I like his answers :)

Mike McG... said...


Good work on both Part I and Part II. So much to comment upon. I choose to focus on the Three Stages of Understanding. Robinson argued his case well, but I'm left with several “what ifs”:

"What if" most folks have neither the appetite for narrative nor the tolerance for ambiguity required to sustain the transition from step one to step two?

"What if" those formed during an era when religiosity was both concrete and plausible misread the vast gulf between them and those of us that follow?

"What if" the former are able to *both* retain the essence of the tradition *and* celebrate liberation from its structural elements?

"What if" those of us formed under a tutelage driven by deconstructive impulses can never see the reality as any thing other than relativized and socially constructed?

"What if" the refined sensibilities Robinson alludes to are, like the self-actualization pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, unattainable by most folks? Are we entitled to sneer? Are we obligated to liberate? And, most of all, are we better off?

Irish Catholicism, warts and all, got my people through the last 800 years. It died on my watch, in my line anyway. Beyond a genuine admiration for the values of the old man, the tenets of the faith are utterly implausible and totally irrelevant to my sons. The culture was the carrier and the culture has collapsed. I'm not in any way driven to reprove them and they are fine young men with honorable values. But I have a great deal of difficulty in celebrating a 'liberation' that in many ways seems impoverished.

Well beyond the truth claims, the faith carried my ancestors through this ‘vale of tears’ with a multitude of tools. What picks up the slack?

Jeff said...


I can certainly identify with what you are feeling. Whenever I'm in a Catholic cemetery, visiting the graves of deceased relatives or others, I'm overwhelmed by the pervasive presence of the iHs and the Sacred Hearts on the stones and my head reels from how far we've gone from that. I think of those people and I feel like we've let them down.

I guess a lot of how your questions should be answered depends upon what you think the reason for the fall-off was. People who think that Vatican II is to blame will advocate a restoration to the preconciliar era. Those who think the lack of nerve to follow though on Vatican II (and the ensuing reaction) was to blame will advocate pressing Vatican II reforms more intensely.

All I can point out is how poorly suited traditional Catholicism seems to be in our age of modern affluence, consumerism, and mass media. As Spain started a climb towards affluence in the 1980s, and Ireland started a climb towards affluence in the 1990s, and Poland started a climb towards affluence in the 2000s, look at how quickly traditional Catholicism collapsed in those countries and was often jettisoned with the utmost bitterness. It collapsed faster and perhaps even further than it did here.

As much as I miss certain aspects of it, I don't think it's possible to recreate the militant and triumphant Irish-American Church of the 1920s through the 1950s. We've moved out of the cities into the suburbs, out of the ghetto and into the mainstream. We've lost the unhealthy and pervasive fear of Hell (perhaps going too far in the other direction) and picked up a sense of God's grace coming to us even though we are undeserving of it. (Crypto-Lutheranism?)

The preconciliar reaction, however, seems to be gaining the upper hand right now, but I think they run the risk of turning the Church into a curious museum piece. I think there was early intellectual interest in Benedict, but the novelty seems to be wearing off and I'm not seeing much success in his approach.

"What if" most folks have neither the appetite for narrative nor the tolerance for ambiguity required to sustain the transition from step one to step two?

"What if" those formed during an era when religiosity was both concrete and plausible misread the vast gulf between them and those of us that follow?

I guess this problem has always existed, hasn't it? I don't know if the analogy completely applies, but wasn't there a distinction between the Alexandrian School and the Antiochene School right from the begining? I guess the answer is for each side to show some spiritual humility and some tolerance towards the other. There's no reason why a literalist can't be deeply and charitably spiritual as well, even if the postmodern progressive doesn't want to admit that. I suppose it would be best if we could bear with each other without throwing the 'heretic' and 'cretin' labels at each other.

"What if" the former are able to *both* retain the essence of the tradition *and* celebrate liberation from its structural elements?

"What if" those of us formed under a tutelage driven by deconstructive impulses can never see the reality as any thing other than relativized and socially constructed?

"What if" the refined sensibilities Robinson alludes to are, like the self-actualization pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, unattainable by most folks? Are we entitled to sneer? Are we obligated to liberate? And, most of all, are we better off?

I think it's great to reach back and to recover our devotions from time to time. I just wish there was a way to separate it from politics, don't you?

Like I said, though, I don't think recreating the preconciliar is realistic, or will make us better off. What do I think will pick up the slack?

For me (and what I hope I can pass on to my children), it's a love of study and of trying to find out as much as I can. Teach the young a love of history, a love of study, and the importance of intellectual curiosity. Once again, I'll reach back to Raymond Brown. I saw a quote from him once saying how much unanimity can be found among biblical scholars of faith. He pointed out that although serious Catholic and Protestant scholars can often disagree about what the scriptures mean, they are almost always in total agreement as to what the orignial authors meant. I think that might be a place to start. To educate people on what was meant in the original intent, even if the process challenges some of our old stalwart beliefs.

Jeff said...

Also, just a few things that Robinson suggests... The younger generation can live by the Church's sexual ethic if they want to take the stand to do so, at the cost of living in a sort of self-imposed exile. What Robinson suggests is to have the Church look at a new sexual ethic that replaces the current one that is heavily influenced by platonism and stoicism and looks at natural law and "unnatural acts" that are offenses against God. This new ethic would accept the naturalness and importance of sex to human beings, but would emphasize how the misuse of sex can be offenses against other human beings. What we have now in this society is a strange polarization between either puritanism or libertinism.

Mike McG... said...

Thanks, Jeff, for your thoughtful comments. I certainly don't blame Vatican II for these developments. Actually I don't think 'blame' has much to do with the matter. The zeitgeist is simply inhospitable to communitarian, hierarchical enterprises. As you said, traditional Catholicism is poorly suited to the times. I'm not convinced, however, that the post-Vatican II alternative captures the contemporary mood however.

The collapse, then, was inevitable and I'm not drawn to any of the restorationist initiatives. That said, I have a certain admiration for those who hold fast to decidedly unpopular traditions, whether they are Amish, Orthodox Jews, or preconciliar Catholics.

So my comments were more plantive cry than call to action. My personal agenda is two-fold: to observe the *similarities* between culture warriors of left and right in terms of their common intolerance of dissent and intolerance of ambiguity; and to invite young people to question the received wisdom of 2008 as vigorously as (some) of their parents did in 1968.

I appreciate your comment re: 'love of study' as a method of navigating the times. Thanks.