Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reading the Biblical Text Today

postmodern bible I have been experiencing an interesting interchange with a friend (and his friends) on a Facebook site that resulted in me firing off a passionate response that I thought I would share (I’ll be interested to hear responses).
Some background: A good friend of mine likes to provocatively post snippets that attack the Bible, belief in God, etc. Here are a couple as examples:

might get myself some slaves, it seems the christian God thinks its ok ......Exodus 21:2; Exodus 21:7; Exodus 21:20-21; Exodus 22:3; Leviticus 22:11; Leviticus 25:39; Leviticus 25:44-46. And just in case you think that was the old testament theology, Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18
‘Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.’ some bible texts are just pure gold arent they?

In my responses, I have suggested that the biblical text needs to be more carefully interpreted in its historical and cul tural context rather than proof texting like this. In response to the cited proverb on the gold ring in the pig’s snout, I posted this quote:
The women of Israel wore nose rings as ornaments in the same way that women wear earrings and finger rings (see Ex. 28). The swine were considered unclean animals, thus making the example of a ring of gold in a pig's nose ludicrous. A gold ring could not beautify a dirty pig. Similarly, to suppose that a woman's physical beauty can ... cover her lack of discretion (or moral perception) is ridiculous. Outward beauty with indiscreet conduct has no value and actually turns beauty into ugliness (see Prov. 4).
Thomas Nelson, I. (1997, c1995). Woman's study Bible . (Pr 11:22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
I suggested that this understanding of the meaning of the text would also apply to men. My friend replied:
I see no reason to believe this verse applies to men as well. the bible talks in a completely different way about men than it does about women. men are usually spoken about in terms of strength or wisdom, women in terms of beauty and the ability to keep their mouths shut. the bible is a sexist book, it discriminates against women and objectifies them. I know you are going to tell me that it was just the way things were in those days, but i just can’t accept that a god of love would continually not speak against discrimination and slavery etc just because they were social mores. What do you think would happen to a newspaper editor if he wrote about women and golden rings in pigs snouts. i think he would rightly be castigated by most people in society and the women’s groups would have a field day. it seems that modern society holds the newspaper editor to a much higher standard of equality than Christians are prepared to hold their god.
In all of these (and other) responses, the intention is to criticise the biblical text as being so wrong or immoral that it cannot have any legitimacy. I just couldn’t let it go so here is what I fired off.

What I don't understand is how you (and, apparently, the others, who make similar comments on the Bible) seem to reject all the (contemporary) scholarship around interpreting ancient texts. It is like you guys are stuck back in the 1900s when it comes to understanding how texts work in relation to cultural contingency. Both within and outside religiously committed scholarship, enormous amounts of work have been done, particularly around postmodern theology, that criticises the modernist approach to the (any) text that sees it somehow as a rarefied, objective, flat text.

To expect texts that are thousands of years old to speak in 21st century terms is just complete nonsense. But it seems like you want to do this and then criticise them on contemporary grounds. The sort of critique you make of the text is so outdated, except in certain vocal minority sections of Christianity and naive sceptical positions, that it just doesn't come across as having any substance. Please don't misunderstand me. I am not having a go at your (apparent) atheism or rejection of some of the ideas present in the biblical text. I, too, have lots of questions and could argue from an atheist perspective as good as any atheist (I can prove that if I need to!). So I am not arguing that your position is incorrect. I'm really saying that the type of "arguments" that you present are incredibly nave given the scholarship that has been done on the biblical text.

If I were an atheist (and even as a Christian!), here are the sorts of arguments I would offer, rather than cheap broadsides that seem to crop up with your posts and others who respond (BTW, I love the humour -- I just wish it was better informed):

Contra the fundamentalist Christian, I would argue that the biblical documents are contingent on the culture and history of the time they were written. This means that those who wish to approach the biblical text as proof texts to establish propositional statements for doctrine are misguided. Christianity, as it went through its modernist period, attempted to "freeze" the text into absolutist, reductionist, foundationalist statements that were valid for all time. Philosophical scholarship, both religious and secular (if I can put it that way), has demonstrated that what Christians have done in using the text has actually been an abuse of the text which idolised it and before which they bowed to a god in their own image.
Contra the fundamentalist Christian, I would argue that the interpretations of the biblical text have been imperialistic with a complete disrespect of the cultural and historical context of the times they were written. Similar imperialism is evidenced by those Christians who wish to force a text like Genesis 1 into a modern scientific framework as if God was somehow revealing what "really happened" during seven days 6 thousand years ago. Any informed Christian accepts that the earth is millions of years old and that Genesis 1 is a polemic against surrounding nations from a developing monotheistic perspective.
Contra the fundamentalist Christian, I would argue that the primary purpose of the biblical texts is a narrative (amongst other genres) documentation of a people struggling to find transcendent meaning as they experienced oppression after oppression in a world that was riddled with ancient approaches to war, slavery, women, and a whole range of other practices that, today, we would see as immoral or unethical.
Contra the fundamentalist Christian, I would argue that absolute certainty is a myth and that they have bought into a foundationalist scientism while denying that they have. Faith has become a rationalist, reductionist, idolatrous venture rather than a living of what all humans seem to experience as some form of ache for transcendence beyond the material.

What troubles me about some of your (and other's) comments is their fundamental lack of humility. It is as if I was going to criticise a Muslim's or Buddhist's belief system but, in shooting off a few clever broadsides while quoting a couple of their sacred texts and making a joke of it, all I do is show how little I know about what it really means to be a Muslim or a Buddhist.

I talk to a lot of people who have moved on from Christianity -- and I have no problem that they make that move if that is where they are on their journey. I don't need everyone to become a Christian, so I am not interested in trying to persuade you or anyone else that they should believe. But I have to say that, when I hear some of the criticisms laid against Christianity (and quite a few other belief systems), I have to genuinely ask where they possibly got their ideas from about the thing they are criticising. I sometimes wonder whether they are on the same planet as me. I have got a number of atheist friends who criticise Christianity and it is like they have never moved on from their childhood understanding of "theology". I know quite a few ex-SDA people and they are still living in the 1800s - in other words, they are living "against" something that no longer exists … My point is that I have to recognise that even my own perspective is contingent on my own history and acknowledge that it is limited, biased, and distorted. Recognising that is what I mean by (intellectual) humility.

In my opinion, if someone wants to critique another perspective, they should at least be able to demonstrate that they have a deep understanding of the perspective.
You wrote: 'it seems that modern society holds the newspaper editor to a much higher standard of equality than christians are prepared to hold their god'. YES! YES! YES! In the 21st century, some Christians are so out of touch with reality they would still defend a god that most mainline Christians wouldn't recognise. But, honestly, do you really think that a proverb written 500 BCE in a patriarchal culture, was dictated by God and is, in its literal form, an argument against the any usefulness of the text in a contemporary setting?! Come on! Haven't you heard about the two horizons? You have to understand the text on its OWN terms before trying to mine it for any possible universal "truth" in the present?
You said: 'i see no reason to believe this verse applies to men aswel. the bible talks in a completely different way about men than it does about women'. Really? Did you honestly expect that it would?! The point of the proverb is that outward beauty cannot hide immoral indiscretion. And you don't reckon that applies to men? To exclude men is to take the text so literally (because it doesn't mention men) that it even ignores the way that we in the 21st century even understand how proverbs work! So... Come one... If you are going to have a go at belief systems or religious texts (whatever they are), at least do it with some substance!
And that, I believe, goes for all of us…including me!