(I wrote this before learning about Bart Ehrman’s interview on NPR. Weird.)
This is a musing on those that take a strict constructionist view of Christianity and believe that their version of the Bible is the literal truth of universal history. It is my belief that literalist Christains are in the minority and that the bulk of this group belong to one of the Protestent branches (something that can also be said my family).
As an opening salvo, I’d like to dismiss the notion that because of the group authorship of the Bible and many centuries it took by culturally distinct people to complete it, somehow this would impeded the manuscript from delivering a cogent, self-consistent unified vision of history and theology. This is just so much piffle. Was it not open source advocate Eric Raymond who wrote “with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow?” I say, the more cooks, the merrier. Further, I’d like to point out that the numerous translations, editions and revisions that the Bible has gone through before it was ever printed in English have had no impact on the veracity or integrity of the manuscript. Thankfully, no copying errors occurred during that process. All the ancient Hewbrew, with its connotations and cultural references, was faithfully reproduced in ancient Greek and then again in Latin. Finally, all the books that were excluded by the Vatican during the Council of Trent weren’t important. So, from an epistemological perspective, there’s nothing to impune the credibility of The Bible as the source literal truth.
mmm…Then again, maybe all of those points undermine the Bible’s credibility after all. Irony is hard!
A literalist interpretation of the Bible leaves so much of what is good and valuable about the faith on the table. Christianity already had this debate centuries ago in the form of Thomas Aquinas, who attempted to rationationize the apparent paradoxes of the budding religion with Aristotelian philosophy. Using church doctrine in the face of scientific evidence has proven untenable, as the Vatican eventually realized in the case of Galileo in the seventeenth century. That’s why when Darwin came along in the nineteenth century, the Pope cleverly moved the church out of the way of the debate and instead positioned Christianity’s mythology as an answerto transcendental questions such as: how did this all start and where is it all going?
Literalist Christianity is Faith-lite. The followers of this doctine believe that all of life’s tough questions are answered in the Book and those questions that aren’t, aren’t important. But here, they “misunderestimate” the faith. The Bible is written in metaphor and parable, which may or may not be applicable to the reader’s life. It isn’t enough to know that the Earth was created in six days, that the Earth was flooded, that the God picked on poor old Job or that Pharaoh was beset with plagues. Those are interesting tidbits, but they don’t explain how to make internal combustion engines or an articulated prosthesis, whether capital punishment is compatible with Democracy or even how to mix cement. The literalist unfairly expects a book of ancient stories to directly answer today’s problems. That’s bad thinking and poor theology. And it misses the many opportunities for humor inherent in the Bible.
For instance, the first story a reader of the Book encounters is the Genesis creation myth. The more I mull this story, the better it gets. It is a thumbnail sketch of male/female relationships. While I reject the misogynist j’accuse of pinning the fall of man on Eve, there is a more humane and, to modern readers, familiar story here. Consider this dialog, which might have occurred after The Fall in the household of Adam and Eve.
ADAM: Morning, Eve.
EVE: Morning, Adam.
ADAM yawns, scratches himself.
A: So, what’s for breakfast?
E: Thorns and thistles
A: Thorns and thistles?
E: That is what I said.
A: Didn’t we have that for breakfast yesterday?
E: And for dinner last night.
A: Damn. I hate thorns and thistles.
ADAM begins to dig through his bowl of food.
A: Remember how sweet the fruits of the Garden were? And the cool shade of our heavenly bower?
A: And remember how kind all the animals were to us?
E: Yes. Your breakfast is getting colder.
A: And the way it never rained during the day and never got too cool at night?
EVE glowers at ADAM, who is lost in revery.
A: Say, why did we leave Eden?
E: Adam, you stone brain! You know perfectly well what happened.
Now eat your thorns and thistle before the beetles come and eat them for you.
A: Oh, yeah! I remember now. We ate from the one tree we were told not to. I can’t remember the name of the tree or why it was off limits, but the fruit was awful. Bitter.
EVE glowers more intensely at ADAM.
A: Stupid tree.
E: Is there a point to this or are you just tired of having sex with me?
ADAM looks startled.
A: No, no! Not tired of sex! Sex is good!
Better than thorns and thistles.
E: High praise, indeed.
ADAM and EVE focus on eating their food.
A: Say, Eve. Where are the boys?
E: Able is in the fields watching the sheep. Cain is at the neighbor’s house.
A: Which neighbors?
E: THE Neighbors! Jim and Dora Nieghbors, who have the two daughters. You remember them, right? We play bridge with them on Sundays?
A: Oh, those neighbors!
EVE gets angry.
E: You bastard! You were thinking of that little tramp Lilith again, weren’t you?
A: mmm, what? No! No, not her. Definitely not thinking that wild animal of unbridled sexual aggression.
EVE throws her bowl at ADAM.
A: Come on, Eve! It’s been ten years since that affair ended. Can’t you let it go?
E: I don’t know why I took you back! I should have gone home to mother’s.
A: Well, technically, I think I am your mother. You know, that shared rib bone thing…
EVE breaks down in tears.
All good literture has a life beyond the page. Literalists deny that life and the wisdom and joy that follows.