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Not By Bread Alone: A Response to Robert Johnson's 'Be Careful What You Call 'The Word of God'?
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As a regular reader and new contributor to Strike The Root, one of the things I can say I most appreciate is the forum for the open exchange of ideas among those who seek to live lives of liberty and freedom. We come from diverse backgrounds and certainly exhibit different ideas about what constitutes freedom. One good example of this is the difference between Mr. Robert L. Johnson and I. Mr. Johnson ' a former Roman Catholic and now Deist ' recently published an article in which he took to task former president Jimmy Carter for referring to the Christian Scriptures as the 'Word of God.' This criticism ultimately extends to all truth claims made by so-called 'revealed religions,' especially insofar as an ancient religious text is regarded as divine or authoritative.
In a fashion typical of the cultured despisers of religion (Schleiermacher's term, not mine), Mr. Johnson handpicked a series of problematic texts contained in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and then used them to suggest that either (a) the texts and therefore the religion are inherently unconcerned with issues related to justice and freedom, and (b) these texts and religions are dangerous because of the violence wrought when claiming something to be 'The Word of God.' What this suggests to me is that Mr. Johnson fails to employ any sort of modern hermeneutic to his reading of the texts involved.
When I was in divinity school, we wrestled mightily with what it meant to be modern, critically thinking people who also held an allegiance to Christianity. An inordinate amount of time was devoted to looking at issues of gender, sexuality, race, as well as to social ills that have emerged throughout the years due to blind application of these texts. No whitewashing occurred in the divinity school I attended. We knew the text that drew us into faith was also one fraught with danger if not handled carefully. While my first inclination was to take each text that Mr. Johnson offered and answer each one, I thought it better to explain how texts are read and applied today by the overwhelming majority of scholars and clerics.
Before I do so, let me say that I have the same objections to the texts written about that Mr. Johnson does. They are ' in fact ' problematic and have been used for oppressive purposes. (NOTE: A very good overview is found in the groundbreaking book Texts of Terror by Phylis Tribble.) I wish I could say that this was something that only happened in the past, but the truth of the matter is that every sincere faith practitioner must acknowledge that there are those out there who still misuse these texts to oppress any number of people. We even must confess that certain texts seemingly contradict one another. With these acknowledgements, let's move on to how the texts are actually read in mainline circles.
Outside of fundamentalist circles, you will find very few modern Christians who read Genesis ' or most of the Old Testament for that matter ' as history or science. I for one do not believe Adam and Eve were actual historical persons. Textual exegesis in the original Hebrew shows us that Genesis 1:1-2:2 is a writing with a different origin than Genesis 2:2 and following. Editors redacted the texts, probably in the post-exilic period of Israel's history. These stories are attempts to make sense of the origins of the world, and were probably passed around fires and tables for generations before they were ever written down. Does that mean that there is not a moral element in the stories, or that a lack of historicity renders them 'untrue' in the most existential sense? Of course not! Moral stories are found in every culture, most often under the guise of religion.
When it comes to legal codes (think Leviticus), we can easily see through textual research that the complex code of 613 laws evolved and emerged over a long period of time. Not unlike our modern legal codes, Israelite law was problematic. Like most ancient near eastern cultures, the Israelites did not view women as equal to men; rather, women were considered property. Further, in a nomadic, desert culture, women and girls were considered a liability because they were an additional mouth to feed and not capable of contributing to the survival of the household in same way as a prized son (as the father of a beautiful 2 ' year old daughter, I cannot imagine this line of thinking). Why do I point this out? Because it becomes clear that the horrendous treatment of women under Hebrew law was the result of social constructs common to the region, and are not peculiar to Judaism or Christianity. It is simple enough for modern Christians to look at such texts and reject their applicability to life in our times.
Sadly, the New Testament witness on women is also problematic, as Mr. Johnson points out. Several times women are told to keep silent in church. Was there really a good religious reason for this? Some scholars have suggested that native religions in parts of the Mediterranean were led by women, and thus early church leaders were trying to find a way to differentiate themselves from the surrounding culture. While this is a possibility, it is more highly likely that what we see in the these texts (called Haustfeln by scholars), simply reflect the household codes of the ancient Roman world, when the idea of the paterfamilias reigned supreme as the model of organization, from the Empire to the private home. Again, what we see here is the inclusion of socially constructed realities into religious texts.
The job of the person of faith is to carefully examine the truth claims of the texts to which they grant authority. In the case of both Hebrew and Christian Scripture (I am only speaking for texts my faith finds authoritative, though I assume the principle is universal), it is imperative to discern what has eternal value, and what is based on the social constructs of the time, and are thus irrelevant to modern discussion. In this way, the text cannot everywhere be read literally. Indeed, James Fowler, working with the ideas of human development espoused by Piaget and moral development espoused by Kohlberg, designed stages of faith development. The stage of development that most closely associates God as anthropomorphic and the Bible as literal is Stage 2, the literal or mythic worldview. Though commonly associated with school aged children, some adults are never able to move from this immature approach to faith. (NOTE: Fowler asserted that most people made it to Stage 3, an 'adolescent' stage in development, and generally progressed no farther. In Stage 3, faith is exhibited by conformity to the expectations of others).
A perfect example of how this plays itself out is in terms of women's ordination to ministry. I belong to a denomination that claims that the Bible is its primary authoritative text, yet it ordains women in spite of the passages that prohibit a woman speaking or having authority in a church. In my years of ministry, I have met some very wonderfully talented women who are leaders. So, how are these things held in tension with one another? The answer lies in the fact that the Bible cannot be read as a set of isolated texts, with people picking one or two pet passages or verses and building dogma upon them. Whether doing constructive theology or trying to debunk the Bible as God's Word, picking a few select texts is called 'proof-texting,' a practice no theologian or cleric worth their salt would want to participate in. The primary way the Bible is interpreted today is to look at the overarching themes offered, and to build constructive theology based on themes rather than isolated texts. The great reformer Martin Luther ' a man with his own set of flaws ' referred to the Bible as the manger in which Jesus was placed. It is not perfect, there may be splinters or crooked boards, but inside of that manger is the place where God can be found in spite of its flaws.
The origin of my interest in liberty lies in both the history of our nation and in the Bible itself. When I look to the overarching themes offered in the scriptures, I see themes of struggle and liberation that transcend space and time. From Abraham striking out on his own to follow a vision God had given him to the flight from Egypt; from exile in Babylon to the return of the homeland, the Old Testament is especially rich with themes and narratives that clearly show the problems of empire and will-to-power among the ruling classes. Some of these are grand narratives involving the rise and fall of kingdoms; others are stories of ordinary men and women seeking to live faithful lives. Regardless of the scale of the narratives, we see how power corrupts, how rulers cannot be trusted, and how it is up to individuals to secure freedom. We see the mistakes made when the people of Israel begged to be like other nations and have a king. We see the corruption of David as he kills Uriah in order to cover up an affair with Bathsheba. We hear the stories of the corrupt kings and queens that follow. We get a glimpse of the Maccabees fighting against the Seleucid invaders that desecrated their altars. The point to all of these stories is that people are not to put trust in princes, for each is a son of man in whom there is no help. (Psalm 146:3)
As we move into the New Testament, the overarching theme is not that women should remain silent, but that there is liberation to be found through faith, a faith that is made alive through justice, peace, mercy and love. Jesus forces no one to follow him, and those who gather around him do so voluntarily. The disciples are taught to love their neighbors, to love the downtrodden, to bring the hope of liberation to those who find themselves bound by chains ' be they literal, spiritual, emotional, mental. Aside from the few cherry-picked passages mandating female silence, we know from both textual and historical research that women often held powerful positions in the early church. Many speculate that Mary Magdalene was one of the chief financial backers of the ministry of Jesus. It was this Mary Magdalene, of course, who was the first to report the resurrection to the other disciples, thus securing the title Apostle to the Apostles. St. Paul uses the same Greek term (diaknonos, or servant, a cognate of deacon) to describe himself as well as several women, asserting that they held the same position in the church.
Most interesting for the discussion here is the book of Revelation, which many fundamentalists and evangelicals believe is about the future. The alternative way to read that text is to understand it as something from the past, something that has already happened. It is written during a time of great persecution of the early church under the Emperor Nero. Christians are being killed in all sorts of new and creative ways, often for the entertainment of the people. As warm blood colored the ground of the Coliseum an unmistakable shade of red, a man known only as John wrote a letter to bring comfort to the understandably frightened Christians in the Empire. In order to do this and not find himself executed, John used all sorts of vague language to describe the players in the bloody production. While the tinfoil hat conspiracy folks may be convinced that the antichrist is going to emerge with 666 written on his head, those with understanding can look upon the alpha-numeric value of 666 and see the author was actually talking about Nero, and that the great plagues and sufferings described in the book of Revelation was a discourse on what was happening in ancient Rome. In point of fact, Revelation, read properly and carefully, is an extended tirade against unjust oligarchs who were persecuting a religious minority.
I am a Christian and a libertarian. For many, these two seem incongruous. For me, it is a way of life. As a Christian, I have chosen to not participate in the so-called culture wars, and leave each person to live according to their own conscience so long as their way of life is both peaceful and voluntary. You will not find me foaming at the mouth over conservative pet issues like homosexuality and abortion. When I read the Bible, I don't read of Jesus forcing anything on anyone, but rather issuing an invitation to voluntarily live in accordance with his teachings. The problem with this is ' as Gandhi pointed out ' that so few Christians seem to actually live the message of Jesus.
Truth be told, I generally enjoy Mr. Johnson's writings. I have read many of his essays and have agreed with him on several points. The issue of religion is where we must depart, however. While I respect Mr. Johnson and his choice to become a Deist, I did not feel as if I could let him portray the texts that I hold sacred as being primarily anti-woman or anti-liberty. To say, '[o]bjectively, the Bible is anti-woman' is to read the text narrowly, without making a distinction between social and cultural constructs that have no bearing on the central spiritual messages contained therein. It is to make an assertion that the only way to approach the faith of revealed religions is to take every word of that faith's text literally. If this were the standard of true faith, then I ' and the vast majority of clergy I know ' could never stand in the pulpit.