Terrance Heath

How Biblical Literalism Took Root... Literally!

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 27, 2011 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living
Tags: evangelical Christian, Protestant reformation

Stephen Tomkins over at the Guardian answers a question I’ve long pondered, and blogged about: How biblical literalism took hold.Jesus_on_raptor.jpg

The Bible is the word of God, Christians believe, but why should the fact it’s God’s mean it has to be read with naive absolutism? Many Christians call the church “the body of Christ” without considering it
anything like infallible, or refusing to see its rites as symbolic.

Part of the problem is historical. The deification of the Bible is a result of the Protestant reformation. Before then, the final authority, the ultimate arbiter and source of information in religious matters was the church, with its ancient traditions and living experts. When Luther and friends opposed the teaching of the Catholic hierarchy, they needed a superior authority to appeal to, which was provided by the Bible.

Fair enough. But in defending or reclaiming the Bible from papists and then liberals, evangelical Protestants made it the very heart of the faith. Hence the ludicrous situation where many evangelical organisations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have statements of faith where the first point is the Bible, before any mention of, for example, God. Hence the celebrated idolatrous aphorism of William Chillingworth: “The BIBLE, I say, the BIBLE only, is the religion of Protestants!”.

One practical problem of this text mania is that the Bible, unlike the
church, can’t answer questions, clarify earlier statements, arbitrate disagreements or deal with new developments. So those in search of religious certainty have to find it all in the text: if it says the earth was created in six days, or that gay sex is an abomination, them’sthe facts, end of story. And if it forbids charging interest, well there’s always wriggle room.

It’s the “wriggle room” that leads to some interesting problems.

As I noted earlier, it creates enough room for historically black homophobia to take hold, despite the insistence on literal interpretation of a text that also seems to justify slavery. (Not to mention it’s having been employed to justify racism and discrimination, too.)

When I was growing up, I heard an old legend that if you read the Bible all the way through from beginning to end, it would make you crazy. Now I think what makes you crazy isn’t reading the Bible, but reading it literally and to the exclusion of anything else. That will drive you insane as surely as sitting in a dark room and never allowing any light to enter it would make anyone insane. Let in a little light, and you see enough to make things out. More light than that, and suddenly the way you thought the world around you worked doesn’t make sense anymore. But not enough light and you either have to create stories to explain what you can’t fully see, or you have to not see it. With African Americans, it began with the first slaves who were converted to Christianity only to be confronted with the biblical passages that justified and even sanctified their enslavement, and for the sake of sanity had to “not read those parts.”

Having read and reviewed Horace Griffin’s new book Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches, I basically concur with his premise that the vehement homophobia expressed by many Blacks stems from a the history of so many Black slaves being converted to Christianity by conservative denominations that stressed biblical literalism, strict Victorian sexual morality that was prevalent during the same period as American slavery, and a reaction against the stereotypes of Blacks as insatiable sexual savages.The Central State students, however, do not have the excuse that their ancestors had. Having a few centuries between them and slavery, and being at most a few steps away from information -- or, to extend the metaphor, a few steps away from the fucking light switch in that darkened room you’re now sitting in and choosing to keep darkened -- makes choosing not reaching out for it and inexcusable act of willful intellectual and spiritual laziness.

It is easy to take literally the words on the page, rather than try to understand them in the context of the time, place, and people who produced, translated, and selected them. It is easy to ignore the contradictions from one text to another; to dismiss, as Sam Harris put it, “the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes,” and to yet be willing to embrace that which you can fully impose on others. It is harder to read more widely and deeply, for a deeper understanding of faith that may not affirm everything you’ve been taught. It is harder to leave the embrace of certainty and make peace with uncertainty -- to admit that you don’t know or have all the answers to how the world should work, and that they can’t be easily found between the covers of any one book -- but that may also be part of what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.”

I can absolutely relate to one thing the writer noted.

One last factor in biblical all-or-nothingism is the part that biblical criticism plays in evangelical conversion, which is none at all.

People who convert to evangelical Christianity, including those who grow up with it, are persuaded by the experience of a religious community, and by finding that evangelical theology seems to hold water. All this is totally underpinned by the Bible - it’s the foundation and guarantee. But the only test of its reliability that inquirers are invited to make is to read it and ask “Is this something that I can accept wholesale and entrust my life to?”

It’s generally much later that a convert will have to consider concrete evidence that biblical writers were human beings, capable of being one-sided, of writing myth, of exaggerating, of guessing, of having opinions it’s impossible to agree with.

That pretty much describes what happened to me, and how I ended up leaving the faith in which I was raised. I remember being in church once and hearing the choir sing a song titled “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!” I’d have posted it here, but I think it was this one.

Needless to say, that ended up not working for me.

It's the kind of belief that I was brought up in, where the bible is treated as though the deity himself leaned down from heaven with quill in hand and penned the whole thing from beginning to end in King James english. It wasn't until my process of coming out caused me to question that belief and I started studying and exploring other beliefs that I learned that the above wasn't the case. It rocked my world when I stumbled across a copy of Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels that I heard that there were other books that didn't make it into the final version, and started wondering who decided what did make it in and based on what criteria. Who decided that those other writings weren't the "word of god"?

I “stumbled” across The Gnostic Gospels while browsing around the religion section of the public library. I was in high school at the time, and had pretty much come out to myself. (Another book I found at the public library helped me on that journey. So, I’m probably a walking advertisement for why some fundamentalist Christians try to keep certain books out of public libraries. For what it’s worth, I found both books amid other books expressing opposing points of view. I even read a couple of those, too.) Trying to fit my sense of who I was into the faith I was born into was a bit like trying to fit myself into shoes that were a size-and-a-half too small.

I was brought up in a very religious home, southern and baptist. In fact, there have been a number of ordained ministers in my family. (And, no, I'm not counting my online ordination from the Universal Life Church during my college days.) The bible was to be taken literally, period. As long as we lived at home, we were going to go to church, period. No questions, no arguments. I've written about my encounter with my mom over my being gay, when she immediately confronted me with the bible. Since then, I think my parents have gotten more religious as they've gotten older. The outgoing message on their answering machine is a bible verse.

Growing up and discovering my orientation, I had plenty of reasons to question the religious beliefs I was brought up with. I didn't find any answers or acceptance in the faith I was raised in, and it became stifling to the point that I couldn't wait until could leave home and explore other beliefs. Which is what I did when I went off to college.

It's intersting that my next highest score was paganism, because I certainly did explore the whole "new age spirituality" scene in college. I read everything I could get my hand on, and even got into crystals for a while. I'm sure I helped the local new age bookstore stay afloat for a while. For the rest of my college years I drifted between that and a sojourn in the Episcopal church for a while. By the time I got to D.C., I pretty much had to check the "Other" box when it came to religion.

It wasn't until I'd been in D.C. for a few years that I began studying Buddhism. I was on a date one evening, with a guy I didn't really like, and wasn't planning on dating again. After having dinner we went for a walk around the Dupont Circle area, and we walked past a secondhand book store. I have a thing about bookstores. I can't stay out of them. So, predicatbly, I drifted towards this one, and we went in. I didn't buy any books that night, but on the way out I saw a poster on the store's bulletin board, advertising a series of lectures on Buddhism at a nearby art gallery. I took down the information and made plans to attend. I'd always been curious about Buddhism, but never learned much about it.

The next week, I went to the first lecture and listened to what the speaker had to say. I don't remember what he said exactly, but I remember being struck with a sense of familiarity. Afterwards, I bought one of the introductory books about Buddhism that were for sale, went home, and dove into it. At some point while I was reading that book, it was like a bell went off. What I was reading about the basics of Buddhism basically matched up with the personal belief system I'd cobbled together over the years from bits and pieces of other things I'd explored. It made sense to me, and it was as though I'd been a Buddhist all along and just didn't know it.

Since then I've tried to practice on my own, and occasionally with a (now defunct) gay & lesbian Buddist study and meditation group that used to meet in the area. At present I'm without a physical sangha, except for the one "at large."

I’m still pretty much a “lone practitioner.” For a few years, I did go to meetings of an LGBT meditation/study group called Variegated Jewels, which had connections to a local temple in Poolesville, but then the group stopped meeting and I never made it out to the temple. I may start going, however. We’re not bringing our kids up in a particular faith, but I want to try and give them a connection to something.

At the same time, I’m wary of anything that feels like organized religion, and am likely to bolt the minute anyone starts telling me what I have to believe or should believe. But then I carry a bit of a grudge against organized religion, and for that reason have learned to steer clear of it.

Well, I was brought up in an organized religion, and as a result I definitely have baggage. Much of which is encapsulated in one of the questions on the quiz: "I was hurt deeply by religious people and have never forgiven them."

Actually, I'd say I was deeply hurt by religion and have never forgiven it. People tend to use it as a weapon. I suppose I could apply the "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Except my response to that is usually "Guns don't kill people. People kill people, with guns." And if you'd been shot a few times, you'd probably steer clear of guns and the people who tend to carry them.

If religion can be compared to a gun, per the analogy above, then biblical literalism is like a bullet. If you don’t want to hit by a bullet, you steer clear of guns … and those who tend to carry them. Like guns and bullets, religion and biblical literalism are often a great comfort to those who “carry” both of them. But to those of us who end up in the cross-hairs -- either as targets or innocent bystanders -- the just look like weapons, intended to do harm.

(Crossposted at Republic of T)


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Interesting. I find religion fascinating from a historical and social perspective. Often, I tell my mother how thankful I am that I was raised without ANY religious influence. Oh, I have very deep spiritual beliefs, but they aren't tainted by any religion. Like everyone else, there are many people in my life who are associated with one religion or another, and I always talk to them like this:

Unless you're a pure atheist, the core of what everyone believes is pretty much the same - that we are all connected. All living things have energy that never dies and all that energy is connected in one way or another. It's the details that get people worked up and into trouble. Problem is, most religions focus more on the details than the core.

I firmly believe that religion is, for most, a road block to true spirituality. But I have no doubt they question my insight as much as I question theirs.

Yes, Patrick, I like what you say, too.

And I think we could add to your remark one additional thing that all religions have in common, in one form or another: The Golden Rule. Almost all religions teach that, since we are all the same in some basic sense, then we shd treat others the way we wish to be treated -- and/or the negative version, that we shd not treat someone else in a way that we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

Wayne Bradley | February 28, 2011 1:59 PM

What's interesting is that if you logically explore it, the Bible itself was created by the very "papists" that some Protestants so vehemently detest!

I love looking at the historical perspective of any religion. Exploring it in the context of the times is very important. Like the phrase about a rich man getting into heaven is harder than a camel getting through the eye of the needle. The eye of the needle is a small door in the gate of a city. For a camel to get through, it must shed its packs and come through on its knees. It's different when you look at it that way. Good essay.

"The deification of the Bible is a result of the Protestant reformation. Before then, the final authority, the ultimate arbiter and source of information in religious matters was the church, with its ancient traditions and living experts."

But it was even worse than this. Pre-Reformation, the Catholic hierarchy reserved access to the words of the Bible only to the clergy, so that the laypeople knew nothing of the Word of God directly, but only what the clergy chose to tell them! During the Dark Ages, it was often illegal for a non-priest to have a Bible in his or her possession.

It is also true that the Bible was maintained exclusively in several ancient languages -- mostly the original languages of its various manuscripts (none of which are original manuscripts themselves), which were ancient Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic; plus there was one entirely Latin translation that the then-modern Church in Rome used, called the Volgate -- and that translating the Bible into a modern language was forbidden by the Church. Those who translated the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic directly into modern languages, such as Tynsdale did into English and Luther did into German, were considered criminals and heretics. (And at least one such translator was burned at the stake, but I'd better check my history first before I say for sure which one.) Once translated, the new language Bibles were surreptitiously printed on the newly invented printing press and then smuggled all over Europe, often Bible pages hidden between the pages of totally secular books.

In his classic work The World's Religions, Huston Smith writes about the core tenets of Christianity, and mentions the problem he calls "Bibliolatry" -- the treating of the Bible as so holy that it is confused with the concept of God itself. Thus, the worshipers are mistakenly deifying something other than God -- namely, the Holy Bible -- and thus Bibliolatry is a form of idolatry: our eyes are on the Book instead of on God.

And as you point out, Terrance, this is particularly a problem in fundamentalist Christianity. More liberal Christians tend to distance themselves from Bible literalism and Bibliolatry, such as when the United Church of Christ includes its icon of a large comma, not a period, as it promotes its God is Still Speaking initiative. The thesis of this campaign is that the Bible is the beginning of God's Word, but not necessarily His complete and final word.

P.S. You discuss, Terrance, how the Bible was used to justify both slavery and racism. But without historical criticism, many of the American Southerners, slaveowners and slaves alike, missed the point that the Apostle Paul was writing about Mediterranian white-on-white slavery, which obviously carried different racial connotations from white-over-black slavery. The slavery in the Bible assumes that slavery is a social stratum, not a matter of racial superiority/inferiority. There is more racial bias in the Bible between various Middle-Eastern tribes than there is between Europeans and Africans. Indeed, we read of the Apostle Phillip assuring an Ethiopian eunuch, the treasurer of the Queen of Sheba, that the Christian message welcomes him just as it does everyone else. The Biblical justifications of slavery were a cherry-picking expedition every bit as contortionistic as the evangelicals engage in today.

Chitown Kev | July 30, 2011 11:13 PM

All of these are great comments and I, too, find the study of religion fascinating.

Fascinating enough that I've taken several courses in religion (from Catholicism to the almost-gone pagan religions of yesteryear, etc.)

One very very slight correction, A.J.

While you are correct are the fact that "race" (inasmuch as the Romans would have understood that term...and that's a complex topic in and of itself) was not a criteria to be a slave in Roman times, it wasn't exactly white-on-white slavery either; there were plenty of slaves from African lands that the Romans conquered...thing is, they were slaves because the Romans conquered them and were treated no better or no worse than any slaves that the Romans got from anywhere else...and a few African slaves were quite famous (i.e. the playwright Terence, the actor Glycon)

Chitown Kev | July 30, 2011 11:35 PM

Reading through this slower, Terrence

"and a reaction against the stereotypes of Blacks as insatiable sexual savages"

And of course when it comes to the LGBT community (or at least gay men) the bigot playbook hasn't changed ONE IOTA!