On a side note…

This isn’t really part of the sequence I’m working on, but it is related to the overall topic. Lately I’ve been kind of challenged by some folks over what I believe (or, more precisely, don’t seem to believe). I’m trying to avoid an inquisition, but the basic issue seems to come down to interpretation of Scripture. So a few thoughts on Bible and interpretation seem to be in order.

Many Christians, and practically all evangelicals, regard their position vis a vis the Bible to be the real litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Sure, Jesus is important. But on any issue, whether its what we think of Jesus, or of ethics, or of science, or anything else, when the rubber meets the road, it comes down to “well, what does the BIBLE say?”

And this is where things get dicey. Often the straight up, literal answer can only be “Nothing.” The Bible doesn’t talk about abortion. It has little to say about homosexuality. It has nothing to contribute, positively or negatively, to evolution. It certainly is completely unhelpful in determining what translation we should read. And so on. Most of us realize this, which is good, but we are then forced into the realm of interpretation; even though the Bible doesn’t talk about the scientific theory of evolution, it does provide a story about how the universe was created, and so it’s possible to line these two things up (so the thinking goes), and then start labeling people as “in” or “out” based on their opinion of Cretaceous fossil remains. “Real Christians” don’t believe in evolution; they believe in the Bible’s creation story. In rejecting the evidence of science, we are also rejecting interpretation(s) of the Bible that we do not share.

Whether we realize it or not, we all bring to the interpretive table a certain perspective on the Biblical text. Evangelicals like to use words like “Bible-believing,” a pop version of the more technical theological concepts “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” Another important theological label in the “bible believing” understanding is the Bible’s homogeneity, the notion that the Bible uniformly speaks with one voice on every subject.

Last year I taught Logic at a local college, and we spent a considerable amount of time working with the distinction between inductive and deductive logic. For those who aren’t familiar with this, deductive logic works by applying a known general truth or idea to specific situations or experiences. It is known to be generally true, for example, that cats enjoy catching mice and birds. Armed with this knowledge, then, we can predict that if we put a cat in a room with mice, the cat is most likely going to at least try to catch a few. Or take the example of a GPS device: we know going in that the GPS is going to get us where we want to go, and so when it tells us to turn left, even if we think we should perhaps go straight, it will still get us to our destination.

Inductive logic works the other way around. In inductive thinking, we work from the specific to the general. In the example of cats from above, let’s assume that we don’t, in fact, know that cats are good mousers. But if we watch our cat catch mice every day, and then we hear from our neighbor that her cat catches 6 mice every evening, and then my mother calls me and tells me that her cat caught three this morning, we can make a general conclusion that “based on all this evidence, cats are good mousers.”

Now, where am I going with this? In general, Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy are approaching the Bible deductively. The general truth here is God is all-powerful and perfect, and so if he were to write a book, it would also be completely authoritative, reliable, and, of course, perfect, meaning free from errors, inconsistencies, discrepancies, and the like. Usually Christians will then turn to 2 Timothy 3.16 (often in the King James, which is more poetically powerful than more modern translations, at least on this point) to prove the point: “All scripture is given by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for inauguration in righteousness.”

I feel obligated to point out here, that this verse doesn’t really mean what people think it means. All the writer is saying here is that the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament should continue to be read as scripture by the church. Secondly the word translated as “inspired” or “god breathed” (theopneustos) simply refers to Scripture’s ultimate origins and has nothing to do with God writing or dictating the texts of the OT. Finally, there are almost 90 direct quotations of the Hebrew Bible in the entire Pauline collection, and Paul is notorious for rewording, adjusting, and otherwise “fixing” his quotes from the Old Testament to suit his arguments. So which would be “god-breathed scripture?” Paul’s wording of it, quoting from the Greek translation of the Bible, or the Hebrew text? It certainly does NOT include what we know as the New Testament, because a) there WAS no New Testament; b) the letters of Paul and pseudoPaul were not “scripture” and c) the Gospels hadn’t even been written yet.

The deductive approach is attractive for its simplicity, but as I taught my logic students, there are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. This is especially true with the Bible, a book written over nearly a thousand year period by many writers from different societies dealing with different experiences and crises. It simply will not do to recite “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But the simplicity of the deductive logic behind inerrancy overpowers the problems it presents to the point that when I engage with those who hold to it, I am told that “you’re making it way too difficult” or “you’re just being too academic. Just give me a simple direct response.” For interrantists, if you have to explain why you don’t subscribe to the inerrancy of scripture, you’re too academic, apparently.

The simplicity of the deductive, inerrant approach though is also what causes all the trouble. Obviously, on purely deductive logical ground, if there are reasons to believe that the Bible is not, in fact, “perfect,” “inerrant,” or what have you, those who defend this position will immediately accuse you of not believing in a perfect sovereign God. But the fact is that there are problems. How many times did Jesus clear out the Temple, and when did he do it? John records it at the beginning of Jesus’ career, while the synoptics place it near the end. In order to protect inerrancy, it must have happened twice. (Not likely.) Another classic case here is the Last Supper; John places it the day before the others.

At the end of the day, the logic is circular, and the conclusions are already written into the premises of inerrancy. Contrary evidence, errors, and inconsistencies in the text are ruled out before even a word of it is read.

The other approach, however, helps a great deal. An Inductive approach to the Bible starts with the texts themselves and lets THEM teach us about the rest of the Bible and its Author/s. Only through thorough reading of individual texts can we formulate opinions about the entire Bible and about the God and the Christ it presents. An inductive approach doesn’t presuppose a result to which the Bible must conform, and it certainly isn’t intimidated by inconsistencies, factual errors, unscientific presentation of the origins of the cosmos, and so forth.

And that’s all I have to say about that. For now, at least.


The Divine Name YHWH Jehovah“Theos” is a crappy translation for yhwh or elohim. Thanks a lot, Septuagint.


Last night I had a great evening talking with my friend the Ultrarev, and among other topics covered, the idea of Scripture came up. The Ultrarev actually blogged on the topic after he got home (here), and my mind kept turning on the topic too. A lot of the discussion revolved around the old standard evangelical categories on scripture: Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired or God-breathed?

These terms are, as I’ve argued in my classes and in job application letters (eek…) and elsewhere (I think even on this blog), modern terms.  For example:

For Christians, Scripture must be the plumbline, the norming norm that guides each individual and community of faith to the Kingdom. I believe that in the modern world, the technology of the word has contributed to an understanding of Scripture that provides Christians with an effective means of expressing the authority of the Bible for the life of the church and its role in the world. While terms such as “infallible” and “inerrant” are modern terms alien to Scripture, I believe that they are dynamic equivalents to ancient understandings of the power of the written word that permit the force of that power to be understood and appreciated by modern Christians.  Early Christians and the writers of the New Testament understood the Word to be the message and proclamation of the Gospel and the person of Christ, a point that I believe has largely become lost in contemporary fetishization of the Scriptures among many in the Church today. The written word is witness to the Living Word that is Christ, and provides the only model for the church that, through its pages, teaches us the model of Jesus and of living a Christian life within the Church committed to bringing the Kingdom of God among us. Scripture is the pneuma of God that gives life, the essence of the same breath or inspiration that gave life to Adam from the dust of the earth and that animated Christ, the second Adam, from the dust of the grave.

But for many, this isn’t enough; somehow God has to have his hand in it, even if it’s not a mechanical, “hands-on” approach to the formation of Scripture (and I regard “scripture” and “Bible” as two different categories).  Ultrarev and I were talking about Arminianism and evolution and a bit of process theology. Subscribing to the basic elements of each of these, to hold to a mechanical, dictation-model of God’s role in scripture is, to say the least, pretty contradictory. I suggest, then, that we think of God’s hand in scripture not like we think of our hands at a keyboard or with a block of wood and some tools, but as the hand of the priest who touches and blesses the elements of the Eucharist. Like the priest over the ordinary elements of bread and wine, God similarly blessed an ordinary book or, more precisely, a collection of books that advances his Kingdom.

The irony here is that in both the Jewish and Christian cases, the “kingdom” was a literal one; for the Torah, it was the Persian Empire and then the post-Maccabean Hasmonean Dynastic would-be empire; for Christians, while the process took a while, it was the post-Constantinian empire of Rome. I’m in full agreement with Ultrarev here; today’s Christians need to two two things with regard to our Bible and idea of Scripture. First, we have to come to terms with the truly imperial origins of it, and somehow come to terms with all the connotations of empire that have accreted to the Bible over the last 1600 years (specifically colonialism, industrialism, western superiority, and consumer capitalism). This is a daunting task. Secondly, we need to let go of the mechanistic model of inspiration and replace it with something along the idea of God’s blessing of the Bible in much the same way that the priest blesses the bread and wine, or the penitent, or the baptized; in every case, it is the common, the ordinary, and the transformed for God’s Kingdom work that is blessed, not the already holy.

More work needs to be done here. The obvious question is “Why?” I hope some discussion might bring some ideas on this.

Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.


J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student’s essays]
Peace, Benedict
Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Ran across this piece today on Flashy ‘Bible’ seeks to inspire the ADHD generation.” Fascinating stuff, and tons of food for thought. The publisher’s basic idea is to produce a New Testament that the visual learner (and, evidently, visual reader) can connect with and relate to. No doubt a second motivation is to capitalize on the popularity of Thomas Nelson’s Revolve Bible with a rival book. The reviewer, Bruce Watson, has this to say about it:

Ab Forlaget’s Bible Illuminated seems designed for people with a total lack of imagination and only a tangential interest in scripture. The text is presented in a three-column style, with highlights around important passages, and key sections reprinted in large-type insets. All in all, the style should be familiar to any reader of Playboy, Harper’s Bazaar, or Us. Essentially, it looks like a fashion mag that has been annotated by a not-particularly-bright high school student.

Bible Illuminated is, as Watson points out, yet another example of how Bibles are produced for niche markets. But usually, these other bibles at least usually “look” like Bibles. Take the very popular Women’s Devotional Bible, for example, or the Mom’s Study Bible, or The Green Bible. These appeal to specific audiences with particular concerns and ideologies that these Bibles highlight and provide commentary on. But they “look” like Bibles in that they are about the same size as most others, actually say “Bible” on the cover, have nice, thin, crisp paper, and are formatted in easily recognized “Bible-style” layout and typeface. The media and the published form of the media tell the reader before even opening the book up that “this is a Bible, and you should read it as a Bible.” There is a material “iconicity” that these books depend on for their use and authority. (Shamless plug alert! Go to the Iconic Books Project Blog at , another blog I contribute to, for tons of stuff on the iconicity of books in general, including this new Bible, and world scriptures in particular.)

Like these other “niche Bibles,” Bible Illuminated is oriented to a specific audience: those for whom the only reading they do is the high-gloss eye candy mass produced in pop culture. It’s iconic aspect screams out “Read me like you were reading Cosmo or Maxim!” It is a “hybrid” text that co-opts the material and iconic element of one type of reading in order to seduce the reader into reading something from a totally different iconic plane. In effect, Bible Illuminated is telling us to read the Bible the same way a sixteen-year-old “reads” Playboy or Seventeen.

What is fascinating, though, is that so much of the content in the Bible is tailor-made for a presentation like this. Good preachers interpret the text through verbal and semantic description of the content that makes the text come alive. An image accompanying the Book of Revelation, for example, depicts a young man in flames, apparently trying to hurl himself into a flooded street. One can only imagine what image from pop culture accompanies the story of David and Bathsheba; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, maybe? Who do they tab to play Hosea’s wife Gomer? Jenna Jameson? The possibilities are endless.

The image of “the Bible” and what it is supposed to look like, feel like, read like, and so on is, I think generally disconnected with much of its content. A hybrid book like the Bible Illuminated may, in some ways, make parts of the Bible that are usually skipped over actually come to life not just for the ADHD generation, but for us old fogeys as well.

… of Matthew 21.31-32. Dedicated to today’s whitened sepulchers.

paraphrase.jpg“Look, I’m trying to set it straight with you guys. The abortionists and gays and the liberals! are gonna be in God’s world before most of you guys who think you’re in the Right. I mean, guys like John, King, and Wallis, and Edwards and Obama talked about hope and justice and you don’t give them the time of day, but “those other guys” do, and even after seeing what King did and Wallis is doing and what Edwards and Obama are fighting for, you still won’t change your minds and believe them!”


I had the good fortune of attending a conference a few weekends back on Iconic Books, which considers the “iconic” role that books and physical texts play in religion and society. On of my personal interests in this is the way that books and scrolls iconically represent power, authority, divine sanction, and so on.

I’ve been engaged in serious reading of the Book of Revelation, and, in this connection, the image, or icon, of the “scroll” is of significant import; we’ve got scrolls being passed around between heavenly beings; God has the 7-sealed scroll written on both sides in his right hand in chapter 5, which gets handed over to the Lamb who proceeds to open the 7 seals; there’s the little open scroll that the angel carries around with him (apparently in his left hand, since his right hand is busy with swearing an oath to heaven) in chapter 10, which he gives to the Seer to eat (and which makes him sick); there are books of judgment, and restrictions on changing the book that John is busy writing.

The image of the scroll in the hands of God, the Lamb, and the Angel preparing the “seven thunders” has stuck with me; I keep thinking I’ve run across this somewhere before, but I haven’t come across anything in my own library of books that reminds me of what I’m thinking about. But in reflecting on the symbolism here, it is clear that the scrolls and books (Revelation uses biblion throughout the text) are signals of the power of God’s rulership over the kingdom(s) of this world and his ability and willingness to exercise judgment over his empire. It’s as if to say that “whoever holds the scroll”, ta biblia, is in charge or an agent of the One in charge.

Then it hit me; this image is exactly the same as the iconic representations of Roman Emperors holding scrolls in their hands. Check it out (Left to Right: Trajan, Alexander Severus, two of Domitian, and Nero):


Whatever else it may be doing, the scroll certainly is functioning here as an icon of empire; it seems likely that it is doing the same in the book of Revelation as well.

Which leads to another observation: The Bible itself has historically been used as an icon of colonialism and imperialism, either in defense of colonial and imperial power, or, negatively, in rejection of it; rejecting “the Englishman’s book” was one of the strongest signs of rejecting colonial England’s imperial policies and programs.

Similarly, this iconic usage of the scroll/book/Bible is obviously alive and well today; for this phenomenon, I can do no better than to refer readers to the Iconic Book Project’s blog.

bible_1.jpgThose of us who are engaged as students and scholars of religion and who are also engaged as cultural critics are familiar with the notion of “Idolatry of the Bible” or “Bibliolatry.” This is the perception that the Bible itself, as a physical book and especially as “information” is revered and respected to degrees that mirror idol-worship as described in the Bible itself. But there is another aspect here that isn’t talked about as much, but which is probably as prevalent. This is the recognition that the Bible does function as an idol and object of worship for “those guys” and, as such, worthy of iconoclastic attack.

What is mentioned even less, though, is that for the most part the same criteria is used to justify “Bibliolatry” and “Biblioclasm,” and I’d like to introduce this with another neologism: Historidolatry, or “Idolatry of History.” It’s an obsession with forcing the Bible to conform with our own criteria of historical veracity; the former put history to use in order to justify everything from literal, historical 6 day creation, suns standing still to prolong a battle, and Exodus and conquest stories to Noah’s Flood or the historical facticity of Job’s narrative. The Biblioclasts, on the other hand, put history to work precisely to argue that too much of the Bible’s contents are patently unhistorical. The assumption is the same; the Bible stands or falls on whether or not the Bible is “historically true.”

Now, obviously, a knowledge of the history, culture, and so on of both the events the Bible relates, as well as the historical and cultural events during the composition of the individual books, pericopes, and what-have-you, is critical. Not only that, but the Bible itself iners or even insists that certain things, in order for them to have value, had to have occured in historical time or they are worthless (as Paul insists about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15). But this is completely different than saying that the whole thing stands on this assumption, and in fact, is complicated by the fact that the Bible often gives several different versions of the same events! What the Bible is great at is recognizing that an event happened and that the event is important for community identity, and it is particularly good at preserving how different people (in different historical time, as well) remembered and represented those events. It is not especially good at giving us the event itself. We reduce the Bible to our own terms, either in defense of it, or in criticism of it, when we apply the criteria of history as the biblical standard of truth. Instead, the Bible is the testimony of a variety of witnesses, all of whom testify to the reality of God in the lives of individuals and communities.

I suggest a different tack. Since the tasks of neither history nor of the study of religion is to “prove” or “disprove” the Bible or faith, we need to employ history and the study of religion (at least, for those of us involved in “biblical religions”) to better understand and especially appreciate what it actually is that Bible (and other scriptures) is testifying to and proclaiming. Here, the so-called Bibliolatrists are on the right track; let’s put history and the study of religion to work as an aid to understanding and appreciating biblical religion, rather than as a wrecking-ball. But on the other hand, the Biblioclasts have something to offer as well, which is it recognizes the various degrees of biblical testimony and can provide people of faith, and scholars as well, with better contextual accounting for these variations.

The bottom line is that the Bible isn’t a history textbook, and despite well-meaning apologetic education and more mean-spirited critical projects, treating it as a textbook, rather than a collection of testimonies to the reality of God in ancient communities, produces shallow faith on the one hand and critical fundamentalism on the other. Biblical revelation, and its representations in the Bible itself, is conditioned by historical context, and we do ourselves enormous favors by paying attention to these contexts, but revelation cannot, and should not, be reduced to modernist criteria that negates and replaces “faith in things unseen.”

Ummm…whatever, man. You’ll need your speakers on.  Content not exactly endorsed by Aedificium, or Benedict either.

Medieval ScrollI am often asked how I read Scripture, what my guiding principle is. The most recent occasion was one Sunday afternoon after I delivered this message to a church in Massachusetts. I usually kind of stumble over the question, because I haven’t actually given much thought to it, and because I know that my approach to reading Scripture is not at all consistent. Sometimes I read it “academically,” sometimes devotionally, sometimes homiletically, sometimes as lectio, and so on. But I’ve been thinking about it since Sunday for some reason, mostly because the gist of the question I was asked was along the lines of “is there any difference between reading the Bible as an academic in the field of religion and the Bible and the way you read it when you’re working on a sermon?”

After reflecting on the question for a few weeks now, I still don’t really have a good answer, but in trying to come up with one I’ve been able to give some some serious self-examination on it. This is still pretty much all off the cuff.

I think that what it comes down to is that many, many people think that we all read in just one way, and that this way is the way we all read. That way, of course, is to read to gather “information.” But the problem is that we simply can’t read everything that way with any production, and in fact we don’t; most of us do not read novels the way we read a newspaper or an encyclopedia entry, or a self-help book, or a technical manual. When we read for “information” we have no investment in the material itself. There’s no spiritual investment, and no emotional investment, and perhaps not even any physical or material investment, given the preference that most seem to have for electronic and virtual media for informational reading.

Because of this, people are under the impression that information and data and facts is all that reading counts for. But not every book is an encyclopedia of information, and this is especially so with sacred works and scriptures. We can’t read the Bible like an encyclopedia all the time, although of course we might have reason to do that for various purposes (like Bible classes or church indoctrinations, and so forth). But even in these environments, reading the Bible only in the way we would read an encyclopedia article really is to distort and misread it, because it overemphasizes the literalness of the ipsissima verba, the actual words on the page, at the expense of the vox or “voice” of the text that is only revealed through a different kind of reading.

This kind of reading is poetic and metaphoric. In order to get to what the Bible says in any given passage, we need to read it as if we’re reading poetry. We have to be able to hear its voice and not simply see its words. Realizing that Jesus’ parables are metaphors that draw from the stock of the real life of a first century agricultural society dominated by imperial forces in both local and regional governance opens up his parables in ways that “informational” and “factual” readings cannot. Realizing that the Revelation’s descriptions of armies of locusts are neither literal nor analogical (meaning they’re not real armored bugs or John’s misunderstandings of what tanks look like) but a metaphorical, poetic stock description of massively sized destructive armies that comes from the Hebrew Bible frees us from wooden and deterministic readings of the text.

So the way I read the Bible, and other scriptures like the Qur’an, the Mishnah, the Vedas, Avesta, and whatever else, is mostly a poetic reading. Whatever “information” these texts contain is largely incidental. The ancient writers and compilers of Scriptures did not focus on our modern ways of persuasion by information, facts, and data, and while this type of rhetorical persuasion is probably the dominant strategy of authors today, we can’t expect their ancient counterparts to have cared about the same.

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