Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Book Sure To Stir Attention: No Not That One!




Well, we already know the Bible stirs enough attention, what with its lurid tales of rape, incest, savagery and genocide! Not to mention the eliding of hundreds of primitive rules and laws which, I don't know.....we're supposed to follow even today? (Like siccing She bears after brats that call an old guy "Baldy!" as recommended by 2 Kings 2, 23:24 ).

But no, that's not the book I mean. I am referencing the book: The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy K. Beal.

Of course, Bible Bangers generally read only one book in their entire lives: The Bible. The King James is preferred, and most of us who've read the Bible for pleasure (as opposed to an unavailed truth or moral lessons) prefer it because of being written in consummate English. It certainly reads better than the Revised Standard Version. But ....alas, that's where the benefits end. As observed by Biblical scholar Bart D.Ehrman (‘Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why’, 2005).:

"The King James version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus’ edition, which was based on a single twelfth century manuscript that is one of the worst that we now have available to us!”

For this reason, all single-minded Bible worshippers (especially of the KJV) need to get their hands on Beal's book, even if they read no other in their lives. And they ought to read Beal for a number of sound reasons! Foremost is that Beal was raised in the evangelical religious tradition and still maintains that disposition (unlike Bart Ehrman who's since become an agnostic) even though teaching at a secular university.

For that reason alone, the evangelicals ought to pay attention to what he has to offer.

As a religious scholar, Beal views scripture in its diversity and complexity, and he sees it more as a collection of significant questions than a storehouse of set answers. In developing his argument, Beal addresses such issues as the variety of Greek texts, the long process of canonization, the diversity of biblical books, and the multitude of translations. All of which have been relevant issues I touched on in previous blogs and which can't be ignored if one is honest.

Beal is honest! (And there aren't a lot of fundegelicals I can say that about!) He's also not a publishing "newbie". He's published eleven books, including Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know and Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and one of Publishers Weekly 's ten best religion books of 2005.

Among his surprising insights in the "Rise and Fall of the Bible":

• Christianity thrived for centuries without any Bible—there was no official canon of scriptures, much less a book big enough to hold them all. Congregations used various collections of scrolls and codices. (So much for Pastor Mikey's blabber about a "New Testament Church"!)

• There is no “original” Bible, no single source text behind the thousands of different Bibles on the market today. The farther we go back in the Bible’s history, the more versions we find.

• The idea of the Bible as the literal Word of God is relatively new—only about a century old.

'The Bible' is, of course, a misnomer. The Hebrew scriptures contain 66 different texts, though many are closely related, and the Christian scriptures contains 27. The first illusion and language affront was to place these under a single cover and call it a single thing. Even today, as I've seen when I've been in various bookstores (like WaldenBooks, Borders) is people often approach a clerk and ask for "THE BIBLE". And when the clerk asks politely: "Which one?" they lose it and freak out.

Add to that simple physical fact that layers of doctrine have been submerged into those ancient texts, and the fact so many think they know 'the Bible' when, if they know anything, they probably know a series of theological points which themselves are the product of long historical controversy. Then one also beholds the simplistic elements of the hermeneutic circle: you know the doctrine, so when (if) you read, you see what supports the doctrine and ignore or minimize what doesn't, which in turn reinforces what you (don't) see!

To his credit, Beal deals with all of this, as well as what I call the syndrome of "biblical obsession". For example, Beal notes that "the average Christian household owns nine Bibles and purchases at least one new Bible every year", but actually reading them is another matter. Beal believes that's because today's Christians (mainly the Evangelicals) are seeking a certainty in their holy book that simply isn't there, and shouldn't be. (As I myself have belabored so many times: one ought to read the Good Book in the spirit in which it was written, not the letter, and thereby find a more enriching basis for inspiration as opposed to inflexible absolutism).

Sadly, most Americans know nothing about how the Bible was compiled, which is why so many of them were amazed to learn from "The Da Vinci Code" that the Old and New Testaments are assemblages of texts written at different times by different authors, most of whom were not eyewitnesses to the events they describe. This is well emphasized by Beal and another reason I wish fundies would avail themselves of his book.

The bestselling scholar Bart Ehrman, like Beal, was raised in a conservative evangelical family, but has written in greater depth on early Christian texts. But that's not really Beal's purpose. Ehrman became an agnostic, but Beal is still an Evangelical Christian, and with this latest book, he wants to argue against the common perception of the Bible as God's infallible handbook on how to live, "totally accurate in all of its teachings" - a view, incidentally, that nearly half of all Americans (and 88 percent of "born again" Christians) claim to believe.

But again, another reason these "born agains" need to get some grounding in scriptural reality, especially from one of their own. And he certainly is NO liberal! Rather, he is as skeptical of liberal attempts to simplify the Bible as he is of the more predominant right-wing reductionism. He would rather see his co-religionists embrace the fact that the Bible is full of contradictions and inconsistencies and come to regard it not as "the book of answers, but as a library of questions," many of which can never be conclusively resolved.

More insidious, in Beal's eyes, is the trend over the past couple of centuries away from word-for-word translations of the Bible and toward "functional equivalence" and "meaning driven" translations. Sadly, the multi-billion dollar Bible-publishing industry resorts to this precisely because the Bible doesn't offer cut-and-dried guidance or "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth", as one popular modern acronym would have it.

Somewhat like my old Theology Prof at Loyola, Fr. Elroy Hecker, S.J., Beal prefers one read the Bible like a work of Shakespearean art, as opposed to a Coda for literal truth. That is, as a text permitting multiple interpretations and as an incentive to further thought and self-examination rather than as the final answers on all of life's enigmas.

Beal, like Bart Ehrman with his Misquoting Jesus, presents an inspiring and insightful take on the Bible. In calling for a fresh understanding of the ways scriptures were used in the past, he offers all of us - believer and unbeliever alike - the chance to rediscover the Bible as a literary object and a record of historical investigation. Not a book of answers but a library of questions, which hopefully the evangelicals will want to ask - rather than attack Beal and consign him (along with Bart Ehrman and others) to their cartoon "Hell". Alas, and all too sadly, the most extreme fundies will likely reject Beal's book because it happens to appeal to an Atheist. In their micro-brains, "liked by atheist = hated by fundie"! A truly perverse tautology which offers no hope that we'll see religious peace or tolerance anytime soon!

No comments: