Friday, August 19, 2011

An Interesting Take on the Bible

While The Wall Street Journal is mostly devoted to economic and financial news, every now and then it publishes an article outside that domain, which is also thought provoking. Such was the piece 'No One Takes the Bible Literally', appearing on page A11 of today's edition and written by John Wilson.

The author's general theme is to compare two professors - one ficititious (a "Prof. Candide" who insists the gospel account of Jesus' resurrection is a physical impossibility) and one real, a Prof. John Schneider who in his class at an unnamed college concludes that "human ancestry can't be traced to a single couple, the Adam and Eve of the Genesis account". In addition, Schneider, the real prof at an evangelical college, insists that "the very notion of a fall from a primal state of beatitude must be false".

Wilson then proceeds to dissect each of these, and the sort of responses that would be expected from the vast majority of orthodox Christians - and this is the most interesting part because it bears on many blogs I've previously written. For example, in the case of "Prof. Candide" and his impossible resurrection claim, Wilson observes:

"In short, if our imaginary Prof. Candide decided one day that he could no longer affirm the reality of the resurrection, it would seem unremarkable that he should have to part with his college"

The putative reason being that "the real meaning of the resurrection is that "Jesus lives on in the hearts of all those who follow his example"

In other words, the resurrection story is hyperbole or symbolism but not a valid historical event to be taken literally.

As Wilson, notes, there's not much problem among Christians here (and he thankfully doesn't resort to the specious and unproductive tack of separating "real Christians" and "false Christians" - committing the 'One True Scotsman' Fallacy) because "Christians broadly agree on how to read the Gospels". However, he adds: "There is no such consensus on how to read Genesis".

This is incredibly strange because if Christians (of normal sense and reading ability) can agree that the gospels are 99% fiction, then why not Genesis where the tales are even taller! I mean, a guy stopping the Sun with a trumpet? Another guy inhabiting a vat of hydrochloric acid in a whale's belly for 3 days?

And then there are all the genocidal rampages against assorted tribes and peoples! It's like reading about the Holocaust ten times over! So why should Christians elevate the Old Testament (the original Jewish scripture) to a place of verity and validity that they refuse to extend to their New Testament?

But in the end, as Wilson puts it, after referring to dozens of different disputes on the issue:

"What is at stake in these disputes is not a choice between following biblical authority on the one hand and science on the other, as the matter is often misleadingly framed. Rather, we see rival theological commitments, rival understanding of how to read Genesis"

In other words, the disputants are engaged in a clash of egos concerning whose "school of interpretation" is the correct one. These sort of clashes are not peculiar to biblical studies either, as I've seen them in solar physics conferences - when fierce debates have erupted (such as in the Baltimore AAS-SPD conference in 1994) between those who think solar flares occur before coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and those who believe the converse to be true. Oh, and then there's the ├╝ber school of skepticism that won't accept flares actually exist as a definable and unique physical phenomenon!

And the intensity of the debates is waged as if each combatant has his or her whole life and integrity vested in the outcome!

So, no wonder a certain clique will insist every WORD must be taken literally (though they are quite liberal in arguing that "major contradictions disappear" if one only applies "hermeneutics" - which of course contradicts the claim that the passages can be read literally! But who's looking?)

In the next example, of 'Young Earth Creationism' the same dynamic applies so the belief that Earth was created only a few thousand years ago is "an unswerving commitment to a certain way of reading scripture not a disdain for science". Another book with a differing outlook, The Lost World Of Genesis One is then cited, and Wilson notes that it "seeks to recover the ancient world view implicit in the Genesis account of creation. A perspective from which the measureable age of the Earth is not relevant.

Which makes sense! Because what the author is attempting here is to see the world and cosmos through the eyes of those primitive, pre-scientific humans of 2,400+ years ago. Obviously, because they had no basis for observations of a scientific nature (at least in Judea-Palestine, they did in Sumeria, Babylon) they'd see the world through primitive eyes. Thus, they'd write of the Earth forming before the Sun, totally unaware it's scientific tommyrot because a massive gravitating mass star would be needed for a planet to form from it. But in THEIR world view and cosmology it was true. The same with a guy like Joshua able to blow a trumpet and stop the Sun! But today, we know it's bollocks. Could never occur since if it did happen all the rotational energy of the planet would be converted instantly to heat and crust would melt!

Wilson recognizes that many or most evangelicals insist that the passages "lose their meaning" if not read literally, but he's having none of it. As he concludes the piece:

"But an alarm should sound whenever the word 'literal' is used in this context, whether as a badge of pride ('I just believe in reading the Bible literally') or as a hint that low-browed fundamentalists are lurking nearby.

NO one - no one - reads the Bible literally anymore...but some readers are more attentive, faifthful and imaginative than others...

Perhaps there'd be much less controversy if the Bible were simply read for inspiration, and left at that. If people want actual history or biography (of whomever) they can obtain historical and biographical books. But people shouldn't project those into the Bible any more than claiming it's a book of science!

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