You Are Not A Bible Character

Father Stephen Freeman gives a well-deserved epistemological and moral rebuke to the haphazard, self-serving, and hermeneutically arbitrary way that Mark Sanford, like many other religious people throughout history, has taken biblical stories as justifications for his decisions:

The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no controlling story. Nothing tells us which story to use other than our own imagination (which is generally a deluded part of our mind). A governor gets to play King David, and, surprise, he should be forgiven and not resign his office. A group of white settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women and children. A priest, likely in need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The gospel is not preached – souls are not saved – the Bible is simply brought into ridicule.

For all of us – Scripture is relevant. However, its relevance should not come as a personal revelation that tells us which character we are within its pages. Such games seem frightfully like the games on Facebook: “Which ancient civilization are you?” or some such nonsense.

You are not a Bible character – other than the one indicated in the New Testament – those who have put their faith in Christ and trusted him for their salvation. Our conversion experiences are whatever they may have been – but the Damascus Road conversion of St. Paul is not required of any but St. Paul.

Now if only Freeman would further reject the numerous places in the New Testament in which the authors took random phrases out of context to be “prophecies” confirming their interpretation of their own contemporary events.  And if only Freeman would attack the hubris of the Bible characters themselves who intrepreted their genocides as God’s will, etc.

Freeman’s right to reject the attitude that intreprets random Bible passages not written to you but to other people as addressing you or as laying down a convenient precedent that justifies your behavior.  But the problem is that this audacious tendency to hear the voice of God direclty addressing you is not the corruption of otherwise wise religious thinking but rather is at the very core of religion as its chronic corruption.  It is not simply “bad theology,” it is theology itself.

If they literally existed, reasoned, and talked the way the Bible depicts, then the Bible characters themselves were the self-serving manipulative shysters and political spinners of their own day.  Unless they are simply the fictional characters of fables, they have all the arrogance and presumption Freeman condemns in his own age.  It is inconsistent to hold the Bible as authoritative while holding those who think and behave the way biblical writers and characters did as the revealers of God himself.

(Thanks to Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan for passing on Freeman’s piece.)

See the follow up post to this one here.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.