Fanon and canon: ‘Harmonizing’ away the Bible

The Bible is a library disguised as a book. The two testaments of the Protestant Bible include 66 different books, many of which are themselves anthologies. And everything, in all of them, is canonical.

That gets a bit messy sometimes. Consider, for example, the book of Jonah — a vicious, devastating polemic against a particular strain of religious exclusivism. Jonah is canon. But so are books like Ezra and Nehemiah, which take the opposite side of this argument. In one sense, that’s perfectly logical and necessary. We can’t understand such an argument unless we’re given both sides of it. But in another sense, this is frustrating, because in making both sides of the argument canon, neither side is granted the definitive final word. That leaves the argument unsettled — something many readers find unsettling.

This scene has absolutely nothing to do with the story in Genesis 1.

This is an especially big problem if you think of the canon of scripture as something that’s supposed to be, above all, the final authority for definitively settling all disputes. If the canon itself is a library that includes diverse and competing views, then how can we rely on it to help us sort out the correct view from all the other possibilities? (Or, less charitably, how can we use it to prove that we are right and others are wrong?)

This is why the more authoritarian someone’s view of the Bible is, the less likely that person is to admit or acknowledge the enormous diversity that exists within the canon, within this library disguised as a single book. They tend to be rather hostile to the presence within the Bible of ongoing arguments, or different, incompatible versions of various stories.

That the Bible does, indeed, contain very different versions of various stories is fairly obvious if you pick it up and start reading at the beginning of either of the testaments. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy and a nativity story. So does Luke’s Gospel. But they are not the same genealogy and nativity story. Genesis starts with a creation story. And then it follows that with a different creation story.

Right off the bat, then, we have a choice to make. We can choose to accept that this apparent variation is a feature of the book(s) we are reading, and we can then go about trying to learn what such variation has to teach us. Or we can choose to say that this appearance of variation is a problem that must be solved, and we can then go about trying to explain away every such apparent instance of variety, dispute or diversity within the canon in order to buttress our notion that it serves as a clear, simple, unequivocal and univocal authority that can be cited chapter-and-verse to settle all disputes and answer all questions.

This second choice is quite popular. It’s so popular, in fact, that even those of us who choose the former approach still can’t help but absorb some of the imaginative solutions concocted in order to deny the diversity of the canon.

James McGrath wrestled with this in a post yesterday titled “How Many Adam?” He was surprised to realize one of the things he’d absorbed about the creation story in Genesis 1 even though it’s not in the Bible.

Yesterday in a Facebook group I participate in, it was pointed out that, unless one has the Genesis 2 creation account in mind, when one reads Genesis 1, one will not necessarily get the impression that God, creating Adam (which means humankind) male and female, made only one of each.

I’d put that in stronger terms than “one will not necessarily get the impression.” The story in Genesis 1 speaks of “multitudes.” Two people does not a multitude make.

This is important. Genesis 1 is not about Adam and Eve. They are not characters in that story. I’m emphatic on this point because the text is emphatic on this point. Let me quote from a post from last October (“Things that are not in the Bible: ‘In the creation account, God creates Adam and Eve, the world and everything in it in six days“):

In the first story and the first chapter in Genesis, God creates “humankind” on the sixth day of creation. Humankind was created “male and female” and is spoken of as plural throughout this story, but the story never says that only two humans were created on the sixth day. (Two doesn’t seem like much of a multitude.)

That same word for humankind — adam — reappears in the second story that begins in the second chapter, but there it appears as a proper noun, as the name of an individual character, Adam. In our English translations of Genesis, that Hebrew word adam is always translated into English in the first story — “humankind,” or “mankind,” or “man” — because there it is plural and clearly not an individual’s name or a proper noun. In the second story, however, the word is presented differently. It is capitalized and left untranslated to indicate that here — unlike in the first story — it is being used as the name of a single individual.

That post was in response to a CNN article garbling the difference between the different stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Maybe that’s to be expected from CNN, but earlier we discussed this same mistake when it was made by theologian and top-notch biblical scholar N.T. Wright. In discussing the notion of a historical Adam and Eve, Wright suggested the possibility of “God choosing Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God.”:

“God choosing Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God” is something that never happens in the Bible. That’s the opposite of what happens in the Bible. The first story says that all of humanity is made in the image of God, and we can apply that to the second story to infer that, because Adam and Eve are humans, that is also true of them. But these two stories cannot be made to say that Adam and Eve bear the image never attributed to them in their story while “others” do not bear the image attributed to them in theirs.

Any attempt to explain why “God [chose] Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God” is bound to be as helpful and insightful as trying to explain why God chose Adam and Eve to build an ark, or why God chose Adam and Eve to face Goliath armed only with a sling. Wrong story.

This matters. Smushing together the two separate stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 together changes the text and leads us to conclusions not supported by the text itself. It can be particularly troublesome when we confuse the two stories in just the way Wright does above. Take the “image of God” bit from Story No. 1 and puree it together with the “Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree” stuff from Story No. 2 and you’ve got the makings of a theory of original sin that contradicts both stories — a theory based not on scripture, but on the scaffolding of “harmonizing” we’ve built around it.

This is the problem with so much of the creative solutions we’ve invented to “harmonize” away the diversity within the canon itself. The fanon winds up replacing the canon.

Fanon” there is a term from the world of fan fiction. It combines the words “fan” and “canon” to refer to extra-canonical ideas that are so widely accepted in the fandom that they have acquired a kind of canonicity of their own.

I think this is a useful, clarifying concept in thinking about “canon” in its original, biblical sense. The distinction between canon and fanon may be helpful in sorting out the difference between the text itself and that whole scaffolding of attempts to “harmonize” away its diversity — all that stuff we’ve absorbed for so long that we’ve come to assume it’s there in the canon, even though it’s not.

 

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I revised the 1st commandment.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Fun fact: Kubrick didn’t initially mean to leave out the last chapter; he just didn’t know it existed unitl late in the scriptwriting process. This is because the book’s American publishers insisted American audiences would prefer a darker ending and omitted the last chapter, and this was the version Kubrick was familiar with. The first full US edition was published in 1986.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Yeah. Brony wank is – well, see here:

    http://fanlore.org/wiki/My_Little_Pony:_Friendship_is_Magic

    http://www.journalfen.net/tools/memories.bml?user=fandom_wank&keyword=My+Little+Pony&filter=all

    So yeah, even I, who do not watch much network TV, know about bronies, heh.

  • LMM22

    Look, here’s the deal:

    The Wiccan tells you to consider how your action will harm someone. Great, right?

    Except that the ways that you think about harm vary from culture to culture. They vary *massively* from culture to culture — and they’re stupidly hard to determine. (That’s why utilitarianism creates so many moral dilemmas.)

    Telling people that they should think about how their actions impact others tells me that you think that other people don’t already. Telling *atheists* and *Christians* that they should do so suggests (to me) that you believe that those two groups aren’t doing so. *I* think that’s false. I suspect that the part that makes that even *more* incorrect is that there are plenty of people who could do things that (to you) seem to harm more people (or object to things that don’t seem to harm other people) yet are doing so because they are obeying the creed.

    Do I spend my time searching for union-made underwear? I’m sure most people will agree that slave labor is wrong, but the decision I make depends upon whether I’ve been raised in an environment where I *think* about where my clothes come from. Same goes with food purchases. Or where I move or what I do for a living.

    “Harming none” is all but impossible. The fossil fuels that are being burnt to power my computer are indirectly harming my grandchildren a century from now. Do I see that as an actual form of harm? Probably depends upon how much time I spend hanging around with climatologists. The same goes for every other aspect of my life. Utilitarianism is freaking complicated, and the Wiccan creed simplifies it in ways that are invisible to the average actor.

  • arcseconds

    Well, sure, they’re related, at least in so far as they’re principles that science-types often say they use to determine what theory is correct.

    However, I don’t see them as being very closely related.

    They’re not even aimed at the same sorts of things:

    The “extraordinary evidence” principle is about supporting a single hypothesis. The more unlikely the hypothesis, the stronger the evidence needed to support it.

    The other is talking about which theory to prefer when you’ve got evidence that seems to equally support several (or at least, isn’t decisive amongst several).

    If you’ve already sorted out what evidence you have and how it relates to two different theories and done the whole Bayesian thing and updated your probabilities appropriately, and you’re left with one theory having a very high probability and the other a very low probability, Occam’s razor has no work to do. There’s no level of simplicity that would make us prefer a way-out, unlikely hypothesis over a well-supported, likely one, one would hope.

    Do you see them as being more closely related than this? If so, why?

  • Foelhe

    Let’s take this one step at a time.

    “Except that the ways that you think about harm vary from culture to culture. They vary *massively* from culture to culture — and they’re stupidly hard to determine. (That’s why utilitarianism creates so many moral dilemmas.)”

    I don’t disagree with you, I just don’t think there’s any better approach to the issue. Authoritarian lists of laws can also have problems with spotting personal biases, and any other system you can think of has problems spotting personal biases. That’s because all these systems are applied by humans, who all, natch, have problems spotting personal biases. There’s no way to completely sidestep that issue.

    “Telling people that they should think about how their actions impact others tells me that you think that other people don’t already. Telling *atheists* and *Christians* that they should do so suggests (to me) that you believe that those two groups aren’t doing so.”

    … Sorry, but that makes no sense to me. I don’t think we should have murder laws on the books because everyone living under that jurisdiction would start murdering people otherwise, but because the people who would murder are in the wrong. (Plus punishment. Not a perfect metaphor, granted.) If you’re not being a dick, great, we’ve got no problem. If you are being a dick, stop being a dick.

    And honestly, I know a handful of people who follow the Rede, and it’s not like they insist I should adopt it myself. So I’m not sure what the issue is.

    [Edit: ...Shit, I just went back and read Fusina's post again. I guess I missed a line last time. Kinda agree she shouldn't have called out specific groups there. Yeah, I think it's true that some Christians and atheists should give more thought to not causing harm, but that's also true of some Wiccans and most other groups I could think of.]

    ” I suspect that the part that makes that even *more* incorrect is that there are plenty of people who could do things that (to you) seem to harm more people (or object to things that don’t seem to harm other people) yet are doing so because they are obeying the creed.”

    Sorry, I’m not sure I understand your point here. Are you saying that people follow the Rede and hurt people because of it? Like I said earlier – we’re all human, people screw up sometimes. Just because someone philosophizes badly doesn’t mean we should give philosophy up as a bad job.

    “”Harming none” is all but impossible.”

    Okay, something a lot of people don’t seem to notice (including some Wiccans, admittedly), the phrase isn’t “harm none”. It’s “An [if] it harm none, [then] please yourself”. If-then. To me the creed is primarily about freedom, and basically makes the statement, “Hey, if you’re not ruining anyone else’s day, why not let your freak flag fly?”

    IMO, the reason it works as a moral creed is that it puts the focus on whether or not harm is being done. However, it does not explicitly say that harm must be avoided at all costs. There are situations where harm is inevitable or even necessary, and I don’t see those situations as being inherently against the Rede.

  • http://vmthecoyote.tumblr.com/post/56439695124/names-on-the-internet VMtheCoyote

    Well, if I thought the only value in the Bible was its contradictions, it would indeed be no better than any other book. But I think the reason its contradictions are so interesting is partly because they are all works by people trying to better understand God, or teach the understanding they have. As to people being hurt by actions “justified” by the Bible, I think that lies on the people who’re causing hurt – if it was not one text they were leaning on, it would be another. Mankind is fallible.

    Why read, rather than just look at the world – because there is worth in the Bible. The thing about it having multiple facets is that it gives us more angles to look at – they don’t cancel each other out, just provide more context, more ideas. Also because – this is where I disagree heartily with Jefferson – even the stories that aren’t taken literally are still useful. Also, being a Christian, I am sorta heavily invested in knowing what Jesus said, even if all his disciples had different angles and opinions on parts of his message.

  • MarkTemporis

    The seventies cartoon ISN’T? But…cat people!

  • Jim Roberts

    Lilith – or, rather, lilitu or lamia, are mentioned in the Talmud, but as just sort of a, “Don’t go into the desert, there are monsters there,” kind of thing. A whole lot gets added on in the mythology, though.

  • Carstonio

    If the Smallville producers were writing the Gospels, Jesus would spend most of the chapters performing miracles in secret while wearing a Matrix jacket. The cross symbol would be heat-visioned on buildings all around Jerusalem. And for several chapters he would be all emo and angsty.

  • arcseconds

    There is no Sargon but Sargon the Sorcerer.

    So I presume he grew up and became an energy being by the 24th century or whatever…

  • arcseconds

    I’m sure this shows the depths (shallowness?) of my illiteracy, but until this moment I had thought that quote was due to G.K. Chesterton…

  • arcseconds

    an episode that the creators disavow‽ congratulations, you’ve just interested me in watching a Voyager episode…

  • arcseconds

    bah, they’re all terrible :-P (anyone know a good ‘grumpy curmudgeon’ emoticon?)

    (I was going to say that they’re all just as bad as each other, but I’ll admit that badness comes in degrees)

    but I think Scott’s argument is powerful, no? The franchise dictates the canon (don’t they?) and they have dictated that everything from Kirk’s birth is now different to what it was earlier (haven’t they?)

  • LMM22

    My objections are:

    (1) The statement that there are people — and, even worse, certain groups of people — who should take the Rede to heart, with the connotation that if they *did* take the Rede to heart, they would specifically stop doing things that Fusina sees as hurting others.

    (2) The statement that the Rede even does anything useful. Something vague like telling you not to harm people doesn’t do that — because the consequences that you consider and the consequences aren’t dictated by internal beliefs but rather by the ways that you’ve been raised to think about actions.

    Your final statement says that the Rede doesn’t even object to doing things that harm people — all it does is say you should feel free to do anything that doesn’t. Which, you know, makes it completely useless except in regards to a counter-culture philosophy opposing a culture that objects to acts for random reasons.

    Most cultures, for that matter, rationalize a lot of their taboos in ways that make sense to them — and they explain away a lot of seemingly-harmful acts in ways that make it sound like they’re *not* harming people. Foot binding, for example, was needed to get your daughter a good marriage. (Really. It stopped in part because Christian groups founded societies where families pledged that they would marry their sons to girls with unbound feet.) If virginity is valued in your culture (or if birth control is limited or if STDs are rampant), then having premarital sex with someone else *could* harm both of you — and that’s something that I’m sure a lot of parents would point out to their children. Hell, include “harm” in the form of “setting a bad example for your family” and you can object to just about anything.

    So the Rede is flat-out useless.

  • arcseconds

    Also, a pox on your FORTRANisms :-P

    Everyone (including logicians (‘=’ is the standard symbol for identity in the predicate calculus)) who isn’t soaked to the gills in FORTRAN or its bastard children understands ‘=’ to mean identity.

  • Carstonio

    I was told years ago that Lilith was originally canon and that Eve was a retcon, with the allegedly original version of Genesis presenting a parable for what the culture viewed as desirable and undesirable traits in women.

  • fencerman

    And here I thought this was going to be about “The Wretched of the Earth”

  • http://godofevolution.com/ Tyler Francke

    Great article! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. You inspired me.

  • Bad Horse

    The idea that Christianity forbids polygamy (or slavery) are both pure fanon.

  • swbarnes2

    We’re talking about the same Bible that describes God killing the son of the prisoner and the son of the slave girl, and all of Job’s wives and children? You truly believe those stories help you better understand God? I’m guessing you believe those are not accurate descriptions of God’s work, but saying that the Bible is in places absolutely wrong about the nature of God is a problematic assertion, not to mention hard to justify with evidence.

    Look, both you and the homophobic bigots are trying to use the Bible to understand God, right? You just think they are doing it not quite right. Looking at verses A, B, C, when they should be looking at verses X, Y and Z, but you agree that overall, figuring out God by reading this 4000 year old text is the right approach. I’m saying to look at the world and not look at ANY verses at all. You are already using your moral judgment in place of Exodus and Job, right? So why not just do that for that whole text, and all texts?

  • Foelhe

    “The statement that there are people — and, even worse, certain groups of people — who should take the Rede to heart, with the connotation that if they *did* take the Rede to heart, they would specifically stop doing things that Fusina sees as hurting others.”

    I agree that there’s no point in calling out specific groups, but if a person’s causing harm, telling them not to cause harm is pretty worthwhile, I’d think.

    “The statement that the Rede even does anything useful. Something vague like telling you not to harm people doesn’t do that — because the consequences that you consider and the consequences aren’t dictated by internal beliefs but rather by the ways that you’ve been raised to think about actions.”

    Two points I really should have made earlier in the conversation:

    1. Cultural differences are not the only reason people cause harm. Sometimes they cause harm because they’re self-centered, or are being oblivious when they should know better. Reminding someone that, hey, maybe you shouldn’t be selfish, maybe you should pay more attention to what you’re doing, that can be a necessary thing.

    2. Cultural differences are not insurmountable. If I don’t think I’m causing harm, but someone else does, I am perfectly capable of talking to the other person, figuring out why they think I’m causing harm and seriously considering what they have to say.

    At its best, the Rede – much like any creed for that matter – is about awareness. It’s a reminder that harm is something you need to watch out for. When people are willing to think about harm, and what constitutes harm, they’re less likely to cause it.

    “Your final statement says that the Rede doesn’t even object to doing things that harm people — all it does is say you should feel free to do anything that doesn’t. Which, you know, makes it completely useless except in regards to a counter-culture philosophy opposing a culture that objects to acts for random reasons.”

    Yeah, somehow I don’t think the word “harm” was tossed into the Rede just for kicks. Seriously, it’s a six-word sentence, a lot of Wiccans consider it the underpinning of their religion, I don’t think half the sentence is supposed to be completely arbitrary. It’s just not absolute.

    The point, again, is awareness. Are you causing harm is the first half of the rule. That’s the question you need to start with. And yeah, it doesn’t explicitly spell out exactly what harm is or how you should handle it if you are, because those questions aren’t easy. But asking them is still the place to start.

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    Heh. It’s kinda funny, when I wrote that comment I initially said “Even the stories that aren’t meant to be taken literally, like Jonah or Job (though Job still creeps me out) are useful,” but left it out as irrelevant.

    No, I have absolutely no way to justify the point in Job, even while believing it is allegorical/figurative. That book gave me nightmares as a kid, taken literally, and I am no more comfortable with it as an adult. Likewise with most or all of the stories that have God as a cruel, jealous dictator snarling down and stomping those who don’t toe the line.

    Looking at verses A, B, C, when they should be looking at verses X, Y and Z, but you agree that overall, figuring out God by reading this 4000 year old text is the right approach. I’m saying to look at the world and not look at ANY verses at all.
    I think we need to do both. I think we need to read verses X, Y, and Z, and then use our conscience and judgement to figure out what they are saying. Because there is truth there, and God is speaking through the text. Just… not always in the expected or obvious ways.

  • Moustache De Plume

    I frequently need to refer to stories and imagery from William Blake and Dante’s Inferno as “fanon” when trying to discuss the bible with Christians. It is…frustrating.

  • Makhno

    Pseudo-Berossus and his followers are amazing – an attempt to harmonise the basically every myth they could think of. So Samothes, the first King of the Britons before the giants showed up to be conquered by Brutus the Trojan, is the son of Japheth. Noah and Janus are the same person, the Titaness Rhea is his daughter, Isis and Osiris are *her* children and Dionysos their stepbrother.

    Various eponyms of European peoples appear in this genealogy – Tuyscon, ancestor of the Tuscans, is an otherwise unknown son of Noah; Francus, ancestor of the Franks, a son of Hector; Belgius, ancestor of the Belgians, a descendant of Hercules; Allobrox, ancestor of the Allobroges (a southern Gaulish tribe), is a nephew of Dardanus, founder of Troy. And so it goes on…

  • swbarnes2

    If there’s truth in X, Y and Z, don’t you have to admit that there might be truths in the homophobes’ A, B and C too? Don’t you have to admit that there might be truth in the descriptions of God’s behavior in Exodus and Job? Sometimes, true things are really, really unpleasant. How can you be sure that God isn’t saying things that you really, really, don’t want to think are true? Maybe Job is an accurate description of how God works.

    You have some other scale by which you measure the truth in X, Y and Z, right? Why not just apply that scale to the world, instead of applying to to a text, and then applying the text to the world? You’ve already set aside some of the text, right?

    How about this: It’s not that the world happens to match the true parts of the Bible. It’s that the Bible is only right which it matches the world. So why not just look at the world, rather than trying to make a 4000 year old text from a culture you don’t understand, written in language you don’t speak, fit the world?

  • dpolicar

    I think we need to do both. I think we need to read verses X, Y, and Z, and then use our conscience and judgement to figure out what they are saying.

    So… hrm. Just to make sure I’m following you… today, I use my conscience and judgement to decide what I ought to do based on my observations of the world.

    If I’ve understood you correctly, you’re saying my current approach is inadequate… that I also need to read the Bible and use my conscience and judgement to decide what the Bible is saying, because God is speaking through the Bible in a way that He is not speaking other sources, and what God has to say through the Bible is important to making good decisions.

    I infer that, on your account, if I don’t do that my decisions about what to do will be inadequate in some measurable way.

    Have I understood that correctly?

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    I infer that, on your account, if I don’t do that my decisions about what to do will be inadequate in some measurable way.

    Eeeeek, no. I read the Bible because I believe there is value in it; I don’t believe that everyone must base their decisions on the same ideas or values or whatever that I do. As a Christian, I believe the Bible is one path towards God, because it illuminates certain things – but I understand that not everyone agrees, and that’s cool too. I’m not trying to say everyone should read the Bible and use that to weigh with their conscience. Just that some of us find value in it.

  • dpolicar

    Ah, OK. When you said we need to read those Bible verses, I understood you to mean “we” as in you and the people reading your comment. Apologies for the misunderstanding.

    So who is it who needs to read those verses?

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    I s’pose that was a bit arrogant of me, actually, and quite open to miscommunication. I guess I would say people who read the Bible should weigh it against their conscience, rather than “People need to read the Bible and weigh it against their conscience.”

  • dpolicar

    Ah, OK. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Allan Popa

    That’s incorrect, sorry. There were variations even within the Vulgate as well very many other Latin Bibles being used throughout the Medieval period. Standardisation was only ever possible with the invention of printing technology. I’ll give an example, Codex Complutensis I contains the epistle of St Paul to the Laodecians after the Epistle to the Hebrews and it contains 4 Esdras it dates back to 10th century Spain and is a Medieval version of the Vulgate. Another, the Codex Sangermanensis I, another Vulgate dated to the 9th century in France, contains the Shepherd of Hermas, it contains the Apocalypse before the Pauline epistles and has some quite interesting variations in the Gospel of St Matthew. Codex Gigas is another famous example, as well as containing the OT and NT (including the Deuterocanonical books), it contained between the two testaments the work of Josephus and the medical works of Hippocrates. This codex dates to the 13th century and contains non-Vulgate Latin. Canonical standardisation simply was not a reality in the Medieval world and we simply do not know how many variations there were, these texts however were part of the liturgies and contemplative lives of very many monastics so I would argue that it is rude to disregard their importance for framing the religious lives of Medieval people.

  • Allan Popa

    There were variations even within the Vulgate as well very many other Latin Bibles being used throughout the Medieval period. Standardisation was only ever possible with the invention of printing technology. I’ll give an example, Codex Complutensis I contains the epistle of St Paul to the Laodecians after the Epistle to the Hebrews and it contains 4 Esdras it dates back to 10th century Spain and is a Medieval version of the Vulgate. Another, the Codex Sangermanensis I, another Vulgate dated to the 9th century in France, contains the Shepherd of Hermas, it contains the Apocalypse before the Pauline epistles and has some quite interesting variations in the Gospel of St Matthew. Codex Gigas is another famous example, as well as containing the OT and NT (including the Deuterocanonical books), it contained between the two testaments the work of Josephus and the medical works of Hippocrates. This codex dates to the 13th century and contains non-Vulgate Latin. Canonical standardisation simply was not a reality in the Medieval world and we simply do not know how many variations there were, these texts however were part of the liturgies and contemplative lives of very many monastics so I would argue that it is rude to disregard their importance for framing the religious lives of Medieval people.

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    This was a bad debate to get into while already doing the thrice-annual* Reason And Faith Inner Doubt Festival. I guess what it comes down to is that I do not think the homophobic bigots, or racial bigots, or generally the folks who see the Bible as a tool for oppression or hatred, can possibly be right about God, or about their interpretation of the Bible. Cherry-picking verses throughout most of the text can indeed lead down a weird and labyrinthine path. But the thing is, Jesus sorta told us what the whole thing was about in two basic commandments: love God, love each other. If there’s something in the Bible that contradicts that basic statement, it’s either being misinterpreted or, quite possibly, the author of that particular text was wrong. So – no. I don’t set aside any part of the text, I just take it in context – in the specific context of “This is a collection of things which, as a whole, are designed to point you towards light and love.”

    Yes, sometimes the truth is really unpleasant. But taken as a whole, the universe generally bends towards light and towards justice and towards good. I believe this of the Bible and, to a lesser degree, mankind in general**.

    *or bi-monthly. or occasionally, daily
    **…most of the time. some days it is easier than others.

  • swbarnes2

    Did you come to that conclusion through carefully taking into account verses A, B and C? And the stories of Exodus and Job? God speaks through the Bible, remember? And the Bible says “God killed innocent women and children”, doesn’t it? If your judgment tells you what God is like, why do you need a scripture?

    Whom is it you are saying is cherry-picking? Aren’t people who use verses X, and and Z, and not A, B and C, cherry picking just as much as people who use verses A, B and C, and not X,Y and Z?

    Jesus scourged the money-changers in the temple. Loving scourging, I assume? Doesn’t God beat one of his servants in the parable of the talents? And where does Jesus say that the events of Exodus did not happen as described in scripture?

    Jesus said a lot of things, and the Bible texts themselves say many, many more. Isn’t it cherry-picking to concentrate on that phrase alone, to the exclusion of all others? Maybe you are wildly over-applying that one statement to the rest of the text, instead of listening to what God is saying in ALL of the texts, including Exodus and Job.

    So no more “It’s a mishmash of texts that aren’t supposed to harmonize” , now it’s all one whole, and you know what God’s purpose was in writing it, better than the people who lived in the culture that created it, better than the people who spoke the language it was written in? That its purpose was to lead people to something very close to 21st century Western liberalism, even though for 4000 years, no one else reading it thought it means anything like that?

    Because people around here seem to think it’s awfully suspicious when rabid conservatives think the Bible agrees with them on every point, but at least the right-wingers have the benefit of arguing from a patriarchal, authoritarian viewpoint, which was not at all foreign to cultures 4000 years ago. So one has to think that it is even more suspicious to claim that a 4000 year old set of texts is really arguing in favor of 21st century Western liberalism. Yet no one here ever seems to find that weird.

  • swbarnes2

    Let’s use a practical example.

    A woman tells you that she once invited a neighbor over for drinks…well, you know where this is going. She doesn’t scream during, and afterwards, she is so ashamed, she doesn’t tell anyone.

    So one person hearing this story uses their empathy, and realizes that having one’s consent violated is nasty.

    Someone else decides to check scripture. God speaks through it, after all, and humans are very fallible. The Bible says a lot of things, but the person uses their judgment in deciding that the verses explicitly dealing with this situation must override any more general verses that might possibly conflict, sincerely trying not to cherry-pick the verses that they wish were controlling in this scenario. So the person feels illuminated as to how to understand that particular story; it wasn’t rape.

    The second person used both their judgment, AND the Bible, and came to a different answer than the person using their judgment alone, isn’t the purpose of consulting scripture to fix errors that our judgment alone might lead us into?

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    I’m not sure what you want me to say here. Obviously, we disagree on the nature of the Bible. I agree with the point that it has many contradictions, because it was written by many authors from different backgrounds, for different reasons, in different time periods. I also believe that it holds important truths and values, but understand that not everyone agrees.

    Like I said somewhere up thread – if others have different belief systems, that’s fine. I’m not trying to say everyone needs to read the Bible and get the same things out of it. My boyfriend put it pretty well: what matters is whether or not your compass points north, not what brand it is.

    And I guess that’s where I have to look askance at what you seem to be saying here, that if one accepts the Bible to be in any manner true, one interpretation is as good as the next, and therefore a hateful one is just different from a loving one, and not necessarily wrong by the metric of “Biblical truth.” Because, quite simply, that doesn’t point north.

    So we’re going in circles, then, and have been for probably three or four comments now. You seem to be saying “If all that matters is your conscience, why bother with a Bible that contains icky/problematic/worrying thoughts about God at all? Why not just follow your conscience and forget the whole text?”

    I’m saying, “The Bible can be interpreted many ways, but the correct interpretation is the one that is not morally abhorrent.” It’s a series of texts that do not all harmonize with one another, because they cannot. They offer many views of God; I believe that some of the texts actually happened – the gospels, for example – and some are fables, or parables, or long dialogues or philosophies, like Ecclesiastes.

    But I do believe that going by what Christ actually said (yes, including throwing the moneychangers out of the temple – tell me, what part of “stop using religion as a way to make money” is icky or problematic?) (also, there is probably a servant beaten by his master in one of the parables or possibly more, but I disagree that they’re meant to be taken as a direct and perfect allegory), the compass points north. The correct interpretation is the one that does not tell you to hate and fear your neighbor.

    And no, I would disagree that it’s cherry-picking to take the two commandments that Christ explicitly said were the most important things, and use them as guidelines by which to read the rest of the text.

    If you are not willing to concede that, if you honestly believe that both a hateful and a loving interpretation are equal and valid, I’m not sure what more we have to discuss.

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    I think I answered this above, but for some reason didn’t see this reply. If one’s conscience says “Wow, this is pretty awful,” and then one looks at the Bible and comes to the conclusion that no, it actually isn’t awful at all, something is very, very wrong. If one’s conscience says “Wow, this is pretty awful,” and then one looks at the Bible and goes “…oh look, it’s a book of laws that mostly revolved around keeping an agrarian society in line with the proper hierarchies, but this is still awful,” that’s a little better.

    I’m not saying that every time one looks at the world, one must consult the Bible to think for them. That’s misconstruing the point by a lot, honestly. And hey, as usual, someone else has said it more concisely and better than I:

    I’m not entirely sure that’s true [the Bible is very clear], but it is in some parts.

    The Bible is pretty clear, for instance, that if you think you’ve got some kind of monopoly on righteousness and spend all your time resentfully obsessing over the wickedness of the Ninevites, then taking to the high seas to escape your obligation to love those Ninevites just isn’t going to work.

    Yeah. It’s not a cure-all answer guide, and I’m not trying to say it is. And I’m not really sure what you’re hoping to get out of this conversation, at this point. I’m not a particularly wise or knowledgeable Christian, and I would not claim to be such; this argument, in which I think I’ve effectively tied my own tail in a knot at least twice, is proof of that. So don’t wait for me to come up with some resounding convincing argument why my religion is, in some kind of objective and unassailable way, The Right Path. I don’t know one.

    You believe differently than I do. I don’t think it’s necessary to convince you to start reading the Bible. I just feel like maybe telling people that it’s a tool of hate, and should therefore be ignored, is kinda incorrect.

  • swbarnes2

    “I’m saying, “The Bible can be interpreted many ways, but the correct interpretation is the one that is not morally abhorrent.””

    What do you mean by “correct”? Aren’t you begging the question? If verses A, B and C of the text that God speaks through says that homosexuality is morally abhorrent, how do you get to conclude the opposite? I know how I do it, but I don’t start with the premise that God speaks through a 4000 year old text written by authoritarian patriarchs.

    The person who wrote Job thought that women and children were disposable and replaceable. You really think a correct interpretation will fix that? Isn’t it just easier to say that the author of Job was WRONG, and leave it at that? Shouldn’t a person have a point when they realize their reference sucks so badly, they should just stop using it? When section after section after section have to be laboriously ‘interpreted’ to match 21st century Western liberalism, why not just stick with 21st century liberalism?

    “But I do believe that going by what Christ actually said (yes, including throwing the moneychangers out of the temple – tell me, what part of “stop using religion as a way to make money” is icky or problematic?)”

    I find the violence problematic. Morally abhorrent, you might say. So I guess that means I’m interpreting the story wrong? I’m supposed to interpret it such that it bears virtually no resemblance to the event actually described? Do you really want to go down that road?

    If you insist on the compass metaphor, fine.

    You need to go towards magnetic north. You have paper maps, and a compass. You notice that your paper maps keep disagreeing on which way magnetic north is (they also get a lot of major and minor details of the terrain totally wrong), but your compass points consistently at the North Star (with in a couple of degrees). Now, it’s daytime, and once again, your maps and your compass disagree. Which do you follow? Will spending hours agonizing over how to interpret the maps so that they agree with the compass get you to your destination faster?

    “And no, I would disagree that it’s cherry-picking to take the two commandments that Christ explicitly said were the most important things, and use them as guidelines by which to read the rest of the text.”

    But Jesus’ loving actions included doing violence, remember? Are you interpreting those verses in the light of that pertinent example? Doesn’t that make interpreting those lines a little harder? And one is supposed to honor a god who demands praise for killing Egyptian children, remember? Don’t you have to admit it’s possible that you are greatly misinterpreting those verses? That maybe, maybe those millions of Christians throughout the centuries who interpreted those verses differently were not as wildly off the mark as you think?

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I find it very telling that when a misogynist reads the bible, they find misogyny, but not the misogyny you’d expect out of a bronze-age levant culture. And when a homophobe reads the bible, they find homophobia, but not the homophobia you’d expect out of a bronze-age levant culture. And when a slavery apologist reads the bible, they find it to defend slavery, but not the kind of slavery that was practiced in the bronze-age levant.

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    What do you mean by “correct”? … If verses A, B and C of the text that God speaks through says that homosexuality is morally abhorrent, how do you get to conclude the opposite?

    “Hmm, this verse says that (…okay, well actually there isn’t anywhere in the Bible that flat-out says homosexuality is morally abhorrent, as such, but let’s pretend there is) homosexuality is morally abhorrent. I guess I shouldn’t engage in it, then. …wait, but God is love. And mankind is made in God’s image, and this verse here says “What God hath made clean, call not thou unclean,” and that’s… really difficult to misinterpret. Welp, I’m in love with this person, and I’m gonna go ahead and say God hasn’t outlawed being in love. Fuck it, I’m proposing.”

    I find the violence problematic. Morally abhorrent, you might say. So I guess that means I’m interpreting the story wrong?

    But Jesus’ loving actions included doing violence, remember? Are you interpreting those verses in the light of that pertinent example?

    Maybe you and I just disagree on that. Because if Bank of America started setting up tables or kiosks in church, and the pastor/priest/minister drove them violently out of the church, I would give said person a standing ovation.

    Look, as I said, we disagree on this. I’m not sure what you’re going for. To find an example of a Christian using the Bible and having different interpretations of it, see also ~60% of everything Fred’s ever written.

    I suppose part of this is me being stubborn, because the fact is, there are authors in the Bible with whom I disagree, vehemently. This week’s scripture included a bit from Hebrews that I’m pretty sure had to do with those who died before Christ receiving a lesser reward. I side-eye that pretty hard. To me, it doesn’t make sense that Christ’s sacrifice covers all mankind born after the Crucifixion, but no one who was born beforehand – what about folks who died at the instant he was born? And you can find plenty of other authors out there who I’d argue with. Fred has an excellent point about Nehemiah, for example. I don’t think the entire Bible is full of beautiful truths that just need the right interpretation. I think the Bible is still worthwhile for the truths that it does have. And I’m sure there are folks who disagree with me about what those truths are, and where to find them.

    So yeah! You are absolutely right, there are texts in the Bible with which I disagree.

    I’m still not going to throw the whole thing out, because I think, for example, that I’d rather like to continue to have a book that tells me what the Son of God said. Or what people said about God 4000 years ago, because that’s still pretty useful. Sometimes disagreeing with people can be useful! Sometimes reading the texts of people you disagree with can be useful! I don’t need the Bible to be 100% literal fact, and I don’t need it to be 100% absolute moral bricks. That’s the way the fundamentalists use it. But it does not have to be the way I use it, or anyone else.


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