Born at the same time

Born at the same time March 20, 2021

Here is an extract/summary from Cambridge University Press, from an article by J. Albert Harrill in its Religion & American Culture series:

The study of nineteenth-century U.S. biblical exegesis on the slavery question illumines a fundamental paradox in American religious culture. The relationship between the moral imperative of anti-slavery and the evolution of biblical criticism resulted in a major paradigm shift away from literalism. This moral imperative fostered an interpretive approach that found conscience to be a more reliable guide to Christian morality than biblical authority. Yet, the political imperative of proslavery nourished a biblicism that long antedated the proslavery argumentation and remains prevalent in American moral preaching. The nineteenth-century desire to resolve this paradox led to important innovations in American interpretations of the Bible.

This is an academic article, so the title is almost as long as that extract: “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Phew.

The subject here is what I’ve been discussing under the label of “The 1611 Project.” Translated from academic-speak, it’s the way that the politics of slavery — the politics of defending and promoting slavery — seized on and developed and weaponized a particular way of reading and interpreting the Bible. This literalistic, proof-texting approach with its hostility to deeper interpretation and to scholarly biblical criticism, came to dominate white Christianity in America specifically because it was useful for the political purpose of defending, promoting, and justifying slavery. It was — and is — an essential, influential political tool for preventing any other form of “Christian morality” or Christian conscience from challenging injustice.

That’s what it does. That’s how it does what it does and that’s why it does what it does.

Harrill notes that this form of literalism and biblicism “long antedated the proslavery argumentation,” but I think that can be misleading. Yes, this literalistic proof-texting anti-hermeneutic — what I sometimes call “concordance-ism” — was around for a long time before the Bible debates of the 19th century, but then slavery and its political defense was also around for a long time before the 19th century.

And literalist biblicism did not “long antedate proslavery argumentation” because it never had the opportunity to do so. It was not possible for Christians to say, “Open your Bible and read it for yourself. Chapter and verse. The meaning is literal and obvious” until certain conditions existed that had never previously existed in the first 15 centuries of Christianity. In order to “open your Bible and read it for yourself” you must first: 1) have a copy of the Bible, 2) in your own language, and 3) be capable of reading it. And none of those were the case until after Gutenberg’s printing press began to catch on and the Bible began to be translated into various languages — including English — and those translations then became popular and widely available throughout a literate population of Christians.

Yes, literalist biblicism arose as soon as it possibly could have, right around the time that all of those conditions came to be true and it first became possible for it to arise. Which is to say that it arose among European Christians at almost precisely the same time as those European Christians had just begun colonizing the world and enslaving people.

The attempt to defend slavery and to redefine Christian morality to accommodate it was born at the same time as literalist biblicism. They’re conjoined twins.


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