Not a lolly bar

(I should note that this blog post was spurred by discussion on another blog post, here.  I was asked there about why I believe that the creation account in Genesis is not a literal historical account, but the resurrection of Christ is.  That’s not something susceptible to sound bite answers, so I am providing the beginning of a response here and inviting further discussion to develop).

One of the criticisms often levelled at Christians – particularly those of us not at the extremely conservative end of the church – is that we “pick and choose” what to believe.  That we decide to take literally the bits of the Bible and Christian teaching that we like, and redefine or explain away those which are distasteful, challenging or incompatible with a well-informed contemporary world view.

It seems to me that this accusation rests on a couple of premises; first, that constructing a sense of the shape and content of Christian faith is an individual, rather than communal, exercise.  And second, that the understanding of much of Scripture as conveying theological (but not necessarily scientific or historical) truth is a new thing, a retreat from the progress of science and a way of attempting to preserve some credibility for a discredited faith.

Neither of those premises is, to my way of thinking, sound.  My aim in this post is to set out some explanation of how Christians go about building a way of understanding the Bible which is in keeping with a basic “rule of faith,” and some of the principles by which Christians decide how to read particular parts of Scripture literally, or to draw meaning out of the text in various other ways.  I do not have the time to set forward a full introduction to hermeneutics (theory of text interpretation); Christian hermeneutics is a rich discipline in its own right, with roots both in classical philosophy and Jewish rabbinic scholarship.  I intend to only put forward a few basic ideas and invite discussion on them.

So.  First let me address the idea that Christian faith is an exercise in picking out the bits that I, personally, like and find easy to integrate into my world view and lifestyle.  Undoubtedly, there are people who take this “lolly bar” approach, taking on board the chocolate-coated ideas about God and love and rejecting the aniseed-flavoured bits about genocide and death penalties, without a criterion much more robust than what tastes (or feels) “good.”  Some of these people end up as syncretists, some as heretics, some muddle along basically orthodox but without realising it or giving it much thought.  These, however, are not the people with whom I think my discussion is concerned, because these people are not really thinking about their faith claims (or the claims faith might make on them) in a very critical way.

For those of us, though, who do engage in critical thought about our faith, we very quickly encounter a basic reality; we do not do so alone.  We belong to a community which has had since close to its beginning agreement about the essential content of our faith.  Whatever else we have argued about (which is just about everything), the Apostles’ and (a bit later) the Nicene Creeds have been the litmus test of orthodoxy in the east and west, for Catholics and Protestants.  Churches with a liturgical tradition have kept these creeds at the heart of baptism services and as an integral part of regular public worship, because they are a guard against the picking and choosing which we might otherwise be tempted to do.  These creeds provide the “rule of faith” against which our own personal readings must be measured.  They do not seek to define every doctrine or answer every question, but they seek to set forth the essential matters against which we can measure our own ideas and readings of Scripture to see if they are in accord with what Christians have affirmed in every time and place.  This discipline – whatever other criticisms you might make of it – is the exact opposite of picking and choosing.  Here are the non-negotiables, and whoever claims to know and turn to Christ must work to accept them (you will note that the resurrection and ascension feature in both of these creeds).

So much for the essentials.  But there’s a great deal of Scripture beyond what defines the essentials, all of it (Christians believe) God-breathed and useful for teaching etc.  But clearly, not all of it can be read directly as if it is dictated by God, to be understood literally and accepted unquestioningly.  (And if you want to argue about that, have a look at Psalm 137:9 and its celebration of the violent death of infants; and get back to me about how you understand that).  So how does one decide how to understand a given text?  (Note: for this part of the discussion as well, the answer is always – partly – not alone; we are in a community of faith; we read, study, reflect, live and grow together and our understanding can never be idiosyncratic).

– Genre, genre, genre.  What type of text is it?  Is it a song, a poem, a letter, a historical record, a satire?  What are the conventions for that genre of text?  For example, the conventions for poetic expression are very different than for a military report.  “The Bible” is in fact a collection of many works (many of them composites of older texts), written at different times, in different cultural settings and languages, and these works are in a large range of genres and conform to very different conventions of expression.  Identifying the genre of a text and the conventions that pertain to that genre helps the reader to “decode” the meaning of the writer.

– Context, both of the writer and his/her concerns, and of the events recorded in the text (sometimes described as its Sitz im Leben).  For example, the Sitz im Leben reflected in much of the book of Job is that of a legal dispute; the imagery and conventions of speech used place Job as the accuser in an ancient trial, in which he calls on God to answer as defendant.  This presentation of the question of suffering as an ancient courtroom drama is an interpretive key for the reader.

– How does a particular text relate to the “big picture” of the essentials of Christian faith?  If we take a verse about killing infants, do we give that higher interpretive priority than the verse that says that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance?  All Scripture might be God-breathed, but each Scripture needs to find its place within a clear theological framework.

– Other relevant information.  Are there textual variants, and if so, what do they suggest about how the text might be read?  What do other literary or historical sources tell us about a text?  Do they shed light on its sources, its composition, its dating?  Do they confirm or challenge its account of various matters?   How does all of this affect how we make sense of what the text has to say about God?  (This is also where – for example – scientific considerations might come into play.  The “two books” principle – that God authored two books, that of nature, and that of Scripture, and that, since God does not lie, if interpreted correctly they cannot disagree – is a useful starting point for reflection on these matters).

– Reception of the text.  Why was this text included in the canon of sacred Scripture?  What did the earliest Jewish and Christian communities value it for?  How have scholars in various traditions understood the text?  Has it been read universally as a literal account, or has it been read typologically, anagogically, tropologically or in other non-literal ways?  What reasons have scholars given for their readings of it, and how do their readings accord with all of the above considerations?

And so on.  That’s really just a very quick run down, off the top of my head, of some considerations in a very complex area.  I hope that what it demonstrates is that a robust Christian faith is a disciplined intellectual endeavour.  It takes hard thinking, it takes education, it takes dialogue, it takes costly integrity, it takes humility and the willingness to be wrong and the openness to being corrected.  What it is not, is a sojourn at the spiritual lolly bar, picking and choosing on a whim.


4 comments on “Not a lolly bar

  1. Hannah says:

    A very interesting post. I was reminded in church today of the money lenders in the temple (John 2) and i was thinking of how easy it would be to revise our worship so it fits us more, is more convenient, makes us happy etc. But it would all be a facade if it was not what God wanted. Essential to base our faith on the Word.

  2. I’m the one nattering at paidiske about cherry picking on the other blog. This is a long comment. I understand if you haven’t the time to respond to it all. I would hope that you would address at least some of it.

    I’ve been a Christian and have been observing Christians. It has been my observation, backed up by examples, that each Christian has either constructed faith in their image, or have found a sect that does the same. In this way, Christianity has become in the image of the believers rather than the other way around, be it individual or communal.

    I don’t find it to be a new thing that Christians pick and choose what they like and don’t like about the bible. That starts as soon as Christians introduce a messiah that doesn’t fit the prophecies in the OT and changes again as soon as JC is out of the narrative and we have the search for new audiences in progress with Paul, et al. We also have the early church “fathers” disagreeing on what parts should be considered literal and which should be considered figurative. This is reflected in the discussions that believers have today in how their god should be defined, going from the very literal, existential, human writ large version to omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent but still very human to the “ground of being” vaguery that has been conjured by believers who do not like the problems the Bronze/Iron Age god described in the bible brings to the discussion.

    The progress of Christianity has been from belief in a god that walks and talks with humans, that creates clothes for them and finds the bodies it created suddenly offensive; a genocidal god that demands obedience to supposedly divinely given laws; a god that has decided that those laws weren’t really want it wanted (but it wants people to still follow them) so it will sacrifice itself to itself to save humanity from the rules it decided on; to a “force” that started the universe. Add to this is the particular Christians’ acceptance or lack of acceptance of evolutionary theory; which has progressed from humans were made literally from dirt (where some are still stuck), to the gradual acceptance of some parts of evolutionary theory as the evidence became too hard for some to ignore, to again a more deistic god that is essentially hands off. Looking at this, it does indeed seem that Christians have retreated from their beliefs and changed those beliefs that each generation claims as the ultimate truth. A common excuse offered is that it’s the humans’ fault that we don’t understand this god “correctly” and that’s why the story must be constantly changed. This might be the case if one assumes that this god is less than the omni-max god claimed and for some reason can’t get its message through. That would require quite an alteration in what Christians claim their god is.

    It seems that you are trying to claim that all Christians follow your way of understanding the bible, or at least that all true Christians do. The problem with this is that all Christians do not agree and there is no way to determine which, if any, of you are correct as each of you claims you are. As it stands, there is no more evidence to accept a literal creation than there is to accept a literal resurrection of a man/god, accompanied by the walking dead, magical earthquakes or magical sky darkening.
    Each sect of Christianity claims that they use the correct hermaneutics, the correct interpretation of the bible, etc. That it is drawn from older methods doesn’t make it any more true.

    What you call a “lolly bar” (what is a lolly bar?) approach is what I would call a “salad bar” approach, picking and choosing what you like and leaving the rest. Each Christian decides what their god “really” wants or “really” intended. Some Christians do indeed want only the sweet bits, a omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god that never ever did anything that the believer doesn’t approve of. Some Christians love the bitter, hot, hateful parts that allow them to say that anyone who doesn’t believe like they do will be damned to eternal torture, that the genocide of certain people was deserved, and who rely on a “might equals right” view of the world. Some Christians believe in predestination, some in free will. Some that this god will eventually “save” everyone, some that this god only will take them since they are the “elect”.

    Each Christian claims that those “others” are heretics, or syncretics or some other term that indicates that those “other” Christians are somehow wrong. Unfortunately, the Christian cannot show how they are right any better than the rest. It’s very easy to claim that anyone who doesn’t agree with you “people are not really thinking about their faith claims (or the claims faith might make on them) in a very critical way.” They would say the same about you, and I as an atheist just see a group of people who are insisting that their version of their imaginary friend is the best.
    Those creeds and your supposed litmus tests of orthodoxy (a claim that every Christian makes for their version) have not at all guarded against picking and choosing what you want out of the bible. We still have Christian sects that don’t follow the Catholics or the Protestants and who are quite sure that you are wrong and they are right. You present your “rule of faith” as some unalterable truth and we know that this is not the case since it is not agreed on either. Those creeds were changed in some very basic ways over the years and of course the Christians of each time period are sure that their version is the only “right” one. Christians have merrily murdered each other over such nonsense.

    This “rule of faith” is not a discipline if each Christian sect interprets it differently and they do. It has only led to more picking and choosing.

    You claim “non-negotiables” but that is only in your opinion. Not every Christian follows these, as you would have others believe. For instance, the Apostles Creed doesn’t mention anything about JC being divine. That certainly isn’t what most Christians believe, but some do and use this creed exclusively not using the Nicene creed. Then the Nicene creed comes along, after what we know was a contentious politically influenced argument that resulted in splits and banishments and worse, and declares that JC is indeed divine and goes on to create the idea of the trinity, which was not always in Christianity. We also can see that the words are changed to either enforce or ignore the claims of the Roman Catholic church, in that all sects consider themselves “catholic” e.g. universal, orthodox or “true”.

    I do agree that Christians claim that not all of the bible can be read “directly”. They differ on what parts can and what parts cannot. The bible claims that much of it is indeed directly dictated by this god and should be accepted unquestioningly. There are parts that the author says that he is directly inspired by this god. Should we doubt him? Indeed, how is one to decide how one is to understand a given text? You offer the claims of hermaneutics, etc and again, other Christians claim the same thing and apply it to other parts of the bible than you. Considering Psalm 137:9, one can consider it in the context of the psalms which is a book of praises of your god written by unknown authors at widely differing times and there are different versions of the book depending on the sect. This particular praise is the writer referring to the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon, and hoping that Babylon will suffer because of it, that the children from Babylon will be slaughtered by being dashed upon rocks. It also says that the author and anyone who kills these children will be happy because they will be taking revenge upon the children for the slavery that they endured. The preceding praise is how great god is “his love endures forever” and the following praise implores this god to remain at the side of the author. If one considers it in the context that this god punishes people for sins not of their own and that it requires genocide of people (men women and children, but maybe not virgin girls) who are in its “chosen” peoples way, then it makes sense that the author is sure that killing children is okay with this god.

    You try to validate your version of Christianity by claiming that you come to your conclusion as a “community”. To me, that seems to be an appeal to popularity, that if a bunch of people agree, then it must be more “right” than something that is “idiosyncratic” or limited to one or few people.
    People differ in what they think is a song, poem, letter, etc; especially if it should be considered historical. The bible is indeed a collection of many works, and again, there is no agreement on what is what amongst Christians. One does have to consider them in the historical context of the authors. For the bible, I find the question “did they believe in magic?” to be one of the integral ones. If they did, and we can see that they did, there is no reason to assume that they “didn’t really mean” it when they wrote about a god magically creating humans or the universe. We have the same claims of magic from other religions from the same times and we have no one claiming that the people believing in them weren’t “really” thinking that the claims were true.

    For instance, we have the claims of the book of Genesis. These read no differently than the claims in the gospels. To a modern person with access to the evidence the sciences have revealed, the claims in Genesis sound ridiculous, as primitive as the creation stories in any religion. They then decide that, rather than accepting that those people really did believe in magic, those people must have really been writing in metaphor and thought just like the modern people do. Then you can pretend that your beliefs have been around a long time and are good because of that (an appeal to tradition), and you can ignore the problems with the religion since it gets things completely wrong about how the universe really was formed since you wish to believe. The same thing happens in the story of Exodus; it also reads like the gospels. There is no evidence of any of it, and the idea that it is true has even met with disrepute with some theologians. As my friend John Zande has found, even Jewish leaders don’t consider it true anymore. But at one time, people did and people still do, despite the lack of evidence. Is Exodus a history? Doesn’t seem like it. Is it a metaphor? The question becomes for what? It is just a legend? Then why isn’t the story of JC able to be considered a legend since it has as little evidence to support it as the story in Exodus? People use their magic rings to “decode” the bible in many ways and it changes over time and depends on what the person wants their god to say and support.

    Are you saying that the story of Job is nothing more than a story, paidiske? That Satan didn’t chat up God and that your god didn’t say it was okay for what is supposedly the ultimate evil to do whatever it wanted to do, as long as Job himself wasn’t directly murdered like his family? I can go with that, but again, we can make the same argument for the stories in the NT, that the story of Jesus Christ was a classic hero’s journey and isn’t about real events at all. Same with Paul’s supposed conversion. Same with Revelation where it’s not a prophecy of your god returning but a revenge fantasy about Rome.

    Since there are few things Christians agree on, there are no “essentials” to relate the text to. You may assume your version is the “essentials” but I know that is not the case with all Christian sects. There is no one clear theological framework, there are many. For instance, if one believes in predestination, that would cause a very different interpretation than those who assume a god that is concerned with free will. There is no reason to not give equal interpretive priority to the verse about god approving of murder than there is to the verse that says Jesus came that we might have life. I can understand why you would like to give one less and the other more but if everything is from your god, as your bible says, then there is no reason to other than you don’t like one verse and like the other.

    There are other Christians who are sola scriptura and who are quite sure that they are right and you are wrong with your consideration of other texts and other variants. We do know that other sources directly contradict the claims of your bible, and offer other events happening in place of the those claims. If you find contradiction and evidence compelling, there is no good reason to accept any of the bible. We know that the bible does not tell the truth, presenting misinformation regularly. It appears that your god does indeed lie if it knows the correct answer and did not present it in this bible of its inspiration. Since we can find no evidence in nature for it, there is no reason to think that one can “correctly” interpret the bible by trying to make it fit reality. This is quite a form of retconning, to make a story fit the facts you now know, by trying to redefine words and what the author “really” meant. I do agree that one should believe in reality, and it says that your bible is nonsense. If you wish to invoke magic to allow your resurrection story to work, then you may as well say this “book” of nature is wrong too.

    We know that the creation of the bible was not a clean process. There is no reason to think that certain books were included for a divine reason and some weren’t. Indeed, right now we still have sects who have different versions of the bible, some with more books, some with less. We do know that various sects read some parts as literal and some parts as metaphor, with no rhyme or reason other than what they like.

    That there is so many ways to supposedly read the bible, tropological (by what one thinks of what god wants morally), anagogically (what is meant spiritually, with claims of “invisible facts”), allegorical, typological (assuming that the OT predicts the NT), it makes one wonder why one should assume that the authors didn’t literally mean what they wrote, and why some methods are applied to some text and not others. Again, it seems that there is lots of picking and choosign going on, by saying that the resurrection story simply *must* be literal, and can’t be interpreted by any of the non-literal methods. For instance, why not say that the JC story is allegory and not real at all? Well, I do know that it would utterly destroy the idea of getting a reward for believing in a certain way. It would leave the decent and humane parts of the bible alone because one doesn’t need a blood sacrifice to learn that one should treat others the way one wants to be treated.
    Again, paidiske, you seem to want to claim that anyone but you doesn’t have a “robust Christian faith” and that those other Christians (and anyone else who disagrees with you) are not hard thinkers, that they are uneducated and undisciplined, that they have no integrity, that they are arrogant, that they are not willing to be wrong and that they are not open-minded. That’s what all Christians say about each other and about everyone else who doesn’t agree with them. That is unfortunate and in many cases flat out wrong.

    You may have not picked and chosen yourself, paidiske, but you’ve had others pick and choose for you. You declare that they are right and as above, have nothing more than the others.

    • paidiske says:

      I’ve just come back from three days without internet and have a tonne of stuff to catch up on, so don’t have time for a long reply to this now. I think, from a quick read, the key issue to address in your long comment is the question of “magic,” and I will give some thought to that and perhaps write a further post on it.

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