Bibliolatry

bible idol

Last week I wrote a blog about whether the Bible is the inerrant word of God. This week, let me continue in that vein by looking at how the Bible has been surrounded with such an aura that the average person in the pew finds it almost impossible to make a critical study of the book.

In the email that prompted my response last week, the author of that piece of correspondence states: “The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, bears the mark of Divine inspiration.” That statement demands a thorough response. So here it is.

Many within the church practice a form of Bible idolatry, acting as if the written word is the highest authority. Now please do not misunderstand me. The Bible is an important book and should be studied. As I wrote last week: “the Bible is the source of spiritual insight and thought that is taken to levels of discernment and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced.”

By translating the Bible into the vernacular, the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century began the process of eroding ecclesiastical authority. That erosion has yet to be stopped. That same Reformation, however, also produced a Protestant tradition that no longer had a central authority such as the Pope to determine truth for all believers. Feeling the anxiety of that lack quite deeply, Protestants began to treat the Bible as a paper Pope, investing its words with the same infallibility that the Roman Catholic tradition has claimed for the Papal office, thus powerfully reinforcing the aura around the Bible even as expanding knowledge tore it away.

So the first step in studying the Bible is to navigate a pathway through this biblical aura – this bibliolatry – in order to examine the text of the Bible itself without the presuppositions of religious propaganda.

The Bible has been the best-selling book in the Western world every year since Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press in 1450. Having said that, I suspect that the Bible is also probably the least read best-selling book in human history and it is surely the least understood. It is also simultaneously the most quoted and the most distorted book. To refer to all of the words of the Bible as “the Word of God” or as “The Word of the Lord” encourages a kind of ignorant fundamentalism that sucks the very life out of Christianity today.

Let me illustrate with a few examples.

The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! (Psalm 137:9) Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would it be who would say such a thing?

The book of Deuteronomy when read literally, for example, states that children who are willfully disobedient to their parents shall be stoned to death at the gates of the city. (Deuteronomy 21:18) Is that the word of God? Would any rational person be drawn to worship such a deity?

II Samuel suggests that God will cause the baby born out of an adulterous relationship to die as punishment for the adultery of the child’s parents! (II Samuel 7:11b-16) Is that the word of God?

Leviticus tells us that people who are homosexual shall be executed. (Leviticus 20) “A man who lies with a man as with a woman is an abomination. Both shall be put to death (Lev. 20).” This is one of nine biblical texts, stretched to the breaking point to cover the visceral, uninformed prejudice that has plagued and victimized gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual people for centuries. Matthew Shepard, a young student at the University of Wyoming was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming on the night of 6 October 1998, and died six days later from severe head injuries. The reason for his violent death? He was gay. Members of the Topeka, Kansas Westboro Baptist Church, led by their pastor, Fred Phelps, picketed Shepard’s funeral with signs bearing homophobic slogans stating “God says fags should die – see Leviticus 20” and “God Hates Fags – Romans 9:13” This same group picketed military funerals with similar slogans. In response to Phelps’ protests at military funerals, President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act into law in May 2006, and, in April 2007, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius signed into law a bill establishing a 150-foot no-picketing buffer zone around funerals. There are terrible texts in the Bible and some of these texts have without doubt been used to cause great pain in the lives of many people.

But such terrible texts are not only found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but also in the Christian texts as well. The Epistle to the Colossians, for instance, instructs slaves to be obedient to their masters. (Colossians 3:2) Slaves must be returned to the life of bondage, says Paul in his letter to Philemon. The injunction against enslaving a fellow Jew is found in the prophets and the direction to Jews to take their slaves from nearby countries is stated in the Torah. Each of these texts has in the past been enlisted in the service of the human institutions of slavery, segregation and apartheid. The “Bible Belt” of the South, home of Protestant Evangelical and Fundamentalist religious exponents, the region of our nation where both church-going and Bible reading are clearly hailed as values, is the same part of our nation that first established, then protected and fought to defend slavery. After defeat on the battlefield forced these good, Christian people to end slavery, they installed segregation as the law of the land. When segregation was finally declared illegal, these same evangelical Christians employed police dogs, fire hoses, bull horns and even murder as legitimate tactics to keep segregation alive. We just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the outright horror of the “Bloody Sunday” police brutality that took place on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on 7 March 7 1965 – a bridge, by the way, that was named for a Confederate general during the American Civil War, a United States Senator, and the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. How ironic that later this bridge would become a landmark of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. I wonder how many of those Southern police, who refused to arrest the guilty and those Southern juries that refused to return appropriate guilty verdicts were made up largely of those who regularly attended their respective churches and who acknowledged Jesus as their personal savior. The Bible, they felt, justified this behavior toward those whose true humanity they could not see. Are these attitudes in compliance with “the Word of God?”

Paul writes that women should be silent in the churches. (I Corinthians 14:34) Is that the word of God? And the author of I Timothy says: “I forbid a woman to have authority over a man.”(I Timothy 2:12) or Paul again: “Woman was created for man (1Cor 11)” and “Wives obey your husbands.” (Ephesians 5) These are just a few of the texts from the Bible that have been used to dehumanize the feminine half of the human race. Are we reading in these instances “the Word of God?”

In response to the these biblical definitions of what a woman is, higher education was denied to women until the 20th century; the right to vote in national elections was not extended to women until 1920, and the doorways to economic opportunities and just wages were closed to women until fairly recently. The “glass ceiling,” a political term used to describe the seen, yet unreachable barrier that keeps women and minorities from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements has been cracked, but not broken. Even in contemporary churches, Christians still use the definition of a woman as the property of a man. In the wedding ceremony, for instance, when the question is asked: “Who gives this woman to be married to this man,” a man (usually the father of the bride) answers as if either he or the groom had or would later own the woman. Surely we need to face this dark side of our religious past, but that is not the whole story of the Bible’s history.

Words from the Bible have also been instrumental in creating a quest for learning and thus in forming the great educational institutions in the Western world. The college from which I graduated has as its motto: “I call you from darkness into light.” Those words are based on three biblical texts: John 12:46, II Corinthians 4:6, and I Peter 2:9. Those words are appropriate because that is what a college or university is supposed to do. Yet when we come to the church and knowledge has challenged religious presuppositions, the Bible-quoting church was and has been the fiercest critic of knowledge and became the persecutor of scholars from Galileo Galilei to Charles Darwin to Stephen Hawking. Historically, that college motto seems to be reversed and darkness has been preferred to light.

So we have this book – the Bible – that has permeated just about every aspect of our cultural life and at the same time has caused untold pain, suffering and horror. What are we to make of it? What are we to do with it? Can we extract the Bible’s benefits and dismiss its ignorance and its self-serving inspiration to violence? Do we accomplish this dichotomy by an act of radical surgery, such as Thomas Jefferson was able to do by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus? Jefferson’s condensed composition is especially notable for its exclusion of all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels that contain the Resurrection and most other miracles, and passages indicating Jesus was divine, thereby reducing the New Testament to 46 pages of acceptable text. Or do we dismiss it all as little more than the last vestige of a superstitious world that is no longer and then consign the God we meet in this book to the museums of human religions where this deity can take a place beside the Twelve Olympians – the principal deities of the Greek pantheon residing atop a mythical Mount Olympus, or the gods and goddesses of the fertility cults who encouraged child sacrifice and temple prostitutes during other now embarrassing stages in human development? Or can we see the Bible as an imperfect but unfinished chronicle of the human quest for understanding life, finding meaning and exploring transcendence? Are we able to see the changes in the text that moved our minds from a tribal deity who hated the enemies of the chosen people, to a book that enjoins us to love our enemies? This latter path offers, I believe, some hope.

Amazing as it may seem, these perfectly obvious questions are seldom raised in the various Christian churches and indeed are regarded by some Christians as hostile, faithless and inappropriate. In the great theological seminaries, however, these inquiries are routine and commonplace. They certainly were part and parcel of my seminary experience some fifty or so years ago. But something happens when one leaves these hallowed halls of theological training for a career as a pastor serving people who occupy the pews of our churches. There appears to be almost a conspiracy of silence about biblical knowledge. In the heartland of religious life – the parish church – newly-minted clergy are met with a Bible that has been covered with an aura of sanctity, which is so powerful that it blunts critical questions, regarding such questions not as a search for truth, but as attacks on holiness, on the Bible, and on God himself. I know from personal experience what it means to look critically at the Bible. As a rector of a parish, when I confronted and questioned the belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, I was met not only with hostility, but also with threats of parishioners leaving the parish and of withdrawing their financial support – two intimidations that scare the hell out of clergy who depend upon a vibrant and financially-sound parish for their support. Such pressures, however, did not deter me, but I did lose three important members of the parish – and their financial support – and I was reported to my bishop. Such is the price one pays for intellectual integrity.

One runs into this biblical aura almost everywhere. It is present in the propaganda emanating from religious fundamentalists such as the author of the email I received. (See last week’s blog) Television evangelists such as Albert Mohler, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell constantly refer to the Bible as “the inerrant word of God.” They quote from its pages to attack evolution, the rise of feminism, homosexuality, and even environmental concerns such as climate change. These contemporary fundamentalists have their roots in a group of Evangelical Protestants who, between 1910 and 1915 published, with the help from the Universal Oil Company of California (Unocal) and spread across the world, a series of tracts called “The Fundamentals.” This tractarian movement actually produced the word “fundamentalism” and proclaimed that the only true Christian position on the scriptures was to regard every word of the Bible as both revealed and inerrant truth.

If one looks back in history, one discovers that this mentality was present even at the time of Galileo Galilei in the 17th century when representatives of the Roman Catholic Church condemned Galileo’s idea that the earth was not the center of a three-tiered universe and that the sun did not rotate around it. In the Roman Catholic world before Galileo, the majority of educated people subscribed to the Aristotelian geocentric view that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth. On what basis did they condemn Galileo? Well, the Bible, of course. Support came from a passage from the Book of Joshua (10:12-14) in which God, in response to Joshua’s prayers, stopped the sun in the sky to allow more daylight in which Joshua could pursue his military rout of the Amorites. Additional biblical references included I Chronicles 16:30, where the text states that “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” In the same manner, Psalm 104:5 states, “The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Further, Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” These texts, the church fathers argued, were clear proof from the “inerrant word of God” that Galileo was wrong. The matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which concluded that heliocentrism (the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun at the center of the Solar System) was false and contrary to scripture, placing works advocating the Copernican system on the index of banned books and forbidding Galileo from advocating heliocentrism. Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII, thus alienating not only the Pope but also the Jesuits, both of whom had supported Galileo up until this point. He was tried by the Holy Office, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” was forced to recant, and spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest. I must add here that on 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the “Galileo affair” was handled and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Roman Catholic Church tribunal that judged the scientific positions of Galileo Galilei. Such an acknowledgment was only 360 years overdue!

This biblical aura is also revealed in other far more subtle ways. Until relatively recently, Bibles were generally printed on gilt-edged tissue thin pages inside a floppy leather cover, sometimes with a gold lettering that read “Holy Bible” on the front, all of which served to designate this book as different from all other books. The Bible was to be given the place of honor on the book shelf or to be prominently displayed on the coffee table, especially if the local pastor was making a call on the parishioner. My mother-in-law, for example, would not have any other book placed on top of the Bible for that would be a desecration. I do not know if she ever actually read the Bible, but that was her rule. I do not know what she thought would happen if, God forbid, one placed another book atop the Bible. I must confess that I did not test her to find out. These “family Bibles” were seldom opened and then primarily not to be read, but to record the family history of baptisms, marriages and deaths – what we clergy affectionately term “Hatch, Match and Dispatch” matters. This book thus served as the repository in which all of the solemn, sacred moments of a family’s transition were recorded. One dared not trifle with the content of its pages.

Biblical literalism also creeps into public worship in subtle ways. It is customary in my church to say at the conclusion of a reading, “The Word of the Lord,” but in every parish where I have served, I have instructed lay readers to simply say at the conclusion of the reading, “Here ends the reading” (or “Here ends the lesson”), instead of “The Word of the Lord.” It is a small step, but one that hopefully discourages this kind of Biblical literalism.

Some of our other traditional, liturgical customs feed this same literalism. In the worship of my beloved Episcopal Church, for example, I have to ask what are we as a church communicating to our congregations when we process into our Sunday services holding the Gospel Book high above the head as if it is to be worshipped or adored? What are we communicating when the one reading the Gospel (always an ordained person, never a lay person), proceeds to the center of the nave, led by a full complement of crucifer, torch-bearers, Gospel Book bearer, and thurifer, and goes through all kinds of physical acts of crossing oneself and making the sign of the cross on the text of the Gospel before it is read or in some places intoned? What are we communicating when, before the Gospel is read, the reader censes the Gospel Book with no less than three swings of the thurible so as to cover its words with a “mystical” fragrance? All of these practices suggest that it is the Gospel itself, rather than the One to whom the words of the Gospel point that is the object of worship.

Biblical literalism has plagued the church for centuries. It needs to be exposed for what it is. These “pious practices,” which we have so universally wrapped around the Bible, are not just, as their defenders claim, acts of devotion; they are rather practices rooted in the claims we have made for a literalistic attitude toward the Bible. That attitude reflects a form of idolatry that is called “bibliolatry.”

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