Monday, 26 October 2009
Bible Study: A Very Confusing Book Indeed
Bible studies finished last week with humanity prostrating itself before the Bible in awe at how ruddy bloody amazing it all was. This subservience to the text meant that any queries about an odd passage of writing, or laws that were already out of date, could be dismissed with the idea that puny human language had splintered under the divine impact of God’s power. Reading the Bible literally was like looking at just the face but not the heart, seeing a flat land but ignoring the majestic mountains that surround it.
And if that didn’t work, a quick clip round the ear with the command to stop bloody thinking so much and get prostrating yourself before it.
All this interpretation and prostration led to, naturally, some odd interpretations to please God, such as Europe’s first act of communal cooperation as it crawled out of the primordial Dark Age sludge: the First Crusade. Quoting Jesus as literally as you possible could: “anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” the crusaders, in a bizarre act of love for their God, hacked a few thousand Jews and Muslims to pieces.
Jews in the meantime, when not being attacked by eager to please Christians, were struggling with the two concepts of a God: one who walked, talked, sat on a throne, got jealous, angry and changed his mind…often and without much warning; with a god that was timeless, impassable, didn’t care about mundane events (such as prayers and other tedious business), didn’t create the cosmos because the cosmos and God were eternal.
A struggle that anyone who has contemplated the Abrahamic God will be more than familiar with.
Then came Martin Luther and the noble if not controversial idea that has shaped much of our religious landscape: sola scriptura, the idea that scripture alone is the guide to God’s will and in turn that the Bible can be digested alone, without guidance by anyone else. This gave everyone the right to interpret the ancient and complex documents how they saw fit, which in turn led to the vast raft of Christian sects we now have (there are some 20+ main branches of the faith but each of these has many offshoots), this religious liberty is indeed problematic
Sola scriptura is about the reader making annotations in the margins, erasing the traditional divine gloss and making it a living, breathing, personal document. At first, this method spearheaded by Martin Luther was Jesus-centric to an absurd length, famously leading to his ninety-five theses nailed to church doors and the rift with Rome, the word of the Bible versus sacramental tradition: “a simple layman armed with scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it”. Humanity no longer is looks up to the Bible but stands side by side with it, a comrade in life’s battles and a fundamental switch in how the Bible is perceived and used; it is now the tool of the many.
The came John Calvin, who sought a middle ground less fundamental than Martin Luther, one based on the concept that the large swathes of the Bible that didn’t mention Jesus were just as important, a re-connection with the Old Testament. Less edifying stories were seen as steps on a long path and did not have to be explained away with allegory and exegesis. Calvin also pushed the idea that the ever-burgeoning field of study called science was not contrary to religion but an extension of it. And if you seek scientific knowledge, you do not turn to the Bible but to scientific thought.
The world’s galloping modernisation was progressive and empowering but with it came an inbuilt intolerance towards religious extremism, so in 1620 a party of English settlers travelled across the Atlantic. The English puritans, radical Calvinists, were following the exodus mythology in the Bible, finding a mandate in the bible to repress the Native Americans, all the while seeing their exodus as a precursor to the last days…which so far haven’t come of course but more on that in the final edition of Bible Study.
What was established, in what became the United States of America, sums up many of the contradictions of the Bible. A single text that can be interpreted to serve diametrically opposed interests, from African slaves embracing the same exodus narrative of liberation against their Christian owners, who in turn claimed the Bible’s lax attitude towards slaves as justification for their actions. And from this Biblically justified rising up of the slaves against their owners came one of the most distorted Christian cults, the Klu Klux Klan who used the Bible to justify lynching.