A Battle of Two Drunks

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One night decades ago I looked out my study window to see two very drunken men swinging wildly at each other, neither coming even close to landing a punch but both staggering after each roundhouse swing and nearly falling to the pavement. I find in that memory an analogy for the present conflict over the Bible.

The rise of scientific method and its impressive successes at making sense of our world set off a furor that unleashed the backlash of biblical fundamentalism. The more scientists suggested alternatives to Medieval assumptions and verities, the more adamantly fundamentalists hunkered down on supposedly absolute truths lifted uncritically from the Bible in ways that were not faithful to the Bible itself. As fundamentalism fought to justify itself, it became increasingly authoritarian and cruel. That combination of absolutism in its truths and cruelty in its unyielding judgments upon people caused a double backlash from the other side: (1) the increasing absurdity of fundamentalism’s insistence upon “facts” which were not facts but literalistic misreadings of the Bible set up fundamentalism as an easily discredited straw man some modernists attacked as though discrediting Christianity as a whole, and (2) the cruel judgments upon people in which the Bible was used to bludgeon the “sinners” drove from the churches people who were at least learning tolerance if not full-blown respect and compassion.

Yes, the paragraph above offers a very rough sketch of the series of backlashes by which we have been buffeted into our present situation with regard to the Bible, the former “Good Book” which is now alternately weaponized and demonized into either a collection of absolutized truisms (with scarcely any message left except divine authority not to be questioned) or a compilation of silly superstitions and petty prejudices. Ironically, modern critical (meaning analytical, not unfavorable) study has opened the Bible for us in ways that can enable us to understand it better than ever and to hear its truth for leading us to God and each other, to healing, reconciliation, freedom, wholeness, and life lived with hope not only for ourselves but for our endangered earth with all its people and its non-human creatures as well. Sadly, the opportunity to hear the biblical witnesses more clearly has been largely ignored by the Bible’s opponents and rejected vehemently as satanic by its fundamentalist defenders. So, now we have biblical ignorance on both sides of the battle, one side erecting absurd facts which must be accepted “on faith” and the other side knocking them down with scientific facts which are irrelevant to the actual meanings of the biblical witnesses the two sides are disputing. Hence I am reminded of the two drunken men swinging wildly at each other in the night.

So it is that people who favor science and people who favor faith continue to battle over Adam and Eve, Noah and the Great Flood, miracles, and harsh regulations in the Holiness Code within the book of Leviticus as well as some of the opinions and foibles of the apostle Paul and his successors. Meanwhile, the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, of the Great Flood, and of the Tower of Babel (to name some examples) continue to offer profound insights into our human condition in our broken relationship with God, our often denied and violated relatedness to each other, and our anxiety about ourselves, but who is listening?

More to come. I’m especially concerned about current abuses of the Bible in the service of power.

Unbelieving Fundamentalism

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For years, I have been observing a phenomenon I have come to call “unbelieving fundamentalism.”  What is that?  It’s literalistic and simplistic interpretation of both the Bible and Christian beliefs, which it accepts as standard but disbelieves, often casually but sometimes loudly and belligerently.

Here’s a sample.  For a long time, people have noticed that in the first chapter of the Bible’s book of Genesis, on the first day of creation, God separates the light from the darkness, calling the light day and calling the darkness night.  Not until the fourth day of creation does God get around to making a greater luminary to rule the day (the sun) and a lesser luminary to rule the night (the moon).  Believing fundamentalists take this strange and seemingly impossible order of things literally and defend it as though it were literal, historic, scientific fact (rather than the salvific, life-giving truth of God’s redemptive love).  Unbelieving fundamentalists also take this strange order of creation literally and mock it as supposed proof that the Bible is ridiculous and so should be discarded.

There is good theological and prophetic sense to putting off the creation of the sun and the moon until three days after God had separated the time of light on earth from the time of darkness and good reason for not deigning even to call the sun and moon by their names.  There is a strong message here of hope and encouragement to a thoroughly disheartened community of exiled Jews living in Babylon where the sun and the moon had deity status and the power of Babylon and its gods seemed unassailable, and there is rather the same strong message of encouragement to people in any time and place who feel themselves trapped and helpless against forces and systems far too powerful for them to overcome, resist, or even escape by their own strength.

But the Bible is not a science book.  It is not a good science book to be accepted and believed as science.  It is not a bad science book to be rejected and scorned.  The unbelieving type of fundamentalism is no more enlightened than the believing type, but the believing type of fundamentalism has the great advantage of being open to God and to faith in God.  The unbelieving type has only the current advantage of being able to sell many books to people who revel in belligerent ignorance as long as it mocks what others believe.