Category Archives: biblical literalism

Christianity as its Own Worst Enemy

Evangelical Christianity is its own worst enemy.  Feeling their faith is being threatened, they have hitched their wagon to a man who can even be thought of as an “anti-christ” of sorts as he is the opposite of anything that Jesus taught.  These Christians feeling of socio-economic powerlessness has pushed them into seeking political power and they found a spokesman in Donald J. Trump.  But faith, certainly including the Christian faith, is not something that can be threatened if its focal point is the personal dimension of spirituality, not the ideological.  This phenomenon of the Christian teachings is termed the “Personhood” of Christ which, if kept from being itself merely another cold, sterile idea, can lead to an internal, “personal” experience not dependent upon ideology and dogma.  Obsession with ideology and dogma keeps any experience of anything from taking place.

But the ego, termed “the flesh” by the Apostle Paul, is always ready to co-opt our spiritual impulses and accomplishes this purpose by turning the teachings of any spiritual teacher into dogma. The ego’s inroad into many people’s spirituality is through the intellect, particularly in the West where the rational is overly emphasized to the neglect of the affective domain.  The ego is delighted with a cognitive-based faith system as it finds the human mind easy prey upon which to work its dark, self-serving magic. When the dogmatic emphasis predominates, everything about the spirituality is kept in the mind and “worship” consists of some version of a repetition compulsion with words and ritual, usually including guilt-ridden do-goodism.  When this spiritual edifice is threatened the ego instructs the individual, and the group, to merely rely more feverishly on this repetition compulsion.  This addictive behavior is desperate as with all addictions the point is to keep one away from recognizing one’s inner emptiness which, according to the teachings of Jesus, is where “fullness” is found.

God does not reside in ideas or “Christian” behavior though both are necessary components of spirituality if they are seen merely as a means to an end and not an end in themselves.  The ego’s domain of ritual and ideas is the Pauline “letter of the law” and the Apostle emphatically declared that the “letter of the law killeth.”  And when this situation predominates in a culture, it is the seed-bed of atheism as many times, quite ironically, it is only the atheists that see through the Christian charade.

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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Biblical Literalism and Human Culture

Biblical literalism is very much related to what I see as a cultural literalism in my country.  Many conservative people, especially in Alabama at present moment, are seeing their world in such literal terms that they are oblivious to the long-term consequences of what they are doing.  Just as they approach Holy Writ only on the surface level, so they approach their daily life and the life of their community and nation only on a surface level.  They do not grasp the nuances of life and therefore the nuanced dimensions of life, unbeknownst to them, are grasping them firmly.  One might say their individual, as well as the collective unconscious exerts inordinate influence on them.

Our need to conceptualize our experience with God parallels are experience of having been conceptualized ourselves.  We first lived as an awareness, an amorphous Presence ready to soak up this substantial world and thus form an ego identity.  This state of “awareness” was what the Buddhists call the “world of 10,000 things” which is a metaphor for “a world of everything,” of undifferentiated wholeness.  The Biblical fall is the experience of being reduced to the conceptual…a thing among other things…which then reduced our Creator Him/Herself to a concept, a thing.

Spiritual teachings of all stripe are intended to facilitate an escape from bondage to this “letter of the law.”  But gaining this freedom…or even tippy-toeing near its periphery…requires an awareness of the predicament which is a profoundly existential phenomenon.  This awareness is not cognitive, though cognition is involved…somewhat…and is greatly influenced by the experience.  This experience takes place deep in the heart, in the unconscious, that, “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

Understanding this phenomenon can be transformative.  One could even say it can be, “being born again.”  Grasping this dimension of life changes our relationship with our self, with others, and with our world.  We begin to see and understand ourselves as related to all “things”, to be part and parcel of this cosmos, even part of what some describe as, “the Cosmic Christ.”  But this experience is inherently threatening to the rugged individualism of our culture which instills within us the notion, “I am the captain of my ship, the master of my soul

Yes, we are individuals but our individuality has value only in the context of our unity with all things.  This experience of the Great Round often comes to us first as the feeling of an impending threat to our sense of being a separate and distinct individual.  This threat is that of impending doom, of fragmentation or dissolution of the ego, which is actually merely the ego having its tyranny loosened and learning to live in harmony with the body and the rest of the world.

The Danger of Biblical Literalism

Bishop John Shelby Spong in “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” has argued forcefully that Biblical literalism is a fundamental threat to Christianity.  This notion is anti-thetical to everything I was taught in my youth but now as I age I find it weighing on me to join Spong…and others…in weighing in with my two cents.  Biblical literalism reflects the sin of misplaced concreteness, mistaking the symbol for the thing which it represents.  Thus the Bible, certainly Holy Writ, becomes a barrier to hearing what the various people contributing to the Bible were trying to say as well as the One we credit with writing the Bible in the first place.  The bible is used to avoid the Bible just as god is used to avoid God, and our grasp of who we are is used to avoid the inner essence, i.e. experience, of who we are.  Our culture teaches us to live on the surface, to look no deeper than the surface, and this mandate applies also to religion even though it is so convenient to think otherwise.  It is convenient, and often fashionable to subscribe to “easy believism” that doesn’t cost anything substantial yet will provide in religion a social accoutrement that many of us find necessary, much like a nice suit of clothes. It is another thing to “have religion” that penetrates into the very depths of our being, shakes us to the core, challenges our preconceptions, and brings us to the point where we can but “glory, bow, and tremble.”  Meaningful religion, in short, brings us face to face with our human-ness, including our mortality. This “easy believism” is now egregiously manifest in our culture with the throngs of conservative Christians who have pledged their troth to a political leader who is the antitheses of everything Jesus stood for.  Yes, cursed like Trump with the same inability to acknowledge fault, they “stand by their man” even as his perfidy and moral obtuseness becomes more obvious; for, to do otherwise would be to acknowledge, “Oh, well maybe God wasn’t leading me to support him.  Maybe it was just my own personal lust for power and glory.”

I want to share here the wisdom of two 20th century religious scholars who grasped this phenomenon of bibliolatry.  The first, Jacques Ellul wrote in “The Judgement of Jonah”:

…Thus obedience to the letter of scripture can be obedience to Satan if the text serves to bring about isolation and independence in relation to the one who has inspired it.  It can be a means of self-affirmation over against God in in repression of his truth and his will.  The biblical text, and obedience to it, do not guarantee anything.  They may be the best means of not hearing God speak.  (Ellul here points out that the Pharisees were) authentic believers, faithful adherents of scripture, and rich in good works and piety.  In reality everything depends on our attitude to the text of the scripture.  If I seize it, use it, and exploit it to my own ends...then I am obeying Satan under the cover of what the Bible says.

The following is an excerpt from a book about Paul Tillich, one of the most prominent American theologians of the 20th century who clearly understood bibliolatry, presenting it as taking what is merely a symbol for the “thing-in-itself.”  Here a Tillich scholar explains bibliolatry in terms of taking a “religious symbol” literally and thereby disallowing it to reveal its inner value:

The problem for all symbols, but especially for religious symbols, is that they often tend to become identified completely with that which they symbolize. In so doing they have a tendency to supplant their referents. The problem is heightened by the nature of the dual task of religious symbols, which must express not only ultimate reality but also the character of the material that serves as the symbol. The symbol must not be transparent, losing all its self-identity; instead, it must be translucent, maintaining its own character but revealing light from another source. When religious symbols become confused with the reality they represent, they become idolatrous and demonic, for idolatry is nothing other than making symbols of the holy absolute and identical with the absolute itself.” {Donald W. Musser, Joseph L. Price, *Tillich* (Abingdon Pillars of Theology)}

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Approaching the Bible as Literature

The Bible is Holy Writ.  Dismiss it, curse it, scoff at it, take it literally, take it metaphorically, don’t take it at all but it still falls culturally and historically into the category “Holy Writ.”  Therefore, it has value regardless whether or not you think so, though that “value” for you personally is for you to determine.  It might be that you “value” it not at all and if that should be the case you will never find me arguing with you.  I would have at one time but somewhere along the line I managed to “get a life.” In this blog, an evolving enterprise of mine which is gradually taking a different shape, I am exploring what the Bible and the Christian tradition is to me.  This is now a very personal endeavor as I am much less controlled by the “party line” that I was given as a child, this “party line” usually having an important role in the early stages of one’s faith.  But as the Apostle Paul put it, “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

“Holy Writ” falls into the general category of literature.  In my youth to consider the Bible as literature would have been tantamount to heresy as it would have appeared to be presenting it as “mere” human endeavor.  But approaching it as literature reflects the evolution of my alter-ego, Literarylew, which materialized when I came to understand and experience life in fluid, metaphorical terms. This means that I now have the liberty, and the courage, to see Holy Writ…and certainly the Bible…as having layers of meaning none of which necessarily have to be excluded.   Some see the Bible, for example, as a literal historical document in which a literal, concretely existing deity dictated it word for word.  I have better things to do than to quarrel with anyone who approaches it that way but I would encourage them to toy with others.

A literary approach to the Bible facilitates a personal interpretation and application of the truths being presented.  If one approaches what he reads literally, he sees it only as an “owner’s” manual and the God that I see in the Bible is not an “owner” but one who offers a relationship with Him, a relationship which facilitates more open, honest, intimate relationships with our fellowman.  If God is our “owner” then we are a mere object and we will then be inclined to see and feel ourselves only as an object and to subsequently view our world and our fellowman as an object.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

Eyes to See…that Actually See!!!

Vision is subtle and frequently we “have eyes to see but see not” and, yes, ” ears to hear but hear not.”  And it is very challenging to realize that human nature subjects us to this limitation yet without meaning, necessarily, that we are a bad person.  But if we never let the wisdom of this quip from Jesus sink in it can lead to a lot of “bad” that will emanate from the resulting unexamined life.

Those of us who were raised in a Christian culture, especially the evangelical/fundamentalist wing of that culture, are steeped in this biblical wisdom from early in our life and are taught that when Jesus comes into our life we are then given the gift of perfect vision, led by the Holy Spirit that “will guide you into all truth.”  But this is usually intrinsically self-serving wisdom and fails to consider how our faith is influenced by enculturation and “enculturated wisdom”, regardless of how noble it is, is of the vein described by the Apostle Paul as “the wisdom of the world.”  Therefore, being steeped in the knowledge acquired very clearly, as our peer group has told us that we do, we can stand smugly in the comfort this knowledge provides us. It is disorienting to say the least to realize that our faith has been largely the result of enculturation and that our “vision” is more lacking than we ever imagined.  Understanding this teaching brings us to understand the wisdom of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, “We see through a glass darkly.”  Yes, God is with us and leads us but he does so as we stumble through “darkly” vision and imperfect hearing.

Relevant to this subject, John Berger wrote a classic little book in 1972 entitled, “Ways of Seeing.”  When I discovered the book 25 years ago it grabbed me immediately even though it was written to artists by an art critic and I am far removed from either.  But at that time in my life I was very familiar with the ambiguity of life, including “ways of seeing” and readily grasped the wisdom from the eye of this art critic. Berger pointed out that seeing ultimately is not so much a deed as it is an experience as an evocation as we focus on an object and allow that object to evoke from the depths of our heart a meaningful experience.  Each of us have these interior depths though so often circumstances have confined us to the surface of life where we scurry about our three-score and ten without ever daring to venture into the deep places of the heart that hide the mystery of life.  Venturing there will force us to encounter the significance of the teaching the aforementioned teaching of Jesus that we “have eyes to see but see not, ears to hear but hear not.”

Here are the opening words of Berger’s brilliant book:

Seeing comes before words.  The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.  But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words.  It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.  The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.  Each evening we see the sun set.  We know that the earth is turning away from it.  Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

The following is a list of my blogs.  Please check the others out!

Literarylew.wordpress.com

anrrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

Theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

A Crisis of Meaning in Our Culture

Several nights ago I watched Stephen Colbert again shred the daily edition of Trumpian and Conservative lunacy and I noted that our culture…and even our world…is in a crisis of meaning.  Colbert and other comedians find Trump and his ilk easy fodder for their comic genius and provide immense pleasure for we progressives who also see the lunacy of what is going on in our country.  But watching last night’s edition of Colbert’s show and delighting in an ironic look at biblical literalism I suddenly had a flash of insight of how this would appear to conservatives.  They would be deeply offended and angry as they would take it personal, feeling that their way of looking at the world was being attacked.  I would tell them, however, that Colbert is merely showing them that their way of viewing…and experiencing…the world is only one way of many.  But that is precisely the problem; for, in their view, there is only one way of viewing the world and they just happen to be privy to that way and often God has revealed it to them!  When worldviews are challenged the threat of meaningless always presents a challenge, usually kept on an unconscious level with conscious focus maintained on some superficial concern like “building a wall” or “Making America Great Again.”

I don’t have the answer for this.  But, as an old saying from my youth has it, “It will all come out in the wash.”  In terms of history, this is but another in an endless array of “tempests in a teapot” though to us in the throes of the tempest it does look frightening.  And I do mean frightening.  I am troubled.  I think humility is in order and that requires that all of us realize that our viewpoint is only finite, regardless of how noble, enlightened, and “correct” it appears to be.  There is a certain foolishness to even our certainties, inspiring Saint William to tell us, “Life is a tale told by an idiot…”  I do not think the Bard was a nihilist but he grasped that the things we are most certain of are often proven self-serving in the long run.

Colbert used a parody of Jesus in the aforementioned episode to poke fun at conservatives and it even stirred a dissonant chord in my own heart given my hyper-conservative past in which a sense of humor was not readily welcome in faith.  But I now think that Jesus could watch Colbert’s parody of Him last night and laugh uproariously, not taking himself as seriously as Christians are wont to take him.  Many conservative Christians cannot do this, and are offended at this vein of humor, because they take themselves too seriously and are not able to acknowledge the foolish dimension of the whole of their life, including their faith and politics.  Foolishness is an intrinsically human quality though it does not lessen the ultimate nobility of the human endeavor.  But failure to acknowledge our foolishness, and laugh at ourselves, will leave us with a false sense of self-importance.  I think religion is so easily lampooned as life is intrinsically a spiritual enterprise so the Darkness that besets us knows that the best way to weaken faith is to infect the most ardent of the faithful with a false sense of self-importance and piety so that to on-lookers they look ridiculous and are easily ridiculed.  Thus, “with devotions visage and pious action they sugar o’er the devil himself” and this is apparent to all except those who are dispensing the sugar on a whole-sale basis.

“God Talk” and Meaning

I had a provocative discussion with a good friend of mine yesterday, a “local” who often reads one of my blogs who is troubled by my frequent use of the word “god.”  Furthermore, this man is one of the keenest spiritual beings I’ve ever met and he believes in the same “god” that I do…though now I know even more clearly he balks at the use of that word.  And, he’s got a point! First of all, there is the simple problem of “god talk.”  The term “god” is probably the anchor of the verbiage I like to describe as “god talk” in which the Wholly Other is tossed around so loosely and casually it might as well be a discussion of the local sports team.  “God” is a simple coin in the verbal currency of our tribe and will certainly “purchase” a lot of social cache if we adroitly toss it around in the right circumstance. But when I use this term I am not using the vulgarized common coin described above, a coin that is worn bare and devoid of any meaning, I am using a very personal “coin” which refers to the Wholly Other which can never be put into words.  Ahem.  Alas and alack, suddenly I have “talked” my way here into a conundrum as I am using words even as I suggest words have no meaning!  So, just why in the hell bother?  Why in the hell continue to drone on and on????  The only answer I have is, “Cause I want to” as I’m not smart enough to explore neurophysiology or astrophysics.  In other words, the answer lies in the very mystery of life and I’m reduced to a simple, “Cuz I wanta!”

But “I want to” and so I drone on again using this common coin “god” in part just to annoy my dear friend!  This god I believe in…and I’m going to discard the parentheses here and I’m not even going to worry about the gender of the term or the meaning of “believe.”  God is a label that I apply to an incomprehensible mystery that I’ve been drawn to since birth, or even since way before birth.  And I can’t explain that either and intend to try to do so with less frequency.  It is some primordial yearning in the depths of my being, a yearning that I believe is present in all human hearts and even in the very fabric of the universe.  This yearning seeks expression and in our ancient past one expression was some guttural cry before a camp fire which eventually was refined over the centuries into the shiny, pristine new coin in a corner of the African continent into a word which, when Westernized became, “god.”  And, yes, I think that this guttural cry of one human heart eventually did find one expression in the person of a young man named Jesus Christ….but that is a story for another time.

For some reason I’m stubbornly insistent that I continue to use the word “god” though I’m not opposed to whatever term one uses or does not use.  I think words, all words, have value and in the course of human events words tend to lose this value; these “coins” get “worn out” so that the value is hidden beneath the daily grind of common usage.  And thus, “last year’s words are for last year’s season and next years words await another voice.” This T.S. Eliot quip referred to our responsibility is to “find our voice” and use this word…and all words…to express who we are in the depths of our being and in so doing give the language into which we were born renewed meaning.  If we merely occupy the persona that we happen into and merely use the words as they are given to us by our tribe, they will only have the meaning of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals”; or, as Jerry Seinfield put it, “yada, yada, yada. yada”