01 March 2008

Fundie Friday -- The Bible

Sorry I've been away for a couple of weeks, as I've been busy at work latey and thus have had little time to think. I've also been battling a bit of depression (hopefully seasonal) and just a general ill-feeling (which I'm hoping is a simply viral or bacteriological infection that my immune system can dispose of soon). I missed last week's Fundie Friday, and this one will be a day late, but I haven't forgotten them, and as my way of doing penance (ha!) I'm going to be tackling a big topic today.

The Bible.

(Almost makes me want to stick a "booklog" tag on this thing... hey, a booklog entry for the Bible might be really interesting...)

So anyway, my goal for today is to talk a bit about what the Bible is and how it has been viewed historically, and then to contrast this with how modern-day American fundamentalists see it.

The Bible is composed of 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament which were originally the Jewish scriptures (slightly edited and shuffled for the Christian Bible) and 27 in the New Testament focusing on the life and meaning of Jesus. It was assembled sometime in the third or fourth century AD in its current form, and around 1500 was translated into English. (The King James Version was originally published in 1611.)

Throughout most of the history of the text, most of those who would call themselves Christians were illiterate, and therefore the Catholic church relied on the education of priests to get the message out about the nature of Christian doctrine and belief. Catholic theology emphasized the Bible as a source of information about the faith, but also considered authoritative were (and are still today) the traditional understanding of Christian belief from the earlier Church fathers, and the interpretaion of the Pope, considered Christ's ultimate representative on Earth.

Then came the Reformation. Luther rejected the teachings of the Church and placed his emphasis on the Bible itself. This got passed on to the entire Protestant movement, especially to the Americas, where being an entire ocean away from Rome made depending on traditional Church heiarchy a bit of an impossibility. When modern-day Fundamentalism was born, this was made explicit -- the only authoritative work in this sense was the Bible.

Add to this a certain amount of anti-intellectualism and lack of respect for learning in general, and you end up with the idea that any person, no matter what their education and understanding, should be able to approach and gain moral and spiritual instruction from the Bible without any kind of contextual framework. Modern-day fundies believe that the Holy Spirit guides each of us in our understanding of the Bible, and that simply reading it will give us all the understanding we're trying to get.

This is important, so let me belabor it a bit more. Parts of the Bible approach five millennia in age -- the earliest parts of the Bible were written by nomadic goat-herders trying to communicate their understanding of the rules of society to each other. Despite their antiquity, they had a very complex society with a highly complex set of social rules and mores. Even the newest parts of the Bible were written some nineteen-hundred years ago, by persecuted followers of a Jewish rabbi in the Roman era. These are books written to and for a specific audience, in a very different context for today's people, even today's Christians, and expecting the same rules for living and stories to speak directly to modern people without any sort of context is to remove the entire meaning of the stories.

For instance, how many people today have any idea what a "Samaritan" is? It's something that even many educated Christians don't know, yet it is essential for understanding the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

So modern-day Fundies read the Bible with a total lack of context, with the view that any person can read it and gain knowledge of the divine. This is bad enough, but they also believe that the Bible is inerrant, i.e. completely free of defect of any kind. This is different from the primary historical view, which indicated that the Bible was merely infallible in matters of faith and practice, while details of geography, science, history might be distorted by those who wrote the texts. No, modern-day fundies believe that is the Bible claims the universe was created in six days, then that's exactly how long the universe took to be created. And if it says that forty thousand people wandered the desert for forty years, then there's no way that 39,999 wandered for thirty-nine years and 364 days.

This leads to the curious phenomenon of "proof-texting" whereby in order to prove that something is true, it's only necessary to find some place in the Bible where a sequence of words lends some credence to your position, without consideration of context or overall meaning. In honesty, proof-texting is one of those things that even fundies tend to look down on, acknowledging at least some respect for context, but it's also the sort of thing that they call accuse the other guys of doing -- i.e. if you don't agree with me it's because you're clearly just "proof-texting" instead of really understanding.

This has gotten a bit long, but all of this is just a preamble to the weirdest element of the way fundies treat the Bible. Despite their reliance on the Good Book as a sort of infallible instruction manual for the universe, despite their belief that this is a text that simply cannot be wrong, that the Bible is quite literally God explaining Himself to the universe...

...most fundies haven't read it. Many of them haven't even read a whole book of the Bible, or even a whole chapter. Instead they read it in quotations, or take the tack that the ignorant peasants of Europe in the Middle Ages did, and simply accept what their spiritual leaders tell them about the contents of scripture.

This view of the universe through the contents of a book that is not understood and in most cases not even read influences the very fabric of the way that fundamentalists view the world, and will obviously be a focus of future entries in this series. Which I hope will be a bit more timely than this one.

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