Monday, 28 July 2014

The "aha" moment - Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories. Part 11: Chris Keith

The eleventh invited post in Peter Enns' series comes from Chris Keith, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity and Director of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible, St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Keith describes two series of 'aha moments'. The first came when he encountered problems such as "the day of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Synoptic Gospels and John; David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21; Paul’s Hagar allegory in Galatians 4; the sexual violence and erotic language in Judges 19, Ezekiel 23, and Song of Solomon." His second series of moments came not from the Bible, but the behaviour of "defenders of hard-line views of Scripture like inerrancy, particularly certain fundamentalist systematic theologians". Not only could he not accept their readings of scripture, he found the way in which they demonised fellow believers astonishing.

The fundamentalist mind which thinks the entire Bible was dictated word for word by God is automatically going to find even the merest hint that there could be discrepancies or contradictions intolerable, which as Keith points out means that they have already approached the text with a preconception which does not take what the text actually says into account:
First, I quite simply couldn’t buy their readings of Scripture. I couldn’t help but feel they were not fully honest with me. They seemed to have predetermined the nature of the text before ever taking the text itself—and all of it—into account. 
When one text says God made David take a census and another says Satan did, well, we call that a contradiction in any other realm of communication. I also had a particular situation in a seminary class where one of the systematic theologians was talking about why it’s illegitimate to practice an interpretive stance that appreciates individual biblical authors’ perspectives without insisting that they harmonize with each other (though not all inerrantists insist on harmonizing). 
I asked why and he said, pausing dramatically and pointing a figure toward me, “Because that would deny that there is one author.” An older gentleman in the class liked what he heard and shouted, “Wow! You didn’t have to go that deep on him, Dr.!” 
I’ll never forget the precise thought that ran through my head at the time because it took everything in me to suppress it: “That’s not deep; it’s the exact opposite and a cop-out. This is a deus ex machina in action.” 
The Bible might be more than a product of human communication, but it’s certainly not less.

At the time, and still now, I had/have to believe that if there’s any truth in Christianity, it includes the idea that Christians should be honest. Too often, it seems to me that an inerrantist approach to Scripture has difficulty with the Bible we actually have in our hands.
Again, as I have said before, many contradictions are functions of a fundamentalist reading in which the text is read using a modern historiographic view, or the oral background of the text (in which there may never have been an original autograph, but several oral traditions) is ignored. However, this view of the text is one which would require fundamentalists to abandon their views, and for those whose reverence for the Bible crosses the line into bibliolatry, this may be difficult to achieve.

Unfortunately, the True Believer often comes wedded with a less than Christian approach to honest doubt and differing opinions, especially when problems with their favoured hermeneutic are pointed out. Keith continues:
Second, I was astonished at how (some) defenders of inerrancy and the like treated those who held alternative views. 
When they went through their lists of heroes and villains in class, almost all their villains were other Christians, and usually other conservative Christians. Their language for them was sometimes vitriolic, always patronizing, and almost always de-humanizing.
These enemies were not individuals with families, just trying to make the best they can of the human project in theological terms; they were heretics who needed to be attacked, branded, and outed.
Mutatis mutandis, this easily describes how some in our community who accept evolution have been treated.

Returning to the broader point of how some fundamentalists / Biblicists in our community attack those who do not share their narrow view of the Bible, it is interesting to see how community identity, rather than a strict pursuit of intellectual honesty, may well lie behind this behaviour. Keith continues:
William A. Johnson has a great book, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities, about how ancient reading practices were intricately intertwined with the reading communities’ identities. His point extends into the present. 
What a group reads and how it reads it is always hardwired in some ways into the very core identity of that group, and so I cannot adequately describe my changing views of Scripture without including the social realities in which those changes were embedded.
The fact of evolution does not affect our fundamental theology. Far from it. What it does change are aspects of the reading identity of our group, but as that relates to our group, rather than the Risen Christ, or the word of God, we should not fear changing it. And given that this identity has spawned in some fundamentalists in our community a frankly unpleasant way of dealing with those who do not buy into their fideism, it cannot come soon enough.

If we don't? Keith continues:
I took a long hard look at the reading community on display in some of my theology classes. I looked at the way they handled the text and the fruits of their reading strategies—the way they treated others who handled it differently. I wanted nothing to do with it.
If we do not abandon fundamentalism, Biblicism, YEC, fideism, science denialism, and anti-intellectualism, then we should not be surprised when more and more likewise want nothing to do with us.