07/28/13

Christians Make the Best Politicians

I watched a clip from Real Time with Bill Maher last night that featured the Reverend Jim Wallis. Maher tried to get Wallis to say that the Bible was ridiculously contradictory, and Wallis ignored the questions and emphasized how Jesus was the true hermeneutic for Christianity and that there are 2000 verses about the poor in the Bible. Maher looked like his tendentious self, and Wallis made it clear without words that he ignores much of the Christian tradition in order to further his aims.Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 2.29.37 PM

There are some similarities between this dialogue and Cornel West’s critique of Obama last week. Yes, I understand that the President is a much more powerful person and is an elected official, but the similarities are based on—to use Bill Maher’s fairly crude analogy—how many turds you’re willing to allow in the pool and still swim in it. Maher’s take is that if there are any, you don’t swim. Yet that’s not a position most people take, unless they have absolutely no vested interest in the pool. Maher obviously doesn’t have any interest in Christianity, at least none that he knows of, whereas Wallis—and if you believe the polls, most of America—clearly does. So how dirty is the pool really?

Wallis suggested toward the end of the interview that all the significant recent social justice movements have involved people of faith. Maher reluctantly agreed, and then quipped, “So why can’t we have the good stuff without the bad stuff?” While I don’t think all significant social movements have been spearheaded by people of faith, it would be ignorant to claim that people of faith haven’t been crucially involved in many of them. That is obviously the part of faith that Wallis wants to hang on to, the part that  motivates him and others to do “good” in the world.

So the question is, can we afford not to have a candid conversation about the “bad stuff” too? Wallis knows the political climate is such that he cannot be forthright about Christianity’s many failings without alienating a good portion of his constituency from the social justice work he is trying to do. I would argue that whatever good Wallis comes from Christianity is actually coming from himself, and he is finding himself, his motivation, through the foil of Christianity. Of course he would disagree. But in any other enterprise, if a product were designed to bring about the results Wallis says it is and failed per capita at such a high rate, it would be abandoned, or at least drastically modified.

In other words, if Christianity is designed to bring social justice to the world—setting aside for a moment the vast range of meaning in that phrase—and the majority of Christians who have lived have done little to nothing to advance the cause of social justice, why maintain it? Of course, it is not so easy as to simply discard one of the most historically significant ideologies of human history. My point is that although Wallis is pushing social justice Christianity, that is not the only reason he is a Christian. If it were, then maintaining his position would make no sense. We should therefore, look past his single-issue promotion of the tradition.

Wallis would point, as many do, to the great people of the tradition who have done disproportionally great things. Is it more logical, then, to suggest that these few are the only ones who really understand what’s going on with Christianity, or that their uniqueness and impact must be understood in other terms apart from their religious devotion?

Reza Aslan—a UCSB alum like myself—was part of the panel on Real TIme as well, and he attempted to mediate Maher’s critique of the Bible by suggesting that all readers interpret the Biblical text in some way, so no one is actually a literalist when it comes to the Bible. This was in response to Maher’s comment that fundamentalists aren’t fringe religious participants; they just read the Bible literally. Aslan’s comment, while very scholarly, evidences his lack of stake in the issue by missing the point. He is correct that interpretation is key, but as I have noted before, that interpretation is socially circumscribed. What this means is that it begins to strain credibility to ignore or allegorize, for example, God’s approval of mass murder on multiple occasions in the Old Testament.

However, like Obama, Wallis is too invested to commit political suicide by being completely honest about the myriad contradictions in his position. He won’t outright deny them, but he won’t admit them either. Is that the most morally pure position? No. But it is likely a more fruitful one than the one his opponents, including myself, would like him to take. I guess I’m suggesting there’s more value for the rest of us in working to change that political climate than directing attacks at important leaders for not living up to our ideals.

I would be intrigued to see someone be as committed as Wallis, who seems to know how many questionable parts of the tradition there are, absolutely denounce those portions while still committing to the “good parts,” the Jesus-y parts that motivate many people. Could such a person gain any traction? I don’t know. Anyone who tries to change the world from a religious worldview is doing so for a couple possible reasons. First and foremost, they have had personal experience with it. Second, they recognize the power of religious symbols and institutions. Thus, few of those people see the benefit of nitpicking the traditions they are relying on to spread their message. That is left to those who don’t have any significant investment.

So who is going to move? Will those who see no value in religion acknowledge the good that has been done from religiously motivated people and work to maximize the effect of those? Will religious folk openly denounce the many dirty and embarrassing parts of the Christian tradition and reject those in the hope of getting buy-in from nonreligious folks? Or is the best approach the status quo, an all-or-nothing where things are emphasized or deemphasized, hidden or exposed, but the structure remains the same?

From experience, I know that the most deeply held convictions can change, but what is beyond is unknown until experienced. Our identities are fragile, and our self-understanding about what parts are important is fairly inaccurate, I suspect. Nobody likes a politician, but we’re all politicians.

01/29/13

Talking Texts, or “The Bible Tells Me So…”

In regular communication, we use a sort-of shorthand to express how we interact with media such as texts, audio, movies, etc. Essentially, we personify it. “The movie talks about…,” “The book says…” This makes a certain amount of sense. Rather than having a meta-discourse about the author or director or actor every time we want to communicate something about their work, we refer to the work itself. This is helpful because it is simpler, but it also points to the implicit distinction we are making between the work and the creator, author, or messenger of the work. We realize they are not the same thing, yet we grasp that the message cannot be fully separated from the messenger, either.

We don’t cede complete control of the message to its creator, but we tend to align the truth of a discourse about a text or other media with its degree of coherence to the creator’s understanding or intention. Take for example the founding documents of the United States of America. Whatever party could successfully convince us of the founding fathers intentions would be thought to have the upper hand in the debate, because we assign a high truth value to the degree of coherence with “original” intent.

The step that we tend to overlook in the process of reading, watching, or listening, is our own significant role in interpretation. Our act of receiving a text must necessarily involve interpretation, and this interpretation is not passive or neutral. It is irreversibly colored by our own experience, biases, and prejudices that are aimed toward simplification and self-protection; in other words, we are designed to work in our own favor. We prefer to see ourselves as passive funnels through which messages can pass unscathed when we are in fact active workers in the process of translation and interpretation.

Why is this complicated chain of interpretation significant? Because it destabilizes the notion that we can achieve an objective understanding of a text, that we can identify, analyze, and dismiss the myriad factors that contribute to our interpretation, and the interpretations of all others, to achieve a primordial meaning. Not only that, but it also puts the lie to the idea that the text does any talking on its own. In his work Sex and the Single Savior, New Testament scholar Dale Martin describes this problem with Biblical interpretation. People tend to think that reading the Bible is a simple two-party transaction where it “talks” and we “listen.” To amplify this transaction a little more, a Christian might think that the Bible and God are essentially synonymous as far as the text is concerned, so when reading the Bible, I’m hearing from God. Then, it’s just a matter of hearing the words, right? Martin calls this the “myth of textual agency.”

The underlying concern is that this understanding of interpretation can lead to serious ethical problems. If we cede responsibility to the text, especially if we divinize the text and don’t recognize our active role in interpretation, this can legitimize bigoted, sexist, or racist interpretations that we otherwise might not tolerate. When I have presented this to my introductory classes to Christianity in the past, their heads are usually nodding at this point. They can see and accept easily how silly it was that people in 19th century America actively used Biblical texts to support the perpetuation of slavery.

When applying it to unchallenged ideas, though, students become more resistant. The idea, for example, that the Genesis account is two or more separate accounts have been sewn together with the seams hanging out and we have chosen the reading that reinforces traditional patriarchal gender roles seems unlikely. We all think, of course, that we choose our understanding of the text because it is the best understanding, rather than that it was the best understanding within a particular and dynamic context that may no longer be operative. The former entails a puzzle to solve once and move on; the latter entails an ongoing challenge to be perpetually readdressed.

01/28/13

The “Truth” of Interpretation

One of the things that has most influenced my approach to religion (and consequently, life) in recent years is the question of interpretation. We want the greatest possible support for our criteria for understanding the world. Yet in most areas of our day-to-day lives, we operate with principles that look reliable when they are radically contingent.

For example, our usage of cars as a primary mode of transportation is contingent on a number of conditions, including a well-functioning vehicle, good infrastructure, reliable road and traffic signs for interpretation, and the consistency of other drivers. Most of us don’t actively think that every passing car is going to veer into our lane. However, it could happen at any time, and when it does, we are surprised. Do we have any reason to be surprised, though? Certainly this kind of thing doesn’t happen to us all the time, but it does happen to others daily. Our surprise comes from the fact that our false sense of objectivity that helps us navigate our daily living has been temporarily shattered.

With issues of morality or the supernatural, it is comparatively easier to formulate universals because they are not subject to our usual methods of falsification. I cannot prove that there is a God, or gods, or none whatsoever. Even granting the existence of a divinity, however,  there must be an intersection, a point where it connects with our being. This becomes a productive point for the interrogation of questions of universality. We can, and should, also discuss the individual’s experience and understanding, but the most common intersection point for Christianity is the Bible. This privileging of the text is a part of modern Western culture, and not all religious traditions emphasize the text in the same way, but Christianity has.

The problem is that the common methods for grounding interpretations of the Bible are largely circular. For example:

“Why do you believe in the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God!”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says so in Second Timothy 3:16.”

“And what is Second Timothy?”

“A book in the Bible.”

It can, of course, be much more complicated than that. It might go something like this:

“How do you know the Bible is the Word of God?”

“Because that is what the Church believes.”

“What justification does the Church have for believing that?”

“ It has been believed for thousands of years. There are millions of people who have called themselves Christians throughout the centuries. How could they all be wrong?”

“But didn’t there have to be some evidence for those beliefs at some point?”

“Sure. The evidence has been there from the beginning, in the prophets and apostles, and in Jesus himself.”

“So those are all figures that we know about because of the texts in the Bible. How do we know that what they said is true?”

“Because they heard from God.”

“How can we be sure they heard from God? Do you hear from God?”

“Well, uh, not usually, but I could. There’s no reason why God couldn’t speak to me. But He has spoken to many other believers.”

“But why would you think God would speak to them and not you? Why wouldn’t we conclude that those people just thought they were hearing communication from a divine being.”

“Because the things God said to them actually came true. They actually happened.”

“How do you know they happened?”

“The stories are right there in the Bible.”

There are other methods for attempting to provide a universal ground for Christian truth, but they are not exclusive of the Bible. The other common conversation-stopper is faith. “That’s just what I believe.” Not much you can do with that. Lest I be unfair, much the same could be said of any other field of discrete knowledge, including science, which elaborates the same proofs with a sufficient quantity of data to obscure its lack of ultimate ground and takes advantage of an environment predisposed to belief in its principles, a predisposition once given to religion. A field establishes truths that are coterminous with the boundary of the field, and much public controversy consists of individuals throwing rocks at each other from within their respective boundaries.

Coming up, I plan to look at texts and ideas that critically altered my understanding of interpretation. Key questions: If there are multiple different interpretations, how do you know you’re right? If everyone claims the same ground for legitimacy (God, the Bible), then what?

01/17/13

(Mis)Appropriations of History

When I decided nearly ten years ago to go to graduate school, my primary goal was to learn something about Christianity from outside the church. I can’t remember what prompted that notion in the first place. I guess I knew that any institution is biased toward presenting its own history in the best light. In my church life—and for most other Evangelical churches—the focus of Christianity was Jesus and the Holy Spirit, figures that transcended time and space to be of help to us in the present. We used the Bible but were less concerned with its context or the two millennia from when it was written the present. (We were also very concerned with the end times, but that’s another story.) I had a good sense of my personal relationship with a divine power, but little knowledge of how that had come to be. I wanted to know how a man and twelve disciples began a worldwide religion.

This is not to say I never learned about Christian history. One of the best tactics to legitimize current Christian practice is to draw connections with the early Church. In the late 1990s, we became involved in the cell church movement, where small groups of Christians met in homes outside of the church. We emulated the movement for a couple reasons. First, it was the latest and greatest thing, and it had some success, primarily in Latin and South America. Second and more importantly, according to the Biblical book of Acts, house churches were the way the early Christians met. The reasons they met in house churches were likely either because they hadn’t built a suitable building or out of fear of suppression; we did it because they did it. There are some benefits to meeting in smaller groups, especially in megachurches where the individual can get lost in the crowd. Our church used it plug-and-play style, thinking that if we imitated the method, then God would bring people in and expand the congregation. All that to say that the early Church is often used as a stamp of authenticity. “The early Church did it, so it must be effective.” It was also a way to sidestep the intervening years, as if we could just ignore everything that happened in between, especially the unsavory parts.

Suffice it to say that I knew little of the chronology of Christianity. Going to a state institution allowed me to learn some Christian history from a largely non-sectarian perspective. There were several things that troubled me and invited other questions. One was the nature of the Bible’s creation. Though I didn’t consciously recognize it this way, I thought about the Bible like a nonfiction book authored by God instead of a compilation of sometimes complimentary, often contradictory narratives, poems, and letters written over several hundred years in multiple languages and published in its entirety two hundred years after that. It was a sort of relief to realize that the books were never intended to harmonize. The two different Genesis accounts, the growth of Israel from a henotheistic to monotheistic tradition, the transformation of Jesus from a cranky miracle worker in Mark to a divinity in John, to name just a few examples, are the products of a diverse number of writers in different circumstances and geographical areas. The chronology, in short, is messy.

A messy chronology is common to religious traditions. I was discussing with a friend yesterday the criticism that new religious movements often undergo because their histories are recent enough to be contested. Scientology and Mormonism, to name two home-grown examples, are routinely criticized because their claims can be disputed with modern historical and scientific method. Yet, the content of these traditions in and of themselves are no less credible than Christianity. One of the reasons (among others) that the Roman government once legislated against Christianity was its recent origin. Age meant respectability, tradition, honor. Even Judaism was given begrudging respect because of its age. Once Christianity began to be recognized as something separate from its Jewish lineage, though, it lost its protection and became just another new (and therefore unfounded) innovation. New religions never get any love.

The many contradictions in the Biblical text are a common point of attack by outsiders, not because they hate Jesus, but because there are many contradictions. Reactions to these, ranging from an insistence on literal interpretations of portions of the Bible to saying the contradictions are on the unimportant stuff are reflective of a justified fear of uncertainty, but the text cannot support the weight that is placed on it. My intention is not to engage in a point-by-point excursus of the Bible, which would be irrelevant. Rather, it is to suggest that knowledge of the history of Christianity is helpful for defusing common hierarchies of religious traditions based upon the superiority of one’s own.