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Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Fundamentalist's Bible

In the early part of the twentieth century protestantism came up with a declaration of sorts, actually a twelve volume work titled The Fundamentals, the core of which was a statement of beliefs centering around five key positions that have since come to be considered the tenets of fundamentalism (the Christian variety, of course).

These are:

  1. The inerrancy (and literal interpretation) and full authority of the Bible;
  2. The virgin birth and full divinity of Christ
  3. The bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead;
  4. Christ's atonement, through his sacrifice, for our sins;
  5. The second coming of Christ.

I am not a fundamentalist Christian, merely a Christian. The five fundamentals have within them either non-rational ideas (point 1) or ideas that may be considered as problematic (points 3-5), agreed upon or not; and disagreement with these five points do not necessarily discard one's allegiance to Christ in the least. It can be debated whether point 2 belongs in either camp.

And so with that the reader can readily guess which point that I readily spurn: The inerrancy of the Bible with a literal interpretation.

The belief in some kind of a literal interpretation lends a showiness to one's ignorance of language and linguistics that tends to the theatrical. You might suppose that a theologian's faithful adherence to The Word, who imparts a holy sanctity to this language of the Book, would nudge that person into a constant, detailed study of what language actually is, what it can do, and more importantly, what it cannot do.

You would suppose wrongly.

A theologian's love affair with the Word does not allow for the study of language; it does, rather, cut off all ideas of the possible ramifications of linguistics. It cuts it off due to linguistic's focus on all that language might be able to do--what it in fact does do. A theologian (I mean here a fundamentalist theologian) wishes that words--grammars, discourse, concepts--can be simplified into an arithmetic, a one-to-one correspondence easily disposed of, easily understood.

Fundamentalists often speak of the Holy Book as if it were written in English. I wish I knew what percentage of pastors of the fundamentalist variety have taken course work in translation theory. My personal guess is that the percentage would be tiny. And if they did have a smattering, I would also hazard a guess that it involved another kind of arithmetic, a picking and choosing of the right corresponding word to that of the original. Translation is quite other than this. It is, as the word's etymology suggests, a kind of filling of a vessel with meaning (our original word) and a consequent carrying over, and re-filling of another vessel with that meaning, much as if we were taking a pail of water and carrying it over to fill another pail. Somewhere in the transaction we are going to spill some of that original meaning. In fact, we might spill an awful lot of it. Sometimes the second pail is too small, sometimes too large. Never is it just right. Never is this a transaction of literalness; of righteous correspondence. [Not that it isn't possible, theoretically, to verge onto an original's meaning; but this is a tricky art, an art that is always doomed from the beginning to never reach perfection.]

Language is like a large lake, with feeding streams from far and wide. A fundamentalist looks at the lake like a painter painting its surface. He thinks he has painted the lake--its entirety by focusing on its surface. Yet nothing, virtually, has been painted. Nothing is known of the lake's sunken depths, the ships lying there wrecked, the fish within, the rocks, the logs, the hidden forests that were drowned eons since. The water therein, too, is not well-understood; the water comes from other places, down streams and rivers, carrying silted meaning with it, being transformed when finally it comes to a final rest. Rest! But the waters roil and whelm, they surge in storms and in tranquility sink and rise, breathing a lake's breath. And all the while the fundamentalist looks on the scene, paints some brushstrokes, sighs, and proclaims victory.

A translator understands the complexities of language and he understands something else, too: that the original also has an original. Someone translating from the text needs to grasp at a prior beginning, attempting to siphon something from whatever genius and inspiration caused the poem or text to begin with. Unless the translator touches on this prior meaning, this prior understanding and experience, the translation will wilt, and be deficient. The fundamentalist regards the translation as if it were the original, and seems to have no regard for the a priori experience whatsoever. Otherwise, he wouldn't idolized the printed word overmuch.

There are other disagreements with the fundamentalist take on things. If it were possible to be a literalist--again, it is not possible for the aforementioned reasons, but for now let us pretend it is--then why offer up literalist interpretation here and there, but not everywhere? The fundamentalist likes to take as literal fact one of the variants of Noah's Ark (there are two variations, one of which is completely ignored), yet treats as entirely metaphorical the portion of Corinthians where Paul has Christ offering up is body and blood: And when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." --1 Corinthians 11:24. [emphasis mine]

There is also the matter of the many different Bibles out there. The fundamentalist ignores these, and pretends there is but one. How then is there such a non-correspondence between the Sinai Bible and that of, say, the King James? It is said that there are 14,800 differences between the two. But the real problem lies in the bibles of the early centuries, the problem being that we simply don't have any of these lying around to compare anything to. What we know as "The Bible" may well be a relic of a political decision by Constantine to formulate his state religion's texts into one book. The translations that must have been made from Aramaic and Hebrew to Greek to Latin and later on the modern tongues, are lost to us; all we know is that choices were made, choices that we may well disagree with at our present point in history. 

The Bible, then, is in some ways an illusion. Not that there isn't real value therein, even sanctity. But that value is not in the printed word. It is in the original--the original. What we have now is idol worship, the worship of a text that others have made, a text that history may well have hidden, a text that betrays political decision-making and hides as much as it reveals. Is there a way to reveal the original original? Well, if a translator wishes to make a translation of a poem what does he do? He reads the original in the original language. He learns as much as he can about the poet, about the time and culture of the poet, what he might have been thinking, what he might have thought to say. Then he makes his choice, out of the experience of the poem and the poet, out of all that he can know. [The reader should, if interested, read Ben Belitt's work on translation, Adam's Dream.] It is out of the experience of God, of the Spirit, that we can access the original, the real and only Bible. The Bible of the Spirit, which, really, is the only one that exists, the only one that matters.

The idea here is to jettison the fundamentalist idea of The Bible as the idol it has become for many, as if it were some kind of direct-to-God telecommunication. The Bible as Holy Script simply does not exist. It can, and has, done much harm to regard it this way. The African slave trade had its Christian adherents, citing the story of Noah and Ham and Canaan (Canaan, whose skin was not of the African, but why quibble?) as well as some of Paul, but also it had its Evangelical Protestant critics, like Wilberforce and his Clapham Sect. Both could us the Bible as proof of their position. The Bible it seems, is a multi-functional tool. 

How then, could slavery be ousted? Only by the experience of conscience, the experience of spirit, acting on one's soul. People knew it to be wrong to own another person; felt it so, and, eventually, made enough excuses--using the Holy Word as a bludgeon--to confound those who would use the Bible as a shackle.

 Enough. Treat it as a book, as a very great book, as a book that has taught much to many, and influenced history many times over, but as merely a book written by men, put together by men, for men. A book. A mere book.