Friday, August 20, 2010

Reflections While Making Chicken Salad:
Three Attitudes to the Bible

Diverting my mind from kitchen work last night with one of Dale Martin's enlightening lectures on the New Testament, it occurred to me that there are, broadly speaking, three different attitudes toward the understanding of the Bible.*

One, perhaps the most pervasive even in Christian cultures, is total indifference.   There are quite a few people, many of whom would identify themselves as Christians, who really don't know anything about the Bible and don't care much except insofar as they may like to invoke it in political debate.

There is a second group, smaller but more consequential, who self-identify as Christians (or Jews) who take the Bible very seriously indeed.   They read it and study it, often in groups.  The defining characteristic of this group is that they regard the Bible as a unity, internally consistent; they feel that apparent internal contradictions can be planed away with better instruction or more intense analysis.  The group also includes those who believe the Bible--or particularly the "Revalation of John" at the end of the New Testament, harbors coded messages for our time, with identifiable (if esoteric) references to particular people and events.

There is a third group, probably smaller still, who regard the Bible as a cultural artifact like the Sutton Hoo ship burial or an Etruscan tomb.  They'll read it (sometimes in the original Greek or Hebrew) not to demonstrate its instructive power or internal consistency so much as to situate it in its culture.  Indeed, their primary message is not so much the consistency of the text but of the diversity that it reflects in historical religious culture.  They see the Bible not so much as "Scripture" but as an anthology, written by particular people at particular times, and assembled by others at other times.

One is tempted to think of this third group as "nonbelievers" (if not heathens, pagans, apostates, sinners, whatever).  A good many of them are heathens.  The perhaps surprising point is--how many of the people in this third group still count themselves as active or at least engaged in some religious community or other, Christin or Jewish.

I suspect this tranche of "nonbelieving believers," though small, is perhaps not as small as we think it is. For example, I suspect, though I cannot prove, that it probably includes many, possibly most, of the people who get paid to teach theology in schools or colleges--who, at the least I think, are far more likely to be skeptics on matters of Biblical authority than their students.

One of the reasons we don't appraise their numbers accurately is, I suspect, that they are loth to call attention to themselves.  A cynic would say they are just trying to stay out of trouble, or to keep a job (remember the stir a couple of years ago when a state-paid Lutheran minister in Denmark declared that, why no, he did not believe, and, why no, he did not see any reason to give up his government paycheck (whatever became of that guy, anyway?).

I'll bet there is some truth in this cynical explanation.  But I can offer a more benign analysis: I think a lot of believing nonbelievers really aren't clear themselves exactly how to define their paradoxical state of being (recall the jibe about the Unitarian missionary who knocks on your front door for no particular reason).  Many (not all) are people who value skepticism and caution and wouldn't want to engage in an conversation likely to turn into a row.

I wonder also if perhaps this cultural discontinuity helps to explain some (not all) of the rancor and resentment so evident among true believers against (caution, irony ahead) their betters.  The true believers perceive that the skeptics aren't levelling with them, and that the skeptics' reticence amounts to cowardice, or hypocrisy, or outright mischief.
A slippery term.  For a Christian, it would include both Old and New Testaments (though the exact content will vary from sect to sect).  Christian scholars who talk about "the Bible," usually mean "the New Testament," and indeed, usually denote it as "the New Testament."  For Jews, of course, "the Bible" is what Christians call "the Old Testament."

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