Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Literal versus Figural Reading of the Bible: A Review of The Book of Genesis by Ronald Hendel

Book Cover contains medieval images of Catholic Church

To me books are living things. They should be treated with love, respect, and admiration. There is something about books or printed words, regardless of quality, penmanship or ideology that deserves, no, in fact, demands such reverent treatment. During book burnings, be it Nazis or Communists, you are not destroying paper but knowledge, ideas, dreams expressed in and through them. Nothing is more despotic or heartbreaking than that, not even the burning of flags or money.

In Ronald Hendel's erudite, well-written and surprisingly sparse and entertaining The Book of Genesis: A Biography, the Bible - the Book - is treated as a written document that is living and thriving across the ages. It is essentially as its name implies the quintessential prototype of a book, and whether we take it as the Word of God, whether we agree with its ideas or not, whether we take it literally or figuratively does not diminish its importance for Western literature and civilization.

In particular, the book of Genesis has undergone a host of changes across history and with each new reading and interpretation, its content takes on different meanings leading to insights about human nature, morality, and our relationship with spirituality and the divine.

Generally, there are two different readings of the Bible; one can approach it as a literal or figurative text. We may read it literally, meaning that every word in it expresses the ultimate truth and needs to be taken at face value. In such a case, we see it as the infallible and timeless account of God himself, hence as a historical and moral overview that overrides any other possible accounts and explanations.

This type of interpretation was practiced before the advent of modern science and is, rather surprisingly, still believed and upheld by certain religious groups (more about them later). Up to Galileo, it was believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, yet his physical telescopic and mathematical proofs revealed to us a heliocentric model. The Church still adamantly relying on the truths of the Bible rejected his ideas and did not formally accept that view until Pope John Paul II's declaration in 1992!

Along the same veins, there were also advances in geology that showed the correct age of the earth. It was not the 6000 years proposed by the Bible, but its “deep time” actually goes back 4.5 billion years. In other words, the Bible's science did not come even remotely close! Other blows to the Creation story included scientific evidence and the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin on the origins of mankind. All of these discoveries and theories gradually led to doubts regarding the scientific validity of the Bible.

Its proponents used (and still do to some extent) different excuses or reasons for such discrepancy between the Holy Book and the current status of scientific knowledge. There are some who think that perhaps we do not have the ultimate and authorized version of the Bible. It might have gotten lost or diluted via different editions, versions, and translations. So it is “God's Word Lite” that we get and not the real deal.

There is some albeit pale truth to this belief as Hendel shows us that the Bible has been put together from different sources. Put in general terms, scholars have pinpointed three main possible sources referred to as (P) Priestly, (J) Yahwist, and (E) Elohist. Each writing has slightly different views, and they are patched up together, hence causing at times confusion and even discrepancies within the Bible itself.

For example, we have two separate creation accounts that seem in conflict with each other. The first one is from a Priestly source and in it God creates man and woman equally, namely both of them in His image. God in the P source is depicted as rational and balanced and is interested and invested in the harmonious cosmic order of space and time.

Yet in the J version God is more anthropomorphic showing general human traits like anger and jealousy. This is the Old Testament God most of us are familiar with, and it includes the account of Eden. There we have Adam who was created not only as master of the planet but also of Eve, who has come to life through one of his ribs. At the same time, we have the account of the snake and the subsequent Fall from Grace, the expulsion from paradise. As we can see, this version is heavier on morality and dogma in addition to plot and drama.

If you combine and weave together these distinct sources that contain a variety of differences in ideology and purpose, we might see why the Bible can be rather confusing at times. Yet until the Protestant movement, the Bible was thought to be interpreted only by those who are “qualified” to do so, namely the priesthood, so these inconsistencies could be smoothed over by the clergy. No one would have dared to criticize any parts of the Bible and each part was seen as of equal importance.

Yet with Martin Luther, things began to change. Not only did the Bible become accessible to ordinary people in their vernacular language, with the rate of literacy slowly but steadily increasing, yet Luther claimed that there was no need for so-called interpreters and that, in fact, not all the parts of the Bible are of equal worth. In other words, he accepted that there may be some parts that are boring or even wrong, and that this is not a big deal overall. We ought to be guided by the Holy Spirit in our readings, and each person can then interpret the Bible in their own right way.

This type of reading is figurative, namely seeing the accounts more as a spiritual lesson, as symbols and not as actual facts. Hence, the Bible may get its historical or scientific facts wrong, but that would not take away any part of its spiritual and divine lessons. Put differently, the Bible should be read as a guide for life and not so much as a testament of fact and knowledge. In such a view, gaps between scientific knowledge and the Bible could be reconciled.

This type of reading and interpretation actually goes back to Plato's concepts of duality most beautifully expressed in Plato's cave allegory. In other words, we cannot trust our senses. What we see are shadows on a wall, whereas the truth is hidden deep within us, a fountain of light that illuminates it all, an everlasting and unchanging truth that gives life and animus to all and everything.

As such, science, the handmaid of philosophy, is dealing with the physical and changing world, with everything that is constantly moving and decaying, hence the illusion of existence. Nonetheless, the eternal truth cannot be fathomed or explored and all this knowledge becomes secondary or even worthless in the light of true philosophy.

Strangely enough, there are still fundamentalists who do not espouse the figurative view and consider the Bible an infallible document across all of its areas, including science. Fundamentalism as a movement took root in the United States during the 19th century among a group of Protestant evangelicals. Even at the time of its origin, most people around the world did not agree with its traditional and radical views. Those ideas are indeed vestiges of an old and by-gone world and era in which people lacked the knowledge and facts that we have today.

Why the fundamentalists or conservatives still continue in such a vein remains a mystery, but it must be pointed out that there are indeed very few - if any - intellectual or academic believers who still hold onto and follow those ideas. What's worse, they are giving a bad rap to all those liberal believers out there, all those who read the Bible for spiritual guidance and symbolic instruction and not as a fact-filled book.


Anonymous said...

Indeed fundamentalists are giving liberal Christians a very bad rap. The persistence of fundamentalism is a mystery although once someone is mired in fundamentalism, it can be very hard to get out even, it seems, with the cognitive dissonance that must arise. I was involved in more fundy Christianity for several years in my twenties and early thirties until I left many years ago. I now belong to a United church, which is about as liberal a Christian church as you can get. But still the concept of heaven and hell is hard for my brain to get away from probably because that information was jammed into my brain when I was only21. When that information is put into children's minds, I think it is that much harder. Other religions seems to have the same situation - how else could devotees of Scientology be explained? They stay despite proof that the Church of Scientology is abusing millions of its members and despite its belief in Xenu. Ditto the Mormons and Joseph Smith. The Jehovah's Witnesses who will die rather than have a blood transfusion because of one misunderstood verse in The Book of Acts. And on and on. At my wee United Church is a Hebrew scholar part-time minister. She has a tremendous understanding of he Bible in a completely non-literal way - fascinating stuff. Perhaps the Bible should only be allowed into the hands of people like her - the literalists shouldn't be allowed to own one much less lecture about it.
- Karen

Arashmania said...

Thanks, Karen for your observations!

Well, there is something satisfying (and "fun") when it comes to fundamentalism, namely the fact that one convinces - or deludes - oneself to be absolutely right. And the cognitive dissonance evaporates when you hang out with similarly-minded people since we tell ourselves that that many people cannot be all wrong.

It is great that you have found a more liberal version of Christianity these days. In the words of stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce:

Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.