Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Fight Against Modern Pharisees: the Limits of Biblical Literalism

I just got finished taking a brief tour around the Episcosphere, and ran across several posts talking about the visit of Archdiocese of the Southern Cone Archbishop Gregory Venables to Ft. Worth on May 3. Many of those who now call themselves "orthodox Anglicans" (which just shows how much they know about the history of the Anglican church!) were trilling rapturously about how the Episcopal Church is going straight to hell for its refusal to abide by Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality (see here and here and, of course, right here (pun intended).

"Look at what the Bible says! You must obey all of the Bible!" The fact is, though, that this is an impossibility. Much has been made of how one cannot be a "cafeteria Christian" in the use of the Bible as the Word of God.

Let's just totally leave aside the question of whether homosexuality is a sin, and look at the broader picture of whether it is possible to follow every verse of Holy Writ.

A.J. Jacobs (a favorite quote of his? "I’m officially Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.") has written a book about his attempt to live according to the rules embedded in the Torah-- and that's a whole lot shorter than the Christian canon.

But here's what he found, and I shall quote at length since people need to take themselves a whole lot less seriously:

At the beginning of the year, I wrote down every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice I could find in the Bible. It's a very long list. It runs 72 pages. More than 700 rules.

Some rules were wise, some completely baffling. Some were baffling at first, then wise. Some were wise first then baffling. Here, some of the highlights, broken down by category.

Keep the sabbath. As a workaholic (I check my emails in the middle of movies), I learned the beauty of an enforced pause in the week. No cell phones, no messages, no thinking about deadlines. It was a bizarre and glorious feeling. As one famous rabbi called it, the sabbath is a "sanctuary in time."

"Let your garments be always white" Ecclesiastes 9:8. I chose to follow this literally - I wore white pants, a white shirt and a white jacket. This was one of the best things I did all year. I felt lighter, happier, purer. Clothes make the man: You can't be in a bad mood when you're dressed like you're about to play the semi-finals at Wimbledon.

No gossip. When you try to go on a gossip diet, you realize just how much of our conversations involve negative speech about others. But holding your tongue is like the verbal equivalent of wearing white. I felt cleaner and untainted.

No images. If you interpret the second commandment literally, then it tells you not to make a likeness of anything in heaven, on earth, or underwater. Which pretty much covers it. So I tried to eliminate photos, TV, movies, doodling. It made me realize we're too visual in this culture. It made me fall in love once again with words, with text.

Give thanks. The Bible says to thank the Lord after meals. I did that. Perhaps too much. I got carried away. I gave thanks for everything - for the subway coming on time, for the comfortableness of my couch, etc. It was strange but great. Never have I been so aware of the thousands of little things that go right in our lives.

You shall not wear a "garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff." (Leviticus 19:19). At first, I thought this applied to any mixed fiber. So I cleared my closet of all polycotton T-shirts. But it turns out the truly forbidden combo is mixing wool and linen. Sadly, my only good suit - my wedding suit -- contained both wool and linen. So I had to embargo it for a year.

If you are in a fistfight with another man, and his wife grabs your private parts, you "shall cut off her hand." (Deuteronomy 45:11-12). Another rule you won't find engraved outside many courthouses.

If you suspect your wife is cheating, you shall bring her to a priest, who will mix a potion of barley, water, and dust, which the woman shall drink. If she's cheating, her stomach will swell. (Numbers 5:11-20).

If you set your slave free after six years, but he decides to stay, then you shall bring him to the doorpost and bore a hole in his ear. (Exodus 21:5).

You shall not marry your wife's sister (Leviticus 18:18) It helps that my wife doesn't have a sister.

You shall not plant your field with two kinds of seed (Leviticus 19:19). I did plant some cucumber seeds in some pots. But I kept it purely cukes.

You shall not eat eagles, vultures, black vultures, red kites, black kites, ravens, horned or screech owl, gull or any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.

Do not become a shrine prostitute. (Deuteronomy 23;17) I didn't become any kind of prostitute.

You shall not trim the corners of your beard (Leviticus 19:27) My rabbinical beard became wildly uncomfortable, plus I was subjected to every beard joke in the history of facial hair, with about 412 ZZ Top references.

You should not lie on a bed where a mensturating woman has lain, and you can't sit on a chair where she has sat (Leviticus 15:20). That knocks out all subways and restaurants. See the Handy Seat section for my attempt to follow this.

You shall smash idols. The ban on idolatry is such a huge part of the Bible, I figured I should try to smash something. I ended up smashing my wife's fake Oscar statuette. But it felt like a hollow gesture, and it annoyed my wife by getting gold flakes all over the rug.

Put to death men and women who commit adultery. Though I did manage to figure out a way to stone adulterers. One adulterer in particular. A grumpy seventysomething man I met in the park. I used pebbles.

You shall not covet. This is like asking someone not to breathe. Especially in New York. New York is a city that runs on coveting. On a typical day, I covet everything from Jonathan Safran Foer's speaking fee (allegedly $15,000) to our friend's sprawling backyard in the suburbs.

You shall not lie. Once I started keeping track, the number of lies was astounding. I lie to everyone - strangers, my wife, my three-year-old son ("No, we can't watch TV. It's broken.")

You shall stand in the presence of the elderly. I did try to follow this at certain points in my journey. Like the time I ate dinner in a Florida restaurant at 5 p.m. That was the highest concentration of elderly people in America. So I stood up from my chair every time a white-haired person entered the room, which meant I was bouncing up and down like a pogo stick.

You shall not utter the name of another God. English is filled with the names of pagan gods - even the days of the week are named for them: Thursday, for the Norse god of thunder Thor.

Be slow to anger (Proverbs 19:11). My anger isn't of the shouting, pulsing, vein-in-the-forehead variety. It's more of long-lasting resentment. I never fully got it under control, but the best method for putting the brakes on my anger came from the story of Jonah. (See the book for details)

I've gotta read that book. When summer comes....

This argument about the authority of scripture and literalism is, ironically, as old as the New Testament itself, for Jesus certainly spent a lot of time arguing with the Biblical fundamentalists of his day-- the Pharisees (see Matthew 12 for more detail). If you are a Christian, by the way, you believe that Jesus was right and the Pharisees were wrong. The Pharisees insisted that everyone make a big display of following all the laws of the Torah-- and the interpretation of the Torah that had developed over the centuries.

So, let's just take a cursory look at a few problems inherent in attempting to take every word of the Bible as true: In Romans 16:1-2, Paul praised Phoebe for her work as a "diakonos" of the Church. Opposed to this is I Corinthians 14:34-35, in which women are admonished to be silent in Church (and by the way, there are more instances of Scriptures honoring women's contributions than of muzzling them). And then there are the prohibitions against divorce, touching menstruating women, and the controversy over slavery. Meanwhile, King David is not only an adulterer but engineered the death of his pregnant girlfriend's husband for being too faithful to his cause and refusing to come home to sleep with his wife so that David's crimes could be covered up. Lot offers his two virgin daughters to a ravening mob rather than betray Middle Eastern rules of hospitality (Genesis 18), and these two daughters later get their father drunk and have sex him and bear him children (Genesis 19).

Matthew 6:5-7 basically puts every televangelist out of business (hey!....). Jesus at times ignores his family (Matthew 16) and then makes sure his mother is taken care of in the midst of his passion (John 19). Ever pledged money to the Church and then not been able to follow through? Acts 5 may not be very comforting to you. Are you married? Oh well, if you must, although Paul makes it clear you will live a kind of shadow life in the faith since you couldn't resist the lure of sex and worldly things. Are humans created by God on the sixth day after the creation of plants and vegetation (Genesis 1:26), or on the third day before there were any plants on the Earth (Genesis 2:4-8)? And we could play this game all day.

The Bible DOES contain all things necessary for salvation. But leaving aside scattered verses here and there, the message of Jesus is love: love for God and love for neighbor. The Biblical fundamentalists too often demonstrate very little of either one. They get so wrapped up in demanding adherence to verses that support their own prejudices that they lose the Spirit of the scriptures. Just like the Pharisees did.

No one follows every single word of Scriptures. We are all "cafeteria Christians," choosing which verses and proscriptions we like and studiously ignoring those that challenge our basic preferences and prejudices. Jesus insisted on honoring the original spirit of the Law. This eventually led him to be brought up on charges by those who insisted on following every jot and tittle of the Torah at the expense of living a sanctified life that truly honors and loves God. Which side are we on, anyway?


maggi said...

hi Ms Cornelius, I enjoyed this post, thank you!

Lightly Seasoned said...

I don't think it is just the evangelicals that get so wrapped up in particular verses; we all do it. We are supposed to strive to be blameless, yet be all things to all people -- the spirit of the law is somewhere at the fulcrum of the Word, where all these paradoxes meet and reconcile. Of course, we have to shut up long enough to listen to the Spirit to be guided toward that center.

I'll reflect a bit on it on my blog when school is out, but I'm finding a little book by the Archbishop about the early desert monastics to be very cogent on this point.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

That's a nice line about the fulcrum.