The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

How Biblical Literalism Took Root…Literally!

Stephen Tomkins over at the Guardian answers a question I’ve long pondered, and blogged about: How biblical literalism took hold.

The Bible is the word of God, Christians believe, but why should the fact it’s God’s mean it has to be read with naive absolutism? Many Christians call the church “the body of Christ” without considering it
anything like infallible, or refusing to see its rites as symbolic.

Part of the problem is historical. The deification of the Bible is a result of the Protestant reformation. Before then, the final authority, the ultimate arbiter and source of  information in religious matters was the church, with its ancient  traditions and living experts. When Luther and friends opposed the teaching of the Catholic hierarchy, they needed a superior authority to appeal to, which was provided by the Bible.

Fair enough. But in defending or reclaiming the Bible from papists and then liberals, evangelical Protestants made it the very heart of the faith. Hence the ludicrous situation where many evangelical organisations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have statements of faith where the first point is the Bible, before any mention of, for example, God. Hence the celebrated idolatrous aphorism of William Chillingworth: “The BIBLE, I say, the BIBLE only, is the religion of Protestants!”.

One practical problem of this text mania is that the Bible, unlike the
church, can’t answer questions, clarify earlier statements, arbitrate disagreements or deal with new developments. So those in search of religious certainty have to find it all in the text: if it says the earth was created in six days, or that gay sex is an abomination, them’sthe facts, end of story. And if it forbids charging interest, well there’s always wriggle room.

It’s the “wriggle room” that leads to some interesting problems.


As I noted earlier, it creates enough room for historically black homophobia to take hold, despite the insistence on literal interpretation of a text that also seems to justify slavery. (Not to mention it’s having been employed to justify racism and discrimination, too.)

When I was growing up, I heard an old legend that if you read the Bible all the way through from beginning to end, it would make you crazy. Now I think what makes you crazy isn’t reading the Bible, but reading it literally and to the exclusion of anything else. That will drive you insane as surely as sitting in a dark room and never allowing any light to enter it would make anyone insane. Let in a little light, and you see enough to make things out. More light than that, and suddenly the way you thought the world around you worked doesn’t make sense anymore. But not enough light and you either have to create stories to explain what you can’t fully see, or you have to not see it. With African Americans, it began with the first slaves who were converted to Christianity only to be confronted with the biblical passages that justified and even sanctified their enslavement, and for the sake of sanity had to “not read those parts.”

Having read and reviewed Horace Griffin’s new book Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches, I basically concur with his premise that the vehement homophobia expressed by many Blacks stems from a the history of so many Black slaves being converted to Christianity by conservative denominations that stressed biblical literalism, strict Victorian sexual morality that was prevalent during the same period as American slavery, and a reaction against the stereotypes of Blacks as insatiable sexual savages.The Central State students, however, do not have the excuse that their ancestors had. Having a few centuries between them and slavery, and being at most a few steps away from information — or, to extend the metaphor, a few steps away from the fucking light switch in that darkened room you’re now sitting in and choosing to keep darkened — makes choosing not reaching out for it and inexcusable act of willful intellectual and spiritual laziness.

It is easy to take literally the words on the page, rather than try to understand them in the context of the time, place, and people who produced, translated, and selected them. It is easy to ignore the contradictions from one text to another; to dismiss, as Sam Harris put it, “the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes,” and to yet be willing to embrace that which you can fully impose on others. It is harder to read more widely and deeply, for a deeper understanding of faith that may not affirm everything you’ve been taught. It is harder to leave the embrace of certainty and make peace with uncertainty — to admit that you don’t know or have all the answers to how the world should work, and that they can’t be easily found between the covers of any one book — but that may also be part of what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.”

I can absolutely relate to one thing the writer noted.

One last factor in biblical all-or-nothingism is the part that biblical criticism plays in evangelical conversion, which is none at all.

People who convert to evangelical Christianity, including those who grow up with it, are persuaded by the experience of a religious community, and by finding that evangelical theology seems to hold water. All this is totally underpinned by the Bible – it’s the foundation and guarantee. But the only test of its reliability that inquirers are invited to make is to read it and ask “Is this something that I can accept wholesale and entrust my life to?”

It’s generally much later that a convert will have to consider concrete evidence that biblical writers were human beings, capable of being one-sided, of writing myth, of exaggerating, of guessing, of having opinions it’s impossible to agree with.

That pretty much describes what happened to me, and how I ended up leaving the faith in which I was raised. I remember being in church once and hearing the choir sing a song titled “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!” I’d have posted them here, but I think it was one of these two.

Needless to say, that ended up not working for me.

It’s the kind of belief that I was brought up in, where the bible is treated as though the deity himself leaned down from heaven with quill in hand and penned the whole thing from beginning to end in King James english. It wasn’t until my process of coming out caused me to question that belief and I started studying and exploring other beliefs that I learned that the above wasn’t the case. It rocked my world when I stumbled across a copy of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels that I heard that there were other books that didn’t make it into the final version, and started wondering who decided what did make it in and based on what criteria. Who decided that those other writings weren’t the “word of god”?

I “stumbled” across The Gnostic Gospels while browsing around the religion section of the public library. I was in high school at the time, and had pretty much come out to myself. (Another book I found at the public library helped me on that journey. So, I’m probably a walking advertisement for why some fundamentalist Christians try to keep certain books out of public libraries. For what it’s worth, I found both books amid other books expressing opposing points of view. I even read a couple of those, too.)  Trying to fit my sense of who I was into the faith I was born into was a bit like trying to fit myself into shoes that were a size-and-a-half too small.

I was brought up in a very religious home, southern and baptist. In fact, there have been a number of ordained ministers in my family. (And, no, I’m not counting my online ordination from the Universal Life Church during my college days.) The bible was to be taken literally, period. As long as we lived at home, we were going to go to church, period. No questions, no arguments. I’ve written about my encounter with my mom over my being gay, when she immediately confronted me with the bible. Since then, I think my parents have gotten more religious as they’ve gotten older. The outgoing message on their answering machine is a bible verse.

Growing up and discovering my orientation, I had plenty of reasons to question the religious beliefs I was brought up with. I didn’t find any answers or acceptance in the faith I was raised in, and it became stifling to the point that I couldn’t wait until could leave home and explore other beliefs. Which is what I did when I went off to college.

It’s intersting that my next highest score was paganism, because I certainly did explore the whole “new age spirituality” scene in college. I read everything I could get my hand on, and even got into crystals for a while. I’m sure I helped the local new age bookstore stay afloat for a while. For the rest of my college years I drifted between that and a sojourn in the Episcopal church for a while. By the time I got to D.C., I pretty much had to check the “Other” box when it came to religion.

It wasn’t until I’d been in D.C. for a few years that I began studying Buddhism. I was on a date one evening, with a guy I didn’t really like, and wasn’t planning on dating again. After having dinner we went for a walk around the Dupont Circle area, and we walked past a secondhand book store. I have a thing about bookstores. I can’t stay out of them. So, predicatbly, I drifted towards this one, and we went in. I didn’t buy any books that night, but on the way out I saw a poster on the store’s bulletin board, advertising a series of lectures on Buddhism at a nearby art gallery. I took down the information and made plans to attend. I’d always been curious about Buddhism, but never learned much about it.

The next week, I went to the first lecture and listened to what the speaker had to say. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I remember being struck with a sense of familiarity. Afterwards, I bought one of the introductory books about Buddhism that were for sale, went home, and dove into it. At some point while I was reading that book, it was like a bell went off. What I was reading about the basics of Buddhism basically matched up with the personal belief system I’d cobbled together over the years from bits and pieces of other things I’d explored. It made sense to me, and it was as though I’d been a Buddhist all along and just didn’t know it.

Since then I’ve tried to practice on my own, and occasionally with a (now defunct) gay & lesbian Buddist study and meditation group that used to meet in the area. At present I’m without a physical sangha, except for the one “at large.”

I’m still pretty much a “lone practitioner.” For a few years, I did go to meetings of an LGBT meditation/study group called Variegated Jewels, which had connections to a local  temple in Poolesville, but then the group stopped meeting and I never made it out to the temple. I may start going, however. We’re not bringing our kids up in a particular faith, but I want to try and give them a connection to something.

At the same time, I’m wary of anything that feels like organized religion, and am likely to bolt the minute anyone starts telling me what I have to believe or should believe. But then I carry a bit of a grudge against organized religion, and for that reason have learned to steer clear of it.

Well, I was brought up in an organized religion, and as a result I definitely have baggage. Much of which is encapsulated in one of the questions on the quiz: “I was hurt deeply by religious people and have never forgiven them.”

Actually, I’d say I was deeply hurt by religion and have never forgiven it. People tend to use it as a weapon. I suppose I could apply the “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Except my response to that is usually “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people, with guns.” And if you’d been shot a few times, you’d probably steer clear of guns and the people who tend to carry them.

If religion can be compared to a gun, per the analogy above, then biblical literalism is like a bullet. If you don’t want to hit by a bullet, you steer clear of guns … and those who tend to carry them. Like guns and bullets, religion and biblical literalism are often a great comfort to those who “carry” both of them. But to those of us who end up in the cross-hairs — either as targets or innocent bystanders — the just look like weapons, intended to do harm.

One Comment

  1. Good post. The thing about Biblical literalism is, no one — no matter what they say — is a real Biblical literalist. No one follows all of the laws of Leviticus, the stuff about mixing fabrics or women wearing men’s clothing or not eating pork and shrimp. When fundies say they believe in the Biblical Creation story, well which one? The Bible has at least three. Anyone who has spent any time at all in scholarly study of Biblical texts knows how uneducated and uninformed Biblical literalism really is. And the things people focus on — homosexuality, for example — are predicated on what issues modern society is facing. 50 or 60 years ago all the conservative Christians were focusing on the parts of the Bible focusing on women’s traditional family roles. No one talks about that stuff now, though. Now it’s all gays and abortion. I guarantee you, no one talked about that 50 years ago.

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