Because life is a series of edits

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Interpretation

In Movies, Theologians, Thought, Writers on June 3, 2008 at 11:40 am

A few weeks ago, a post in which I wrote on gay marriage got quite a bit of traffic and discussion. In the midst of the interactions, some important questions came up pertaining to my use of the Bible as the basis for my thinking.

For instance, escapethedrain wrote in comment #2:

“If you are using the bible to prove your point that homosexuality is wrong, then you also have to include the scripture that says:

(1 Tim. 2:12)
‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.’

(Lev 19.18b)
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.’

Do you believe in this as well? I am interested in your response.”

In addition, transientreporter wrote in comment #3:

“Mull over this:

(Deuteronomy 13:7-11)
‘If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or your intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known,gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the LORD, your God…’

The bible is a deeply ugly book.”

I summed up the tensions (see comment #5) as being 1) the use of ancient Scripture (Old and New Testaments) to address modern issues, and 2) the brutality of the Bible. While I’m not sure if the two readers who asked the questions are still reading (thanks for sticking around if you are), I promised to try to address their questions, so I will (though it’s going to take a couple of posts to do it – hang with me).

Let me start with an illustration. As part of the recent build-up to the new Indiana Jones movie (which I’ve still yet to see), Slate ran a review that started with this:

“If some 32nd-century archeologist were to unearth a DVD copy of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount), her first task—after converting the barbaric early digital technology to a more current brain-wave-based viewing system—would be to understand what this object meant to the culture that created it…Though it’s a scholar’s job to shed her 32nd-century prejudices and understand the belief systems of those long dead, our archeologist will have to ask herself: What were these scribes thinking?”

When I read this, I thought immediately of our recent discussion. It’s true: many aspects of the Bible can seem foreign to us because of where we are (or aren’t) historically in relation to them. However, we aren’t being fair to the Scripture (or to any ancient text) if we approach it with our 21st-century prejudices.

For instance, I just finished reading Richard Dawkins‘ book, The God Delusion. Make no mistake, Dawkins is a good writer, but listen for the modern bias in his take (found on page 269 in case anyone’s following along) on the beginning of the Old Testament:

“Begin in Genesis with the well-loved story of Noah, derived from the Babylonian myth of Uta-Napisthim and known from the older mythologies of several cultures. The legend of the animals going into the ark two by two is charming, but the moral of the story of Noah is appalling. God took a dim view of humans, so he (with the exception of one family) drowned the lot of them including children and also, for good measure, the rest of the (presumably blameless) animals as well.”

Dawkins continues:

“Of course, irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally any more. But that is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the athiest’s decision, without an absolute foundation.”

Dawkins then dismisses the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and 19 and the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19 before starting in on the New Testament and questioning Jesus’ “somewhat dodgy family values” (page 284).

For the record, I agree with Dawkins that, unfortunately, there are plenty of theologians who don’t take Genesis literally any more, but I am not one of them. This doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make me a flaming fundamentalist by default; I do not read Genesis as a science book anymore than I read Song of Songs as a recipe. I read Genesis as narrative and Song of Songs as poetry, for reading either as something they’re not does not respect their genres as literature, which, in my mind, is as big a problem for fundamentalists as a figurative-only reading.

But I digress.

My point is that Dawkins (an evolutionary biologist) gives little to no consideration to the first basic rule of hermeneutics (interpretation) – that is, we have to understand an author’s intent as well as the needs of the author’s first readers to rightly understand the text. Dawkins seems only interested in picking apart the text; likewise, if any reader does not interact with ancient writings beyond their words, then she is not playing by the rules of good exegesis.

So, getting back to the questions above, what was the Apostle Paul’s intent and his audience’s needs that caused him to write about women and submission? What were Moses’ purposes and the needs of the nation (not the state) of Israel that led him to encourage loving one’s neighbor in Leviticus and, at the same time, punish his neighbor so violently if he enticed him to forsake God? We have to try to get as close to these original intents and audiences before we can begin figuring out what (if any) meaning these passages have now.

And that’s where we’ll start tomorrow…

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  1. Good groundwork. Context is King! I look forward to your next post.

  2. “…I read Genesis as narrative and Song of Songs as poetry, for reading either as something they’re not does not respect their genres as literature, which, in my mind, is as big a problem for fundamentalists as a figurative-only reading…”

    Boom goes the dynamite! You said it all right here, Craig.

  3. I personally don’t believe that Paul is talking about all men that women are to be subject to, only her husband as the head of her household, a point of view sorely missing in this day and age (even I’ve been known to be confused myself). But as you’ve said, you are obviously pointed towards explaining your points of few so have at it.

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