Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Human Faces of God (A Review)

American's Biblical literalism has a shocking burliness. Gallup reported in 2007 that 1/3 of Americans believed that the bible is literally true. The strength of this hermeneutic increases when the 47% of people believing the bible is "Inspired by the Word of God" is factored. The unquestioned authority among Americans of the bible becomes 78% believing that the book is a literal document or has its authorship in an invisible deity.

This is an unsettling statistic since archeology, the critical-historical method, Radiocarbon dating, The Burgess Shale, and philosophy of religion offer reasonable defeaters to this claim and provide evidence to consider the minority position the bible is, "Ancient fables, histories and legends recorded by man".

We see consequences of biblical literalism in obvious public positions against the idea that legal protections should be afforded by all people both in history's record (with slavery) and today's headlines (opposition to gay marriage) and in more subtle positions where Christian Zionists oppose a two-state solution because the eschaton of Revelation demands a hegemonic Israel prior to King Jesus's Millennial reign.

Biblical literalists will graft themselves to their tradition as the only viable morality because the bible confirms that their literal belief in the bible is true. This of course is circular reasoning and illogical but, the biblical literalist will rest in appeals to authority found in their community. The most onerous of these community pillars is the tradition of biblical inerrancy articulated in the Chicago Statement formulated in 1978 by Evangelicals frightened that their moral authority would be displaced by liberal interpretations of scripture being considered in the face of scientific evidence and progressive political policies (e.g. The Feminist Movement).

The opening paragraph of its preface exposes the attachment to authority and controlling obsession with obedience Evangelicals seem to need for emotional and psychological balance,
"The authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian church in this and every age. Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God's written Word. To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority."
Thom Stark's excellent book "The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong" takes a deliberate step towards the bold assertions inerrancy makes and debunks the exegesis as less than the moral authority it presumes.

Stark provides insight how when one reads the bible as a psychological history of ancient people looking to make meaning of the ineffable it is easy to empathize with things like the Israelites desire to post-rationalize their hostility towards outsiders in God's demands for the Canaanite genocide but, when one takes the bible as the flawless systematic blueprint for humanity then one must either mutilate the text to afford genocide or practice moral relativism to explain it away.

Thom (he and I have exchanged emails so I am going to risk the familiar here) is an honest man who draws from respected sources to show that the harmonization the inerrancy movement wants is not the reality of the text and it leads to a psychological immaturity that defers moral agency to an imagined authority.

He shows by using the bible and the Chicago Statement how that the bible is not a systematic meta-narrative pointing to a singular moral conclusion but an argument around morality that demands we examine ourselves if we are to conceive moral evolution. He exposes the fallacy of biblical inerrancy by showing how the Chicago Statement defends itself with special pleading and tautologies that affirm an authority before the fact until after the fact what is revealed does not comport with modern ethics (e.g. slavery, and the aforementioned genocide). He reveals how the bible itself exposes the myth of monotheism and indicates that Yahweh was a warrior god amongst a pantheon who receives his Israel inheritance from a superior being and then defends it in bloody battle against his brethren deities. Thom illustrates how my favorite books, the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes, auger a disbelief in an after-life or supernatural agency that will save and instead show a god who conspires with Satan in the former to test our stamina or an absent god in the latter which demands we see reality for the opportunity to love those closest to us without precondition or dogma. He exposes the Jesus movement for their inaccurate understanding of the Eschaton (the end times) as an imminent reality and traces this misunderstanding to Jesus himself as a failed apocalyptic prophet. Yes, Thom says (as far as we know by the Synoptic Gospels) that Jesus was wrong (gasp)!

I loved this book. It builds my personal appreciation for the bible as a source of cultural understanding without playing to the fear-based need for certainty Evangelicals practice in their selfish worship of it. I find Thom's work to be kindred to the efforts of Robert M. Price and his Bible Geek Podcast, Robert Wright's "Evolution of God" and humble skeptical inquiry from blogs and podcasts like "Reasonable Doubts" or "Common Sense Atheism".
The real shocker is that Thom is a practicing and professing Christian with what seems like an abiding faith commitment (despite fundamentalists attempts to indict him with the crime of Marcionism). He details how his scholarship altered his view of religion in the final chapter of the book and while I have trouble with some of his analogies I think that I could trust to have a functional relationship with him as I maintain the peace and justice commitments Christianity gave me while respecting reason, skeptical inquiry, humanism and atheism. His exegesis is not the fundamentalism of many of my former church-mates and public leaders like Al Mohler that can only increase ethnocentrism and denialism but neither is it the post-modernism of emergent churches that seek to rescue Jesus from his historical milieu with an appeal to neurotic emotionalism.

Thom is an honest scholar who practices a disciplined approach to a biblical hermeneutic that does not ignore the horrors it can invite but also does not deny the inspiration it can bring. My hope is that his honesty will help change the Gallup statistics so that believers' beliefs hone to a more humble scholarship that will seek real solutions to the realities we face.

1 comment:

atimetorend said...

Love your long McLaren "neurotic emotionalism" link at the end of your post! I am half way through the book myself and enjoying it thoroughly, learning a lot. It is great to read a christian who is honest about the bible without turning into the neurotic opposite. I'm looking forward to seeing where he goes with it all.