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TAG | Biblical interpretation



Reading the Bible (or not)

Reviewing a new book on the Bible for the New Republic, Adam Kirsch notes this:

While there is no denying that the Bible remains central—Beal quotes polls indicating that “65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible ‘answers all or most of the basic questions of life,’ ”—he notes simultaneously that Americans are surprisingly ignorant of what is actually in it. “More than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse,” he writes. Less than half of all adults can name the four Gospels; only one-third can name five of the Ten Commandments. In his own experience as a college teacher, Beal says, students “come to class on the first day with more ideas about the Bible derived from … The Da Vinci Code than from actual Biblical texts.”

Andrew Sullivan weighs in:

Count me unsurprised. Christianism is not Christianity; it’s a rationalization of a certain culture and politics.

Well, I’m not surprised either, but I am reassured. Ignorance is never to be celebrated, but in this case it beats the most likely alternative for many of the Bible’s would-be readers; the dreary and obsessive rote-learning, study and purported follow-to-the letter of sacred text that is a characteristic of, say, much of Islam and certain strains of Judaism.

The Bible certainly has its moments, but the West has benefited immensely from the way that Christianity has broken free from its ancient founding text into something infinitely more fluid, flexible and syncretic. If evangelical Christians wish to believe that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse that is, I think, far from a tragedy.

It sure beats that whole ‘lilies in the field’ thing.



Political hermeneutics

In his new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?,

[Norman] Podhoretz describes how liberal Jews—rabbis and worshipers alike—routinely cherry-pick passages from the Torah to buttress favored social policies,

writes Wall Street Journal reviewer Richard Baehr.

It has been my impression that virtually all people who believe in the divine provenance of the Bible routinely cherry-pick passages that accord with their own mores.   But I may well be mistaken and would certainly have to defer to the experts.  In any case, the patriarchal, pre-capitalist, tribal society of ancient Israel is so fantastically remote from our own era that it is not immediately obvious to me that Reaganite supply-side conservatism is more in accord with the Torah than FDR’s New Deal.  The hermeneutical challenges in deciding how the human authors of the Old Testament would have regarded a public option in health care, say, dwarf those of first discovering, then applying, the “original intent” of the Constitution.   But again, I may be wrong.




Faith and treason

Harold James Nicholson, a CIA officer imprisoned for spying for Russia, invoked the will of God when communicating with his son from his jail cell.   “God leads us on our greatest adventures,” he wrote in a birthday card to his son last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.  The father and son’s “adventures” included further espionage for Russia.  Nicholson also cited the Bible: “Do not gloat over me my enemies! For though I fall, I will rise again.”


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