The Laziness of Biblical Literalism

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The Laziness of Biblical Literalism

"For activist leaders of the radical religious right, the Bible isn't so much a spiritual guide as an ammunitions storehouse. Verses are handpicked from here and there (carefully ignoring those scriptures that might get in the way of their own "godly" image and political ambitions) to justify whatever they want to do.

And since there are commands in various parts of the Bible to do terrible things that Jesus never condoned--like stoning your rebellious children to death, or stoning gay people, or killing everyone in an enemy's village except the young virginal girls...well clearly, there's something for everyone, no matter how cruel, no matter how vile.

… So how did Jesus get demoted, and why? A reading of the gospels will make that quickly apparent. The Sermon on the Mount alone is enough to rattle those who use the Bible to enforce their personal prejudices.

Jesus was a troublemaker in his days and in ours because he stood up for those who were reviled and persecuted by religious authorities under the banner of faith. He taught people the Good News: That they should see God as a compassionate, accepting parent to love, not as an angry, violent, punitive authority figure to fear." -Dr. Teresa Whitehurst, The Christian Minority Coalition

Whether you see Jesus as the God-become-mortal or as one of the most powerful great teachers and sages in human history, one important question in this current time of religious controversy needs to be more seriously addressed. As the "founder" of Christianity did Jesus intentionally establish or lay the groundwork for a formal organization from within which would evolve doctrine and dogma written in irrevocable heavenly granite?

Historical human propensity seems to have viewed the "civilization" of a society or culture in terms of formal construction of rigid rules, cultural mores and an insistence on blind but trusting conformity. Everyone must do what the "founders" have said and written - as if those founders sat around in some sort of marathon sessions out of which the documentation and authority of the group evolved.

Most religious human beings affiliated with a formal belief set within a culture or society tend to stand on the sort of documented and authorized orthodoxy that forever looks back for assurance rather than forward with hope.

Disagreement and/or disapproval of the behavior of fellow members, fellow citizens or outsiders then tends to find its basis in that backward looking framework of orthodoxy. Concerns about "education" of children and proselytes to the culture have to do with instilling that which is limited to what can only be seen through the rear-view mirror upon which is based definitions of what is seen through the windshield as movement forward continues.

How best then to utilize scripture as a means of providing or enforcing the religious framework of definitions regarding anything in the present or future? Insecurity in this regard is monstrous and tends to generate less courage and more cowardice, less boldness and more timidity, and less initiative and more laziness.

Religious laziness is the constantly demonstrated and ineffective mode of attempting to frame, adjust - and even correct the moral and ethical values in Christian-dominated America and - I suspect - around the globe in all fundamentalist/literalist religions.

Those who pretend to give us our moral instructions do so with their own subjective pretending that scripture was written once and only once - an inerrant and unchanging letter from God - who has said all that needs to be said, leaving us to divine for ourselves the meaning of scriptural words and phrases. The audience for these pretended moral instructions are expected to likewise pretend the same thing about scripture and, in addition, pretend that these contemporary moral lawgivers are somehow more knowledgeable about religion, scripture and "righteousness". They are to be trusted because, when it comes down to it, they can cite verses verbatim and pretend to know the once-for-all-time and unchangeable meaning of those verses.

This is the lazy man's way to influence and authority - and wealth - if a career in pastoring is the aspiration.

This is also the lazy Christian parent's way to influence, authority and spiritual poverty if a career as a wise and successful rearing of children is the aspiration.

The Bible is first and foremost a spiritual document which contains within its pages a wisdom that must be obtained spiritually and never literally. It takes work to use scripture in that way. It takes a recognition that God as the strongest spiritual force in existence is something very much a part of reality in the here and now. It takes a recognition that every human individual not only has a "right" to on-going spiritual communion but a need and opportunity to enhance life on the basis of individual effort.

What has become obvious in American Society is the slide into laziness regarding the learning of the most basic concepts presented by Christ. Whether admitted or not, many Christians - especially parents - have abdicated the need for teaching children to move beyond the black and whiteness of fundamentalist literalness and into teaching a means for perception and response to the actuality of contemporary societal life. As a result, children reach maturity knowing very little of the most significant aspects of God and spirituality but armed with a limited but powerful list of "do's and don'ts" and "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts."

Mr. Dobson/Focus on the Family and their "war" against Spongebob Squarepants with their declared rational typify this laziness. Driven by Dobson's Rhetoric I suspect that the literalist psychology comes into play with biblical passages about raising children "in the Lord" and the like.

Those swayed by the anti-cartoon rhetoric might possibly have some sense that their child's relationship with anyone outside the family - at that tender toddling age - could somehow compete with the intimate harmony of the family in a home setting where spiritual brainwashing is so powerfully accomplished as a normal part of growing up.

Such a concern might be more legitimate as the children get older - say nearer the pre-pubescent junior-high-school ages when peer pressure mounts with terrifying rapidity.

In a home where a dissatisfied Christian conscience possibly acknowledges that the family life has not been "perfect" as idealized in every Christian congregation, the parents justifiably -in their heart of hearts - sense that forcing religion on children may not have been the best way.

Communicating religious dogma and doctrine is a hell of a lot easier than communicating a spiritual sense of ethical morality and doing good for the sake of goodness.

How many kids grow up in so-called Christian homes having reached a point of tuning out the preaching?

How many have grown up admiring their parents but struggling with a sense of quiet desperation in not living up to an unreasonable standard of "righteousness" that has made so many Christian clergy-celebrities rich and so many families torn?

Recently, as I have participated and contended with critics of a liberal Christian point of view, I have realized that the fortress of justification for that criticism is in reality a quite small edifice. It's walls of protection and the moat surrounding it are all constructed by a lazy insistence on the absolutely inerrant Bible.

Every day these literalists - especially the celebrity literalists such as Dobson, Falwell, Robertson - even George Bush - are challenged on their dogmatic declarations. Every day, it seems, someone somewhere publicly requests theological and scriptural justifications for actions and viewpoints that contradict the teachings of Christ.

To name a few:

Jim Wallis and his liberal Sojourners organization;
The clergy who recently signed an open letter to the administration regarding the environment;
The 200+ prominent religious leaders who wrote an open letter entitled The Question of Torture: Open letter to Alberto Gonzales (our new Attorney General);
The United Methodist Church congregation in Dallas, Texas who openly published a resolution regarding the memberships of George Bush and Dick Cheney.
Sister Joan Chittister has called into question the hypocrisy of activism against abortion in America while at the same time supporting the killing of men, women (including pregnant mothers) and children in Iraq, Darfur and other places.

Bloggers and Internet editors have raised these same questions publicly and few if any of those challenged have tried to justify or reconcile actions, decisions and behavior with the teachings of Christ.

On message boards of all sorts - including the discussion boards on this site - we encounter disagreement and apologist reasoning based mostly on again an insistence that "How do I know? The Bible tells me so."

More and more, the disparity between Christian biblical literalists and liberals is widening. In a very real way, the two groups no longer have the Bible predominantly in common as was the case in the past. Letter-of-the-law Christians find themselves stuck in a place where they can only defend their "truth" from within their walls and from their turrets of either-or. The current political power base that has moved many Christians to the Right must sustain itself by somehow stopping the pendulum from swinging the other way as more and more the hypocrisy of Radical Christian reasoning becomes publically obvious.

When cornered, the lazy Christians can only throw the Book at critics. And unfortunately, regardless of pretending otherwise, the Book is not the exclusive property of the self-appointed select elite.

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