Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why I Reinterpret the Bible

Atheists and skeptics frequently accuse me of simply reinventing Jesus, and reinterpreting his life and message, in an effort to maintain a belief system that I need emotionally. Recently, for instance, an atheist friend of mine on the Rush message board stated the following:

…it just seems that Scott has had to reinvent [Christianity] for it to maintain relevance in his life. Don’t like what the Bible says? That’s OK, it’s all about the interpretation, not the actual written words in the book that describes him…

On the flip side of the coin, traditionally-believing theists frequently accuse me of twisting the Word of God, engaging in heretical activities, and basing my ideas on shaky and absurd interpretations. A theist friend of mine on the Rush message board recently said, in response to some assertions I made:

All scholars can do is hypothesize and then start throwing out the stuff they don’t like (like [the Gospel of] John), and change the interpretations that have been accepted for centuries upon centuries.

This constant barrage from both sides has caused me to frequently joke that I am derided by theists and atheists alike. I even had that phrase as a caption for my profile for a while.

While the theists and atheists have (obviously) stringently opposing views of God, Jesus, and Christianity, both groups seem to approach the issue of interpretation from a standpoint of black and white. Both atheists and theists seem to agree that Christianity is what it is, and the Church’s interpretation of the life of Jesus is correct. All we are left with, then, is to either accept that interpretation – and the dogmas and doctrines that go with it – as valid and legitimate, or reject it all as nonsense. Traditionalists do the former, atheists the latter.

Neither seems to recognize or acknowledge that perhaps the interpretations and understandings that have served institutional Christianity for centuries are fundamentally wrong. Even the atheist, while rejecting the doctrines and dogmas of faith, will still basically agree that the Church’s interpretation is the most appropriate interpretation of the available texts.

And yet, a very simple, brief study of the biblical texts, keeping the texts in chronological, historical, and cultural context, will reveal very quickly just how bankrupt much of the Church’s interpretation is. Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan states: “Christianity must repeatedly, generation after generation, make its best historical judgment about who Jesus was then and, on that basis, decide what that reconstruction means as Christ now.”

Despite insistence by many theists and atheists that there is only one way to interpret the Bible, even the Church itself has frequently and consistently altered and amended its interpretations over the centuries. What were the various ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries, if not efforts at reinterpreting and unification? The Great Schism of the Catholic Church, which split the Orthodox Catholic Church from the Roman Catholic Church, was over an issue of theological interpretation of the nature of the Holy Spirit. A little later, the Protestant Reformation functioned as one of the biggest reinventions and reinterpretations in religious history, and yet today I have Protestants tell me that I’m a heretic for reinterpreting!

“But even the Protestant Reformation didn’t change the basic tenets of Christian faith – that is, the belief in Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection.”

Well, that’s true. But they were still called heretics and blasphemers by the Catholic Church.

But here, in a nutshell, is why I believe reinterpretation of the Bible is not only okay, but vitally necessary and important:

For the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, Christianity was basically an underground movement, with widely diverging interpretations and beliefs, and little to no unity. Most Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death were Gnostics, with philosophies and theologies that would seem alien and cultish to most modern Christians (see my blog post on this topic from a few weeks ago here).

But all that changed on October 28, 312 C.E.

It was on that day that Emperor Constantine, convinced that the Christian God, through Jesus, had helped him win a decisive battle against a potential usurper to his throne, decided to convert to Christianity. Considering the influence Constantine would come to have on Christianity, the very event that led to his conversion speaks volumes – what reasonable Christian today would assert that Jesus helps countries win wars? Of course, there are plenty of people like that, but I think most mainstream, modern Christians recognize that Jesus doesn’t intervene on the battlefield to make “the good guys” win.

After becoming convinced that General Jesus had helped him defeat Maxentius, and recognizing the inherent disunity among the many competing versions of Christianity, Constantine ordered the Christian leaders – that is, the bishops – to meet and come up with a cohesive form of Christianity that could become the official religion of the empire. He wanted them to get past their disagreements and come up with a unified theology, and to decide on just who Jesus was and how he related to God. Constantine agreed to fund this meeting of the minds, and arranged to have this meeting take place in the plush resort-like area of Nicea, which was to ancient Constantinople what Cape Cod is to modern Boston. In his book “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography,” John Dominic Crossan states that Constantine “…ordered the Christians bishops to meet…in lakeside Nicea…and there erase any major theological disagreements between them.” Over 300 Christian bishops attended, and their travel and lodging was paid for by the emperor.

In case you’re keeping track, here’s what we have so far:

1. Constantine’s impetus for converting to Christianity was based on a belief that Jesus had intervened to help him win a military victory, not because the message of Jesus had changed his life.
2. The bishops met at the imperial decree of Constantine (as opposed to meeting because of any overwhelming religious or spiritual calling), all expenses paid, in a luxurious resort area, with Constantine and his imperial retinue present, to come up with a unified interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, to dress it up and make it more tenable as a state religion.

If those two things aren’t enough to make anyone cringe or question the validity of the theological interpretations that meeting produced, read this description of the meeting from the Church historian Eusebius (who was personally present at the Council of Nicea):

Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor’s companions at table, while others reclined on couches arranged on either side. One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth…

So, we have:

1. General Jesus.
2. A meeting at a Cape Cod-like resort, all expenses paid, to come up with a unified theology that would make Christianity an easy sell for a state religion.
3. A bunch of powerful old men (not a woman among them, to be sure), reclining in luxury with the emperor himself, being served food and drink by others, while armed soldiers stand guard at the doors.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of dinner party Jesus would have been attending, or even invited to. A picture of Christ’s kingdom? More like a picture of man’s kingdom.

As Crossan says, this scene is “…an example of…[the] peasant Jesus grasped now by imperial faith.”

I’ll end my argument on why it is not only okay, but vitally important, to reinterpret the bible, by quoting, one last time, from Crossan:

…is it unfair to regret a process [the formation of unified Christian doctrine] that happened so fast and moved so swiftly, that was accepted so readily and criticized so lightly? Is it time now, or is it already too late, to conduct, religiously and theologically, ethically and morally, some basic cost accounting with Constantine?

I think so. And it may mean I’ll continue to be derided by theists and atheists alike, but I don’t have a problem taking the road less traveled. That is, after all, exactly what Jesus did.


Kitten Bitch said...

"what reasonable Christian today would assert that Jesus helps countries win wars? Of course, there are plenty of people like that, but I think most mainstream, modern Christians recognize that Jesus doesn’t intervene on the battlefield to make “the good guys” win."

Uh.....are you living in the same country I'm living in? 'cause it seems to me that there are a whole HELLUVA bunch of right wing, flag waving, fundies running around thinking just this. Just listen to 25% of country music.

Kitten Bitch said...

So now your Jesus?

You always have had a big head. :)

And why don't you ever share some stories about....oh I don't know....what the eff is going on in your life!!!!??? I like your religious rants, but I'd like to see some other commentary as well.

Scott said...

Of course there are fundies who believe that God is a general, but I think most Christians recognize that the army with the biggest guns win, regardless of which god is on their side. But you make a fine illustration of why I don't listen to country music.

As for stuff from my life, I'll post something like that soon. It's just that nothing that interesting has been going on, other than constant work and constant stress.

Daniel said...

Scott, some great comments and thoughts there. I come from a pretty strict fundamentalist background but am now an agnostic.

I think you should be careful about drawing conclusions from the Rush board (I'm a big Rush fan) as a good amount of Rush fans tend to be very structured (often black & white) in their thinking. Rush music is very highly structured, lyrics the same way.

There's a whole world of atheists (though a smaller world than I'd like) who definitely don't think in such black and white terms regarding Christianity. For many years now, I've said the biggest detractor from the Christian view point is the Bible. No matter what a Christian believes, she or he picks and chooses the Bible verses that support her/his viewpoints and basically ignores all the other ones that don't.

And the people who comment on what you say in an argumentative manner in this electronic format are going to have stronger and, thus, probably more black and white takes on what you're saying.

Definitely keep up the excellent writing and analysis!


Scott said...

Thanks for the responses Daniel. Yes, you are right about Rush fans in general, but I think you'd be surprised at how eclectic and thoughtful the people are who post in the religion forum on the message board I'm on. I actually know a number of them personally (that is, in real life, not just in cyberspace), so it's not like debating with total strangers. Still, you are right that it is easier to be combatitve on the Internet than in real life, even among friends.

As for picking and choosing from the Bible, yes, I agree. Most every Christian takes what makes sense to her, and tosses the rest, whether moderate or conservative. One thing I like about many biblical scholars, however, is that they approach scholarship from a purely academic standpoint, seeking not to find a religion that suits them, but to provide an unbiased historical analysis. The problem is separating the legitimate scholarly works from apologetics masquerading as legitimate scholarship (such as the best-selling "Case for Christ" series by Lee Strobel -- those books pretend to be "scholarly" but they are nothing of the sort).

Daniel said...

Thanks for your reply. Say, can you recommend any good Biblical scholars who have written books I could find? I'm quite interested in that area. I just found your blog yesterday, so I apologize if you've already covered this. I've read from authors like Randy Helms but despite his interesting insights I don't know that he'd be considered an official Biblical scholar, per say.

Definitely it's true Rush fans are eclectic. That's what makes being a fan so much fun and that diversity is apparent in the loyalty & strength of their fan base.

A Happy Thanksgiving to you, Scott.


Scott said...

Sorry for the late response, Daniel. I've been offline for a few days. As for biblical scholars, I would recommend several:

1. For a Christian who wants a more spiritual, authentic, and reasonable perspective on Christianity (that is, without all the doctrines, dogmas, and mythology), I would highly recommend John Shelby Spong or Marcus Borg. Spong is a retired Episcopalian Bishop, and Borg is a retired religion professor and Jesus scholar.

2. For scholarly views of Jesus, I would recommend either the aforementioned Borg, or John Dominic Crossan. Crossan is one of the world's most prominent Jesus scholars, though his writing style is a little less approachable than Borg's and others (meaning, he writes very academically).

3. For a good account of the rise of Christianity, read Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind. Freeman is not a biblical scholar, but a historian.

4. For scholarly looks at Gnostic Christianity (which is the umbrella term that more or less includes all forms of Christianity that were stamped out by the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages), read Elaine Pagels.

5. Bart Ehrman is the head of religious studies at UNC and has written a number of really good, highly readable, books on Christianity. Any of his might interest you. Bruce Metzger is another scholar I could recommend, based one what I have heard about him, but I've never personally read any of his stuff. I know that Metzger's book on how the books of the New Testament came to be chosen is considered the pre-eminent work on this topic.

Well, that's probably enough. But to put it in short...I would think John Shelby Spong is the best place to start, especially for someone who has a background in Christianity, but has left it behind.