Last week I published “Atheism, free thought, and Bible burning” as a response to The Atheist Missionary’s disturbing retort that he wanted to start burning Bibles. It was interesting (if disappointing) to see how many of his fellow atheists rushed to his defense. A popular response was that he wasn’t really advocating Bible burning. He was just expressing frustration.
Of course, I noted this response in the article itself. Perhaps, I said, TAM was “venting”. But that hardly exonerates his ignorant and intolerant statement. Think about poor Reggie, passed over once again for a job promotion in favor of Mr. Wong. Reggie tweets to express his frustration: “Damn immigrants. Close the borders!” Reggie isn’t really advocating a border closure to immigration. He’s just venting. But who said venting gets a moral pass? That’s still abominable behavior and it demands a decisive moral censure.
In the comments, several readers advocated for some kind of broad rejection of the Bible based on their moral offense at passages contained within the Bible. Consider the following:
The Atheist Missionary: “My point remains that if a towering intellect like Matt has trouble reconciling his moral sensibilities with genocidal directives in ancient text, why not just trash the text? This may well be a case where the baby deserves to be thrown out with the bath water.”
Walter: “there is a side of me that sympathizes somewhat with the source of TAM’s righteous indignation: namely that the Bible is a book filled with divine endorsements of violence and bloodshed.”
Jason Thibodeau: “The Bible contains disgusting episodes that offend anyone with an ounce of moral sensibility. You may find interpretations that allow you to continue to regard it as sacred literature. But don’t call me biblically ignorant because I don’t agree.”
The basic problem in all these statements is that they conflate a hermeneutic of a text with the text itself. That is, they assume a particular reading of a text, and then based on that reading they reject the text.
To be sure, there are places where this is justified. A stop sign is a very simple text and there is no ambiguity about its meaning among a community of informed readers. Consequently, there is no such thing as debates over what a stop sign means. The debates concern whether the placement of the stop sign (and thus the acceptance or rejection of the “text”). But life ain’t always that simple.
Twenty years ago I completed a Bachelor’s of Arts in English Literature. During the completion of that program I read many texts, and one thing I quickly discovered is that when you begin to journey beyond the simplicity of the stop sign, you soon find a rift opening between text, interpretation of text, and use of text. And with that you enter the heady world of literary criticism and textual interpretation.
The more complicated a text, the more diverse the uses to which that text is put in various reading communities, the more important it is not to conflate the text itself with the various readings it is given and uses to which it is submitted. If this is true of any book it is surely true of the Bible, an edited collection of various writings collected over more than a millennium, written in three languages 2000-3000 years ago from Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman milieus, and interpreted in many ways by diverse reading communities over the last two millennia. So when a critic like The Atheist Missionary suggests we “trash the text” he ignores all the complexities of textual formation, ambiguity of meaning and diversity of usage in favor of a rejection of the text simpliciter. That is the hermeneutic of a barbarian.
Consider an analogy. Imagine a collection of works that are drawn together by various editors over centuries and which tell the story of America as a people: we’ll call it the Americana Omnibus (AO). Some of the documents contained in this vast edited work are inspiring (e.g. the Emancipation Proclamation) and others are not (e.g. a pro-slavery speech by James Henry Hammond). Two millennia on, the AO has diverse reading communities who read and interpret the text. Some of the readings and uses of passages within the AO by some reading communities are morally problematic. For example, some folks read that Hammond speech as justification for the morality of slavery under some conditions. And other folk read that George Bush speech as justification to invade other countries for their oil.
Surely we can appreciate that the issue at this point is not with the AO per se. Rather, it is with the interpretations that some reading communities give to passages within the AO and the uses to which they put it. Consequently, it is ignorant and barbaric to respond to these morally problematic readings with the suggestion that we trash the AO. That is the language of the uncouth barbarian.
The Bible is like that omnibus of Americana, only that the collection and the uses to which it has been put are far more diverse. Consequently, in this case the flippant “trash the text” attitude is even that much more indefensible.
Of course, the Bible’s critics are free to express their personal incredulity toward particular readings of the text. Even more, they are free to conclude that it is not a text they find worthwhile to read and interpret. (By the same token, I decided long ago that the corpus of James Joyce was not one I was interested in reading and interpreting. Oh yeah, and Heidegger too.) But in an edited collection with the diversity of the Americana Omnibus or the Bible, the kind of unqualified moral censure that one sees in the three quotes listed above is simply indefensible. If you’re going to launch a critique of a text this complex, then you critique interpretations and uses, not the text simpliciter.