Nonviolent Bible Interpretation II: Literal Truth.

Our second study in the area of Violent/Nonviolent interpretation of the bible quickly routed us to a key Girardian principle as a way of understanding.

The topic was the verbal “inerrancy” of the biblical text (the popular name for which is the literal reading or literalism). But before we got down to thinking about how slippery words are, how unreliable as a final authority, we took a detour through Girard’s concept of “differentiation.”

In human culture “difference” between humans is constructed out of sacred violence. The phase of loss of difference–when a human group enters so intensely into rivalry that individuals become simply hostile mirrors or doubles of each other–is called “undifferentiation.” It can only be settled by the group victim. All the violence is heaped on the scapegoat who is killed, but the situation that provoked the crisis is remembered and rigid differences are then constructed in the wake of the terrifying violence and in the name of its peace-bringing victim. Competition over resources (food, territory, women) is strictly managed by establishing differences: who gets what from whom; and who, where and what is the “enemy” to be excluded. At the same there is the sense of an absolute “sacred” authority running through all this and holding it all in place. It is a description of any primary society, but the same basic principles hold in any “developed” culture founded in and through violence.

Last week we saw how the violence of God’s eternal decrees underlie the fundamentalist reading of the bible. This time the focus was on the text itself. The two in fact overlap. God’s authority is intimately tied up in the text. If the latter should come into doubt so would the former. In turn this would create a crisis in the differences established by means of the text (role of women, sexuality, hierarchy). We understood the crisis provoked in scripture-based differentiation to be the root reason for forcibly insisting on the authority of the text.

One of our members underlined this with a reference to the Civil War, citing the work of Mark Noll, which showed that the South clung to a literal reading of the Bible, including slavery, believing that a challenge to this would lead to a total loss of the bible’s authority. It seems clear that what was at stake was an overall worldview of difference mediated by the bible, one that could only be “decided” in the crushing violence of civil war.*

Thus, when there is a direct debate with a fundamentalist interpretation we must always remember that it is a question of primary difference and order which is being defended and this goes to the root of human identity. Ultimately it’s not about the bible, it’s about difference. At the same time, it has to be recognized that the bible will make an extreme and dangerous tool for establishing difference, with an eternal incomprehensible violence claimed at its core and behavioral codes and worldview stretching back to semi-desert tribal society three thousand years old.

In sum what is happening is that the engine of meaning or interpretation is violent difference. But what if the whole point of the bible, and above all the gospel, is to introduce ANOTHER engine of meaning, whereby difference is NOT settled by violence, but by love? What if Jesus does what is always claimed for him, recreating human nature from the ground up? What if Jesus’ “eating and drinking with sinners” is truly the final model, in which difference is swallowed up in love? What if in fact Jesus’ divine erasure of difference (as engine of meaning) is what deep down is driving our world in its “secular” history?

In this context we began to look at some of the claims about the biblical text, understanding that we are not dealing with the individual meaning of words but an overall transformation of meaning itself. It is this engine of transformation which helps us decide about any particular item of biblical scripture.

Meaning is always the issue. The moment you claim “inerrancy” for the biblical text there is a question of what you actually mean by that. We quoted from an online article by a defender of inerrancy: ‘Formerly all that was necessary to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” ‘

The author then goes to cite the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy held in Chicago in 1978, as the gold-standard of what inerrancy actually means. In the Council’s official Statement the word “authority” is mentioned twice. In its first two articles of affirmation and denial it is mentioned three times and “authoritative” once. It is clear what is at stake. In article XII we get to the classic sticking point: “We deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

19th century geology and biology offered what was felt as a devastating challenge to the authority of violent difference: God makes everything by authoritative decree, humans destroy creation’s order, God renews creation with violent differentiation. If these accounts are falsified then authoritative difference is lost. But to read the texts simply in these terms actually loses their prophetic engine of meaning: God creates without violence, and the core issue behind the flood is human violence!

Those who claim inerrancy do not deny metaphor in the bible but they mention it very little! “All flesh is grass” is a metaphor. The Song of Songs can surely only be understood as an extended metaphor. Why not Genesis 1? And why cannot the flood account be an ancient mythologeme (extended story-metaphor) given a radical re-reading by the inspired author?

In more technical terms of linguistics, words never totally lose a metaphorical quality. They only achieve a (more) precise meaning in relation to other words, and ultimately the conversation with words is endless (both Wittgenstein and Derrida came to this conclusion). Translators know this at first hand: the moment the original language of scripture is translated a shift in meaning is helplessly incurred. To try to cope with the shift translators use what are effectively paraphrases and thus they never quite capture the subtle resonances of the original. (See for example the huge range of English renderings for the Hebrew word for “word,” dabar.)

The thing that is therefore pivotal is not the words as such, but the engine of meaning at work in words, and the possibility of change in this engine. What indeed is a more creative act on God’s part, to reassert violent difference, or produce an entirely new basis of meaning?

Article V of the Chicago statement said, “We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it.” This strikes me as actually anti-gospel. What could Matthew possibly mean when Jesus says, “You have heard how it was said, I tell you…”? One of our members who was schooled in all-the-bible-says-the-same-thing engine of meaning told us the way this was parsed was that Jesus simply “raised the bar on the law,” arriving at its legal essence. Aside from Paul’s critique of the law as being practically unfulfillable, this makes many of Jesus’ anti-legalist statements and actions incomprehensible; plus it becomes a complete mystery as to why Jesus’ contemporaries should have sought his death ( i.e. if he simply wanted to perfect the law). Much more consistent to understand that Jesus really did introduce a new principle of meaning, one that lurked deeply in many corners of the Old Testament text but which found its concrete and singular realization in him. When Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law he does indeed affirm its radical purpose or intention, but he contradicts the engine of violent difference by which it is articulated and put into practice. Ultimately Jesus took the violent difference of the law upon himself in order to liberate its transformative human meaning. Thus he releases the new generative meaning for which the law was always striving.

Lastly, a flat single-horizon scripture ends up in negating the singularity of Jesus and his subsequently claimed divine status. It is out of his world-redefining singularity that the high confessional doctrines of the Son of God progressively emerged. To confess these and at the same time read all scripture with the same lens leads to a muddled, non-primitive and purely doctrinaire Christianity. And of course a violent one.

* This is not to say that the Northern cause was not also about difference in its own way. However, its difference was tied up in the concept of the Union and what that would mean in a longer, bigger game of U.S. world power and status. Meanwhile actual U.S. society, north and south, rejoices in three very direct “horizontal” ways of producing difference, money, prisons, and guns. Finally, the “liberal” or Enlightenment interpretation of the bible and/or culture very frequently understands itself in violent differentiation…from “fundamentalists.”

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