Friday, July 22, 2011

Read the Bible, Feed the Poor...but Oppose Same Sex Marriage

A recent study out of Baylor University explores the correlations between frequency of Bible-reading (by Christians) and the likelihood of ascribing to a range of political and social views. Basically, the more often a Christian reads her Bible, the more likely she is to say that the pursuit of social and economic justice is important, that we should use less stuff, that science and religion are compatible, that abortion is wrong, and that gays should be excluded from the institution of marriage.

Now I'm pretty sure that what is at issue here is what we might call "devotional reading," as opposed to literary reading, or scholarly reading, or skeptical reading. The question is what effect Bible-reading has on someone who sees the Bible as a source of wisdom or as a moral authority, and thus turns to it for guidance and insight.

The effects described above are not surprising ones, given dominant biblical themes. The more you read the Bible, the harder it is to avoid the consistent emphasis on meeting the needs on the poor. At the same time, the more you read the Bible, the harder it is to escape the patriarchal and heterosexist worldview that colors the thinking and writing of so many biblical authors. And if you treat the Bible as a uniform authority, you'll come out of your devotional reading convinced that we ought to care about the unmet needs of the poorest among us...and that we ought to model our social lives in accord with a benevolent patriarchy, with families built around heterosexual marriages in which the husband leads (but, of course, with compassion and wisdom gained through humble submission to God).

And as a devotional reader, you're likely also to discover tensions, anomalous passages that don't conform (at least in their literal reading) to the overarching theme. This, I suspect, will  inspire you to resist "proof texting" on the grounds that isolated passages need to be read in the light of the whole. You won't be quite as much of a biblical literalist as you might be able to be if you were less familiar with the content of the Bible.

But there are different sorts of anomalies. In my last post I gestured towards one sort of anomaly--a striking idea that challenges dominant cultural norms, a moment of insight breaking through the weighty indoctrination and habituation of previously unquestioned ways of life. By contrast, sometimes people can have blinkers on in one narrow area of their life, perhaps caused by a cultural prejudice--blinkers that prevent them from seeing the implications of a moral or religious insight in that area, even though they have applied the insight more generally in areas where the prejudice isn't in play. Anomalies can, we might say, be rays of light into a darkened room or places of shadow in an otherwise well-lit space. Or they might be neither one. How does one decide which is which?

While a frequent Bible-reader is likely to be conscious of anomalies, and so is unlikely to be a strict literalist who accepts "proof texting" as definitive, it doesn't follow that the typical Bible-reader is going to distinguish among different sorts of anomalous passages. And it may be that, unless cued into the notion that certain passages as so significant they call for moderating the authority we attach to dominant messages, devotional readers will tend to form their views in accord with whatever themes are dominant. Such an approach would be fine if we knew that following principle is correct: If an idea or message is more frequently endorsed than rejected by biblical authors, then that idea or message is correct. But such a principle makes loads of assumptions about the Bible. Among other things, it rules out the possibility that there are "luminous passages" that are there because divine revelation has broken through human prejudices that otherwise predominate. 

As such, it would be interesting to consider how different theories about the nature of the Bible's authority, or different levels of exposure to alternative hermeneutics, affect the impact of devotional Bible-reading on social views. Would a biblical scholar deeply familiar with the cultural and historical context out of which the biblical authors wrote, well-versed in the original languages and in interpretational controversies--but nevertheless a devotional reader--respond in the same way as lay readers? I doubt it.

What about pastors? Clergy are likely to be devotional readers, and frequent devotional readers at that. And, of course, they will generally have a more extensive theological training than people in the pews. But clergy read the Bible differently, typically in terms of their denominational training and theological predilections.

The Baylor study is interesting, but it raises lots of new questions.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for flying the Norway flag. I was so mortified I could not and still cannot read the news reports. I woke up screaming my my sleep. Norway is a peaceful nation. It turns my soul to think this has happened. Stay strong!