In last week’s post, I responded to my church’s decision to disaffiliate from the denomination of The United Methodist Church. I don’t regret that post. The changes brought about by the disaffiliation vote are tangible and heartbreaking and writing is a form of therapy for me. Because of the LGBTQ+ issue I am seeing friends leave, friends I have known for thirty years. I am a faithful churchgoer and many of my relationships revolve around my church. I sing with those people in choir, I teach them in adult Sunday school and I engage with them as my church has special events.
Now they are gone.
When I began this section on the “Matter of Interpretation” of the Bible, I had no idea that I would veer off the path by writing “The Shrinking Center” on April 8, but I felt I needed to address that personal issue. I had intentions to discuss the three temptations that interfere with the interpretation of the Bible: bibliolatry, literalism and culturism [Peter Gomes “A Matter of Interpretation” in The Good Book]
To this point, I have commented on bibliolatry [March 25, “Can We ‘Idolize’ the Bible”] which addressed the worship of the Bible. How this interferes with interpretation of Scripture is that Scripture can become an idol; God’s word is not an expression that is lifeless, a book that does not inspire by existing. It must be opened and read. Even though it was written many years ago, it provides boundaries by which we are supposed to live our lives. Also I have written about literalism [“Worshipping the Text of the Bible”, March 31], the worship of the text of the Bible makes the point that for some, the meaning of Scripture is limited. God’s words are important [some would describe them as “most important”] but they are not stagnant. Some treat Biblical words as lifeless; they mean what they mean to “a specific reader” and that is all they mean. Of course, that means that no one else could have an alternate meaning. This attitude denies the symbolic nature of words; by their very nature, words have various levels of meaning. Some readers understand words more or less depending on their life knowledge, experience, reading ability and education.
Now we come to the third “temptation,” culturism. I have alluded to the effect of culture on the reading of the Bible in the two previous posts but Gomes elevates the idea even further as a factor that can make us misunderstand scripture. “How can one not live in one’s own time?” is the way Gomes opens this section of his thought on culturism. I have written about how challenging it is for a 2023 reader to understand words written so long ago in a middle-eastern world, a world that can seem so foreign. Realistically, we all have to admit that we have cultural lenses that we apply to the Bible.
Add to this the idea that believing Christians have another cultural problem if they take the words of Jesus seriously. It says in Scripture that believers are to live in this world but we are not supposed to be “of this world.” When Jesus came to this world, He ushered in a “new culture,” a different understanding of this world. Many of His ideas challenged the culture of His day [e.g. see His platitudes expressed in The Sermon on the Mount]. Paul writes that a believer is to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” as we respond to “things that are unseen over things that are seen.” When asked by Pilate about His kingdom, Jesus replied “It is not of this world.”
Yet the reader of God’s word often reads the Bible as a means to support the “status quo.” Gomes calls this the justification “for what has been and what is.” Gomes is African-American and he confronts the idea of culturism head on, using the uncomfortable idea of the Southern white Christian in America in antebellum days. Today, many people attack “critical race theory” as an inappropriate study, but when one considers Southern Christians who owned slaves (despite their ardent professions of faith) maybe they need to be studied. These people supported owning human beings and then segregating the races based on their reading of The Bible in their cultural times. I have family members who refuse to consider historical context when they try to understand the past. I don’t defend one person owning another but I admit the idea of racial equality was not in place in 1850 southern America.
Those people knew their Bible. Gomes points to Genesis 9: 18-27 when Noah was discovered naked and drunk by his son Ham. Ham told his brothers about the incident and they averted their eyes to their father’s condition but Ham actually saw Noah and was punished for looking. Noah cursed Ham and his descendants with the word “Cursed be Canaan [Ham’s son]: a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers”. For the sin of Ham, Canaan is cursed to serve other races.
Now in the southern part of America, slavery (of course) was deemed an economic necessity, for plantation crops had to be harvested by intensive human labor. The cheapest labor pool could be obtained by removing human beings from their African homeland and transporting them to America. At that point, the greatest fear the southern plantation owners had was subjugation of the slave population. Gomes writes that the white Christian southerner lived in constant fear of the rebellion of the sons of Canaan and also dreaded the “fabled potency of the black male” who could seduce and satisfy the sexual needs of white womanhood. It was the Bible-believing, Bible-reading, churchgoing Southern Christians who found ways to justify lynching, castrating and mutilating black men on Saturday night and then wake up on Sunday morning and pray and praise God all day on Sunday. Gomes writes “How could they sustain such a culture for so long? “The Bible told them so” .
At this juncture, let us not lose the point. Gomes is providing a powerful example of what he calls culturism, understanding The Bible from the point of view of one’s “world view.” Even though Christians are called to throw off worldly concerns in favor of God’s kingdom, we always fall short of this goal. It seems we cannot shake off our lens of our cultural context. It seems we cannot completely understand the context of Jesus’s admonitions.
Today we may not have the specter of slavery hanging over our heads, but 2023 concerns are bound to pollute our understanding of Scripture. Let’s use a couple of contemporary examples for illustration: the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism are popular today among some Christians but these ideas are not in Scripture. Of the three temptations that Gomes mentions, he feels culturism is the most dangerous. People who believe they are carrying out God’s will by actions done in the name of culture can do a lot of damage to the Faith, the Bible and our world. He cites an old expression: “A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice.” We naturally would ask why this is so and the answer is “a surplus of virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience.”
Christians can read God’s word, they can go to church and hear their preachers, they can say their prayers and then do wrong-headed and serious damage by doing what they think is right. They are justified.
When I think about advice I would give to a “young” Christian, one thing I would recommend is getting very familiar with your Bible, read it, study it, and even meditate on Scripture. Most people might think my recommendation would mean that we read it just like any other book, but that is not what I suggest. The Bible is a special book that requires a special approach to its words. Since it is complex, we need to learn as much as we can to help us understand it. Since it is ancient, we need to explore ancient history to understand the world of the ancient writers. Gomes says we need “patience, endurance, diligence, skill and perhaps most of all humility.” It may be surprising but he says that “arrogance in reading these Texts is perhaps an even greater sin than unbelief” . Arrogance dampens the Spirit of God and readers “will be held to a strict account at the final judgement” [how’s that for a threat]. Reading for Gomes is a matter of life and death and we need to approach God’s word with “fear and trembling.”
I understand what he says, agreeing that harming other people in the name of God is horrible work. We blindly read the Bible, we forget the Greatest Commandment and twist its meaning.
We can’t defend our actions by simply saying this is what God’s Word means in today’s world.
“I am justified.”