Monday, August 8, 2011


Sadly, much of what is happening in Islam, Christianity and Judaism is the result of interpreting religious texts as if they were written as historical and literal expressions of the things of God. Notice the recent statement of the Pope that Protestants are not part of the true church or the radical Muslim movement with its suicide bombers or how most parts of all three religions  have denied women and gay people equal status and voice.  Some Jewish and Muslim followers insist that certain parcels of land belong literally to them by God’s decree. Large parts of the Evangelical Christian movement  support that Jewish claim while denying that the same Jews are fully saved and accepted by God. CNN recently aired six hours of such threatening problems. All are based on literal inflexible  interpretations of religious texts.

Moses And The Burning Bush
Needed is a renewed awareness in religious circles that the nature of ancient religious documents is primarily symbolic rather than literal. Ancient religious writings are efforts to explain the experiences that some community of people  had of the Sacred and its interaction with their experiences of the Sacred. All are efforts to explain the unexplainable, not a matter of reporting history.

Straying slightly  from the topic of the  purely symbolic, another way ancient texts can lead us astray, by being taken too literally, is by failing to see these writers are sometimes stuck and accepting of  very unjust systems of their day. We then have to read deeper into their story noticing their prejudices. Most people who think of David and Bathsheba only can think of David's shadow of  adulterous and murderous behavior. But we miss something important if we take the story too much at face value.  King David .we are told, was confronted by the prophet  for his use of  kingly power to demand sexual favors from a married woman. What else strikes  me is  that  the charge from the prophet and God, as perceived by the author, was that adultery was wrong only because it was 'stealing another man's property.'  This is so throughout the O.T. There is no concern whatsoever by the prophet or even God  that the woman was treated wrongly or sinned against. It was totally about a man harming  another man's ownership of a woman with  the woman's experience and concerns not existing. This is terribly sexist and is written as approved by God. The whole story would redeem some of  its tragic  meaning if it is considered that David and Bathsheba actually deeply loved each other. The story later says that both grieved their lost baby, were life long husband and (topmost)wife and the parents of Solomon the next King. That sounds to me like love. Add to this  that her husband is clearly seen valuing his role as soldier and warrior (macho-ism) more than he loved his wife(declining to go to bed with her though given permission by the King. That does not sound like love to me.) and you have the drama added of 'no real love at home', but only a legal pretense of marital love by Uriah. But neither the author nor the casual reader consider such complicating factors. It is a messy human tragedy, like much of life,  no matter how one reads between the lines. But read between the lines we must.  This story, and many others,  shows that the Bible  cannot be responsibly  used by taking them as literal and told exactly the way  things may have   happened  in a historical moment. Literal history is not the  nature of Sacred story.

The authors of  these oral traditions were not motivated by historical accurateness or literalness. They were creatively using  oral story to make a point and are quite willing to weave the story to that end.  The gospel writers, though different, should be read  with this same kind of awareness. They are not reporting history they are creating  a sacred narrative. This is not deception, it is the nature of sacred and symbolic creations. We impose our own perception onto these texts when we read them as literal history. People in post modern cultures generally think literally and physically unless encouraged to think symbolically and metaphorically, which is the language of religion. Many modern  'believers' feel only that which is 'literal, historical and physical' is real. Religion of all types at its core is about things that are not 'literal or physical' , yet powerfully real in the personal and collective human heart. Reading ancient texts literally greatly increased following the 'enlightenment'  or 'age of reason' beginning in the 14th century. Our religions have been greatly influenced to read such texts as if they are always dealing with literal historical events rather than primarily  about the inner spiritual world, the world of the human heart.  Such  is a terrible misuse of religious texts. The assumption that  the Bible or Quran are primarily 'literal and historical' did not come from any rule of God as to the nature of these treasured ancient sacred texts.

Fundamentalism in Islam, Christianity and Judaism is a dangerous example of misapplication of 'reason' to religious texts. Ironically, those holding to literalism often see their view  as the only way to be 'loyal' to religious texts even though theirs is a relatively new way of reading them. Eventually this view point will not survive and will likely lead people further away from the spiritual and timeless symbolic truth  which such texts potentially  bring. We are at risk of losing the truly spiritual elements of these religious traditions and stressing instead those things that cause suspicion and lack of respect for each other's tradtions. Many are unaware that the Bible and Quran can be more responsibly viewed, with the results not being the closed-minded conclusions that are so divisive and dangerous.

Jacob Wrestles With An Angel
Religious texts taken literally usually place the human mind into an 'either-or and only' state. This becomes a mind trap that closes off all viewpoints except one. It destroys  God given  human creativity and intuition. This is very hard to overcome for it is experienced by the devotee as an ultimatum from God since it has come, supposedly,  directly from a revered religious text. In contrast symbolic interpretations of a text more often create a 'both-and' state of mind which does not carry a locked in point of view but can carry a strong sense of personal and community responsibility to ascertain spiritual truth. This generates opportunity for spiritual learning experiences that open the mind to possibilities not before imagined- the legitimate and freeing purpose of healthy religion.

Religious texts, because they are all the result of oral tradition, became by the time written primarily  symbolic in nature. All radical religion that is exclusive rather than inclusive of other humans comes from literalizing the symbolic communication of such texts. I think a person can become aware when a ‘literal’ reading has placed him/her into an 'either-or and only ' state of mind. Listen for this in your church , Bible class or religious discussions. It can be a red flag that texts are not being handled responsibly. It results in that feeling of having 'no choice' but to deny, exclude, judge or put down others or others' points of view in one way or another. Unfortunately, Pope Benedict’s statement implying that all protestants are not ‘really’ the church is such an example.

Literalizing ancient texts results in radicalism no matter what the religion might be. My guess is we Christians of all types fall into a radicalism that is negative toward others far more than we realize. It is a state of mind that is contrary to the 'freedom in Christ' described by Paul in Galatians( 4:31, 5:1) and the notion of freedom in the fourth gospel(John8:32, 36). To feel, 'I have no choice' but to exclude or otherwise castigate others is not a freed state of mind or being. It is a 'judging' state of mind. It comes from a mind that is ‘ locked up’(Galatians 3:23) from itself and God's total creation. And what an anti-Christian, Jewish or Muslim tragedy is brewing when the thing about which ‘one has no choice' is but to exclude and not respect the faith and gifts of 'other' human beings. An ever escalating price in violence, human lives and cultural decadence is being paid throughout world societies because of literal interpretations of religious texts. Jim Hibbett

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