Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Bible is Always Out of Context

I love listening to Conservative, liberal and middle of the road Christians argue about biblical interpretation as they struggle to make these ancient texts relevant to their political and moral zeitgeists.

“You’re taking it out of context.”

That’s the accusation each side makes when they quote scriptures to either prove their point, or debunk the other side of the argument. Sadly, both sides miss the truth of the matter. They are both out of context. In fact, the bible is always out of context no matter how you use it. Arguing about correct understanding is like arguing over who would win a grudge match between Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

“The problem with scripture is that you can always make it say what you want it to,” said Father Gimpel. He was the pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish when I finally decided to take the plunge, as it were, and receive the sacrament of confirmation at the age of 35.

I had refused to be confirmed when I was in high school and had finally decided to walk through the last unopened door of my adolescence in a fit of a very post adolescent search for meaning. Ironically I had just received initiation from my spiritual Guru, the late Sant Thakar Singh, the living master at the time, of the lineage of the Sant Mat tradition I had joined. The Sant Mat tradition or Path of the Masters, which I had stumbled upon, was a derivation of the Sikh tradition. At least the lineage I now belong to was. The old man had taught me the distinction between outer religion and inner religion and that, in truth, there was no conflict between my practicing the Roman Catholicism of my childhood and the meditation tradition of Surat Shabd Yoga – The Yoga of Light and Sound and another name for Sant Mat. I have since begged to differ.

Since then I have come of the closet and declared myself to be an unbeliever. Other than a curiosity to anthropologists and students of world literature it seems to me that this hoary old book of texts needs to be shelved – permanently. But, society soldiers on trying to squeeze truth out of it like a herpetologist milking the venom from a snake.

Christian theologians and apologists often sweep away the mountainous heap of contradictions and inaccuracies of the scriptures by presenting them from Genesis to Revelation as a moral progression of human understanding of God – a specious and puerile statement if ever one existed. But if one reads the bible from cover to cover it is easy to understand how the heterodox schools of Christian dualism developed in the first few centuries of the Christian movement. In fact one might declare as did Marcion, a wealthy merchant, and one of the first to collect scriptures in compendium form that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are quite simply two separate gods.

My Master’s Grandmaster, Baba Sawan Singh declared that the creator God of the bible was really the negative power, what evangelical Christians might call Satan (although not a direct correlation) and what the ancient Gnostic schools referred to as the Demiurge. The negative power or the Demiurge was basically the creator of materiality and the author of pain and suffering. He was an angry, tempestuous and often blood thirsty being. A reading of the Old Testament can cause one to equate the Demiurge and Yahweh to be one and the same. By Gnostic and Sant Mat standards this was not the one true god by any stretch of the truth.

But, to Fr. Gimpel’s lament about how scripture can be used to mean anything you want it to - his cry rings true. How many times have false messiahs and the criminally insane preyed upon the gullible and disaffected by quote scriptures and twisting its meaning to fit their equally twisted philosophies? Too many too count. The Apostle’s warning that Satan can disguise himself as a being of light is a warning to heed to be certain.

It’s easy to rip your favorite passages out and use them as stand alone quotes free of any contextual reference. Indeed if you go through the approved gospels of the canon and pull out only the words of Jesus you will end up with a collection of sayings that read similar to the so-called Gospel of Thomas, a sayings gospel that has been rejected by the mainstream Christian authorities both Catholic and Protestant. If one reads almost any current translation of the Gospel of Thomas available today about one third of it will be recognizable to even those only casually familiar with the New Testament.

Free of the quasi historical context and mythologized biography of the accepted gospels that recognizable one third takes on a different subtext that could easily confound the literalist evangelical. We could go on to discuss how some scholars believed that the original or oldest gospel, Mark, most likely may have been culled from a lost sayings gospel, sometimes designated Gospel Q by German theological scholars. We could opine how Mark and the later gospels of Luke and Matthew borrowed from their elder text. I find it highly likely that plenty of oral tradition was drawn from which would definitely suggest an answer to the varied differences and apparent discrepancies between the gospel accounts. And, lest we be remiss, let’s point out that each Gospel was written for a particular audience and with it came the incumbent agenda of each writer. Matthew, for example, was clearly aimed at a largely Jewish community of Christian believers. We even find Jesus uttering words similar to the Jewish sage Hillel the elder.

We could even mention the contextual issues created by centuries of translation from the original languages. As anyone who speaks more than one language fluently will understand some concepts don’t translate perfectly. Context and subtly sometimes get “lost in translation.” However, perhaps the biggest contextual reference we must overcome is that of culture and time. The most recent of all the biblical texts in the New Testament is dated around 70-90 CE, depending on scholar, and the oldest from the Old Testament could be 6,000 years old. Our twenty first century world is far removed from 1st Century Palestine. We are even farther removed from the age of the of the Old Testament scriptures.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that ancient texts biblical or otherwise are without value. Human nature has not changed much since Abraham said to Yahweh in the ancient deserts of the Middle East. Modern scholars and psychologists have very keenly pointed out that our ancient forebears often had keen psychological insights and their wisdom has value. The late Idries Shah, infamous Sufi and scholar of Sufism, pointed out that many of the ideas of cosmology and psychology are being rediscovered in this post modern era and being rediscovered, if you will, by the efforts of modern science.

But, it is not this wisdom that concerns me. The fact that we are “rediscovering” it proves its continued relevance and we can take it from a context defined by the time we live in. We don’t need the context of the ancient scriptures which can often be misleading. The problem is when we try to take these ancient texts and use them as a moral template or a complete guide to the wisdom of all time and overlay it on our present day society. We can’t do this without getting “God hates fags” and if Deuteronomy is true, the Judeo Christian god does, indeed, hate the homosexual.

This mistake comes from seeing scripture as the infallible word of God instead of the work of man in search of meaning and order in a troubling and beguiling universe. This mistake is costly to us morally and is quite anti-intellectual. It denies facts and evidence in favor of myth and tradition. We can’t solve the ethical dilemmas of our time by using outdated moral codes from a culture and time far removed from us. When in 1st Century Palestine do what the 1st Century Palestinians do; when in the twenty first century we must allow the discoveries and scientific evidence to define our ethical stance.

The church will fear this as moral relativism, but what they offer is moral “reactionaryism” that harms more than it helps. Further, each modern day reader places the bible in the cultural context and subtext of our time regardless of how learned they might think they are removing it further from its original context to begin with. The reader will always place it in the context of where they find themselves now, which is why, no matter who scholarly their knowledge their interpretation will differ from those around them, sometimes differing greatly as we can often see in many of our current political debates going on today.

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