Author Archives: Daniel O. McClellan

On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism

I recently read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. It was an interesting, albeit laughably uninformed, manifesto against religion, but one aspect of the author’s fundamental argument struck me as particularly poorly conceived and communicated: the notion of “scriptural literalism.” In an effort to marginalize and dismiss the experiences and perspectives of more liberal and progressive religionists, Harris must build a case for the purity of the lived religion of fundamentalists, and the centrality of “scriptural literalism.” That is, Harris insists that those who adhere to the “literal” meaning, or the “letter” of the scriptures, are more pious and genuine practitioners of their faith. Those who reject that “scriptural literalism” are feeding off of secular insights and so are not true practitioners of their religion. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism,” he insists, “do not open from the inside” (18–19, emphasis in original). Liberal religion is just religion mixed with non-religion. It’s corrupt religion. This is a rhetorical attempt to invalidate the contributions made to this debate by moderates and liberal religionists. Harris need only concern himself with the fundies, which makes everything so much easier to criticize and condemn.

The problem is that there is no such thing as “scriptural literalism.” It simply does not exist. It’s a fundamentalist claim that has no basis in reality (more on why Harris is adopting fundamentalist ideologies later). Here’s why:

First, we don’t really know precisely what the “letter of the texts” really mean. Texts don’t carry inherent meaning. They carry symbols that signify broad ranges of semantic senses for groups who have loose agreements about those signifiers. When we read a text, we call up in our minds our understanding of that agreement and use a variety of methods to try to whittle the possible meanings down to the one we think was intended by the author. This means the meaning of a text resides in and originates from our minds, not the text. The text just provides fuzzy outlines of semantic fields within which we think the intended meaning is to be found, and there are a variety of ways that an author can undermine the expected meaning. It’s a guessing game, really, and the further removed from the cultural and literary context of a text’s composition, the more it is a guessing game. So when we talk about the “letter of the texts,” we’re pretending that the letter and the meaning have a 1:1 correspondence, which they simply and objectively do not.

Next, in order to move from the letter to the meaning, we have to impose some lenses that help us focus on certain semantic fields over and against others in our attempt to whittle that potential meaning down. Our lenses come from our experiences with language and with literature and with culture and other things. This is why when an American reads the noun “boot,” depending on the region they live in, they will most likely impose lenses that whittle the potential semantic fields down to something like a cowboy boot. For someone living in Great Britain, though, the most likely whittled down meaning will be something like an army boot, if not the trunk of a car. Our experiences govern those lenses, and we best interpret texts from other times, languages, and cultures when we can approximate the lenses they would have been using. This is also a guessing game and thus makes it incredibly difficult—and sometimes impossible—to interpret ancient texts.

Conservative and “literalist” readers of the scriptures, whether of the Bible or the Quran, overwhelmingly tend to take one of two approaches to interpretation. One is to presuppose the ahistorical function of scripture and read them as if they were a contemporary composition directed specifically at them, in which case their lenses have them light years from the authors’ intended meanings. The other is to impose an historical set of lenses that serves the religious ideologies of the reader. In other words, they attempt to approximate the lenses used by the authors, but they do so in ways that attempt to protect (or outright validate) their presuppositions about the text’s meanings. For instance, conservative Christians often interpret the word elohim (god/s) in Psalm 82 and Exod 22:8 as references to human judges, and they claim that the word was honorifically bestowed in ancient Israel on judges and other special authorities. It wasn’t. Elohim refers to gods, not to judges. There is no fundamentalist Christian anywhere that even approximates literalism when it comes to Psalm 82 (or the Song of Solomon, or 2 Kgs 3:27, or Matt 5:29, or Gen 6:2–4, or James 2, or dozens and dozens of other passages). To do so would be to contradict their reading of other portions of scripture that they believe deny the existence of other deities. This brings us to the next consideration: univocality.

Univocality means a single voice. It is the dogma that holds that the scriptures (Bible or Quran), as the inerrant and/or inspired word of God, represent God’s consistent and unified position and message. It does not contradict itself. This is a dogma. Both the Bible and the Quran, however, are thoroughly inconsistent. They are collections of texts composed by numerous different authors with numerous different viewpoints over long periods of time that have been edited and redacted by numerous others. They are empirically and objectively not univocal. In order to maintain the concept of univocality, however, “literalists” must massage their interpretation of certain texts to serve that concept and the overriding ideologies of their groups. If a seeming contradiction is identified, the passage that supports an existing ideology will be used as a lens through which to reinterpret the passage that conflict in a way that makes it agreeable. This absolutely precludes literalism, and it brings us to the final consideration:

Literalists are not literal about scripture, they’re literal about their ideology. Scripture is secondary. Religious groups don’t derive doctrine from the literal interpretation of scripture, they derive doctrine from negotiating between their group’s past, the needs of the present within a cultural context, and their interpretation (which is not literal) of scripture. It’s very important to keep in mind that that last item serves the other two. Scripture is the authority to which religionists appeal for their beliefs. It is not the source of their beliefs. It is flexible and ambiguous and malleable enough to say what religious groups need it to say. There are ideological literalists, and scripture is their paint and palette. There are no scriptural literalists.

The irony of Harris’ claim is that he has to adopt a fundamentalist dogma in order to serve his own ideology (“Religion bad!”). This is a habit with a long and storied history in ideological bickering. It’s a lot easier to criticize religious traditions if you adopt the fragile and brittle worldviews of the most fundamentalist and uncritical groups within that tradition. Then the more reasonable and informed and complex perspectives can be dismissed before they complicate your arguments and make you think too hard. This is a tactic employed frequently by apologists of all kinds, including, evidently, the dogmatic and belligerent apologists from the New Atheist movement. Dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious, are a lot easier to proliferate when they’re black and white and reducible to small conceptual chunks that are easily digestible for young white males in trilbies who are infatuated with the transcendence of their own genius.


Michael Kok and Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club

Michael Kok has a great article up on Bible and Interpretation entitled “Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club” that discusses some of the main ideas that have been promulgated in recent years related to the development of high christology and invites a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas. I’ve submitted a comment that should be up shortly. If you’re interested in the topic, join the discussion.


My Doctoral Program

I received word earlier today that my application to the University of Exeter’s PhD in Theology and Religion has been successful, and I start in September. It’s a distance program, so I will stay in my new home and keep my wonderful job. My advisors will be Francesca Stavrakopoulou and Siam Bhayro, and the title of the dissertation I proposed is “Divine Agency in Early Israelite and Jewish Literature and Cult.” If you’re interested in reading the proposal, you can find it here. The program will be funded thanks to a generous offer from BYU’s Religious Studies Dissertation Grant Program. I’m very excited to begin doctoral studies after so many unsuccessful attempts, and I greatly appreciate all the help and counsel I’ve received along the way from so many out there. Thank you!


Book Review: What Are the Jordan Codices?

What Are the Jordan Codices?Fresh on the heels of an announcement from the UK about a new Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books, the Elkingtons have published a third book defending the legitimacy of the Jordan codices, this one entitled What Are the Jordan Codices? The Mystery of the Sealed Lead Books. The articles contained in the book, with one exception, actually constitute a virtually untouched reprinting of the articles from the Elkingtons’ previous publication, The Case for the Jordan Lead Codices. Among some of the editorial changes is the inclusion of my own name where Jennifer Elkington had previously referred obliquely to me as “one particular student.” The anonymous author from the previous book has also now included his name under the title of his paper.

The largest change, however, is the addition of an article written by Dr. Samuel Zinner that draws from a larger paper he has recently published on academia.edu that argues the Jordan codices are indeed modern, but are not forgeries. Rather, they are carefully crafted early modern Zionist “lag baomer” amulets. Zinner’s analysis is creative and thorough, although I believe he skirts around many of the issues that complicate the question of the codices’ origins and the involvement of the Elkingtons. See the full paper for the details of his argument (which are much too detailed to address here).

What Are the Jordan Codices? is, as with the previous volumes, an attempt to arrogate academic legitimacy to the thoroughly unacademic machinations of David Elkington and some compatriots. The articles penned by the Elkingtons and their psychologist colleague uses absolutely horrific personal attacks on me and several other scholars as a smokescreen to obscure and evade their own manipulations and dishonesty, all while accusing us of ad hominem.

I am happy to see that perhaps the codices will hopefully see the light of day so that they can be more directly and thoroughly studied. I still think, however, that the vast preponderance of evidence securely supports the conclusion that the codices are modern productions intended for sale and profit. I am more than happy to be proven entirely wrong, though. Despite the claims of the Elkingtons, I have never attempted to suppress the study or availability of the codices. In fact, as I have pointed out before, I have publicized more photos of the codices and analysis of their iconography and text than Elkington ever has. I would publicize any and all photos and reports and studies that he makes available. Unfortunately, and as anticipated, he saves those details for paying customers.


Review of The El-Amarna Correspondences

A fresh review by Kurtis Peters is up on Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies of Brill’s new two-volume set, The El-Amarna Correspondence. The late Anson F. Rainey provided the lion’s share of the collating, transcribing, and translating, with Zipora Cochavi-Rainey and Bill Schniedewind batting editorial cleanup. Check out the review for more. (HT James McGrath)


On Higher Education

Yesterday I read Jedediah Purdy’s recent New Yorker article, Ayn Rand comes to U.N.C., and it struck a nerve with me. The article highlights a series of politically motivated actions taken by North Carolina officials vis-à-vis university administration. Here’s a taste:

For several years, there have been indications that the state’s new leaders want to change the mission of public higher education in North Carolina. In 2013, the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, told William Bennett, a conservative talk-show host and former Secretary of Education, that the state shouldn’t “subsidize” courses in gender studies or Swahili (that is, offer them at public universities). The following year, he laid out his agenda in a speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Using the language of business schools, he urged his audience to “reform and adapt the U.N.C. brand to the ever-changing competitive environment of the twenty-first century” and to “[hone] in on skills and subjects employers need.” McCrory also had a warning for faculty members whose subjects could be understood as political: “Our universities should not be used to indoctrinate our students to become liberals or conservatives, but should teach a diversity of opinions which will allow our future leaders to decide for themselves.”

Of course, that “diversity of opinions” should not include such frivolities as gender studies or Swahili, which is just grotesquely ignorant and disingenuous. McCrory is further promoting the corporatization of the American university because that serves his political agenda.

I also thought I’d highlight this article from last month that discusses a change Scott Walker has proposed to the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement:

In Section 1111 of Walker’s proposed budget legislation, Senate Bill 21, he strikes language specifying that the UW has a public service mission to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus” and to “serve and stimulate society.”

Walker adds “to meet the state’s workforce needs” as a core mission of the university.

Walker also strikes language ensuring that the mission of the UW is to extend “training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” as well as the language: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

These are the first steps toward transforming higher education into little more than vocational training. Ed Silver made the following comments on Facebook:

Fellow scholars, don’t kid yourselves. This is a declaration of war. We can keep on doing what we’re doing and enjoying the life of the mind for now. But Walker is crossing a Rubicon here. Higher education is being redefined as job training and all the intangible goods the University creates are being redefined as luxuries–ones that can no longer be paid for in this ugly, brave new world. Scott Walker wants to become the standard bearer for the Republican Party; the agenda he lays out here is not his alone.

It’s time for us to start defending the academy with whole heart and full throat. These folks are vandals and they want to destroy what generations of scholars and students have built. And let’s be clear: what we are defending is an academy in which any kid in America, regardless of her class or income, has the right to enter into a critical and passionate dialogue with the best and most significant ideas that other human beings have had. Higher education has not always lived up to its ideals of equal access. Too many students are burdened with unmanageable debt. Curricula are not always crafted with humanism and informed criticism in mind. Administrations are bloated, and athletics and entertainment frequently eclipse schools’ missions to educate. But despite all this, we continue to think of the University as an institution dedicated to the formation of empowered and thoughtful citizens.

The University, at its best, helps people to become critical, engaged and decent human beings. If this redefinition becomes the norm, it will be deformed into a shallow machine for the training of a servile labor force. The full fruits of human existence will be reserved for those the wealth and privilege to buy them. And a vital, animating, egalitarian force in our culture will die.

Michael Law refers to Ed’s comments and asks the following question:

If you’re a religion scholar and still without a permanent position in a uni, is now the time to jump before you’re too old to transition to a new career?

I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that.

 


Jim Davila on the Lead Codices

Jim Davila has a new post up on his blog briefly sharing some thoughts on an academia.edu article on the lead codices recently written by Samuel Zinner. The article argues for interpreting the codices not as modern forgeries, but as modern Jewish amuletic art. Check it out if you’re interested in the codices.


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