Lest Ye Be Judged

October 25, 2011 Topics: HistoryIdeologyPhilosophyReligion

Lest Ye Be Judged

Mini Teaser: Enraged bloggers and grandstanding politicians alike denounce the Koran as a glorified terrorist manifesto. Philip Jenkins’s new tome challenges this simplistic logic, analyzing the Bible’s equally—and often shockingly—bloodthirsty passages.

by Author(s): R. Scott Appleby

But it is easy to learn such forgetting when the unpalatable texts are seldom included in the lectionary or catechesis. Or, when they are, the offending passages are construed as if they were allegories or metaphors—a spiritualizing technique that renders the brutally vanquished enemies of God as symbols of sins that were overcome on the journey to the Promised Land. (“No actual Canaanites were harmed in the making of this scripture.”)

Jenkins, though, introduces his own contradictions. On the one hand, he urges his Christian readers to accept and acknowledge the violent scriptures “and to learn to live with them.” And he treats evasive maneuvers as if they are borderline pathological. (The pseudoscientific sidebar that “explains” this behavior by reference to “cognitive dissonance” and the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or “Delete key,” is a bit much.) “A bloodless Bible offers cheap Grace,” he insists. And he seems to agree with St. Augustine that the Bible must be read whole, not selectively.

On the other hand, what Jenkins seems to admire in Augustine is precisely the fourth-century bishop’s skill in getting around the stumbling blocks by avoiding their literal meaning, ignoring their singular impact and burying them in layers of interpretation. Sounds pretty bloodless to me. In place of letting the troublesome texts stand on their own, Jenkins advocates “understanding why the various books were written, and appreciating the core message that each is trying to teach.” This seems a coping strategy of the highest order, not far removed from the collective amnesia he castigates elsewhere.

And what is wrong, after all, with coping? The vicious and genocidal texts are a scandal, and fidelity to “tradition” has always carried with it both connotations of the Latin root tradereto bequeath (“hand down”) and to betray (“hand over”).

ARE CHRISTIANS and Jews really so different? Jenkins does not seem to think so—and this is a central weakness in his biblical road map. For him,

If we ask what Deuteronomy and Joshua are “really” about, their core theme is neither genocide nor warfare. Rather, the books represent the clearest declarations of two essential ideas in the Bible and in the Judeo-Christian worldview—namely, monotheism itself, and election or chosenness.

While this is certainly a reasonable assertion, I am unconvinced. Why these ideas and not others which are also, arguably, central to the Christian worldview? Part of the problem Jenkins has set for himself is encompassing both Christianity and Judaism within the same argument without sufficiently adjusting for the rather substantial differences between the two religions, not least the status and meaning of Jesus Christ. Thus Jenkins’s hermeneutic key seems to be the “prophetic faith,” which means the teachings of Amos, Isaiah, Micah and other prophets of the Old Testament, period. This approach might work well for Jews, and certainly Christians recognize, honor and frequently invoke the Prophets. It is less clear, however, that Christians would choose “monotheism . . . and election or chosenness” as the core themes of God’s revelation in the Bible rather than, say, “the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus the Messiah,” or “the unconditional love and forgiveness God offers to all people in Jesus.”

Such distinctions have real-world consequences in the way various believers enact what they understand their scriptures to enjoin and, lest we forget, roughly one-third of the world’s population claims to be “governed,” spiritually at least, by the one Jewish Prophet his followers hold to be the Son of God. Are we really to believe that the branching off of one set of adherents away from Judaism, with its priority placed squarely on the Mosaic Law and vast commentaries, to Christianity, with its emphasis on divine grace and spirit-inspired acts, did not introduce a fundamentally new religious paradigm, including a new way of reading the sacred texts? Each of these religious traditions has developed its own interpretive strategies, the instincts and core values of which are embedded in, and have emerged from, its own distinctive experiences, memories, practices and authoritative extrascriptural teachings. (Take a simple example: for Christians, Jesus is the Passover lamb first prefigured in the book of Exodus, and he is slain for the salvation of all humankind, or at least all who believe in him—not only for those who keep the Jewish law.) For Christians, or at least for the subset who would accept Jenkins’s methods of biblical interpretation in the first place, the key to interpreting the Old Testament (as well as the New) is (once again) a person—the figure who embodies the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. This, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah anticipated by the very Prophets to whom Jenkins gives an odd priority. At least from a Christian standpoint, this privileging of the lesser over the greater is odd, a bit like focusing on the messenger who announces the arrival of the king rather than on the king himself.

The interesting question is therefore: Has the centrality of Jesus, “the Prince of Peace,” made a difference in the level of religiously inspired violence performed by Bible-believing Christians, regardless of their specific historical contexts, or even within those contexts?

HERE IS what Jenkins really cares about: the relationship between scripture and behavior, especially in the urgent matters of violence and warfare. “We talk about ‘religious violence,’” he laments, “but when exactly can we say that a religion or a scriptural tradition directly caused an act of crime or terrorism?”

Ay, there’s the rub. Note, however, that “a religion” and “a scriptural tradition” are conflated in this formulation of the problem of “religious violence.” Insufficient attention is given to the distinctions between the way a sacred text is read, who does the reading and how that reading is embedded in the life of an actual historical community.

Jenkins rightly emphasizes the difference between what the scriptures (whether the Old Testament, the New Testament or the Koran) themselves “say” on the one hand and particular acts of violence on the other:

However bloody texts may be, however explicit, their mere existence will not lead to actual violence unless and until particular circumstances arise. At that point, the texts can rise once again to the surface, to inspire and sacralize violence, to demonize opponents, and even to exalt the conflict to the level of cosmic war. But without those circumstances, without those particular conditions in state and society, the violence will not occur.

This statement is gratifying and surely accurate, but it is incomplete. As Jenkins well knows, the role, function and status of sacred scriptures varies within any particular religion, and from religion to religion, as does the degree of distance which each religious community has deemed permissible between “fidelity to the text” (whether it be actual or alleged fidelity) and the actual behavior (i.e., the operative beliefs and resulting practices) of the community, movement or individual in question. Over millennia, Judaism and Christianity have made their respective Bibles into virtual rubber bands, the interpretive options so multiple and elastic as to stretch the range of possibilities such that almost any proximity to the text is permissible.

Is this also to be said of Islam? Better put: Is the range of Koranic interpretive strategies that have developed over centuries, especially in the Golden Age of Islamic philosophy and learning from the mid-eight­h to thirteenth centuries, currently available to the global Muslim community? Jenkins makes short work of Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, demonstrating that they are profound distortions of what the vast majority of Muslims recognize as traditional or mainstream Islam. And who would doubt this judgment? Yet it is worth noting that much the same is said even of time-tested (if still controversial) scriptural methods such as those employed by the mystically inclined Sufi brotherhoods. To the interested and sympathetic outsider, the Koranic fundamentalists currently seem to have the upper hand.

One would therefore assume that Muslims, at least, would receive Laying Down the Sword with gratitude. But perhaps not. Part of Jenkins’s strategy in comparing the Bible and the Koran is to equate, or come close to equating, how the two texts function in their respective religious traditions. In this effort, though, he follows a decidedly Christian template. For Muslims, the Koran is just what the word means in Arabic—the “recitation” of the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. It is the literal word of Allah. Most Muslims do not even allow for the idea of a filtering process through Muhammad’s seventh-century-CE Arabian sensibilities. The closest analogue among the varieties of Christianity is “plenary verbal inspiration,” the theory favored by fundamentalists and most evangelicals, according to which God inspired the various authors of the Bible even in their choice of words. However, this is not quite the same as the Islamic notion of the Koran’s “eternity.” Moreover, Christians disagree among themselves regarding theories of biblical inspiration, and Jenkins adopts an approach that contextualizes and “relativizes” certain books and passages in a way most Muslims would never think of applying to the suras of the Holy Koran.

Pullquote: Judaism and Christianity have made their respective Bibles into virtual rubber bands, the interpretive options so multiple and elastic as to stretch the range of possibilities such that almost any proximity to the text is permissible.Image: Essay Types: Book Review