God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”
— Jean Jacques Rousseau
If I invested a nickel every time someone said something awful and then said “Don’t look at me, I’m just telling you what the Bible says,” I would probably be able to live off the interest by now.
The “It’s not me, it’s God” defense is troubling for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, it allows me to disavow a situation and enjoy its benefits.
For instance, my dad often said that if he had been God, he would’ve made men and women equal, but since he’s not God, he just does what God says. This is fantastic because he gets to be more sympathetic than God and enjoy the benefit of a system that puts him in charge. He doesn’t make the rules; he just enforces them.
The second reason this troubles me is its removal of human moral agency, or “the capacity for human beings to make choices” (Wikipedia). By this logic, we are not moral agents who use our consciences and judgment to tell right from wrong. There is no array of options; it is black and white. There is only A or B, obedience or disobedience. To borrow from a Patch the Pirate song,
Right is always right, and wrong is always wrong,
And we must learn to separate the two!
To create this culture, the fundamentalist relies upon these premises:
- There is an obvious (or sometimes less obvious) right moral answer for every situation.
- The Bible contains the one true moral answer for every situation.
To believe the second premise, the fundamentalist must either reject or ignore these basic and obvious truths:
- We interpret everything, and
- We decide for ourselves whether to believe that the Bible is true.
Instead, the fundamentalist believes these:
the Bible is absolutely true, and
my interpretation is the only “clear” interpretation.
I don’t interpret.
The difference between a fundamentalist and (for example) me is that I believe what I believe is true, while the fundamentalist knows what he believes is true. The idea that there is no source of truth that outranks the Bible is, to the fundamentalist, not a belief held in faith but absolute truth.
An example: I was once at a Bible study where the pastor said something to the effect that we all come to every situation with some presuppositions, so let’s start with the presupposition that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, perfect word of God. I went into shock just a bit.
Fundamentalists don’t interpret, and their interpretation is the only clear interpretation.
These joint and contradictory illusions are necessary to fundamentalist ideology. These illusions lie on the bedrock of the belief that there is absolute truth, and it is knowable because it is in the Bible. As Ken Ham often repeated in the Creation Debate with Bill Nye, “There is a book.”
If it were possible to interpret and arrive at different conclusions, then everything would be up for grabs. Fundamentalists don’t have hermeneutics (interpretive principles), they have the Bible. In the fundamentalists’ mind, the relationship between
the Bible (B), and
the mind (M)
works something like this:
(G) –> (B) –> (M)
There aren’t a lot of steps, but fundamentalists don’t like gaps between them and God, so it often looks more like this:
(G) = (B) –> (M)
Though the fundamentalist will deny that God is the Bible, they will say that the Bible is the mouthpiece for God. Functionally, the Bible becomes God. The Bible has all the authority and authoritativeness of the very voice of God.
I subscribed to this way of reading the Bible for a long time. This illusion will hold up splendidly as long as there are no other Christians. Take two Christians,
Ted (T), and
Jeff and Ted read the Bible, but they get two different readings. Since God is functionally identical with the Bible, we don’t need to annotate (G) in this diagram.
(B) –> (J)
(B) –> (T)
Jeff and Ted read the same Bible with the same clear meaning, but the clear meaning to each is different.
But the Bible is obvious! God speaks to each directly through the Bible, and the meaning of the Bible is plain, so what can be the problem? It’s obvious: One of them is wrong. The best part is that each knows God talks to them through the plain meaning of the Bible, so each immediately knows that the other is the one who is wrong!
The other problem is that this view of how we read the Bible is an illusion. Sure, we’d like to believe that God speaks directly to us through the Bible, but that isn’t how it works. In reality, it works more like this:
(God) –> (Human Author) –> (Authorial Culture and beliefs) –> (Bible) –> (Church Councils) –> (Translation) –> (Experience) –> (Faith Tradition) –> (Culture) –> (Hermeneutics) –> (My Mind)
Put in the earlier formulation:
(G) –> (HA) –> (AC) –> (B) –> (CC) –> (T) –> (E) –> (TR) –> (H) –> (M)
At this point if you’re thinking, “Holy crap, that’s a lot of stuff between God and my brain,” you’re right. You start with divine inspiration, but then you drop in a human author and that author’s culture and beliefs, and then you have the original text. But then you have church councils that decided which of those ancient texts were and were not inspired by God, and then you have translators who translate your Bible, and at this point you hope you can finally get
(B) –> (M)
because isn’t there enough between God’s revelation and my brain already? But it isn’t even nearly that simple; in fact, this almost even where the trouble starts!
We interpret every word we read from our experience and our culture, and then of course we interpret through our faith tradition. Catholics read the verse about the sin that leads to death to explain mortal and venial sins. Cessationists read I Corinthians 13 to mean that the gifts have ceased. Protestants read that line about “Ye are a kingdom of priests” to mean that we don’t need priests because we all are. We take our theological commitments to the text.
We also read the Bible through our experience. A verse like Isaiah 49:16 might be meaningless to you, but it has deep emotional significance to me that God told Israel he had written their name on the palm of his hands. Why? I have an experience with that verse. It isn’t just God’s word to my tabla rasa; it’s God’s word to me, an individual.
And of course we have interpretive principles, or hermeneutics. Here are a few my dad uses, for instance:
- The Old Testament Law doesn’t apply except when it talks about things that I think are important, like women not wearing pants.
- The law about the Sabbath was good, but God doesn’t want us to kill people over it (even though Exodus 31:14 clearly commands that Sabbath-breakers are to be put to death.
- Anything in the Old Testament that is disagreed with in the New Testament was overridden.
I love having these conversations with my dad because he’ll introduce an interpretive principle in one breath and deny that he interprets in the next. Fundamentalists prefer to deny that they have hermeneutics. After all,
The Bible (and therefore God) says X,
God said it, I believe it, and that settles it,
comes across as much more compelling and powerful than
Someone who lived a long time ago wrote something in his culture and a much later church council decided that writing was inspired by God. A modern English translator translated it to say X, and based upon my experience, interpretive principles, and faith tradition, I believe it means Y in our culture in general and for this situation in particular.
Fundamentalists will no doubt say that I have “mudded up that which is clear,” as one did recently, but this is simply not the case. The mud was already there, but the fundamentalist refuses to see it.
The brilliance of ignoring the way hermeneutics works is that it allows fundamentalists and evangelicals to pretend (a) that God shares their prejudices and, in a marvelous sleight-of-hand, (b) they don’t have them.
Let’s go back to the example about my dad. He thinks (based on his culture and faith tradition and other interpretive principles) that women are supposed to be subject to their husband, or that women shouldn’t be pastors or preachers over men. These systems are to his advantage, but with (B) –> (M), he can reap their benefits without taking responsibility for them when there’s backlash because (he believes) they aren’t his.
Or take the gay issue. Christians use their hermeneutical principles to dismiss many other things in the Bible, even in the New Testament, like head coverings for women, but when it comes to things like same-sex marriage, the Bible is clear. It’s God’s word direct to my brain. It’s
(G) / (B) –> (M).
It’s not that Christians don’t like gays, mind you; it’s that God doesn’t like gays. This allows Christians to shuffle off their distaste for same-sex unions onto God – and then pretend not to have that distaste themselves.
I’m not prejudiced; God is prejudiced on my behalf.
For the concept “I don’t have to ____, ____ does that for me,” I am indebted to Peter Rollins and his challenging book Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine.