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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What In God’s Name? Secularism And The Relevance Of The Bible

The Bible has never played an important part in the Roman Catholic Church which prefers its own version of received wisdom which, although drawn from Scripture, has more to do with ‘tradition’ – the works of Catholic theologians, scholars, and oral history.  After Martin Luther criticized what he saw was an overly authoritarian and manipulative, venal Church; and instituted reforms to make Jesus Christ more accessible through a reading of the Bible and faith based on it, the lines were drawn.  Catholics would benefit from a Church-mediated religion and the wisdom of its saints, clerics, and theorists.  Protestants would be freed from the exploitative tethers of Rome and would be free to find God in their own direct way.

As a result, Catholics rarely read the Bible.  It is not taught in Catechism class and is referred to only occasionally in Sunday sermons.  There are no Bible study classes for adults, no formal or informal gatherings to discuss the Gospels, the Epistles, or the Old Testament.  Trust in the Church has always been the Catholic message.

Dostoevsky's famous Grand Inquisitor challenges the returned Fifteenth Century Christ and says that he sold the world a bill of goods.  His defiant rejection of the Devil’s temptations (“Man cannot live by bread alone”) ignored Man’s weaknesses and need for “Miracles, Mystery, and Authority” and promised celestial paradise with one caveat.  Man must use his free will to choose between good and evil, and then and only then, will he have a chance – not a guarantee – of ascending to heaven.

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Faithful Christians didn’t know what to do.  They were paralyzed by the option of free choice, and so preferred to put their destiny in the hands of the Church which for centuries safeguarded their souls at great profit to it.  

So, whether one is as cynical as the Grand Inquisitor and feels that the Church continues to exploit human weakness and by so doing arrogates increasing power to itself; or whether one is content in the embracing arms of God’s institution, the Bible is irrelevant.  If one wants to go to the source, better become a Protestant and an evangelical one at that.

Ivan Karamazov not only challenges Christ on his Temptation in the desert, the concept of free will, and the nature of religious mediation; but condemns him for his deliberate willingness to inflict suffering on the world and especially on innocent children.  Ivan could understand why perhaps Christ made adults suffer, even though such divine purpose stretched logic; but he could not countenance the misery, pain, and abandonment of children.

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Suffering, of course, is at the heart of the New Testament.  ‘Christ suffered for our sins’, say Christians; and the Crucifixion was the only way that the innumerable horrible sins of mankind could possibly be forgiven, that redemption could be possible, and attainment of salvation real.
Suffering is a common theme in the Old Testament as well, and the Book of Job is the most cited example.  God deliberately makes Job suffer to test his faith and enlists the Devil to do his work.  He sends torment after torment, torture, pain, deprivation, and loss because Job is so patient and accepting.  Suffering is proof of faith in Job.  It is the way to salvation in the Gospels.

Solness, the Master Builder in Ibsen’s play of the same name, climbs the steeple to his death in defiance of a God who he feels has punished him unfairly.  I have suffered enough, says Solness, shaking his fist at God and losing his balance.  In this act of repudiation, Solness echoes Nietzsche who said that the only validation of humanity was the expression of individual will.

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No understanding of the play could be complete without an understanding of both the Old and New Testaments and their themes of suffering, defiance to God, the role of the individual in a divine universe. 

A comprehension of Shakespeare’s plays is impossible without a Biblical grounding.
Peter Milward notes that despite their secular appearance, Shakespeare's plays "conceal an undercurrent of religious meaning which belongs to their deepest essence." Further, Milward maintains that although Shakespeare "may have felt obliged by the circumstances of the Elizabethan stage to avoid Biblical or other religious subjects for his plays," such obligation "did not prevent him from making full use of the Bible in dramatizing his secular sources and thus infusing into them a Biblical meaning."
Milward continues that, in writing his plays (in particular, the tragedies), Shakespeare "shows the universal relevance of the Bible both to the reality of human life 'in this harsh world' and to its ideal in the heart of God." Steven Marx suggests "a thorough familiarity with the Scriptures" is a prerequisite to understanding the Biblical references in the plays, and that the plays' references to the Bible "illuminate fresh and surprising meanings in the biblical text."  Marx further notes that "it is possible that Shakespeare sometimes regarded his own role of playwright and performer as godlike, his own book as potent and capacious as 'The Book'. (Wikipedia)
The New Testament is the foundation of Western Christian society.  Its moral code, theology, myth, and historical and literary imperatives, set down more than 2000 years ago are still valid and as alive as they ever were.  No one can understand today’s Christian fundamentalist evangelism without reading the Bible.  If these devout faithful believe that the Bible is the unaltered and true word of God, then it cannot be ignored.  The Bible’s admonitions concerning poverty, wealth, deceit, honesty, marriage, the role of women, sexuality, and the relationship between Church and State are at the heart of our laws, social mores, and personal conduct.

America was founded on religious principles.  Although as much a product of the rational Enlightenment, our Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights take divine inspiration.  America may be becoming a less Christian country in terms of demographics, but Christianity is still at the heart of the nation, and its principles ascribed to by many if not all.

The Bible as myth is as compelling as The Ramayana, Gilgamesh, or The Odyssey.  The Old Testament is a rip-roaring story of parted waters, heroic battles, survival, and outsized legendary figures. 

The story of Adam and Eve is compelling – husband and wife, temptation, deceit, and a fall.  The story of Job is painful, dramatic, and tragic.  The tale of the Jews’ exodus is heroic and vivid.  Jonah and the Whale is a story every Christian child knows and wants to read again and again.

The myth of the New Testament, although derivative of previous myths,  is as transformative and powerful as any – a virgin birth, the coming to earth of an incarnated God, his crucifixion, death, and ascension into heaven.  Miracles, mystery, and the awful authority of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The ‘Search for the Historical Jesus’ is a popular academic pursuit these days; but it began early in the 19th century.  Albert Schweitzer is perhaps the best-known exponent of the discipline and in his book of the same name, a compendium of 19th century scholars from a variety of disciplines, he illustrates myth, analyzes how miracles can be explained, and engages in the rigorous textual analysis of the Gospels common today.

Was there a historical Jesus?  Yes if one takes the few non-Christian accounts (e.g Josephus) seriously.  A man who resembled Jesus Christ in the most basic ways probably did live in Palestine.  But did he do the things the Bible says he did?  There is no way of knowing, and all the critical analysis in the world leaves the student at a faith-no faith point.  Either you believe it or you don’t.
Tolstoy spent most of his adult life looking for spiritual revelation.  The memoir of his search for meaning and religion, A Confession, ends up in the same place.  If billions of people believe, said Tolstoy, exhausted after years of scholarly studies, then why shouldn’t I?  He backed into faith like many have done.

Scholars have been trying to make sense out of the Bible for 2000 years; and the story of the Early Church is a familiar tale of political interests, academic contention, slander, hostility, and retrenchment.   Paul was a master at public relations, marketing, and management.  He and his fellow evangelists and missionaries within the space of very few years spread Christianity as far as Rome and to the eastern ends of the Roman and Greek worlds.  How they were able to do this is remarkable.   Scholars have studied the socio-political, economic, cultural, and linguistic factors which facilitated the spread; but it is nonetheless remarkable.  The story of early Christianity is a study of ambition, politics, society, family, and class.

The Bible, read as either secular source, myth, or divine revelation is indeed Western society's fundamental document. 

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