Self Defense from a Fundamentalist Attack
12 Scriptures no fundamentalist believes
(Part 4 “The letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life”)
According to most forms of fundamentalism, scripture is to be taken literally. In other words, when we read the ancient poetry of Genesis, fundamentalism believes it is reading an astronomy and biology textbook as well. Luther saw Copernicus as arrogant for seeking truth outside God’s revealed word. Even today, there are fundamentalists who deem evolutionary biology not as an objective search for truth, but as an assault on their own literal understanding of the Bible.
The fundamentalist believer is supposed to hold that the Bible was dictated word for word and has endured countless translations into radically different languages and cultures over vast spans of time without any serious impact upon its meaning.
If we see a contradiction in reading scripture, as we certainly will, we are told to lie to ourselves and call our dishonesty “faith”. So, when scripture begins with two contradictory creation stories, instead of using them as two different poems about the human condition, we are to duct tape them together into one scientific version that numbs the mind and heart at once. Later, when Judas dies two contradictory deaths we are asked to, in the words of Feuerbach, “pluck out our eyes that we might see better.”
What do you suppose Paul meant when he said “the letter of the law kills but the spirit gives life?” (2 Cor. 3:6) What do you think he meant when he told a story from Genesis, and said “this is an analogy?” (Gal. 4:24) And if the truth can put into the black and white of logical assertions, then why did Jesus teach in parables? What was his view of truth that he taught it in riddles?
The reason we cannot take the Bible literally is not only that it has been translated into vastly different kinds of languages. The reason we cannot take it literally is not only that we cannot use the vocabulary of our culture to understand a wildly different place and time. The primary reason we cannot take scripture literally is because human language is symbolic by nature.
Human beings do not perceive our environment directly or objectively. We perceive the world through our bodies, through our memories, through our hopes and fears, and always through some cultural vocabulary. We are subjective beings down to our core. Objectivity may be a worthy goal, but it is never our foundation.
If you believe your subjective interpretation is objective, then what are you to make of it when my subjective interpretation differs from yours? If you are a fundamentalist and believe the Bible can be understood literally, then you will have to assume that I am wrong. After all, it’s perfectly clear when you look down at the page. At first, you will lovingly try to correct me, but if I persist in my error against the plain meaning of scripture, at some point you may feel the need to punish me until I repent of my error, assuring me of your love as you tearfully turn the screws.
The study of how we interpret language is called “hermeneutics,” and it is a very important art. The study of hermeneutics is an attempt to remember that we all bring filters and lenses to the text. None of us sees with the eye of God, but if we put our subjectivities together, we can share a picture of our common life vastly richer than any of us could reach alone. But to reach such shared meaning, we have to get beyond literalism. Or, as the Bible says, “those who have ears, let them hear.”
If I am unaware that I am wearing sunglasses, it is the world that seems dark. If the world looks bright and cheery to you, I can only assume that you are lying about something so simple as the weather. Eventually, I will find other people who see the world the same way I do and we will call ourselves a denomination. At that point, our mistaken objectivity can become deadly, but it will consist of kind loving people who have no idea where the trouble is coming from.