(un)Biblical Fundamentalism and Literalism, Part One: Humans and a History of Storytelling

Let’s talk about Bible literalism and scriptural inerrancy. I’ve been sitting on this topic a long time and continue to have trouble narrowing down what I’d like to say. So this is an invitation to a three part article series. I’ll try not to leave you hanging and actually complete all three. A few reminders, I am not a historian, nor a theological expert. And yet I willingly walk into the conversation with openness and curiosity.

I respect you if you choose to do the same. We can’t wander into any of these articles about these things without being willing to talk about bibliolatry and the way we interpret scripture. And we can’t talk about interpreting scripture without getting comfortable with context. If you’re an evangelical, I urge you to re-examine how you were brought into a relationship with your Bible, how you were taught to read it, interpret it for yourself, and apply it to your life.

So hang on, evangelicals, let’s go for a little jaunt down history lane.

In this article, I’m going to unleash my inner nerd about communication history. I love to encourage people to learn about how written information came about in human history, right from the very beginning. Storytelling from early human history evolved as both the original history textbooks, connection through entertainment, and instructions for living and morality. Stories held power to inform, entertain, and help shape humanity. Nonverbal communication, such as gestures, body language, facial expressions, and eye contact, were often just as important as the verbal sounds. Storytelling developed in this way through verbal language, which follows phonological rules – the sounds humans made followed patterns and became language. Structure and pauses within semantic rules gave increased meaning to sounds and once you have agreed upon meaning, you have context. Written communication followed (or developed alongside) and a structure of symbols that reflect the sounds of verbal language was developed.

Among the first written communication tools was papyrus, then paper. Eastern culture is credited as having the oldest known printed book (The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist book from Dunhuang, China from around 868 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty). Later on came Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press (1440), and eventually electronic communication (radio, telephone, infrared, analog wireless phone, digital cellular phone, internet, social media). Are you with me so far? Whew!

At which point in the development of communication do you think the greatest change to human cultures occurred? Pictographs, paper, or electronic? I think it is the printing press. Why? Because even though in the last 100 years we’ve seen many truly significant leaps in communication technology from radio, telephone, to cellphones and the internet, the printing press when viewed as a fixed point in human history was the development that catapulted humans along this trajectory.

It was truly the point at which a human communicator could reach beyond himself; if his leaflet was left somewhere, anybody could read your leaflet. Your possible reach as an author became immense. The crucial spread of information could be achieved faster than ever before. This meant ideas could be spread, information could be spread, maps could be created, amusements could be spread, religious theories could be spread. This was amazing.

It was also the beginning of marketing and propaganda, which was used in Europe to both save lives and end them. Save them, through providing education materials on a scale never before seen, massive public health awareness campaigns about the effects of smallpox and polio and its prevention through vaccination. End them, through war propaganda as seen in the distribution of racist literature in World War II.

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, it marked the first time the Bible was available in a language spoken by laypeople and not just church officials. I would argue both points as to whether or not this was a benefit to human lives, but its effect on the church is distinct.

On a very interesting rabbit trail, take a listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and the story of Munster, Germany. Fair warning, it’s not for the faint of heart. While it would be likely equally as interesting to learn how scripture was (and is) controlled by other religious sects, Carlin highlights a connecting point between the progression of the Catholic church from having essentially exerted full control over the context and interpretation of Scripture, for better or worse, for the past hundreds of years and the tragedy of Munster. He highlights how leaders, with new power under Martin Luther’s theology and the printed bible in German, the lay-language of their day and region, used their individual authority on scripture to lead an entire city into chaos with their group of believers at the core devolving into a horror show of drunkenness, sex, rape, property-appropriation – all based on their conviction of Spirit-led interpretation of the Bible. It’s incredibly interesting. But incredibly dark and sad.

Depiction of captured citizens brought before an Anabaptist leader during the Münster rebellion.

Why do I mention this absurd and abhorrent story? It’s of interest to me for my Anabaptist roots and the group’s connections to Germany. This is part of my ancestors’ history, which naturally increases the level of personal interest.

And it smacks of many similarities to how colonialism was embraced by the church as western Europeans descended on new lands in the Americas and elsewhere. We’re living out those consequences and more people are increasing their awareness of the atrocities committed. As Christians, these are important conversations to have – and recognize they are not isolated sets of events, consequences and conversations.

There’s another connection I cannot help but make between the printing press, Luther’s releasing the Bible to the masses and empowering people to self-interpret Scripture, and the tragedy in Munster, and that is to the next leap in the human development of communication that we’ve lived through in the past 25-ish years. Whatever you believe about Luther’s decision to be ultimately good for humankind, you also now have to ask yourself if it is good how humans are making another developmental leap via digital communications.

I would ask, in hindsight, was the release of scripture to the population through printed common language and the encouragement to self-interpret ultimately good or harmful to the Christian faith?

Likewise, I would ask, is the release of scripture to today’s population through social media and memes (today’s common language) now also going to be good or harmful to the faith?

Of course it has no bearing on history whether I decide something in human development is good or bad. History is above my moral judgment, as is God/dess and how they work. These are interesting questions to lean into.

Storytelling has evolved into a raging fire of technological advancements for either the good or detriment of humans. Communication has always been both an art and a science and how we are pulled into action through the psychological affirmation of sensing likeness through story continues to be undeniable human nature. It’s not lost on me that this is also what I’m doing here at this very moment, pulling at your ability to approach my version of the truth through my story and my awareness of your story.

This Good Book that so many have staked both their lives and deaths on continues to propagate both life and death into the world. A nexus of energy that must be embraced or rejected by those who encounter it, I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring of discovering its contextual power.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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