(un)Biblical Fundamentalism and Literalism, Part Two: Culture, Context and Critical Thinking

The history of how the Bible was written, decided on (voted in/out) and translated is available for all to learn – from many historians and theologians better than me. In the years following the death of Jesus, the Jewish leaders (authors, followers, biographers, teachers, church and community) all had a vested interest in nailing down exactly what had happened with the rogue prophet. The Nicean creed pulled things together, but not without much debate.

In this part of the article series on (un)Biblical Fundamentalism and Literalism, I’m exploring what the Bible is, should be, and could be. It’s just my thoughts on some entry level concepts, really. And, yes, I hope it may serve as a few “next breadcrumbs” leading toward deeper learning for others. Here goes!

You cannot read the Bible without acknowledging culture, context and the company you keep.

Here’s a link back to Part One of this article series, if you haven’t read that one already. Further to those thoughts, we know that storytelling and historical accounts are often different from one to another, and “historical account” itself is a different concept today than it was back then.

After studying the culture of the biblical authors, we also know that they (with a few exceptions) are far more interested in telling a symbolic story than a literal one. Modern antagonists often think this is an argument to bend biblical interpretation away from literalism – it is, but that’s anachronistic. An ancient culture as we understand it, Jewish and Hebrew communication was simply much more dependent on using storytelling to both record-keep and convey morality; and the stories weren’t always literal or factual. Humans at this time did not have an expectation for a record of events, a family or people group’s history, or even world history to a large extent, to be literal or factual. The result of this type writing is our perception today that the Bible’s claims or “facts” are hard to pin down, missing or distorted.

There are two aspects of this biblical fact-bending that impact on our ability to place biblical narrative within context, what is necessary for correct interpretation of scripture.

1. Abstract stories convey truth abstractly.

I know you’re thinking, “What? She’s still going on about the culture of storytelling?” Yes, it’s. Just. That. Important. And abstract stories (or allegory) in particular are found throughout the Bible.

The Old Testament especially is rampant with stories that were not written with the intention to ever be used as literal history or even the intention to be used as direct 1:1 metaphors.

For example, in the Old Testament, we find many stories that convey what life was like for the Hebrew people. We find stories that explain existence such as the Christian creation story, which draws from the explanations the first humans used to make sense of the beginnings of life as we know it, er, I mean as they knew it. The Christian creation story was not the first or only creation story of ancient cultures, not by far. There are many ancient creation stories from the first people groups and the Christian one has parallels to what other cultures were also storytelling/teaching to their tribes at the time; the one in the Bible is the one that got written down based on ancient Hebrew lore. This gives me a giant nerd shiver over here as we see the power of the written word to form history and found thoughts and beliefs.

There are stories in the Bible that are widely acknowledged to not reflect a historical account, but are included rather as a story used for teaching with many possible meanings inside. This is part of an important storytelling tool used to inspire insightful dialogue employed by the Jewish people called midrashim. Teachers or regular laypeople would gather on Sabbat to share a meal, share community, and share stories intended for discussion. The technique of midrashim was to tell a new story or re-tell a familiar story, but perhaps with a new plot twist. In this way, the stories were alive, never finished and always open to new interpretations as families, thought leaders, or anyone with insight interacted with the point of the story.

Imagine sitting around a campfire and challenging your group to a creative imagination exercise – a game where you go around the circle and re-tell the story of Jaws in multiple ways. It starts in X one time, and the next it is set in X. One time it is a marine biologist on board the boat, then it is an artist. One time, they say, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” The next they say, “We’re going to need a bigger net.” One time it is a shark terrorizing the coast, the next it is a lion stalking a village in the jungle.

There is an element of newness each time, which factors into the enjoyment, entertainment and memorability factors of the story. This naturally increases the possibilities of what each individual person is able to receive from the story. If there is a moral or a possible life lesson, this also increases what is possible for each person to receive for their individual enrichment. And that’s cool. The people hear the story and interact with it, arguing whether the storyteller contributed a worthwhile change. They may ask, what did it add to the telling, what did it remove, why would it be good or interesting to tell it like that again, etc.

I wasn’t familiar at all with midrashim growing up in Mennonite evangelical churches, but I sure remember what it was like as a child to sit around and listen to my grandparents, uncles and aunts telling the story of the snowmobile that almost fell through the ice on Big Whiteshell Lake. There were many different versions and whose was the right one? Of course, they all were.

Midrashim is a lost art, similar to the art of creating great riddles, subtle sarcasm, and stories of irony for medieval amusement. I would love to propose that Evangelical churches do midrashim in some form to this day, through visual art, song writing, flannelgraphs (wait, does anyone still do flannelgraph?), sketch theatre, and more. It’s the same stories, re-told, a thousand times the same and a thousand times different; varying in medium and sometimes just inflection, but different none the less and somewhat less intentional than true midrashim.

As the stories are told, the “facts” change. And as a writer and lover of literature, allegory is cool with me. Stories allow for nuance. We need to remind ourselves not to judge them as either “true” or “untrue”. This leads to a dangerous game of literalism and the temptation to say it either happened as documented which informs our hard and fast How-To Guide to Right-Living, or it didn’t and the whole bible needs to be thrown away.

The second fact-bending element to be aware of in our culture and contextual rabbit hole exploration of the Bible has to do bias, and this one I’m less OK with.

2. Fill in the blank: When Biblical authors assume, ______________________.

It’s important to learn who the biblical authors were and become aware of the assumptions they had about life, love, religion, the world, (and gender and sexuality and law and social norms) and everything. These biblical authors were the ones who wrote many the letters, passages, poems, etc. that eventually got turned into what we know as the books of the Bible. This means cultivating an awareness of how the original Bible was brought together in the original languages.

And then learning what the word “original” can possibly mean after church leaders, biographers, historians, and whoever was at those councils voted on all of the manuscripts that were found, rejected, altered, edited, translated, re-translated… There are many more and much better explanations of this done by better scholars than me. I would point you to some easily digestible content, such as the work of Jared Byas and Pete Enns on The Bible for Normal People or the work of Dr. Bart D. Ehrman of which this talk in particular was interesting to me.

So we know the Bible was put together by men of certain stature who included either what they knew would be the most influential to other hearts and minds in the culture of their day. With no conscious malice (I’m willing to believe though let’s throw a grain of sand in here), they focused on what was most important in their eyes and what they thought would be the most important to future readers. In other words, they made assumptions from their particular vantage point in history. We all do this all the time when going through our days with the information we have today.

For example, the New Testament includes the stories of Jesus calling the 12 disciples. The stories are compelling and the 12 were named and framed up with purpose – God/dess’s purpose? Sure, and also the writers’.

It has been documented Jesus had more than just 12 disciples and many of them were women, but for the writers of the New Testament, the stories included had to record the disciples as Jewish men, no Gentiles. Any women disciples are barely mentioned, almost accidentally, certainly not the focus. I’m just scraping the surface offering up this one example of Biblical writers’ bias.

Bias itself is a loaded modern word. It has a lot more implication today than simply asking readers to acknowledge that in biblical times it was more commonplace to tell selectively factual stories.

Bias in the Bible, as an area of study differentiated from midrashim and cultural context, demands a deeper dive than I have time for here. And frankly, it’s a challenging one. Maybe I find it unnerving to discover the Bible’s biases because I’m a woman, and I start to think about all the other minority groups who are supposed to swallow the “truth” of the Bible when it was pulled together by a company of men from one select corner of the world with their particular worldview from that particular culture, place and time.

Maybe because I’m a journalist and we’re in the middle of a shitstorm of media distrust where everyone is being called out for their biases. No one can possibly be putting forward news (storytelling) that is bias-free, amiright? We can’t trust the messengers; they are owned by Big Company.

Now, the Company kept by the men who constructed the Bible may have been good (morally) and highly regarded (professionally, academically), but I can no longer passively receive the writings of this ancient text without these factors influencing my reading. Know your media, know where you’re getting your news, and know who wrote your Bible. It’s just smart.

I’ll conclude with one more little tidbit about contextual reading that I hope brings this all together.

Critical thinking feels confusing and big and it should and, hey, feel that? That’s actually freedom in Christ.

In my requisite year of Bible school I needed to become a well-rounded Christian adult and find my husband, I took the requisite courses which including basics of biblical interpretation. It instilled an appreciation in me for the complexity involved in reading the Bible.

As a cradle Christian, having made a decision to invite Jesus into my heart at a young age, and raised in a Christian home with a church-going upbringing, making the Bible personal and approachable was not a struggle for me. It basically came with my childhood as a package deal. But who could argue that there were not parts of the Bible that were difficult to understand? Some parts were boring. Some parts contradicted each other. My professor did a great job of encouraging young adults to read the Bible, perhaps for the first time with both an open heart and a thinking mind.

Raise your hand if you were encouraged toward critical thinking for the first time at Bible school. Am I the only one? Are you surprised? Naïve as I was, I thought it was normal. I enjoyed my education. We were walked through the various biblical authors including books of the Bible with dubious known authorship, time periods of different writings, and the basic challenges of language interpretation from the original languages to the King James English Bible and other variations. We learned about the different stylistic purposes of the books and explored biblical poetry (so wild and earnest, one of my favourite topics).

Throwback to college me!

As I learned, any questions I had were fielded by kind and qualified professors. My friend group included open-minded and openhearted academics who took just as well to lively biblical debate as they did to volunteerism in the community and social justice issues. Many struggled openly with accepting the pat answers given to pacify those young of faith; indeed, we were encouraged to keep on asking questions and NOT to accept the easy answers. More than a few of my friends left Christianity in the years after their Bible school experience.

I ended up returning to the school as a staff member in the marketing department; my experience as both a student and a staff member gave me some unique insight into both Christian academics and politics. I also had the unique opportunity to observe the academic environment as they navigating some inter-institutional upheaval and navigating the public relations impact surrounding the acceptance of the school’s first (openly) homosexual student.

I recall when a young student came to me and asked, with concern, about the openness of the faculty and students. They seemed concerned about the commitment of the faculty advisors and administrative staff, including the guidance committees and president, to remain committed to contextual and progressive biblical interpretation and, thus, administration. They asked, was our school going to administrate according to progressive thought or defer to (regressive) tradition?

A few years later, an older supporter from the community approached me about the school, having observed how the institution handled theological study and the application of its biblical principles as they interpreted them corporately. Their concern seemed to be opposite in nature from the young person’s concern: how come a Bible school is teaching such loose and abstract theology?

How two people observed and experienced the school so differently was not lost on me. It was the early 2000s and not an easy time in Christian higher education, though I cannot imagine what the environment is like these days.

Looking back, throughout my life I was fortunate enough to have modelled for me an open yet critical mindset. Both/And. I call this wisdom. I kept company with lovers of this wisdom, traditionalists and progressives, fundamentalists and liberal, left-leaning, or what-have-you. I have friends who have stayed in Christianity, those who have left, and those who are hanging in there.

When your religion relies on a book where each passage and individual word also relies on context, the only way forward is an open heart and open mind. Critical thinking is your friend (your very best friend) and it’s best to get comfortable with the grey areas of nuance. It’s not going to feel comfortable. It may require extending grace to those with a different experience and opinion than you. The discomfort is a cue to look closer and ask why and learn.

I won’t deny this is easier when you’re in an environment that encourages questions and I hope you have this in your life. If you find you’re being made to feel awkward or are actively discouraged from questioning, it’s OK to seek out and find those who are also committed to critical thinking. The company we keep all too easily influences our biases, so if you find yourself becoming open to a less literal and less legalistic view of the Bible, find a community that will be able to include and support your journey.

Like this site. I’m glad you’re here. 🙂

Stay tuned for Part 3 Evangelicals, Inerrancy, and Biblical Idolatry. You won’t have to wait as long for it. And it won’t be this long. I promise.

2 thoughts on “(un)Biblical Fundamentalism and Literalism, Part Two: Culture, Context and Critical Thinking

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