Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Bible as Cultural Icon

Posted by Kiskilili

Recently I led discussion sections for a course on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and its role in the early development of Judaism and Christianity, to undergraduates at a private, secular university. Quite naturally, the course drew disproportionately on Jewish and Christian students, the majority of whom had encountered the Bible extensively in religious environments but had no experience at all with biblical scholarship.

At times my students would express dismay, even horror, at the information that was presented. One student wrote in a response paper about feeling betrayed, in spite of years of Hebrew School, for having never been taught that nowhere does the Bible say to separate milk and meat. Others foundered to learn that the “virgin who will conceive” in Isaiah 7:14 is not necessarily a virgin at all (and thus, there is little reason to force the passage into a Messianic interpretation). Some struggled with efforts to reconcile their belief in a loving God with God’s reported behavior, or fretted over evidence of polytheistic attitudes within Israelite religion(s).

In the final paper the students were asked to examine the role the Bible does and should play in determining public policy regarding a specific issue of their choice. Predictably, a good chunk of the papers dealt either with abortion or gay marriage, and it was clear to me that the students’ own views fell along both sides of the spectrum on both issues. Some students proof-texted the Bible to demonstrate abortion should be illegal, while others examined the same group of texts and reached opposite conclusions. And similar arguments appeared for and against gay marriage.

But by the end of the course, many students recognized this pattern. One wrote explicitly in his final paper that it seemed to him that everyone was using the Bible to reach conclusions they already held. (Gold star for his forehead!)

Given the frequently alien, thoroughly multivocal, often contradictory and sometimes unintelligible nature of the collection of texts we refer to as the “Bible” (from the Greek for “books,” plural), I seriously doubt, all cries of sola scriptura aside, that anyone today can claim a religion founded primarily on the biblical text. The book itself seems seriously ill-suited to pull the load to which we’ve harnessed it.

Fortunately, much of that load can be handily taken up by our cultural ideas about the Bible–the Bible as icon. After all, it’s not light reading (certainly not the KJV!), and it’s rather lengthy. Not to mention the fact that millennia of interpretive traditions have accrued in a variety of religious communities. So, while it is a massive bestseller of all time and perches prominently on many a living-room mantel, much of our (cultural) familiarity with it is heavily mediated through other sources.

Textual alchemy–doctoring up a passage until it fits with preconceived convictions–remains a constant temptation, for any who assign authority in one way or another to the biblical text. Of course, it would be fantastic to have access to a handbook or instruction manual descended directly from heaven, and penned personally by God. But it’s difficult to argue that the Bible constitutes that book (though many have made a valiant effort!). Certainly moral values can be extracted from its pages. But then one is left wondering what sets this book apart from any other collection of literature, from which one can equally find strategies to draw the conclusions one already holds dear.

As one of the centerpieces of our tradition, the Bible may not be the book we want, and it may not even be the book we need. It performs rather clumsily when pressed into service as a Book of Common Prayer or a catechism. And yet it is, nevertheless, richer and more fascinating than either of the former.

25 Responses to “The Bible as Cultural Icon”

  1. 1.

    Kiskilili, thanks for this post. I wonder what you would recommend for lay readers who are interested in approaching the actual Bible text — rather than using it as a source of leverage for some predefined belief. Serenity Valley and I have discovered a lot in the text simply by reading a different translation — other than the KJV. And I’ve personally supplemented that with a bit of light reading in Bible scholarship. What’s the next step, short of taking your course, naturally? (Unless you want to do a free, online, Mormon blog Bible reading workshop…)

  2. 2.

    Oh, what I would give to take one of your courses! I love RT’s parenthetical idea–what about letting us see your syllabus and text requirements?

  3. 3.

    Surely you must be joking. For all its weaknesses, the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is more densely packed with precepts suitable to found a religion on than any other book ever written.

    Does it matter that it doesn’t dictate every detail of social affairs? Why should we prefer it that way? Isn’t milk and meat of far lesser importance than justice and mercy, sanctification and justification, obedience and sacrifice, to say nothing of the Atonement and the doctrine of Christ?

    Could we extract all this from, say, the collected works of William Shakespeare? The basics, sure, but I challenge anyone to come up with a non-scriptural text a tenth as valuable as the New Testament on a page for page basis. There are some nice works of literature out there, but why write a 1000 page novel, when one is inspired enough to write the theme down properly in a page and a half?

  4. 4.

    Mark, I’m not sure that Kiskilili is discounting the value of the Bible altogether so much as noting that we don’t tend to engage it as a complex, multivocal work. In other words, the way that the Bible functions in our culture is often only loosely connected to what’s actually written in it. I too have heard both conservatives and liberals glibly assert that “the Bible clearly teaches x” in support of a pet political position. In such cases, people are frequently drawing not so much on the text itself as on cultural ideas about what the Bible is and what it says. And we’re steeped in cultural mythologies surrounding the Bible. For example, I hear again and again that the Old Testament God is mean and vengeful, while the New Testament God is loving and merciful. Why do people make this claim? Because that’s what “everyone knows” about the Bible.

    I think this kind of dynamic can be seen at work in the way in which our own Gospel Doctrine manuals are put together. The lesson on Job, for example, structures the story like this: “1. Job is sorely tested. 2. Job finds strength in the Lord. 3. Job finds strength in his personal righteousness and integrity. 4. After Job has faithfully endured his trials, the Lord blesses him.” Job’s unhappiness with God, his wishes that he had never been born, are not even mentioned. If you were to read only the manual’s characterization of Job, you would get a far different picture of the story than you would from reading the actual book of Job. In a case such as this one, in what sense can the Bible really be cited as the basis for the principles being taught? If this is the way the Bible is being used–simply to illustrate principles which we have already decided to accept–I’m not sure there actually is more value in drawing on the Bible than in drawing on other classic texts.

  5. 5.

    Fascinating post, Kiskilli.

    Interpreting the Bible is much like interpreting the U.S. Constitution. We will never be able to divine the Founders’ “original intent” from the words of the Constitution, especially as applied to the world in the 21st century. Hence the running debate between the Iron Rod Jurists (Scalia, etc.) vs. the Liahona Jurists (Brennan, etc.).

  6. 6.

    Darn it, I missed an “i”. Sorry for misspelling your name, Kiskilili. :)

  7. 7.

    Mark, I don’t think Kiskilili would deny anything you’ve said about the doctrines of the New Testament, and given that she’s devoted many years of her life to learning the languages in which the Bible’s written, I don’t think you need to defend its value to her. (Speaking as one well acquainted with Kiskilili’s sense of humor, I suspect she will leave us in no doubt when she’s joking ;) ).

    Her point, as I understand it, is rather that the Bible is a long, complex document, the product of centuries, and that it contains conflicting accounts of the same events and even conflicting injunctions, some of which we adhere to rigorously, some of which we adhere to casually, and some of which we outright repudicate. (And given the Bible’s complexity, this is probably an inevitable state of affairs.) But the Bible is constantly appealed to by both liberals and conservatives in ways that completely gloss over this complexity. (To pick just one highly charged example, religious liberals tend to emphasize the Bible’s constant injunctions to care for the poor and downplay or ignore its sexual codes as irrelevant, while religious conservatives tend to do the opposite.) It’s in this sense that we’ve reduced the Bible to a cultural icon and made it say what we have already decided it says.

    I think one of Kiskilili’s points is simply that this–construing a text in terms of our current doctrine and cultural mores–is a highly problematic hermeneutic, one that precludes any genuine encounter with the text. Intellectual and spiritual honesty and respect for the Bible demand more of us. There are no easy resolutions to the inevitable tensions between the complex particulars of a canonical text and the abstractions of contemporary doctrine, in part because those tensions are inherent in canonization itself. But we must begin by owning what the text actually says.

  8. 8.

    There’s a fascinating passage in an article by George Packer in this week’s _New Yorker_ that speaks to this issue:

    For any Muslim who believes in universal human rights, tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy, the Koran presents an apparently insoluble problem. Some of its verses carry commands that violate a modern person’s sense of morality. The Koran accepts slavery. The Koran appoints men to be “the protectors and maintainers of women,” to whom women owe obedience; if disobeyed, men have duty first to warn them, then to deny them sex, and finally to “beat them (lightly).” The Koran orders believers to wait until the holy months are finished, and then to “fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every strategem (of war).”….An enormous industry of reform-minded interpreters has arisen in recent years to explain them away, contextualize them, downplay them, or simply ignore them…In confronting the troublesome verses head on, Taha has shown more intellectual honesty than all the Islamic scholars, community leaders, and world statesment who think that they have solved the problem by flatly declaring Islam to be a religion of peace.

    We in the Christian West and in the LDS Church have our own like-minded textual alchemists who want to reinterpret or wave away whatever in our scripture or history does not accord with our modern sensibilities or our doctrine. This is an enormous hermeneutical problem.

  9. 9.

    Idahospud, I’d love to have you in my section! Of course, I’m just the flunky to the professor, who is a fabulous Jewish studies scholar. Mostly, besides the Bible itself (the translation we use is the NRSV), he has the students read Justin Martyr’s Dialogues With Trypho, some pseudo-Barnabas, and Melito’s On Pascha, plus NT passages, to get a sampling of early Christian attitudes, especially on issues relevant to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The students also read a smattering of online essays (on topics like the Messiah, monotheism, the origins of Easter and Passover) and Kugel’s Early Biblical Interpretation for some modern scholarship.

    In answer to Roasted Tomatoes’ question, I’m not sure I’m the best resource since I feel so much less familiar with biblical scholarship than I wish I did! Reading a different translation can definitely be enlightening, though, and the standard commentaries (HarperCollins, Oxford, etc.) often include interesting information. I’ve personally found Michael Coogan’s recently published The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures the most thorough and readable introduction (with bibliography).

    Mark, I’m not sure I’m in a position to evaluate your claim–”the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is more densely packed with precepts suitable to found a religion on than any other book ever written”; I admit, I haven’t read beginning to end any other work on which a religion has been founded, for example.

    I may be naive, but when students refer to attending Hebrew School and being taught to separate milk from meat, I tend to suspect they’re Jewish. I tend then to suspect they don’t believe in the NT, the Atonement, or the doctrine of Christ. :) In any case, the point I was trying to make, as Lynnette explained so well, was not necessarily that the Bible should dictate “every detail of social affairs,” but that often what we assume the Bible says and what the Bible actually says are very different things.

    And I agree that the New Testament provides us with valuable information. But it presents all kinds of problems of its own (internal contradictions; a wide variety of attitudes toward issues, sometimes none of which has been fully fleshed out; acceptance of institutions that are jarring to modern sensibilities, such as slavery and stringent patriarchy; occasional virulently anti-Jewish positions, etc.). The gospels don’t always agree. Paul’s logic doesn’t always quite make sense (let alone agree with the gospels). (But I’ll leave these exciting problems to the NT scholars . . .)

    Unfortunately, I’ve also occasionally encountered the attitude Lynnette refers to, that the OT God is mean and vengeful. I tried nicely to convince my students not to glibly repeat anti-Jewish sentiments they’ve taken for granted all their lives. The OT God is nothing if not complex, and for all the problematic incidents, there are at least as many passages expounding God’s eternal love and faithfulness. If they want to address a troubling issue regarding God’s characterization, I ask that they ground it in a specific passage and refrain from making blanket generalizations. Besides which, this attitude almost invariably comes from Christians, and (unless they happen to be stray Marcionites or Gnostics), the God of the OT is their God too, so whatever problems they’re attributing to the Jewish God are problems they have to address themselves.

    ECS, the comparison to the Constitution is definitely apropos. As I understand it, both texts are central to communities in which interpretation and evaluation are ongoing, fluid processes toward which people have sometimes very different attitudes. 

  10. 10.

    Thanks for the quote, Eve. It’s fascinating to see similar hermeneutical issues playing themselves out in Islam! I’m convinced of the importance, where the text makes us uncomfortable, of acknowledging and examining problems head on rather than glossing over them or attempting to explain them away. The authority for moral or religious convictions that do not follow naturally from the text must be located extratextually–it would be convenient to be able to convince ourselves that our sacred texts can somehow serve as the authority for such convictions, but it’s fundamentally dishonest and bound to backfire.

  11. 11.

    Nicely done, Kiskilili.

    I’ve noticed that we often use our sacred texts in the same way Rorschach used assymetrical ink blots. I project onto them whatever I think is important, then feel wonderfully self-righteous because, after all, the bible agrees with me. What a deal!

    …for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.

    Joseph Smith, Jr. and Kiskilili, an example of two great minds thinking the same thoughts. :-)

    Finally, where else but in the bloggernacle can you see consecutive comments from tomatoes and potatoes?

  12. 12.

    Mark Butler,
    Don’t knock Shakespeare. He wrote some good stuff.

  13. 13.

    Does it help to be extra careful to say, “The Bible means X to me“? In the same sense that one might say “that inkblot looks like a Ferrari to me”? I can understand relativism. I understand deciding that none of us can be sure what the Bible is actually, objectively saying, so the best we can do in light of our culture and unconscious biases is come up with a limited, flawed, personal or community-wide interpretation of the Bible that one doesn’t presume to impose on others.

    But you seem to be saying, Kiskilili, that there are things that the Bible actually, objectively says to everyone, although it may say one thing here and contradict itself there. I’m probably misunderstanding, and I’m not trying to be flip, but I thought it was only dead white guys and modern fundamentalists–not modern scholars–who believed in absolute, objective textual meanings anymore.

  14. 14.

    I agree with the general point about the ambiguity of the Bible about certain issues of contemporary import, as well as artifacts of institutions that are now nearly obsolete. The only idea I am complaining about is the implication that one could found a religion anywhere near as vital as Christianity on a similarly sized corpus of other extant literature not founded in the Bible. So I am not knocking Shakespeare, I am sure if he wanted to found a religion he would have written quite differently.

  15. 15.

    I hope I didn’t inadvertantly imply that a religion could be founded on any work of literature. But I do think the sort of facile morals we sometimes draw from the Bible could easily be drawn from another classic work of literature.

  16. 16.

    (Nice to see you here, Brother Payne! :))

  17. 17.

    Thanks, K. I must say that my most frustrating experience with the Bible is sitting through Gospel Doctrine during the Old Testament year. We do the same couple dozen stories every four years, excluding all the rest, and most of us don’t actually read those stories. Listening to people talk in Sunday School is the most persuasive argument that “the way that the Bible functions in our culture [and often in our lives] is often only loosely connected to what’s actually written in it,” to quote Eve.

  18. 18.

    Interesting ideas, Beijing. In the interest of time I sort of omitted the obligatory reader response discussion of the hermeneutic circle and the text as an appeal which is constructed in the act of reading. I don’t believe there’s an objective reading of the Bible (and biblical scholarship bears out the fairly wide range of interpretations the Bible allows). But I admit I’m quite suspicious of a certain strain of postmodernist biblicists who claim, for example, that studying the original languages or examining other ancient Near Eastern texts is an utter waste of time because it’s irrelevant to reading a text that means something different and personal to each individual anyway. Obviously every text means something different to everyone, and we’ll never come very close to reconstructing authorial intent. We’ll never understand what Israelite religion looked like from the inside; I’m just not convinced the entire endeavor is therefore worth aborting. I do believe there are limits on valid interpretive strategies, and although what’s plausible to one reader may be preposterous to another, nevertheless, we should at least attempt to read the text in a way that best fits the evidence as we see it, rather than the way that appeals most to us.

    (Obviously, I try to evaluate my students’ arguments on their merits–there’s no single interpretation of the Bible to which everyone is commanded to subscribe, on peril of their grades. But, old-fashioned that I am, if a student submitted a paper saying, “To me ‘thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk’ means ‘separate milk and meat,’” I would ask for more academic rigor.)

    Maybe it is arrogantly attempting to impose one’s view of the Bible on others, but I have no problem with scholars arguing (civilly) for the reading of the text that makes the most sense to them (rather than retreating into relativist claims that no single interpretation can be privileged over any other, out of respect for the interpreter). At my own school I took separate courses in the history of Israelite religion and in biblical theology (a distinction that’s somewhat artificial), and I’m much more interested in the former. But I think the honest biblical theologian is obligated to account in some way for the scholarship the studies in Israelite religion produce, even if only to dismiss them.

  19. 19.

    I appreciate that explanation. I agree with you that accepting any old personal interpretation without investigation isn’t good scholarship. My BYU profs gave me the impression that they were in a teeny-tiny minority in insisting that some interpretations were valid and others weren’t; maybe they were exaggerating or maybe scholars have generally moved past that point in the intervening decade.

  20. 20.

    Nice thoughts, Kiskilili. I’m in full agreement on the futility—from a critical perspective—of grounding one’s political claims in the Bible, and on the difficulty—again, from a critical perspective—of coming to scripture on its own terms. (Although I’m not sure what you mean, Eve, by a “geniune encounter with the text”: it seems to me that any act of reading must be informed by some prior interpretive principle, even those that make an explicit objective of recovering original meaning, no?) I value a critical approach to the Bible, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it in church, because I take great pleasure in the intellectual work of historicizing and comparing and categorizing and recovering.

    But I part ways with you when you suggest that the knotty hermeneutic problems of a text as various the Bible make it a poor candidate for religion-making. On the contrary, it seems to me, the Bible provides a glorious superabundance of evocative, malleable, suggestive, confusing, mysterious, ancient, exotic, terrifying, sublime religious raw materials—that is, it conveys the very substances of the sacred, and the sacred, above all and uniquely, is what religion offers to humans. Indeed, scripture itself, in making claims on the reader, invites the cultural overdetermination through which we make our own claims on scripture—and it’s precisely those layers of cultural overdetermination, so obfuscating in the seminar room, that stir the soul in the chapel. Handbooks and position papers can be put out by committees; the patina of holiness cannot.

  21. 21.

    Rosalynde, I guess I don’t see how a genuine encounter with the text–by which I mean one that strives to be intellectually honest about the possible range of meanings it might encompass–is antithetical to the inevitable existence of interpretive principles. Any hermeneutic, particularly when we approach an ancient, alien text from an ancient, alien culture, is going to have multiple points of origin, many of them in our own time and culture. But I don’t see how that multiplicity necessarily precludes critical judgment; instead, it makes critical judgment–not to mention cultural exchange–possible. So I don’t think I would accept the dichotomy you suggest (at least, as far as I am here interpreting you according to a hermeneutic you yourself could accept! ;) ) between the acceptance of an interpretive principle and the acceptance of interpretive limits; I see them as interdependent.

  22. 22.

    Rosalynde, I’m absolutely with you in glorying in the complex, the ambiguous, the downright bizarre, and the flatly contradictory narratives and doctrines encompassed in the Bible, and I think–I really hope–we’d all much prefer the Bible to handbooks and manuals. But I think Kiskilili–if I might venture to speak for her (of course, please come along and unspeak me, Kiskilili, when you get back over here)–is pointing to thorny problems with the ways we selectively prooftext the Bible to make it accord with our own preconceived ideas of doctrine and politics, the way our manuals reduce its complexity and contradictions to simple, clear doctrinal statements. I understand her to be asking, rhetorically, that if the point of our study and worship is to arrive at such doctrinal statements, what, precisely, do we need the Bible for?

  23. 23.

    Ah, Eve, I see about the genuine encounter, I think: I understood you to mean something like an ideologically unmediated relationship between naked reader and pristine text—a mythic scene that serves some cultural interests but poorly describes the actual process of reading (though, now that I think of it, sounds kind of sexy). I’m with you on everything else.

  24. 24.

    I can definitely see how I wasn’t very clear–to paraphrase what Kiskilili said in an earlier comment, I sort of skipped the ritual postmodern disclaimer. And I since confess to being pretty burned out on sex in my texts, maybe I should modestly retreat into my postmodern textual layers. ;) Coming soon: For the Strength of Youth in interpretive practice! I’m sure you all can’t wait.

  25. 25.

    Rosalynde writes, But I part ways with you when you suggest that the knotty hermeneutic problems of a text as various the Bible make it a poor candidate for religion-making.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that if the Bible does not perform well in the role so often assigned to it, it has no legitimate place at all in the religious community. My intentions were only to comment on the disconnect between what the Bible seems to say and our attitudes toward what it must say, or what it is assumed to say.

    The other side of the question, which I think is what you’re raising, is how the Bible might then appropriately function in religious worship. I’ve tinkered for a long time with the idea of regarding scripture not as a codification of policy, but rather as a potential conduit to the divine.

    What I think you’re saying about “genuine encounters with the text” is that encounters vary perhaps in degree but certainly not in type. But I think there actually are less genuine encounters with the text that it’s useful to think of as qualitatively different–specifically, when the text itself is not involved at all. As with any famous work, this may be the case more often than not, and is as true of biblical scholars as lay worshippers: we encounter someone’s secondhand ideas about the Bible rather than the text itself. (How many thinkers am I familiar with through secondary sources only???) This isn’t necessarily bad, but it sometimes makes it easy to perpetuate this sort of disconnect.

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