Friday, October 30, 2009

* Reply to "Hieronymus" and "Yale 2008": Killing Mindless Zeal

I am a bit embarrassed at having allowed myself to be drawn into a spat with anonymous commenters, Hieronymus and Yale 2008, in the Yale Daily News's digital comment section 10/28/09 about Harvard Divinity School professor Mark D. Jordan's seeking a new term for "gay" in the Bible (see previous post).

I'm sure Hieronymus and Yale 2008 are young idealists who are impatient with the seeming irrelevance of divinity studies,an occupation which the poster named Yale 2008 believes is "a joke" (along with this blog).

A very serious joke.

Please recall that manipulation of this "sacred" text called the Bible has inflicted untold suffering on human-kind, especially in America. Passages from this sacred text were quoted from pulpits for over a century as proof-texts for the Divine's approval of slavery. Further, they were used with equal fervor to punish homosexuals and lesbians and makes their acts of physical love illegal in all 50 states until the mid-1970's under sodomy laws.

I'd want to know every detail about the origin of such a "sacred" text if it could inflict such pain and suffering on human beings, just to be sure I wasn't the next to be a target, for believing that women should be treated equally to men.

Analyzing this text and its origins is what great ACADEMIC divinity schools like Yale are all about (as opposed to other divinity schools which require belief in a creed or even a specific god). In my four years of study at Yale Divinity School I was never coerced in even the most subtle way to assume that this text called the Bible was written by non-human, divine hands.

In fact the human authorship of books of the Bible was routinely outted in my classes, with the result that the hypothesis of Divine authorship became less and less likely.

At least one book of the Bible is attributed to a woman author. And since most of the authors of the Old and New Testament came from what we now call the Middle East, we can reasonably assume that they had brown skin---the same brown skin that made U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney assert "negroes" were property and not human beings in his infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. (This is the same brown skin that covered a now-famous Palestinian Carpenter who some worship as a god.)

It was the late Yale professor John Boswell who analyzed every text on homosexuality in the Bible and argued that they referred not to sexual acts, but to rituals of hospitality, in his groundbreaking volume Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.

It was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of America's most influential preacher (and the wife of another influential New England preacher) who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in which she openly challenged the legitimacy of every pulpit in the country which was citing biblical texts to justify slavery. That book sold more copies than any other book of its time, second only to the Bible itself, and is seen as the galvanizing force of the Abolition movement and ,some say, one of the five causes of the Civil War which ended slavery.

Liberation Theology has unpacked the Genesis story to show how male theologians in coupling female typology with Original Sin (from Eve to Mae West) have used that text to oppress women and keep them subservient for a thousand years.

So, dear young idealistic commenters at Yale Daily News's email edition, do not be so quick to trivialize the work being done at Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School.

In fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1838 Address to the Harvard Divinity Students is the opening salvo in his quarrel with traditional biblical scholarship, making Harvard the unoffical seat of Unitarianism, the anti-trinitarian heresy.

Demystifying sacred texts with scholarly investigation has a real--if perhaps unintended --purpose in the world: It kills mindless zeal.

And it is here that we arrive at Hieronymus' perplexing comment in his post l0/28/09:"Weirdly, I respect most Muslims more than I do most (avowed) Christians--at least they believe in their book!"

Isn't Hieronymus valorizing "mindless zeal" in this quote? To hell with textual analysis for errors in translation. To hell (or sheol) with questions of authorship or cultural norms. Just BELIEVE IN THE WORDS. JUST BELIEVE!

This is New Criticism at its purest and at its worst. It is aborting the life of the unborn mind. The role of the Academy is to bring the mind to term --- and usher it forth into the world of ideas where it can be nurtured --- not to abort it.

Hear these words from the late Roland H. Bainton, first a student and then Reformation scholar, at Yale for 70 years until his death at 89 in 1984. (He published 34 books during that time and his biography of Luther, Here I Stand, is Abingdon Press's all-time best selling work).

Here is what Roland Bainton told me at the Divinity School in 1977: "Proof texts? You can prove anything you want from the Bible. There's even a text justifying genocide in Deuteronomy: "And God said 'Go and kill the Hittites and Canaanites, every single one of them.' "

(20:16 As for the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. Instead you must utterly annihilate them – the Hittites, Amorites,Canaanites,Perizzites,Hivites, and Jebusites – just as the LORD your God has commanded you,so that they cannot teach you all the abhorrent ways they worship their gods, causing you to sin against the LORD your God.)

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