Modern Art and the Bible (3)

July 22, 2016

IMG_20160714_145058050Here is a panel from Liliana Porter’s painting, The Traveler (currently housed in the Phoenix Art Museum).

It depicts a small ship on the edge of a mostly gray surface.

It moves from the center to the periphery–a movement of ec-centricity.  Are we to think of this movement as one of danger, of moving toward something unknown?

Or are we to attend to the ship’s smallness in relation to the surrounding gray?

Let the ship represent the interpreter of biblical texts.  Interpretation is always a movement toward something new, occasionally dangerous.  As the Gospel states, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52, NRSV).  Interpretation inevitably involves the bringing forth of some new treasure.  Sometimes the new is experienced as dangerous.

At the same time, the interpreter of a text floats on a vast sea of meaning.  No text can be exhaustively interpreted.  The interpreter is thus tiny in relation to the potential meaning lying in the biblical text.

The Traveler (2)Here is a second panel from The Traveler.  I include it only because of a detail.

IMG_20160714_145118874Pictured in the white field is a page from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, posed, appropriately, with a mirror (reminding the reader of the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass).

In the book that I am writing on the Bible, I use Alice as an example of someone landing in a foreign place and having to find her way about.  For me, this illustrates the situation of the reader of the Bible, finding himself or herself in a very different time and culture, with strange customs and beliefs.

Just as Alice’s adventures are a journey (especially in Through the Looking-Glass), so reading the Bible is a journey.  The reader is a traveler.

Modern Art and the Bible (II)

Shaking out the bed (cropped)

Dana Schultz, Shaking Out the Bed

July 19, 2016

Another report on modern art and its lessons for biblical interpretation.

This painting is named, “Shaking Out the Bed.”  It shows household items being flung up toward the viewer as a bed-sheet is shaken; there are also items lying on tables and the floor around the edges.  The painting is thus a combination of dynamic and static elements.  It’s a bit difficult to see the static elements at first, because the dynamic elements–the things flying upward–occupy the center of the painting and are visually more arresting.

This combination of movement and rest reminded me of John’s gospel.  There is, of course plenty of dynamism and movement in this gospel.  More than in the other gospels, in John’s gospel Jesus moves back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee.  There is also more change of scene: In chapter 7, for instance, secondary characters repeatedly appear with questions and comments that both drive the narrative and guide the reader’s understanding of the narrative.

At the same time, John’s gospel is extraordinarily static in some respects.  It’s filled with discourse but little action.  Whole chapters go by with little but words.  Jesus is reported to be in a new location without indication of how he got there or why he moved.  This gospel is far more stage-like than cinematic.  There are static, minimalistic stagings–we often don’t know where Jesus is and it often doesn’t matter.  There are people talking, but in often in elaborately symbolic conversation.

To read John’s gospel well, we thus need to attend to both its dynamic and also its static elements.

Galileo and the Two Books: The Bible and Scientific Knowledge

July 19, 2016

The Bible has a lot to say about the natural world, but what does it say? I’m not asking, “Which words does it use and which sentences does it contain?” but instead “When the Bible talks about the natural world, what is the nature of its discourse?”

As I discussed in a previous journal entry, the Bible talks about the natural world in its relation to human beings.  I offered the example of Proverbs 30:24-28, where moral lessons are drawn from animal behavior.  In contrast to scientific knowledge, in which things are studied in ways that abstract from the human experience of them, in the Bible things are often presented according to the ways in which we experience them.  Scientifically, it would be absurd to claim that ants are wise (as Proverbs 30 does); but it is also true that we (or at least ancient people did) experience them as wise.

Consider Genesis 1:24-25, where God creates land animals.  They are organized into three groups: cattle, wild animals, and creeping things.  This is hardly a scientific taxonomy.  Instead, it divides animals into groups according to their relationships to human beings: animals suitable for eating and sacrificing, dangerous animals, and miscellaneous other animals that are neither edible nor dangerous.  It’s obvious that human concerns–Which animals are for eating? Which animals may eat us?–have driven this description.  It’s senseless to try to read a scientific motivation into it.

The Bible thus sometimes describes natural things from the perspective of the way in which we experience them..  Scientific knowledge, on the contrary, results from trying to minimize, or even eliminate, human subjectivity from knowledge.

So, I now want to look at a couple of other passages:

You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting (Psalm 104:19, NRSV)

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years (Genesis 1:14, NRSV)

Ptolemaicsystem-small

In these passages, sun, moon, and stars are described, once again, according to their importance for human beings.  They exist to determine the calendar.  Absent is any scientific interest in what they are made of or why or how they move.  The celestial bodies are important because they serve a purpose that is vital to human beings.

To conclude: I started this series with a discussion of Galileo’s view that science and the Bible cannot conflict because they are about different things: science is about things in nature, the Bible describes the way of salvation.  This view is, I think, wrong.

It’s not that the Bible is not interested in the natural world, but instead that the Bible talks about the world from a certain perspective.  That perspective is human interest.  The Bible portrays the natural world in so far as it bears on matters of human concern or provides an illustration of something that humans are interested in.

There are several lessons to draw from these observations:

  • First, contrary to the view of Fundamentalists, the Bible does not provide us with scientific knowledge.  Attempts to extract information that can inform scientific views is fruitless.  Fundamentalists’ fantasies about using Genesis to construct an alternative science is hopelessly misguided.
  • Second, Galileo’s view that the Bible is about salvation is overly narrow.  The Bible is too big to be contained by any single category.
  • Third, the Bible can perform a useful service for us by reminding us that there is more than one way to know something.  In our culture, it is not uncommon to hear representatives of the scientific community claiming, expressly or implicitly, that scientific knowledge is the gold standard of knowledge, and perhaps the only sort of knowledge that deserves the name.  The Bible’s attitude toward nature reminds us that there are varieties of knowledge, differing ways in which we may relate to things in the world.  The scientific project provides us with one way, but it is preposterous to imagine that it is the only or the best sort of knowledge.

This is where (some) scientists and Fundamentalists both go wrong–assuming that there is one sort of knowledge.  Some scientists, armed with this belief, criticize and reject the Bible for failing to exhibit this knowledge.  Fundamentalists, with the same belief, try heroically but futilely to squeeze the Bible into a scientific mold.

In our current cultural situation, in which rationality is increasingly channeled into one course–science–it is good to be reminded that we relate to worldly objects in many ways.  Scientific knowledge is only one of those ways.

Modern Art and the Bible (I)

July 15, 2016

I’m in Phoenix and visited the Phoenix Art Museum.  I was struck by the points of contact between modern/contemporary art and biblical interpretation.  So, here is the first in a series of very short comments on some pieces of art and some thoughts about interpretation.

Flowing forms

George Condo, Tumbling Forms

Here’s a piece, Tumbling Forms.  What struck me was the way in which the artist piled gobs of paint in layers.

Here’s an example:IMG_20160714_144026357

 

 

 

Another example:IMG_20160714_143953980

Whatever else this painting is doing, it is calling attention to itself as a painting.  Its caption tells the observer that it depicts something–tumbling forms–but its technique reminds the reader that it is a painting.  It enforces, in other words, a careful distinction between its being a depiction and its being a thing that self-consciously depicts.  By having the gobs of paint turn the painting into a three dimensional object that rises from the surface of the canvas, the artist ensures that the observer is not too deeply immersed in the object depicted, but instead attends to the painting as a painting, as something graphic.

This reminded me of the way in which the Bible sometimes calls attention to itself as writing, even as it directs the reader’s attention to the subject matter that is narrated or discussed.

For instance:

  • Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:3-4, NRSV).  Deuteronomy knows that the people who met with the Lord at Mount Horeb were all dead and that none of those being addressed in these verses were alive when the covenant was first made.  But it deliberately ignores that historical reality to make the point that the covenant is renewed in each generation.  It thus calls attention to itself as something other than narrative, even as it engages in narration.
  • Consider the preface to the gospel according to Luke.  Here the (implied) author steps out of the text to address the implied reader.
  • Finally, there is this passage in John’s gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah” (John 20:30-31, NRSV).  Here the author drops the pretense of simple narration and tells the reader why the narration exists.

In each of these instances, the Bible directs the reader’s attention away from what seems like a straightforward historical narrative and toward the text as something written–as the creation of a writer.

Like the painting above, the Bible wants the reader to be mindful of the way in which the Bible is a written work, even as it seeks to engross the reader in its subject matter.  In other words, it wants the reader to carefully attend to the scribal, graphic features of the Bible.

Why I Hate the New International Version of the Bible

July 4, 2016

As readers of this journal may know, I am writing a book on how to read and interpret the Bible.  So, I’m thinking a lot these days about hermeneutical matters.  Yesterday provided me with a shock that somehow has to find its way into the book.

Vittore_carpaccio,_vocazione_di_san_matteoMy Sunday School class is studying Mark’s gospel.  Yesterday’s lesson was on Mark 2.  In one episode, Jesus calls the publican, Levi, to be a disciple (2:14).  In the next episode, Jesus is eating in “his” house, along with many publicans and sinners (2:15).  In class I made the point that in Mark’s gospel it is not clear in whose house Jesus is eating.  Luke’s gospel removes the uncertainty by telling the reader that the meal occurs in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29).  I wanted the class to notice that Mark sets the two episodes side by side without directly connecting them.

I then learned that the NIV Bible takes it upon itself to connect what is unconnected.  It translates Mark 2:15 thus: “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house. . . .”  In other words, the NIV gratuitously adds to the biblical text, thinking that it thereby helps the reader.  (I learned this because most of the class uses the NIV.  Some years ago it became the translation unofficially endorsed by my denomination.)

The clods responsible for the NIV, thinking that they have done the reader a favor, have, in fact insulted the reader.  The NIV consistently assumes that the reader is stupid and needs the translator to clarify whatever in the biblical text is unclear.

The NIV approach fights against the very thing that is most needed, namely, for Christian disciples to read the Bible very carefully and slowly.  The NIV hinders such careful reading by making the biblical text more familiar–in this case, by importing information from Luke into the translation of Mark.  Doing so eliminates the need for the reader to linger over the text, puzzling about its narrative flow or lack of flow.

Speed_bump_(asphalt)

The NIV refuses to acknowledge that sometimes lack of clarity is a good thing.  Lack of clarity in the Bible functions like a speed bump, slowing the reader so that reading becomes more laborious but also more careful.  The problem for many Christians is that, having read and/or heard the Bible for many years, they are overly familiar with it–it contains no surprises.  One way of getting them to read more carefully is to draw attention to the surprising points of unclarity in the text–the places where it doesn’t make sense or says something different from what we think it says.

Wrinkled_Paper_Texture_Free_Creative_Commons_(6816216700)The NIV subverts this process by smoothing out the wrinkles in the Bible, making for a smoother text and a faster read–exactly the thing that is least needed today.  That is why the New American Standard Bible is superior–when the biblical text is unclear, its translation is unclear; when the biblical text lacks coherence, the translation lacks coherence.

Trying to increase biblical literacy in the church is a daunting task today.  It’s too bad that the translation that is most popular in my church makes the task more daunting.

Galileo: The Man Who Made the Bible Safe for Science (continued)

July 1, 2016

Scientists as workIn my journal entry of June 28, I discussed Galileo’s notion of the two books, viz., the Bible and the book of Nature.  Galileo’s goal was to prevent theological and ecclesiastical inference in scientific research.

Pictured: Scientists at work, happily free from ecclesiastical interference

 

To achieve his goal, Galileo limited the message of the Bible to one issue, salvation.  As he said in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany:

The Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side. . . .  Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?

NOMA

A modern form of this view was offered by Stephen J. Gould.  Gould advanced the notion of non-overlapping magisteria.  Gould, neither a Christian nor a theist, discovered at some point in his life that not all Christians were anti-scientific dolts.  In particular, he seemed appreciative of John Paul II’s efforts to reduce the tension between the scientific community and the theological community.  In response, Gould articulated the NOMA principle, a sort of division of labor between science and religion.  In Gould’s words:

If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

The truce between science and theology thus called allows each to work undisturbed by the other.  Fuzzy but sincere lines of demarcation are established between the domain of science and that of theology.  Each agrees to work its own side of the street:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.

Two circles black white 2

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Gould’s view represents a vast improvement on the idiotic picture that many scientists seem to have of theology’s relation to science, a picture of unrelenting hostility caused by thick-headed religious believers who willfully refuse to accept the results of science.

Distinguishing, as Gould does, the domains of theology from those of science performs a practical service.  As the long, sad, and baffling history of biblical creationism has shown, trying to extract scientific knowledge and theories from the Bible is futile. It is, moreover, a hindrance to the scientific enterprise when adopted into scientific education.

At the same time, I’m not convinced of the wisdom of limiting the Bible so one-dimensionally to matters of salvation.  Gould’s approach gives us a workable strategy for reducing conflict between science and theology, but can the Bible so easily be restricted to “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere’s what I’m getting at: the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) makes assertions about the non-human portions of the universe: sun, moon, and stars; animals; natural forces and processes; and so on.  Only Fundamentalists want to continue the preposterous agenda of squeezing scientific information from these biblical assertions. But are such assertions one and all expressions of “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Here’s a good cliffhanger on which to end.  More to come shortly.

Galileo–The Man who Made The Bible Safe for Science

Two books (Bible and nature)

Two Books and the Man Who Separated Them

June 28, 2016

Back at work after a hiatus occupied with grading and other necessary tasks.

In March I gave a short presentation at the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.  In it I talked about the way in which my church (the Church of the Nazarene) and many other Christians have enthusiastically embraced a view of the Bible that goes back at least as far as Galileo.

Among other things, Galileo is famous (among people who read such things) for an essay

Christine_of_Lorraine_Medici4

Christina, happy to hear from Galileo

(the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany) in which he argued that the purpose of the Bible is strictly to reveal the way to salvation.  Put differently, it is not the Bible’s purpose to reveal anything about the natural world.  Galileo cleverly used a metaphor to get his point across–God has spoken in two books, the Bible (for knowledge about salvation) and the book of nature (for knowledge about the world).

 

Judging from my experience in the dialog between science and theology (a curiously one-sided dialog), my sense is that many Christian thinkers are attracted to Galileo’s way of dividing the intellectual pie.  This embrace is due to the perception that too much unnecessary controversy between the theological and scientific communities has ensued because of faulty assumptions about the Bible. Fundamentalists, in particular, are known for their trust that the Bible delivers to us accurate knowledge about everything, at least everything mentioned in the Bible.

For example, there is a physician, Dr. Mel Mulder (http://www.muldermel.com/author.html), who has a radio show (“Beyond Intelligent Design”) whose tagline is that the Bible is our only source of truth.  This is farther than many Fundamentalists would go, suggesting as it does that the sciences are not at all sources of truth.  Nonetheless, most Fundamentalists would say that the results of scientific study are valid only as long as they do not contradict the Bible.  The assumption is that the Bible does indeed reveal to us certain vital truths about the natural world.  If scientific theory disagrees with the Bible, too bad for science.

Galileo thus provided Christians who are anxious to preserve the autonomy of science with an alternative to Fundamentalism.  Instead of assuming that God lodged truths about nature in the Bible, many, perhaps most Christian thinkers, have embraced Galileo’s division-of-labor approach.  We go to the Bible if we want to know about salvation; we go scientifically to nature if we want to know about the world.

Adopting Galileo’s view carves out a space in the anxious world of Christian universities, a space that, in principle if not always in practice, allows scientists to go about their work without ecclesiastical interference.  This space allows worried university administrators to permit more-or-less untrammeled scientific teaching and research with a good conscience–at least until scientists annoyingly encroach on recognizably theological topics such as the soul and ethics.  Nonetheless, as long as Christian scientists abide by the rules of the Galilean game, the only people complaining are Fundamentalists, who reject the game.  The existence of Fundamentalists, however, is actually a blessing in disguise for Christian universities.  They enable the Christian university’s scientists and administrators to engage in self-congratulation for bring broad-minded and enlightened (compared to Fundamentalists) and also authentically Christian (compared to those afflicted with liberal theology).

Oddly both Galileo and Fundamentalism have proven to be blessings for the Christian university.

Although it is not uncommon for scientists today to play up Galileo’s controversy with the Renaissance papacy, the truth is that he laid the foundation of much contemporary Christian thinking about how faith and theology relate to the sciences.

However, I for one am not happy with Galileo’s depiction of the Bible.  In particular, the notion that the Bible is strictly and only about salvation seems questionable.

However, I’m typing this book on scripture and need to maintain momentum, so I will continue this journal entry on Galileo shortly.