Friday, August 3, 2012

The Bible and Cultural Controversy

My greatest wish for all people who engage with the Bible at various levels for their religious, cultural, moral, ethical, theological, and spiritual identities is that they would approach the text with open-minded honesty. Unfortunately, serious and honest discussion of the Bible's complexities is often abandoned as people attempt to read the text on their terms and interpret it as unequivocally reflecting their own point of view. Scholars and students, clergy and laity--all are guilty at some point of reading their preferences back into the text. On certain hot button issues, people can't even have a civil discussion anymore because the various sides are entrenched and intractable, convinced that their view is the absolute "truth."

Recently, Hebrew Bible scholar Esther Hamori has written two insightful pieces engaging this problem directly. The first dealt with the highly controversial issue of marriage specifically, and the second highlights the diversity of voices within the Bible itself, an important reality often overlooked or minimized in conservative Christian circles. I highly recommend reading both of her articles with an open mind. Here's the closing thought from the second piece:
Religious diversity is an inherent part of the biblical tradition. The Bible has significant internal variation, and there are different thoughtful ways to deal with that, but ignoring it is not one of them. My own take on this is that the rich complexity of the spectrum of voices is the very thing that gives the Bible its remarkable texture and depth, and that if the Bible is used as a "model" for anything, perhaps it could be used as a model for honest engagement with such a variety of viewpoints. But that's just me, and I'd expect another voice to say something different.
Her final words illustrate her expectation of push-back, disagreement, and discord inspired by her view. I know many people who would likely object strenuously to her perspective, but I find her call for "honest engagement" to be welcome and refreshing. I agree wholeheartedly.

Regarding her first article on marriage, I have to say (at the risk of offending or surprising more conservative readers including friends and family) that I agree with Hamori that the Bible reflects a variety of culturally-bound acceptable standards for marriage. In fact, evangelical Old Testament scholar John Walton uses the analogy of marriage in The Lost World of Genesis One to illustrate how we might use the same word to describe marriage today and marriage in the ancient Near East, but the word points to two very different cultural concepts. The cultural context is essential to properly defining what is actually meant by the term. Studying the biblical text in its ancient Near Eastern context and attempting to see the text through the worldview of the ancient world is an indispensable part of interpretation.

That said, I don't personally find this multiplicity of voices about marriage to necessarily serve as biblical support for gay marriage. Hamori doesn't explicitly offer it as such, but the implication is there. Her conclusion to the marriage article states:
Marriage in the Bible is not restricted to one man and one woman. The biblical models for marriage include a range of relationships and combinations, and these evolve with the culture.
The point is that marriage norms change with the culture. I won't argue that, just point out this is a cultural, not a biblical, argument in favor of gay marriage.

I will point out, however, that conservative claims of support for the "biblical definition of marriage" as one-man and one-woman are simplistic and narrow in their interpretation. Yes, Genesis 2:24 supports the "one flesh" sexual union of a man and a woman but calling that "marriage" in the sense of 21st century United States legal status is overreaching. Yes, Paul offers support for marital monogamy (1 Cor 7:2; 1 Tim 3:2), but that was the norm in the Greco-Roman world and in first century Judaism. Paul's support simply mirrors marriage norms of his day. Marriage as a legal and socio-cultural institution is one of the most culturally-bound categories in the world. Rather than appeal to the "biblical definition of marriage," supporters of traditional marriage should simply acknowledge it as such--they support traditional marriage according to centuries-old mores of Western civilization.

One final thought for those engaged in a defense of traditional marriage as "biblical": what's the biblical or theological rationale for Christians to mobilize politically in an attempt to force Judeo-Christian morality on an unbelieving culture that doesn't want it? (J. R. Daniel Kirk had a good post a few months back on this issue if you're interested.)

The bottom line here is that we would all benefit from more open dialogue and less partisan bickering over whether the Bible supports our cause or not.


  1. Nice thoughts Doug. Most people I see engaging the marriage discussion as it relates to the Bible and culture who embrace today's cultural changes are making an argument from an encultured understanding of biblical principles. I don't see many people arguing that the biblical authors were open to homosexuality or embraced "gay marriage;" rather, the principles the biblical authors understood and articulated in their own day are best understood in our own day as advocating for the cultural change we already see underway. I see nothing inherently problematic with this logic from a methodological perspective. It does make things messy (e.g. how do we determine that an encultured principle should take us beyond and even against its original application?), but we tend to get over the messiness as time passes and an issue becomes more accepted by the mainstream. I think this is where the confusion lies today. Many people are appealing to the Bible, but their appeals are enculturated. It isn't an attempt to say, "The biblical author's agreed with me!" It is a much more complicated interpretive process. And eventually a victor will emerge, for better or worse.

    1. I think we're in agreement, Joseph. My point was exactly that people are looking at the Bible from their encultured POV and claiming their way is the right way. It may not have been clear from my post, but I agree with you that the logic of accommodating cultural change is fine. I advocate reading the often misused passages in Paul's letters about women being silent as addressed to specific situations, not as statements of universal principles. The problem is not so much that people are explicitly saying "the biblical author agreed with me" as much as they are refusing to acknowledge the existence of the author. They see the Bible as having an inherent universal meaning that transcends the author's original time and place. But this is also where the messiness comes in--who makes the call whether something has universal applicability versus limited applicability? Conservative interpreters tend to err on the side of the universal, albeit in an inconsistent way. I advocate open discussion and acknowledging that the Bible doesn't always give a clear cut unified position on some controversial subjects. I guess I'm just tired of people on all sides of various debates invoking the Bible's authority for their cause. Of course, that very phenomenon should make people realize the Bible speaks with a multiplicity of voices, so why don't they realize it?

    2. The tendency for conservative interpreters to err on the side of the universal brings to my mind a recent struggle I had with Gordon Wenham's book _Psalms as Torah_ in his appeal to canonical criticism. He explicitly stated he was using it to avoid speculative arguments, as though speculation was a theologically problematic exercise that one can avoid if one only looks to editors instead of authors. The fact is, editors are no more transparent with their intentions than authors, and neither provide a monologic truth. Speculation is a part of interpretation, and this is why we choose to study in community (whether those be communities of faith or academia). We overcome the problems inherent in our speculative activities by subjecting them to the critical judgment of cautious and concerned communities. And this brings us full circle to your final sentence: "The bottom line here is that we would all benefit from more open dialogue and less partisan bickering over whether the Bible supports our cause or not."

  2. I don't think modern conservatives are at fault here. In fact, I think they're right, even if they don't realize why. The definition of marriage as a one-woman and one-man relationship is defined by the canon as a whole. Christ defines that relationship as normative and the rest as accommodation. One can say that his is a culturally conditioned fallacy, but that depends upon one's view of Jesus. In point of fact, he is actually critiquing a contemporary view of marriage there with what he takes to be normative based upon what I call a "priority argument" rooted in the creation narrative, and thus drawing all of the canon under that criticism. Hence, it is perfectly right to say with Jesus, if one accepts his teaching as normative, that the Bible teaches the normative marital relationship as one man and one woman, which then in turn condemns anything that is not of that relationship. The diversity is brought together in the teaching of Jesus here. One may not agree with Jesus, but since most Christians do, it is hardly something for which they can be faulted.