Friday, December 11, 2015

What you read may be hazardous . . .

   One of the responses to the recent tragedy in San Bernadino, California, was a now-almost-expected backlash against Muslims/Islam.  The most bloviated, bigoted, ignorant, abhorrent version has come out of the mouth of one of the presidential candidates (email me if you want to know how I really feel).  But there have been less publicized, although no less horrible examples.  That acknowledged, there has been at least one rather clever response to the claims that Islam is, at root, a violent religion. Reported on social media, and then picked up, and reported on, by the Washington Post was the experiment in Holland where folks on the street were read violent, disturbing, sexist or "outmoded" passages of a "scripture."  The experiment showed that the vast majority of those queried attributed the selections to the Quran.  The underlying problem, of course, is that the passages were from the Bible.  The Post reflected that "The point made in the video is that our personal biases and surface judgements can cloud how we understand something we are unfamiliar with".
       Unrelated, at least at root, another national publication, Christianity Today, recently published the results of a survey on what might happen if people read the Bible frequently, and unmediated by an outside "authority".  Their findings, and the title of the article, was "Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal".*  For readers of this newsletter who are unfamiliar with Christianity Today, it does NOT have the reputation of being a "liberal" Christian publication.  I suspect that there were some within the organization who were leery of publishing the results!
       I am not, at all, trumpeting the results of CT's survey; despite THEIR title, not all of the results of "frequent Bible reading" led to "liberal" results (or results with which I might agree).  But the results do show a couple of things about which we, at an academic institution, might take note.  First is the emphasis that many of us (especially in the humanities) place on the reading of primary texts.  That is, it is much more important to read Dante's Inferno, or Pride and Prejudice (without the Vampires), or the Bible than it is to read secondary literature on those books.  But second -- for better or worse, depending on your point of view -- is that interpretive voices, like FOX News/MSNBC, or televangelists, OR popular faculty, can obscure (at the most), or tilt (at the most generous), how those texts are read today.
      As an Episcopal priest, one whose theology is based on a "three-legged stool" of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, I clearly support the value of bringing historical analysis as well as current thinking to the reading of Scripture.  But the base is the "reading of Scripture".  We all need to know our sacred texts; we need to know what they say.  We cannot simply not read selected, limited, texts, nor excise bits with which we disagree (a tendency, for example, of both liberal AND conservative Christians). We cannot ban books because they are problematic to our current sensibilities.  We have to be aware of what they say, or what they might have said to their original audiences. And we have to grapple with them in our current context (that's the "Reason" part of the afore-mentioned "three-legged stool").
       Only then, I would assert, with a sound grounding in our sacred texts, can we start to speak about "liberal", "outdated", "conservative", or other convenient labels that might dismiss a dissenter.  Our task as educators, and/or as people of deep faith, is to equip others with all of the tools necessary to make meaning in this complex world. Maybe then we can do a little bit to decrease the amount of time prime-time news or Facebook spend on religiously-attributed violence, or those who would use tragedies for financial/political advantage.



*The full text of the Christianity Today article is available here, BUT one needs a subscription to read it all.  An analysis by another "publication", with pointers to other articles/surveys can be found here.

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