Friday, September 12, 2008

Homotextuality and the Church

In his book, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, Richard Bernstein describes Modern Philosophy as being driven by what he calls “Cartesian anxiety.” Briefly, “Cartesian anxiety” refers to René Descartes’ drive to discover the one “indubitable principle” on which to base philosophy. Bernstein says that a lot of Modern Philosophy has been driven by a similar ‘anxiety,’ that, if we don’t have that one, solid, irrefutable principle as our foundational rock, then everything we believe is just a house of cards that will soon come crashing down.

I think many ways of reading the Bible are built on a very similar anxiety. We often feel as if everything in the Bible must be interchangeable, that all of the biblical writers saw faith in exactly the same way, and that anything suggesting otherwise might bring the whole house of cards crashing down into despair. I call this method of interpreting the Bible “Homotextuality” and I think it is harmful to the church.

Here’s how I see it happening: The radio preacher is making the case that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, all the while quoting one verse after another, first using some typology from Israel’s ancient history, then citing an 6th century B.C. prophet, then jumping to the Gospel According to Mark, then reading from a later pastoral letter, and finally concluding with some symbols taken from the book of Revelation- all of which are ripped unapologetically out of their original contexts and treated as if they were written together in one seamless thread. Or this: A “Christian Tract” piecemeals together several scriptures from Romans and calls it, “The Roman Road to Salvation,” with complete disregard to what Paul was addressing specifically in each case. Or this: A Left Behind Theologian takes a reference to a bear in Ezekiel, a whore in Revelation, and a goat with a zillion horns in Daniel, and weaves them all together in a seamless way that- amazingly- looks just like the geopolitical outlook of his favorite political party. And all of these scenarios operate out of a presumption that they are simply giving us “the Word of God.” And it works, largely because we see the Bible as homotextual (literally: “same reading”). That is, we assume that each text is saying essentially the same thing, so why not interchange them?

But, the early church did not operate out of the perspective of homotextuality. That is why the early church included, not one, but four different versions of the gospel. They did not even edit all of them into one big, fat super-gospel! They included four, with full recognition that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar but not exactly the same; and that John has a few similar stories but is largely different. Isn’t it amazing that the early church was willing to accept that there are at least four valid ways of telling Jesus’ story? And they didn’t reject the Hebrew Bible either, but fully accepted that the God who was made known through the lives and faith of the Hebrew people is the same God who is made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the preaching of the church. (Google ‘Marcionism’ to see how important this was to the early church.)

What does this have to do with Left Behind Theology? Well, as I indicate above, much of Left Behind Theology gets its persuasive force by acting as though Ezekiel, Daniel, pieces of Mark, Matthew, Luke, I Thessalonians, and Revelation all have the exact same vision of the end time in view. And, while the connections between those texts may not be obvious to the casual reader- or the extremely careful reader, for that matter- Left Behind Theology asserts that all of them fit together perfectly. And we are disposed toward believing it because our homotextuality tells us that the Bible has to say one consistent thing, or else, we fear, the Bible is no more authoritative than any other collection of writings.

My suggestion is that we follow the example of the early church and avoid homotextuality by letting each biblical writer have his/her own voice. In fact, that should not be a principle of interpretation as much as it should be something that provokes our awe: God’s ways, God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s self are so indescribably wide and deep that it takes a choir of different voices- gloriously different!- to sing God’s praise!

1 comment:

  1. Mark,
    I never thought of the concept of homotextuality, but I've always been bothered by the practice of people "cherry picking" text and words to provide a defense for an often indefensible position (slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia). Thank you for shining a light on what bothered me about it, by coining and identifying homotextuality! Love the blog, by the way!


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