A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

American culture

It's the (Biblical) Economy, Stupid

It’s easy to read the Bible as if it contained disembodied doctrine, eternal truths about the divine being and the cosmos floating above the mundane concerns of human living. But biblical materials were shaped by the people who wrote them–not only by their beliefs but also by the economies in which they lived.  And as ancient Israel’s economy changed over time, so too did the assumptions and the agendas of the writers of the documents that we now have in the Bible.

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Quoting the Bible in Intelligence Briefings

A recent article in GQ revealed that when Secretary Rumsfeld presented daily intelligence briefings to President Bush in the early days of Iraq war, he presented them with cover sheets emblazoned with biblical quotes.

Click here to see some of those images on the GQ site.

Although most press has been given to the quotes from Isaiah, also in the mix are citations from Ephesians, Psalms, Daniel, Proverbs, Joshua,1 Peter, and 1 Chronicles.

In his blog on beliefnet.com, Steven Waldman asks why Bush didn’t distance himself from such overt displays of religiosity and wonders if Rumsfeld and others thought their plans would be more credible if the President thought they were sanctioned by the Bible.

On MSNBC’s Ed Show, panelists debate whether Christian quotes belong in the public sphere and ponder how Americans would have reacted if the quotes had come from the Quran instead.  The issue is cast as one of pluralism and the separation of church and state.  Interestingly, panelists also engage in a brief discussion about “what Isaiah really says,” noting that many passages in Isaiah call for a time of peace and the cessation of war.

The choice of quotes for these documents isn’t surprising.  They appeal to a sense of mission to do the right thing (“here I am, send me”).  They promise victory to the faithful (“commit to the LORD and your plans will succeed”).  They clearly identify the good guys and the bad guys (“It is by God’s will that by doing good you shall silence the ignorant talk of foolish men”).   They publicly attribute success to the hand of God (“the king is not saved by a mighty army”).

That is, they use the Bible to make a case for something the preparers already believed.

As someone who listens to how the Bible is used in church and in culture, I find the “cherry-picking” of quotes (the language used on MSNBC) to be nothing new.  People trying to advance very different perspectives turn to the Bible to defend their positions.  I have heard the Bible invoked as proof for anti-gay legislation and for marriage equality for LGBT people; for and against the ordination of women; for eco-friendly lifestyles and for believing that Jesus’ impending return leaves us no time to fix global warming.  “Cherry-picking” is nothing new.  Many of us call it “proof-texting.”

That’s why I find that simply quoting biblical passages is unhelpful in resolving debates.  There are always other passages to quote.  And, more importantly, the significance of words (their meaning) is never self-evident.  Even verses as apparently straightforward as the Ten Commandments have to be interpreted to apply to contemporary settings.  After all, literally, the text says that God spoke those words to Moses to tell to the Israelites.  Using them as universal rules for all people isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, but it is the result of dozens of assumptions about the connection between ancient Israel and the world at large.  My claim isn’t that those assumptions are necessarily wrong, but that they do need to be acknowledged, discussed, and debated.

As an educator and as a citizen, I long for people to take ownership of their own views.  Rather than shutting down conversation by quoting the Bible, can we talk about what matters most to us and why?   Too often, “that’s what the  Bible says” really means “shut up.”

Of course, many people’s views derive from their reading of the Bible.  The Bible has changed people’s minds and led them to particular conclusions.  So let’s talk about that.  Let’s discuss how you understand what you read, listen to what other people make out of the same verses, and consider why all of us may read the way we do.

Jack Black, Year One, and Biblical Literacy

Columbia Pictures will release Year One on June 19th.  Starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, the comedy follows two hunter-gathers after they are kicked out of their tribe and embark on adventures throughout the ancient world.

A friend who saw the long version of the trailer noticed multiple references to the Bible and sent me the link:  http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/yearone/site/ (Look for “video”)

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The Bible at the Outlet

Lancaster County, PA, where I live, is home to a thriving art community and will soon have a new convention center.  The city of Lancaster is diverse racially and economically, celebrating and struggling with the issues that face other urban communities.  But most tourists come for only two reasons: (1) to see the Amish and (2) to shop at the outlets.

The two activities might seem a contrast–the former an attempt to appreciate the simplicity of the agricultural, un-electrified life; the latter a full embrace of the I-want-everything-and-I-want-it-for-cheap consumerist mentality.  Both, however, are fully consumer activities.  Amish tours, quilts, food, buggy rides are presented as quaint things to buy,  not as alternative lifestyles that bear contemplation.   How the religious beliefs of the Amish shape their understandings is much less a topic of conversation than how much their quilts cost.


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The Iconic Books Project

I just learned about the Iconic Books Project at Syracuse University, run by Jim Watts and Dorina Miller Parmenter.  The goal of the project is to catalogue the way in which iconic books (“texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight”) are displayed, read, covered, represented in art, etc., etc.

Here’s how the website describes the project’s goals:

The project’s collecting and cataloguing activities aim to do basic research, but its study of iconic books has implications for understanding phenomena as diverse as the marketing of e-books, political ceremonies, legal conflicts over religion, artistic and media depictions of books, the reproduction of scriptures, the architecture of libraries and museums, radical religious uses of media images, the relationship between image and text, the role of religion in law, and the historical influence of “book religions.”

If you’re interested in how the Bible and other books have become decoration or advertising or the fodder for fine or pop art, have a look at the site. The database itself isn’t open to the public, but the project’s blog is.

You can contribute images there as well.

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The F-word, the P-word, and bell hooks

In my academic writing, I speak often of feminism and patriarchy.  The terms are charged with emotion, as well as stereotypes.

A lot of people would embrace another f-word a lot faster than they would the label “feminist.”  They associate feminists with angry women who run around burning bras and fanning hatred of men.  In my Women and the Bible class, I’ve often asked students to draw their stereotypes of a feminist.  The pictures are not pretty.

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Leviticus and the Toilet

Folks who actually read the book of Leviticus (there are a few) usually treat it as superstitious, outdated, odd.  After all, who today really needs details about sacrificial offerings that no one makes anymore or needs to be reminded not to sacrifice their children to other gods?   Don’t mix the fibers in your clothes?  Don’t seed your field with different kinds of seeds?  Don’t get near a menstruating woman? Why bother reading this stuff if you’re not interested in how people used to think?

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