Biblical Illiteralism

Back when I was an English teacher, I had a list of things that I told my students would automatically get an assignment an F.  (Of course, I almost never actually carried out the flunk threat. It was purely a mechanism to get the students’ attention, and it was fairly effective.) Miscopying printed text that was in front of the student when s/he was writing (like the assigned topic) was a biggie.  So was “between you and I.”  Provable plagiarism, of course.  As time went on, the list got longer.  The last few years I taught composition, I finally put “the Bible says” on the list (unless it was followed by chapter and verse.)


Some of my students undoubtedly concluded I was some kind of firebrand infidel, and I rarely bothered to correct the misimpression.  But in fact I was reacting to the increasing number of students who cited “the Bible” (without chapter and verse) as saying things like, “to thine own self be true,” “God helps those who help themselves,” and “all men are created equal” (actually quoting, respectively, Hamlet, Ben Franklin, and the Declaration of Independence.) 


The students who could in fact provide chapter and verse were fine with my edict, and I was fine with them.  Accurately cited scripture is proof that the student can read and quote sources in a way that is useful to the reader, a valuable and increasingly rare skill in college English classes.  I may object to a particular student’s interpretation of a particular passage of scripture, but not to the point of quibbling about it in my grading of a composition assignment.  In fact, I really like students who can use biblical sources in a useful way.  I am always pleased to have a Jehovah’s Witness in my class, because they tend to have great study habits. 


But what gives me the terminal twitches is people who cite or quote or allude to the Bible without having read it thoroughly and meaningfully.  People who call themselves biblical literalists and obviously haven’t read the Book in any sort of substantial way, but just quote whatever the pastor says.  People, for instance, who claim that “the Bible” forbids abortion.  I ran into this one, oddly enough, on a Quaker e-list, and when I posted back, honestly curious to think I might have missed something, the reply I got was that “I cannot believe that a God who revealed the Scripture to us would not have made the fetus a human soul from conception.”  (So much for George Fox’s  You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?”)


Or the self-labeled bible-believing parents in Kentucky who assailed the local school board for requiring their kids to read textbooks that depicted men and boys cooking, as “unbiblical.”  Looking up “cooking” in a concordance will reveal that all but one of the first 25 references to cooking in the Bible attribute it primarily to men, mostly priests but also Abraham, Jacob, and Esau. A cynic or a feminist might suggest that in these instances, men took the credit for work actually done by women.  But no self-respecting biblical literalist would dare to engage in such a feat of sleight of interpretation.  The Bible not only depicts men cooking, it apparently endorses the practice. Apart from Rebecca’s deceptive preparation of the goat stew that tasted like venison (hardly an endorsement), I think the first depiction of women cooking may be St. Peter’s mother-in-law.


Am I nitpicking?  Not with people who call themselves biblical literalists, I’m not.  A literalist is somebody who reads a text from cover to cover and then follows it word for word.  These days, most of the people who call themselves biblical literalists follow nothing word for word except the edicts of their particular pastors, who may or may not be real biblical literalists.  I certainly don’t consider myself a literalist, but four years of divinity school and forty years of Torah study at least enable me to spot a fake when I see one.


In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit to having passed a religion exam in high school with a fabricated quotation from a fabricated book of the Bible (Hezekiah.) But I have become more respectful of the Book since then, and wish other people were too, particularly the ones who claim to shape their lives and their thinking on it.


Jane Grey




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