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Notes of a talk given by Dr Peter Bishop on Wednesday 27th October 2004

at 39 Eccleston Square



Religion as Idolatry - or Are the Texts Killing Us?

In April 2004 Dan Plesch spoke to CCADD and expressed concern about the religious right in the USA - people at the heart of policy would quite seriously quote Biblical verses about the end of the world and the elect being taken up to heaven in the course of discussions about policy.

Scriptures are a problem, especially in the religions of Middle Eastern origin (is it unfair to say that these three - Christian, Jewish, Islamic - are the most troublesome of the religions?).

The importance and significance of scriptures in these three faith groups are the cause of many problems - some of which I shall come to.

Robert Carroll, The Wolf in the Sheepfold - Preface, p.xi:-

If the Bible does not raise profound problems for you as a modem reader, then check with your doctor and enquire about the symptoms of brain death.

Following that, let me draw attention to what is obvious - that there are very different attitudes to scriptures in different faith traditions, as well as within most of the faith traditions. We recognize that Jews and Muslims have other readings which illuminate their readings of scripture - Talmud; Hadith and Shari'a.

The same is true of Catholic Christians, for whom tradition may be more important than scripture; Protestants on the whole are much concerned about the basic teaching of the Bible, and among present-day evangelicals everything is likely to be referred to scripture, and all religious teaching thought to be based on a clear Biblical message, even though any use of scripture must involve choice and selectivity. However, the mainline Protestant Churches base their teaching on a ‘Quadrilateral’: -

          scripture; tradition; reason; experience.

And lest those of you who are Catholics are tempted to feel a little smug about all of this, may I suggest that interpreting tradition is no less difficult that interpreting scripture.

In examining the basis for what might be thought of as authoritative teaching, may I also point to an important difference between Christian tradition on the one hand and Jewish and Muslim traditions on the other: that is, that Christians do not derive law from scriptures.

Professor Keith Ward:

'In Christianity as such, and certainly in Anglican Christianity, there is no analogy to Sharia'a and there is no analogy to torah .... The Bible does not have the function of an explicit authority in legal and moral matters. One would have no compunction whatever in saying: "It says this in Leviticus but I don't care" in the sense of taking it as an instruction ... (that) is the position which will be endorsed by the most responsible exponents of Christian theology.'

The Bible is not a direct source of law for Christians, as the Qur'an and Hadith might be for Muslims, and there are reasons very basic to Christian thinking ... which give the Christian faith a constantly critical role in relation to society, rather than a direct legislative authority.'

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Biblical criticism created many a crisis in the Church. The application of enlightenment attitudes – the use of reason, of critical enquiry, of modern historical methods in examining the texts of the Bible seemed to many to be a challenge to faith; and such doubts among believers were raised by the controversies about Darwinism, the early chapters of Genesis, and many other matters.

Many scholars in the 19th century embarked upon a 'search for the historical Jesus' (Reimarus, Schleiermacher, David Strauss, Renan, Wrede) culminating in1906 with the publication of Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus. He reviewed all the 19th century studies, and concluded that the Jesus of the NT is unknowable as an historical character. He said that 'there is nothing more negative than a critical study of the life of Jesus', and added: 'Our religion, in so far as it proves to be specifically Christian, is therefore not so much a Jesus cult as a Jesus mysticism.' So the final paragraph of his book ...

He left behind him his biblical scholarship and music, qualified as a medical doctor, and went off to Lambarene…

In spite of the early twentieth century reactions against such liberalism and modernism (Fundamentalism and the Catholic reaction), it is no longer possible to read the Bible as an eighteenth century person would have read it - although plenty of people still try.

I shall come back to the people who try in a moment. But first, let me explain the phrase 'religion as idolatry'. Roger Hooker, an Anglican priest who spent many years in India, went back regularly to study Sanskrit in Varanasi, and became a leading exponent of dialogue with people of other faiths, wrote a little book back in 1986 with the title What is Idolatry? He was trying to explain to Western Christians what some of the worship of Hindus, with images of gods and goddesses, might actually mean. What he wrote seemed to me also to have relevance to Christians in their approaches to scripture and traditions. A phrase that has lived with me out of that book is:

'idolatry consists in stopping at the sign; true religion passes through the sign to what is signified by it.'

Stopping at the sign. Is that not one of the problems of a too literal interpretation of texts? It stops at the sign, thought blocked by the words of the text, and unable to move on to what the words may suggest, to where they may lead.

So just one example: General Boykin - deputy under secretary of State for Defence, USA (Sidney Blumenthal The Guardian 20/5/04)

Charged with applying the methods of Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib.

Had also at one time been in charge in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Member of a Christian organization in the US - 'Faith Force Multiplier', which advocates applying military methods to evangelism.

’Satan wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army. They will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.’ He quotes texts such as Rev. 11.18

'Now is the time to destroy those who destroy the earth’.

In applying that to current affairs he would be unusual in this country; evidently less so in the United States; but he is reflecting a NT theme, which is why this is a serious point.

So - can the emphasis of certain texts turn us into idolaters?

and is it the case that the texts themselves might be the cause of animosity and violence?


1.    In trying to answer those questions, I turn first to the Christian use of the Hebrew Bible, in the OT. Put like that, one difficulty immediately becomes apparent. In using the OT, and in reflecting their own history, Christians are constantly brought up against the puzzle of their Jewish roots. As Michael Barnes has written recently, drawing upon Levinas and Milbank, the Christian vision of reality is mediated to them by an 'other', that is, by the strangeness of Judaism. If we use the historical/critical method in approaching the Bible, as I always do, then we begin by acknowledging that OT texts were not originally directed to Christians, nor were they constructed in a Christian context. So, for example, many Christians will read or hear between now and Christmas the passage from Isaiah 7 that says, in older translations, 'a virgin shall conceive’. In context, the words of the prophet refer to an alliance between King Rezin of Damascus and Pekah, king of Samaria against the people of Judah (the Syro-Ephraimite alliance). Ahaz, king of Judah, who is shaking in his shoes, is told by the prophet not to worry: 'A young woman is with child and she will give birth to a son ... before that child has learnt to reject evil and choose good, the territories of those two kings before whom you now cringe will lie desolate.' The 8th century BC political crisis is the historical background to a verse that is read at Christmas services as a reference to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

The question is, of course, how far is it legitimate to use a verse from the OT as though it were related to quite different times and circumstances? Not everyone uses the historical/critical method; some Christian scholars argue that over the course of centuries the Hebrew Bible has become a Christian scripture, as the OT, and has a life of its own quite independent of any original, or Jewish, meanings. Other Christians now employ a more post-modern approach, maintaining sloppily that a text means whatever it means, leading to forms of biblical interpretation and preaching which are likely to be both banal and useless.

The use of the OT remains a problem.  It is an interesting exercise to look through lectionaries and see what Christians do to Hebrew texts.

Psalm 69. 1-10; 32-35 are in the lectionary.   vv.23-25, which call down a curse upon the enemies of the Psalmist, are omitted: 'May their eyes be darkened so that they do not see; let a continual ague shake their loins! ... let your burning anger overtake them. Let their settlements be desolate, their tents without inhabitant.'

Deut. 11.18-21 begins: ‘Take these commandments of mine to heart and keep them in mind ...'. The reading omits w.22-25, and goes on to v. 26: 'See, this day I offer you the choice of a blessing or a curse...', a splendid text for an evangelical preacher. Omitted are w.23-25: 'the Lord will drive out all these nations before you and will occupy nations greater and more powerful than you are. Every place where you set foot will be yours. Your borders will run from the wilderness to the Lebanon, and from the river, the Euphrates, to the western sea.'

Are such verses omitted because they are simply an embarrassment, or thought to be unsuitable for reading in public? Curiously, readers of the expurgated versions still often conclude with, ‘This is the world of the Lord'.

The Hebrew Bible is full of difficulties for Christian congregations, yet it remains a part of the inheritance of Christian faith.

Cyril Rodd, in a splendid study of OT ethics, Glimpses of a Strange Land, (T & T Clark, 2001) writes that:

‘The OT can easily appear to be the most bloodthirsty of all sacred scriptures'. He points to the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) in which Yahweh is referred to as a 'man of war'. This, says Rodd, remains his character throughout the Old Testament. He cites Judges chapter 18, saying that: The Book of Judges is equally a book of war. The attack on Laish is the saddest and most horrifying of all. Its inhabitants were living quietly and in peace, troubling no one and expecting no attacks, and they were therefore easily overpowered and annihilated by the Danites, and the writer sees this as divine providence.' (pp. 186,187).

Rodd suggests that shalom, often cited by Christians as an inspiration for peace, has little to do with peace between nations. War is so much the condition of everyday life that the rights and wrongs of it are hardly discussed at all in ethical terms. The word shalom is used in the sense of a common greeting: 'peace be on you', rather like, 'have a nice day'.

On 1 & 2 Samuel Rodd says: 'Wars against the Philistines follow and persist throughout the reign of Saul. Not until the time of David were they finally defeated. David then carries out a series of conquests of surrounding peoples, often with great cruelty and ruthlessness. Two thirds of the Moabites were killed, horses were hamstrung, twenty-two thousand Syrians and eight thousand Edomites were slain... The writer glories in the large number of the enemy who were killed.' (p. 187)

Raymund Schwager (Must There be Scapegoats?) points out that "there are six hundred passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Bible, one thousand verses where God's own violent actions of punishment are described, a hundred passages where Yahweh expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason (e.g. Exod. 4.24-26)'. Violence, Schwager concludes, is easily the most often mentioned activity and central theme of the Hebrew Bible.

So what are we to do with the Old Testament? Read some bits and not others? Select according to our tastes? Whatever we do, we may be sure that some Christians will find there justification for the most aggressive and bloodthirsty of actions.

Most Christians, like most Jews and Muslims,, emphasise the positive parts of their traditions, those that favour just and compassionate acts, and they do this in spite of texts which suggest the opposite. Most believers, Jewish as well as Christian, would not dream of stoning people working on the Sabbath, even though on a plain straightforward reading God in the Bible instructs them to do so, and threatens them with death if they don't. (see Numbers 15.32-36). They would not advocate the death penalty for anyone who curses his father or mother, commits adultery, or engages in homosexual acts (Leviticus 20.9, 20. Leviticus 20.10-13). Yet there are Christians, some in influential positions among the present US administration, who do cite the violent texts apparently uncritically.

2.    John Nelson Pallmeyer, in /s Religion Killing Us? (Trinity Press, 2003), has written a polemical book on the violent texts available to Jews, Christians and Muslims. He claims that the Gospel writers interpreted the meaning of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection through the lens of their own deeply held apocalyptic thoughts. For example, he cites the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, often regarded as the great biblical calls to social justice: 'When the son of man comes in his glory ... he will separate the people into two groups...' He will say to one group: 'I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you took me in ... when naked you clothed me, when I was ill you came to my help.' It is all splendid stuff. But Pallmeyer worries about the curse on those who do not do these things: 'go from my sight to the eternal fire that is ready for the devil and his angels .. . and they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will enter eternal life.'

Pallmeyer's problem with such material is the ways in which it teaches a rigid separation between the good and the wicked - or, as we might be tempted to put it, between them and us.

He concludes that: Jesus the Lamb, the returning Christ, became in scriptural imagination ‘God's murderous apocalyptic accomplice, who would violently judge and crush enemies and evildoers at the end of history.'

Pallmeyer, in looking for a solution to these problems, looks to Walter Wink, an American biblical scholar who has written a remarkable series of books on what he calls 'the domination system'. [See Engaging the Powers. Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Fortress Press, 1992]

One of Wink's basic ideas is that we need to cultivate an 'integrated worldview' in which we do not think of earth versus heaven but of both as inner aspects of a single reality. So biblical references to 'the principalities and powers' should now be read, not as referring to supernatural forces but to the actual spirituality at the heart of the political, economic, military and cultural institutions of our own times. The 'domination systems' arise when networks of powers become integrated around 'idolatrous' systems. They are idolatrous in the sense that their sole aim comes to be seen as the accumulation of money, or power, or conquest, taking no account of either spiritual or moral values. At the heart of the domination system is the myth of redemptive violence which, Wink claims, 'underlines American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism and foreign policy. He writes, "the myth of a Messianic redeemer who will set things right is ... in its essence a totalitarian fantasy'.

Applying this to common ideas of the Second Coming, he suggests that rather than looking for an apocalyptic event to break in disastrously 'from heaven to earth', as it were, we should read the texts in the understanding that the expectation of the return of Jesus functioned mythologically to keep alive the conviction that the values he incarnated would be vindicated in humanities' future (p.61). He regards as ironic the fact that at his return Jesus is popularly expected to do all the things he resolutely refused to do the first time around. In place of reconciliation, love, peace, acceptance, non-violence, the apocalyptic texts put revenge, destruction, and disaster on a cosmic scale. The advent picture, he writes 'has become weighed down with androcratic fantasies of revenge, violence and autocratic rule.' And this, he suggests, has influenced the way in which Christians (and he is thinking especially of Christians in the United States) think of battles between good and evil, He quotes Simone Weile (from her Gravity and Grace): The false God changes suffering into violence. The true God changes violence into suffering.'

According to Wink, the ultimate religious question today should not be: 'how can I find a gracious God?' but: 'how can I find God in my enemies?'(p.263).