Westar Institute Bible Seminar 2011: Gregory Jenks — Taking the Bible seriously, not literally

On the final day of the conference, Gregory Jenks  conducted a seminar of his own in honor of the 400th Anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible.  Jenks cautions that there are 4 ways to abuse the Bible:

  1. Treat the Bible as a Bible – a book of answers; a “manufacturers manual”; better to see the Bible as a set of trial questions – practice for the final exam.  (For example, what does it mean in a non-theistic context to “shape holy lives”?)
  2.  Divine mandate for conquest, especially for English-speaking people.  Zionism is a current example – the Bible justifies a Jewish presence in Palestine as well as ethnic cleansing of Arab inhabitants.
  3.  Anti-Semitism.  Underwritten by supercessionism.  Christian Zionism; Islamophobia– xenophobia both invokes and betrays scripture.
  4.  Apocalyptic fantasies – There is a specific apocalyptic eschatology throughout the Bible, the New Testament, and Paul.

Jenks expanded on this last point and raised the question that the commentaries in this blog have also raised: Namely, when the longed-for, Biblical, apocalyptic transformation of the world finally happens – to use John Dominic Crossan’s phrase – “God’s great cleanup” – will it be violent or non-violent?  The Bible’s violent, apocalyptic eschatatology is “crisis literature written from the margins by people who were just hanging on.”

For Pre-Reformation western Europeans, such violent apocalypticism was not so popular.  But such “toxic readings of scripture” are deeply embedded in the American revolution and in the founding of the United States.  In her remarks for the working session on the Bible Seminar,  Pamela Eisenbaum pointed out that with new technologies, the ability to call up any portion of the bible can lead to even more proof-texting and simplification – abuses such as Jenks was talking about.  Most makers of popular Bible software are evangelical right wingers who want to convert the world, says Eisenbaum.  Now fundamentalist Christians have tools with a global reach such as never before.

What happens, Jenks asks, when the religion becomes the empire?

Biblical literacy – knowing what is in the Bible, and discerning its relevance for a post-modern global society – is vital for preventing a “fundamentalist apocalyptic toxicity” from corrupting populist demands for justice.

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