I have finished reading “How to Read the Bible” by Richard Holloway, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It has given me lots of scholarly insights that I didn’t know, as well as some of the author’s own interesting thoughts. His writing style is very readable – it’s as formal as it needs to be, with the freshness of well-placed informalities lifting the tone. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the Bible – it’s very short and easy to read. And don’t be put off by him questioning the existence of God quite early on – it’s not written with an atheist agenda. 🙂
There are 5 “topics” that have come out of it for me and I think I’ll squeeze them all into one post:
- Suffering in God’s cause
- Writing theology into history
- Morality in religion
- Psychology of Paul
“Jerusalem… became God’s greatest rival [for the affection of the Jews].” This brings back memories. Loving God’s gifts more than God himself is a danger that I was taught to be concerned about. In my church, worship just meant adoration, and so anyone or anything that we had a strong liking for became a potential idol. I put away a Lauryn Hill CD for the 40 days of Lent, for this reason. It seems like there could be other definitions of worship, though. I would love to hear yours, readers (if I still have any!)
The book describes Jesus as preaching a strict monotheism, which is a defining feature of Judaism and Islam (and arguably Christianity too). In Islam it is known as tawheed. I am interested in what violates it – to Christians, the Trinity (a 3-persons-in-1 view of God) does not, but to Muslims, it does. I think there is a difference between saying that Jesus was a human incarnation of God, and saying that there is more than one God. Even polytheism can bear some resemblance to monotheism when, like in Hinduism, there is one ultimate overarching reality known as God above all lesser deities. But all of these are categorically wrong from the points of view of Judaism and Islam, where God is utterly transcendent and nothing may be compared to him. I suppose what it boils down to in Islam and Judaism is that the worship of created things – nature, people, blessings, heaven, human creations – instead of the Creator offends God greatly. But again, it begs the question of what worship actually is.
2. Suffering in God’s cause
The book discusses the problem suffering poses to all faiths, which is beyond the scope of this post. I just wanted to note that it occurred to me lately that one of the huge obstacles to my submission to God, namely, fear that it will require me to suffer in some way beyond what I can deal with, makes a lot of sense in the face of a belief that even God’s own perfect son had to die for the sins of the world. Muslims say that God does not test us beyond what we can bear, but I don’t think I dare believe that. I know my own weakness too well.
3. Writing theology into history
The book discusses the aim or thesis of each of the gospel writers, and how this influenced their story-telling at the expense of historical accuracy in some cases. Christian theology as we know it today didn’t emerge until Paul converted, and it was then worked into the gospel stories retrospectively when they came to be written down. This sounds very dishonest, but I don’t get the impression from this book or from Idris Tawfiq the other day that it was intentional. It makes me wonder how easy it is to be faithful to history when we have a well-developed retrospective understanding of it. What might this say about hadiths for example?
4. Morality in religion
The link between God and goodness happened around the 8th century BCE. It was not always obvious that God cared about ethics. Previously people just made animal sacrifices to win the favour of God. But eventually an ethic of compassion emerged, which Holloway says Jesus later emphasised as the “universal human ethic”. In other words, our selfish side is bad and our altruistic side is good.
“Though he probably wasn’t a Marxist, God was certainly a socialist who wanted more mutuality and less competition in society.”
I think this is worth some more thought. Another post maybe.
The message of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Holloway says, is not some naive platitude but a subversive reversal of the existing brutal order of things. Jesus congratulates and values the destitute, the utterly powerless, those outside the “system”, and proclaims that they are innocent precisely because they are not implicated in a system of power which victimises people. They can turn the other cheek and so on because they have no need to react as those who have something to protect. That is still a hugely subversive message today, and something of an antidote to the Darwinian capitalistic mindset that has pervaded our societies.
In regard to religious moral codes and law, Jesus has a “general but not unconditional acceptance” of the temple cult. He is not a letter-of-the-law type. He is criticised for his relaxed approach to observing the Sabbath, for example. Holloway clearly approves:
“It is true that we need moral and religious systems to protect us from the chaos of our passions; but if we give them transcendent and unchanging authority they become a greater danger to us than the unfettered passions they are supposed to curb. An unalterable code can close us against ordinary pity for our fellows, and cause us to treat them not as humans, but as abstractions, as things.”
5. Psychology of Paul
A complex psychology lay behind Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity. What interested me was the idea that, as a zealous Jew with a strong and tortured sense of his own weakness and failure to live perfectly by the religious law that he so revered, he projected his self-hatred onto those who didn’t even try to live up to the letter of the law – i.e. the followers of Jesus. I can actually see something of myself in that. Paul could not be moderate about anything, and was clearly a perfectionist, which are tendencies I can relate to. I can also relate to the frustrated sense of failure and weakness, and so I can understand the projection of that self-loathing onto others who have similar failings or even worse, yet don’t seem to care.
Of course Paul then converted, and arrived at a solution for his angst in the idea that Jesus had fulfilled the law for him, something he could not do for himself. In taking Christianity outside of Judaism, Paul divorced the ritual from the moral, leaving the ritual behind, so that the “law” for Christians consists of moral exhortations only. This goes some way towards explaining why Christians regard themselves as “not under law” but at the same time make huge efforts to live up to a moral standard.
This 5-posts-in-1 has become pretty long, so I’ll stop there! I may repost this on my other blog at some point, so for anyone that reads that, apologies in advance for cross-posting.