Sunday, January 20, 2008

How to Read the Bible

Although this is a site primarily dedicated to writing about films, you'll notice that the subheader also allows room for "other ephemera", my tongue-in-cheek way of granting me space to expound upon other topics in pop culture. My subject for this entry certainly isn't ephemera. In fact, I feel pretty safe in saying that it qualifies as the ultimate popular culture work.

I'm speaking of The Bible, and no, my intention isn't to be glib. No matter how well known the book, song, film, or any other artistic/cultural contribution in history you can conceive of might be, chances are those creations don't come close to being as widely exposed or having as much influence or relevance as the Good Book, especially in Western civilization.

I expect that some of you may already be rolling your eyes and wondering if I'm going to get all churchy on you when you just want a review of THERE WILL BE BLOOD. (My unqualified rave is forthcoming, if you're curious.) My aim is not to evangelize but to work out my thoughts on James L Kugel's book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. It set my head spinning for the month I needed to dig through it, and believe it or not, some of Kugel's writings did make me reflect upon film criticism. So this won't be as off topic as you might consider it.

First, though, I feel like I should lay my religious background on the table. I was raised as a regular churchgoer in Protestant denominations and continue to identify as a Christian and attend church. Like many, I am not anywhere near as familiar with the Bible as I probably should be. Unlike many, belief and faith have not been difficult for me. I have always been uncomfortable with demonstrative displays of faith that are wielded like a cudgel.

That brings us to How to Read the Bible, a doorstop-sized book in which Kugel explains how ancient interpreters came to understand these holy writings and how modern biblical scholars from the 19th century onward apprehend these old texts. In this way the author compares and contrasts two critical schools of thought that work from premises not unlike how I approach films for review. More on that later.

I should point out that the Bible under discussion here is the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. Kugel asserts that the ancient interpreters approached the text with what he calls The Four Assumptions:

1. The Bible is cryptic by nature, so it is up to the interpreters to locate the hidden meanings.

2. The Bible collects lessons intended for readers in their own time despite appearances of the book as history.

3. The Bible does not contradict itself or contain any errors.

4. The Bible is a divine text.

Modern biblical scholarship is heavily influenced by Benedict Spinoza, who proposes a different tack from the ancient interpreters. He suggests:

1. "All knowledge of Scripture must be sought from Scripture alone."

2. Scripture must be understood on the basis of its original language and way of perceiving the world rather than how we see things today.

3. Scripture should be interpreted literally unless contradictions within it reveal such things to be metaphorical.

4. Meaning can also be uncovered by studying the historical context of the writings and how they were assembled.

5. Prophetic teaching are often contradictory, so it is more important to focus on their points of agreement.

Perhaps I have misunderstood something here or have not paraphrased these rules correctly because it seems to me that the first point calls for sticking solely to the text while two of the others call for extra-textual assistance.

I find it interesting that the ancient interpreters' perspective seems to be the prevailing view even today. While it might be easy to typify this as the fundamentalist approach, I think that you wouldn't get much argument in any pews on Sundays regarding three of the four criteria. There might be less consensus on Scripture's cryptic nature and the need to find hidden meanings. Still, we're talking about an approach that is thousands of years old and ingrained in us without our knowledge.

On the other hand, the modern biblical scholarship method makes perfect sense to me. Of course many of the stories are etiological and not intended to be read as historical fact. Of course it is entirely logical to read these texts within the context of the times in which they were written. Of course there are errors and contradictions in the texts through, in no small part, the absence of vowels and punctuation in the original writings and the inevitable mistakes and intentional alterations made in generations of transcribing and translating. None of this makes the Bible less valuable or less true.

Yet if the Bible is the living word of God, doesn't modern biblical scholarship consign it to the history or mythology sections? I don't think so, but I can understand why some would feel that way. My response is how else can we make sense of what we're reading, especially the parts most foreign to our everyday lives, without the context in which it was written?

Here's where I step aside and compare this with my methods as a film critic. The text--what is on celluloid or encoded in ones and zeroes--is of primary importance; marketing campaigns and filmmaker quotations during the publicity rounds don't (or shouldn't) factor into my evaluation of the work. What is on screen is there because someone intended for it to be there. Those extra-textual things that matter are the context within which films are made and how they interact with other works. (These considerations are particularly critical when reviewing old films.) I am looking for the viewpoint of the creator rather than attempting to impose my interpretation of what is before me.

I suppose what's most interesting about my approach--not a unique one, in my opinion--is that it mixes ancient and modern interpretation. Back on point, Kugel would argue that the two are not compatible, but he's speaking in terms of biblical scholarship.

There's also the idea of whose meaning is most important in a text. Is original intent or what becomes attached to it more valid? Song of Solomon likely originated as erotic poetry, yet over time it became read as the relationship between God and humanity than a man and a woman. The original meaning is overtaken by what the readers find in it. Which one is correct?

The question of authorial intent and ownership versus reader/viewer appropriation and interpretation is certainly as much an issue today, although less is at stake. Fanboys wail whenever George Lucas tinkers with the STAR WARS films because they see the movies as belonging to them. To the joy of some and chagrin of others, J.K. Rowling reveals backstory secrets from the Harry Potter universe that aren't explicitly in her novels. How much truer is her vision if such details aren't in the texts?

If you're wondering where I'm going with all this, so am I. The book inspired a lot of thought and moved me deeply, but trying to put it all together, especially when combining it with film critic elements not in the book, is a difficult undertaking. Good thing this is a blog and not an academic paper.

Kugel's book is a lot to absorb. Frequently it confirms what I believe about reading the Bible, but it also challenges what I've taken for granted in my understanding of it. The author says early on that How to Read the Bible may be upsetting to some readers. Moses and other biblical heroes may not have been real. The Exodus probably didn't happen. Stories and laws bear unmistakable similarities to the legends and codes of other societies, which certainly challenges the perception that these were divinely given to a chosen people. Earlier portions of the Bible recognize monolatry more than monotheism.

Although I can certainly understand why some would be taken aback, I didn't find How to Read the Bible to be disturbing. Instead I found it to be a comfort, even if it can be unsettling at times. In general it fits with my understanding of the Bible. Kugel answered several questions I had about parts I've thought were confusing. His book has given me reason to engage in the worthy pursuit of examining why I believe what I believe.

Sneakily enough, he's also persuaded me to want to take a closer look at his subject. Kugel isn't really practicing criticism, but like a good critic, his writing makes me want to check out the book he's writing about. Rather than risk being like Tom in Metropolitan, who prefers to read criticism of Jane Austen's novels than the books themselves, I ought to read the Bible now that Kugel has provided the necessary tools.

If I've given the impression that How to Read the Bible is impenetrable academic scribblings, purge such thoughts from your mind. For such a weighty book, it's very accessible. I dare say it's a page turner. It's rare to encounter anything that could or does change one's life, and I hesitate to give Kugel's book such credit, if only because that's a lot to heap on it. I wouldn't go so far as to say that reading it makes me feel like a different person, but I believe that How to Read the Bible has stimulated thought and opened my eyes to a collection of texts that have been an organizing principle in my life while being largely shrouded in mystery. I'll leave it up to you to decide if that's life-changing.

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