Near Molong, NSW 2011

Rough Round the Edges

 The following comes from a news group I'm on:

"Inerrant means incapable of being wrong.

You guys don't make it easy for those of us who are struggling with some of this stuff. What's the thing that can't be wrong? The original Hebrew and Greek texts? The Authorised Version (the "Real Bible" as I once got firmly told)? The NIV translation? The Good News version? RSV? New Jerusalem?

Switch 2 words in English around and you can change the meaning dramatically. The way I read and understand a sentence in English can be different from the understanding a reader in say Kolkata might have. Which reading can't be wrong? Which understanding?

What about us schmucks out here who can't read Hebrew or Greek (and particularly 5th century BC Hebrew and 1st century AD Greek) and who have difficulty with the meaning of a lot of the stuff in "friendly" translations such as NRSV and New Jerusalem - those of us who seek help from commentaries, study bibles and expositions? Whose interpretation is incapable of being wrong? William Barclay's DSB? John Stott's commentaries? David Koresh's interpretation? Or Bob Jones III's? Anglican Media's publications? The books in Koorong or at Rainbow Books? UnitingEd? Tom Wright's studies? "

Trevor, who is a well educated 40- something, highlights fundamentalism's pre-occupation with a sacred text. Fundamentalism tries to insure itself by arbitrarily proposing a supreme authority, which is not God, but the text. True, the text is from God, but one suspects that if God arrived on earth and contradicted the text, "he" might get short shrift!

Trevor also highlights the relative insignificance of having a sacred text which was guaranteed. There is so much untidy stuff where we "have difficulty with the meaning." What use is a guaranteed text when it's meaning is so open to argument. Who is the "inerrant interpreter?"

I know from my own past that inerrancy is presented with a "sophistication" that would allow a fundamentalist to say of Trevor that he is setting up a parody, and that he doesn't understand. But Trevor does understand. It's the fundamentalist who cannot see the ridiculous nature of their on proposition.

In The Guardian of Saturday February 22, 2003 Terry Eagleton makes the same point as Trevor: (link live March 2 2003)

Fundamentalists... fail to realise that the phrase "sacred text" is self-contradictory. Since writing is meaning that can be handled by anybody, any time, it is always profane and promiscuous. Meaning that has been written down is bound to be unhygienic. Words that could only ever mean one thing would not be words.

He goes on to say

Fundamentalism is the paranoid condition of those who do not see that roughness is not a defect of human existence, but what makes it work. For them, it is as though we have to measure Everest down to the last millimetre if we are not to be completely stumped about how high it is. It is not surprising that fundamentalism abhors sexuality and the body, since in one sense all flesh is rough, and all sex is rough trade.

That paragraph caught my attention. Roughness. I could chart my own escape from fundamentalism as a kind of falling in love with roughness. I learned to appreciate and then even glory in the roughness and ambiguity of life. Fundamentalism had been a defence from uncertainty for me. Eagleton says

Fundamentalists are really necrophiliacs, in love with a dead letter. The letter of the sacred text must be rigidly embalmed if it is to imbue life with the certitude and finality of death.....

The fundamentalist is a more diseased version of the argument-from-the-floodgates type of conservative. Once you allow one motorist to throw up out of the car window without imposing a lengthy prison sentence, then before you know where you are, every motorist will be throwing up out of the window all the time, and the roads will become impassable. It is this kind of pathological anxiety, pressed to an extreme, which drove the religious police in Mecca early last year to send fleeing schoolgirls back into their burning school because they were not wearing their robes and head dresses, and which inspires family-loving US pro-lifers eager to incinerate Iraq to gun down doctors who terminate pregnancies. To read the world literally is a kind of insanity.

I remember statements like this causing me some pain. I was not like that. The writers seemed to be taking the implications of my theology to ridiculous extremes. My spirit was not with the US pro-lifers who gun down doctors. I was pro land rights, pro aboriginal, pro justice. I hated the extremes of what some of my fundamentalist friends proposed. A colleague said about his change from an anti-homosexual stance in the Uniting Church, "I was aligned with the people I agreed with, but all my friends, and the people I respected, were on the other side!" That's where I was.

When the people we like, say things which so mis-interpret us and hurt us, perhaps we are receiving a hint. Could it be that in that rough-round-the- edges, inconsistent theology we abhor, there is the Love of God calling to us? Do we want clear, neat and correct theology, which is ultimately heartless, or do we follow our hearts to those untidy places where the love is?


Posted March 2 2002


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