Religious naivete – Presenting the Issue – theological and historical perspective – Editorial
David M. Bossman
Recently I read an engaging novel on the Spanish Inquisition written from a Jewish point of view, which the author kindly sent for comments. The novel is clearly written, empathetic, and, as expected, critical of Catholic persecutors. On those terms, this historical novel passes with high grades. But the same cannot be said of historical verisimilitude. The problem rests not so much on a portrayal of the events as on the failure to adequately grasp how people thought in that setting–how society worked, what meanings and values operated in their world. The result is an anachronic set of dialogues between introspective, idealistic, pragmatic and educated-sounding American characters.
Religion has a powerful influence in society and in people’s lives, which places a heavy burden of intellectual integrity on those who use it. While religion weighs on people’s sensibilities–thoughts and emotions–it also is presumed to be founded on truth. Lacking truth, religion becomes a potent instrument of demagoguery for those who knowingly or in ignorance advance their own agendas and prejudices by using the power of religion.
Those who use religious history as a basis for argument today need to be especially careful to render this history accurately. The attempt to pursue accurate history may be more of a modern than an ancient ideal. A biblical professor of mine once characterized biblical history as less the account of what “really happened” than of what “really, really happened.” Thus ancient historical accounts often pursued the “higher” truth at the expense of actual truth. Today, at least in theory, we recognize that accuracy is a higher ideal than ideology.
The novel on the Inquisition failed in a particular aspect of truth: its true setting in life. It is a mistake to assume that diverse “Jews” and “Christians” today are identical with, or even substantially similar to their varied historical antecedents. It is equally a mistake to assume that people formed in one world will think and behave the same as those formed in another social world. When ordinary 15th-century Spanish Jews and Christians come across as elite 21th-century American Jews and Christians, there has to be something wrong with this picture. What’s wrong is simple naivete. The writing is naive. So is the reader who thinks s/he can identify truth in the message. Whatever the author intended–presumably to arouse or confirm a sense of injustice and hurt–is compromised by his blatantly naive portrayal of the people in this historical novel.
The subject matter for the biblical theologian similarly straddles two worlds: the world of the generators and the world of the receptors. Failure to know the difference is simply naive, wrong and potentially destructive. Fantasy in religion is even more harmful than fanciful history, because religion means much more to people and society and carries a bigger stick. Thus, the task of BTB authors is to grapple with the meanings that inhered in the world that produced the biblical text.
Three articles in this number of BTB trace out this endeavor for those who are serious about pursuing truth in religious texts. Dennis C. Duling examines the social network of the Jesus Movement in Part II. The Social Network. If readers today want to know what people then meant, it pays to give careful attention to the places (Part I) and people (Part II) that made up their world. Dietmar Neufeld explores the meanings attached to food in the Gospel of Mark in his article, Jesus’ Eating Transgressions and Social Impropriety in the Gospel of Mark: A Social Scientific Analysis. The symbolism of food, as all symbolism, renders meanings in particular social world contexts. Finally, Gerard Sloyan, in What Kind of Canon Do the Lectionaries Constitute? analyzes the implicit theology that results from selecting and arranging biblical texts in a liturgical lectionary. These are needed stepping stones for building realistic biblical theologies to remedy religious naivete.
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