Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Ideology as Idolatry, Part 2A: The Inerrant Bible and Apollo

Here, my blog series on Ideology and Idolatry continues, in which I explore how I think the same concrete reality is being spoken to by David E. Fitch in The End of Evangelicalism?, on the one hand, who speaks of the “empty politic” and ideology of evangelicalism, and by N.T. Wright in Surprised by Scripture, on the other hand, who speaks of the idolatry that drives our world.

See Introduction, Part 1.

It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today: architecture or revolution. – Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1929

If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house, and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view… – Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1929

The Engineer, inspired by the Law of Economy and governed by mathematical calculation, puts us in accord with universal law. He achieves harmony. The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and shapes he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty. – Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1929

Architecture operates in accordance with standards. Standards are a matter of logic, analysis, and minute study; they are based on a problem which has been well stated. A standard is definitely established by experiment. – Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1929

Pictured here is Le Corbusier’s Apollo and Medusa. In antiquity, Medusa was a female figure who attracted one’s gaze with her captivating beauty. Once in the grip of her power, one all too quickly learns that she is the embodiment of primordial disorder that ushers in an inescapable tsunami of dark, wide, gaping, terror. What I once thought was beautiful now is horrific and has hair in the form of venomous snakes that signal my quickly immanent and inescapable death. Anyone who succumbs to the power of Medusa’s initial beauty and looks directly at her is turned to stone. To avoid such terror, as David Fitch points out in The End of Evangelicalism?, Evangelicals have learned to employ Apollonian methods quite similar to the ones proclaimed by Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture.

The Inerrant Bible and The Apollonian Character of Evangelical Practices and Beliefs

According to Fitch, those methods employed by Evangelicals center on the politic of the Inerrant Bible. We most often hear the term “inerrancy” of scriptures, because that was the one of the Five Fundamentals being referenced, but, truthfully, inerrancy is such only because it points to an ideally Inerrant Bible that we constantly pursue but which is beyond the reach of our grasp. Of course, we keep reaching and grasping anyway.

That pursuit enacted by reaching and grasping is constituted by a group of Apollonian beliefs and practices that have interwoven themselves together into the fabric of what has come to be known over time as evangelicalism. In the center of all of that fabric is expository preaching and inductive bible studies. The supportive framework includes a belief in the literally and verbally dictated inspiration of scripture, in the quest for and finding of the original author’s single intent, in hermeneutical objectivity that allows the “data of Scripture” to speak for itself, and in the unwavering belief in the propositional nature of how truth is communicated.

In other words, what we have as our scriptures were generated by a divine copy machine. They are not an approximation; there is no veil between what we see or know and what we don’t. The space between every word and line is filled with sunlight. The words are not signposts; they are the truth itself. We bow to the Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures, precisely as a trace of Fundamentalist belief in verbal dictation of scripture.

That sunlight that fills the space between every word and line constitutes the original author’s single intent. Of course, that implies that either the original author is God or that there is no difference between God and whichever humans did the writing. It also implies that there is no darkness, no mirror, no growing into full seeing as we are seen when the truth is revealed. What the image reflects can’t possibly be seen from multiple angles - hence this truth in the form of the original author’s single intent. It’s already been revealed by the copy machine!

Of course, we are also talking about a copy machine that spits out bits of objective data that can be rationally and universally known without the need for interpretation. And, if rational humans are doing the universal knowing of self-evident truths, that puts us in the place of sunlight, which illumines all the earth. We only have to learn to employ the scientific method referenced by Le Corbusier, above, and adopted by evangelicals with the historical-critical method of interpretation of scripture.

Also, this divine copy machine seems to have a strong tendency to favor sets of propositions when it chooses its method of copying. Machines don’t tell stories that embody the acted out lives of a people. The figures of actual humans cast shadows on the stage. Evangelicals can’t have that. Copy machines rely on the omnipresent light of Apollo to properly scan the original page (much like the fluorescent lights in our fellowship halls).

The Inerrant Bible Reveals Works of Apollo

For those of you who are wondering, Apollo is the ancient Greek god of sun, light, prophecy, truth, and poetry. Apollo was the god invoked at the Delphic oracle. Apollo is considered to be the god of harmony, order, and reason, as compared to his brother Dionysus, the god of wine, ecstasy and disorder.

So, the divine copy machine mentioned above works by Apollo’s power, and we bow to it as we sit at the feet of the expository preacher and seek God through individual, inductive, propositional “word studies.” In contrast to the depths of earthly chaos that threatens us when presented with the beauty of Medusa, and in contrast to the subjective impulses for fulfilled natural desire borne of Dionysius – and not to mention, in contrast to the tyrannical, authoritarian collectivism of all ancient kings (wait, what about Jesus? lol) - in the face of Apollo’s light we are shaped into transcendental subjects who are identified by our thinking and who rationally and individually know objective and universal truth. Allegiance to and identification with Apollo puts us in the place of sunlight: coming from a place high above the earth, illuminating everything on it universally, each ray of light a dictated proposition.

Evangelicals, of course, would mostly not be comfortable being identified with or as (modern versions of) Apollo. The doctrines and practices we have developed have been intended to help us worship the one true God of Israel, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Right? David Fitch sees evidence of “empty ideology” at work in our body politic’s ways of thinking and practicing. Of course, based on my reading of N.T. Wright, I am suggesting that the problem is deeper than that, and that that language itself lends us to foreign influence. I am suggesting that we have been participating in worship a foreign god or gods. Fitch finds numerous inconsistencies and absurdities that reveal what he refers to as this “empty politic.” I think those very phenomenon that he points out point to idolatry. Notably, Fitch, in places other than End of Evangelicalism?, has, in general, not shown a diversion to speaking of idolatry in evangelical camps. I am specifically talking here about his work in The End of Evangelicalism?.

The absurdities and inconsistencies that reveal the ideology as idolatry in evangelicalism are revealed in public figures like Hal Lindsey, Jack Hayes, and President George Bush. In 1970, Lindsey’s The Last Great Planet Earth appeared and claimed that the bible, precisely because it is inerrant, could predict the future events of mankind. It sold over 35 million copies, which indicates that Lindsey had tapped into something deeply important to evangelicals. Apparent problems with the joy evangelicals took in being right and having such control over the truth were revealed when Lindsey had to keep revising the text. Oops.

If evangelicals assumed, believed in, and pursued the ideal of the inerrancy of their bible in the form of literal dictation by God, then the next step of belief in a God-breathed, infallible translation of said bible was inevitable, right? Within evangelicalism, along came the idea that the King James Version (KJV) of the bible is the only truly inspired translation of the Bible. That sounds absurd enough, in and of itself, but when Jack Hayes came along and decided that no one can be saved without the use of the KJV, the absurdity was confirmed and revealed. The infallible bible had very obviously become a means to say: “We are right, we have truth, and everyone else is going to hell.”

Of course, allegiance to the god of the sun has its advantages. The sun, throughout most of human history, at least, governed human life at the most basic level. Not only does it illumine and enlighten, but it also has great power. So, when George W. Bush was elected president, he became the figure by which evangelicals – with their Apollonian allegiances and hence their fantasies of the power of rays of light - could see their desires projected and played out on the screen of reality. His inductive bible studies were part of his campaign strategy, so he was seen by evangelicals as embodying their habits and beliefs. He was thought of as someone who reads the inerrant bible, prays, and, through the Holy Spirit, can come to know truth because of the clarity of scripture. Thus, it was seen as the ideal fulfillment of evangelical hope when Bush was now in charge of the world! In Bush’s own words: “God told me to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.” Apollo was also the god of colonization.

Out of his evangelical commitment to the clarity and infallibility of scripture and to our habits of studying it, Bush ended up daring to declare that he had a direct line to God in a way that was to determine specific events within the contingencies of current history and determine human relations on a global scale – by going to war for reasons not based on Just War tradition! The drive to be certain and to be right came to define Bush as president.

The Inerrant Bible and a People Defined by Allegiance to Apollo

Using language borrowed from the bible, Bush proclaimed, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This reveals evangelicals’ excessive enjoyment in having something to be against. And, that brings us to where the above examples point to Fitch’s declaration that said examples are simply figures woven into the fabric that constitutes the very politic of evangelicalism. In other words, the above noted inconsistencies and absurdities, according to Fitch, are not marginal side notes to the real story of evangelicalism and its relationship to the inerrancy of scripture. Those inconsistencies point to and are inextricably connected to the center of what holds evangelicalism together. And, as it turns out, what lies at that center is Nothing – hence the inconsistencies, absurdities, and human pursuits of power in the first place. Evangelicals are living out and living out of what Fitch calls an “empty politic.”

Because there is nothing at the center out of which a body politic grows and by which it is sustained, the Inerrant Bible merely serves as a linchpin by which we measure and define who we are against and with which we pursue our fantasy of the grasping (the) power (of the god of the sun). As noted in the parentheticals of the last sentence, I am suggesting, again, that what Fitch is referring to as (an empty) ideology that holds evangelicals together is really idolatrous worship of the god of the sun who, in a particular time and place, was named Apollo.

Fitch’s point, in borrowing from the thought of Slavoj Zizek, is that the Inerrant Bible is not a concrete thing that has any bearing on our actual daily lives. Instead, the inerrant Bible is merely a fantastical object of desire that fuels evangelical fantasies and, thus, serves as something to rally around as a community, as a political body of people. As such, Fitch refers to the Inerrant Bible as a “master-signifier.” For more on what that means, you can look AT THIS LINK HERE. The rallying cries around this Inerrant Bible as the life of the evangelical community are the central practices and beliefs and their supporting framework discussed at the beginning of this blog post: inductive bible studies, expository preaching, verbal inspiration of scripture, the original author’s single intent, objective interpretation of the “data of scripture” that speaks for itself, and truth in propositional form.

For Fitch, part of what it means for the Inerrant Bible to be a master-signifier is that its meaning is elusive. No one really knows what it means. It is “inerrant according to the original autographs”….which no one has ever seen. Unlike the body and blood of Jesus, the Inerrant Bible is not a concrete actuality around which people gather together. As such, the Inerrant Bible is as fantasy that is forever beyond our reach. It is an “empty signifier” with no actual referent. It is unattainable, but we are in constant pursuit of it. The question becomes, if it is unattainable, if no one has ever seen the supposed original autographs according to which the Bible is inerrant, then why do we continue to pursue it? And, therein lies Fitch’s whole point. We pursue it precisely because it’s what drives who we are. If we quit pursuing it, we are no longer ourselves. I am suggesting that this is precisely what reveals such a pursuit as idolatrous. One of the defining characteristics of religious devotion – as discussed by N.T. Wright in Surprised by Scripture - is that we are shaped into the image of the god we are worshiping.

One piece of evidence we see in evangelicalism of the elusive quality of the meaning of the “Inerrant Bible” is that no one can agree on an interpretation of the scriptures that we all agree are inerrant. And, yet, it is the very same elusiveness of the Inerrant Bible that allows our continued pursuit of it. As Fitch put it, “the worst thing that could happen would be the discovery of the original autographs.” What drives who we are, why we gather, and (so the argument goes) why we exist in the first place, would be lost. Fitch notes the horror evangelicals felt with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. It was a threat to what makes us who we are and to the fantasy that drives our desires. If the Dead Sea scrolls would have turned out to actually be the concrete reality of the “original autographs,” then the distance between object sought and the individual putting their belief in that object would have been closed. There would have been no more space for an expansive imagining of the fulfillment of the fantasy of what the Inerrant Bible really is.

Something else we see at work in the way of life driven by the Inerrant Bible that reveals it to be “empty” – which is presupposed and allowed by its being “elusive” – is that the Inerrant Bible doesn’t actually mean anything when it comes to evangelical doctrinal and ecclesial practice. Many groups hold to inerrancy but have very different interpretations of the Bible. And, yet, it is their hold to inerrancy that fuels all those various interpretations! Pentacostals, Joel Osteen, Willow Creek, Saddleback, Billy Graham, and Moody Bible Institute all hold to biblical inerrancy. They all take the bible to be the perfect book that is verbally inspired and propositionally true. Biblical inerrancy is what drives their interpretations of scripture and their practices as a gathering church (ecclesiology). And, yet, all of their interpretations and practices are vastly different!

Fitch also discusses a couple of tests of where our allegiance lies as evangelicals. He mentions that the Inerrant Bible is, explicitly, at least, rarely discussed. It only comes up when a church has to prove its orthodoxy, when a church has to appeal to donors to prove its conservative stance. In other words, evangelicals use Inerrancy as a means to prove to donors that their church is “not liberal.” In this way, the Inerrant Bible serves as not only an identity marker but as a test of our allegiance. In addition, one of the central practices that gives definition to the ideology of the Inerrant Bible – expository preaching – gives inherent ideological authority from the evangelical pulpits. When those in the pew hear expository preaching, they can feel confident they are sitting on the right side of the aisle.

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