Monday, September 28, 2009

You MUST Eat the Bible: Texas Biblical Literacy Mandate Goes into Effect

Leave it to the Texas state legislature to screw up a good thing. In 2007, the Lone Star State passed a law--Texas HB 1287--mandating that public schools teach Biblical literacy when a minimum of 15 students request it. The law just went into effect this fall, but the AP reports that schools are struggling to interpret and implement it.

Why? Because legislators left the mandate unfunded--and provided no clear guidelines for how it should be put in place. Apparently, schools needn't offer full-scale Biblical literacy electives (thankfully); they may instead incorporate relevant material into existing curricula. In which classes? The law doesn't say, though we hope that "biology class" isn't an option. As 30 Rock's Kenneth says, "Science was my favorite subject. Especially the Old Testament." And just for fun, here's Kenneth on Jesus.

Of course, these are just the first of a slew of problems with publicly funded Bible literacy projects. Church-state and first-amendment issues are also at play, at least in part because bill author Warren Chisum argues that only Biblical literacy--and not, for instance, Quranic literacy--is necessary and constitutional: “The bill applies to the Bible as a text that has historical and literary value. It can’t go off into other religious philosophies because then it would be teaching religion, when the course is meant to teach literature. Koran is a religious philosophy, not of historical or literary value, which is what the Bible is being taught for.”

Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Chisum: Bible=literature. Qur'an=religious philosophy. (Notice the mild critique implied by the word "philosophy.") I'd also bet a prairie lasso that for Mr. Chisum, "Christian"="law-abiding, heterosexual child of God." But I'm just speculating. And no, I don't know what a "prairie lasso" is.

Nonetheless, it's a shame that such efforts are being bungled, because Biblical literacy is a worthwhile project. Perhaps even as a part of American adolescents' secondary education.

Now, realize that I support no state or federal legislative efforts to require--or chide or encourage or champion or privilege--Biblical literacy. We're too close to violations of the establishment clause. But I do believe that teens should know the Bible better, because it remains one of the most important religious, historical, cultural, and literary documents ever produced.

Here, I defer to Stephen Prothero, a former professor of mine who argues for the importance of Biblical literacy both in his excellent book Religious Literacy and in a 2007 LA Times op-ed.

From the latter: "In a religious literacy quiz I have administered to undergraduates for the last two years, students tell me that Moses was blinded on the road to Damascus and that Paul led the Israelites on their exodus out of Egypt. Surveys that are more scientific have found that only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the four Gospels, and one out of 10 think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. No wonder pollster George Gallup has concluded that the United States is 'a nation of biblical illiterates.'"

True that. Now, I don't want to argue--with Texas Congressman Chisum--that knowing the Bible should happen in a vacuum. Indeed, if students know frighteningly little about the Bible, they know nothing about the Qur'an, they've never heard of the Vedas, and they think that "sutra" is just half of the name of a sex manual. And that's a bad thing.

However, I would argue that Biblical literacy is more important to young Americans than basic knowledge of some of these other texts--not because it's such an intrinsically greater book, but because the United States is an overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian nation. As a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey reports, over three-quarters of us self-identify as Christian, and a handful more are self-described Jews. Said differently, nearly four of five Americans identify with a religious tradition that thinks of the Bible as sacred text.

So perhaps it would be good if we all knew this text better, and from a younger age. Not because some legislative crazies from Texas say so. But because the Bible is a crucial part of the American religious landscape. Yee haw.
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Friday, September 25, 2009

Genesis 23: The Death of Sarah and the Genius of the Redactor

The vast majority of Biblical scholars accept some form of what has come to be known as the "documentary hypothesis." (I know, I know ... I'm starting with academic mumbo jumbo, but this is serious stuff, so man up!) Originated by a German named Wellhausen (I told you this post would get more exciting), this theory suggests that the Torah--the first five books of the Bible--is a composite product, the work of a number of authors.

Why? Well, there are many reasons, most of which are only available to readers of Hebrew, though a few remain accessible to readers of the Bible in translation. There are odd repetitions, as if our someone briefly hit the rewind button on the text for just a few seconds. There are different versions of the same story (most notably, the creation of the cosmos in Genesis 1-4). There are many different names for God. And there are noticeable and drastic differences in tone and style.

Now, I don't know if this whole theory seems scandalous to you--perhaps you're a more conservative reader of the Bible, or perhaps you just like your books written by just one person. But can I let you in on a little secret? The documentary hypothesis has been around in some form for nearly 200 years. So it's not exactly news.

But the whole "many authors" thing isn't even my favorite part of the documentary hypothesis, even though it tends to rile up the fundies. Because the theory also proposes that after a gaggle of logorrheic Hebrews finishes writing down all those kooky tales, an editor--we call him "the redactor," because he obviously needs a super-hero-y name--collects, organizes, and combines them all together into what will become the Torah.

Now, I just love the redactor, and not only because I like his sweet nickname. Further, I think I've found his coolest contribution to the Torah. It comes in Genesis 23.

Genesis 22 delivers one of the most harrowing accounts in all the Biblical narrative: the akedah, or binding of Isaac. This is the scene when God "tests" Abraham by requesting that he sacrifice (read: slaughter) his son and give him up as an offering. I always wonder if orthodoxy obscures some of the macabre viciousness of this tale, so I translate into plain speak: God tells Abraham to stab his only son with a big knife and then burn his body on a wood fire for no other reason than the fact that God requests it. And to make matters worse, Abraham makes his son carry the firewood to the scene of the only-barely-averted crime on his back. Please don't mistake the gruesomeness of this request; it presents devout Christians and Jews with a remarkably stark interpretive challenge.

Nonetheless, such challenges are not the subject of our meditations this evening. Instead, let's skip ahead to the passage immediately after; here it is: "Now after these things it was told Abraham, 'Milcah also has borne children, to your brother Nahor: Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Betheul'" (22:20).

Now, my first thought is, I'm definitely naming my second son Jidlaph. But my second thought is this: a genealogy? Now? In the aftermath of one of the most disturbing family dramas ever written?
Has the redactor--whom I suspect had something to do with this bizarre ordering--absolutely no sense of dramatic development? This seems vaguely akin to splicing one of those old Taster's Choice commercials with Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer right after the horse head scene from Godfather.

But maybe I speak too soon ... because this is the genealogy of Abraham's brother and his wife, Milcah. Unlike Abraham and his wife Sarah, Milcah and Nahor obviously have no problem at all having kids. In fact, while Sarah must wait for a divine miracle to deliver her first child Isaac, Milcah--surely an unwelcome guest at family reunions--is popping out babies like an ancient Canaanite Pez dispenser.

And this initially jarring juxtaposition begins to make sense, for while Nahor is giving Milcah an embarrassingly large brood, Abraham is off nearly killing Sarah's only son. Now, the text never tells us about Sarah's response to the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In fact, she remains silent all through that devastating chapter 22. However, at the beginning of chapter 23, she dies, unobtrusively, and without a last word. "Sarah lived one-hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah's life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba" (23:1).

This, then, is the brilliance of the redactor, I think. For while our writers never describe the cause of Sarah's demise, the redactor--by this unexpected ordering of near-sacrifice, fertility, and death--allows us to propose the most obvious of reasons: Sarah dies of grief after learning of her husband's rash devotion to God, which almost leads to the loss of her only child.

We will most likely never know what parts of Genesis are whose work and where later editors play definitive roles. But this sublime weaving of very disparate narrative strands seems to me the work of a compiler willing to suggest what previous authors perhaps could not--that God, in testing Abraham, asks too much of him and his family.

And he does so without writing a single word. Now that's genius.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Genesis 12: Why Abram?

To my mind, there are two big questions that the book of Genesis leaves unanswered. (Okay, so there are about a million, but to say there are just two makes my analysis sound so precise.) The first: Why does God create the universe?

The first few chapters of Genesis go into some detail telling us how we get from "formless void" to light and land and crawling things and people, but the reasons behind this moment of world-making remain a mystery. Is God lonely? Bored? Is our universe just one entry in a huge cosmos-creating competition--like some soap-box derby for pimply, adolescent deities? (And if so, are we winning?)

The other big unanswered Genesis question involves God's relationship with his first business partner, Abram (later Abraham). Biblical scholars are all at a bit of a loss when it comes explaining why God chooses Abram for this role. The passage in which the selection scene plays out is characteristically sparse. However, I've begun to develop a theory; and my answer to this question--Why does God choose Abraham?--is a little mundane. But I think it might also be right.

But before we get to the reason, I suppose I should set the stage. Genesis introduces us to Abram in chapter 11 and describes his initial encounter with God in chapter 12. The opening verses of 12 go like this: "Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.' [...] So Abram went, as the Lord had told him" (12:1-4).

That's it. With only one abrupt word of introduction--"Now"--and with nothing in the way of pleasantries--"Good morning Abram. My name is God. Can I get you a hazelnut latte? And could I tell you about a little business opportunity?"--God says "go." And to our surprise, Abram sets off. With nary so much as a peep.Weird , eh? But why this man? And why "now"? And why does Abram agree? We have no idea.

Well, that's a lie, because we can speculate. Christians and Jews for centuries have suggested that it is Abram's unquestioning willingness--his lightning-fast trust in the deity--that recommends him for enlistment. But this is just speculation--and good guesses are still just guesses. Hence, lately I've been trying to reach for an answer to the question that relies a little more heavily on textual clues.

So here's a little fuller run-down of the situation: Beginning in this crucial moment, God and Abram enter into what comes to be known as a covenantal relationship. As part of this divine-human contract, God promises Abram two things: many many descendants and a place to live. This latter is the oft-mentioned "Promised Land," which will later become Israel.

However, at this point in the tale, we haven't yet arrived in Israel, and frankly, there is no Israel. There's just "Canaan," a narrow strip between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Not much, but an excellent place to build a few beachfront bungalows for you and your hundreds of thousands of great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

And here's where I can explain part of my answer to this question, "Why Abram?" To do so, I need to jump back to the end of the preceding chapter, which tells the story of a little move that Abram's family makes: "Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there" (11:31).

Did you catch that? Even before God calls Abram and commands him to head for Canaan, Abram's family has already tried to move there. Said differently, it's Abram's earthly father Terah--not his heavenly one--that initially tells Abram to head for the Promised Land. And even though circumstances stall their trip, it's a journey that's already begun.

So when God asks Abram to head Canaan-ward, Abram's kind of already halfway there. It's kind of like if Abram's family planned to move from Boston to New York City and got stuck in New Haven. They might hang around for a little while because the university is so good, but they're always going to think about finishing the trip and settling down in the Big Apple.

Which makes me wonder if God doesn't pick Abram because of his momentum. That is, when God says "Go," Abram's already going. Kinda boring, right? But maybe kinda true, too.
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