My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Faith can be a fragile thing. It is possible to lose your faith when confronted by facts that don’t fit into your mental model. With that in mind, I cannot recommend this book to my Protestant friends, particularly those who are inextricably wedded to a literalistic interpretation of the bible. This book has the potential to change your perception of scripture and, with nothing to replace it, destroy your faith.
The Bible is not what we are so often told it is, particularly when we claim to be biblical literalists and interpret the text solely according to the historical-grammatical method. The fact is that no one is a biblical literalist, as the author aptly demonstrates. What are we to make of the evidence that our scriptures contain multiple points of view about who God is? About the existence of other gods? And even (God forbid) child sacrifice? The fact that we explain these away instead of taking them at face value is evidence that we are spiritualizing the scriptures, reading into them our point(s) of view.
If we come face to face with the obvious differences of opinion within scripture regarding fundamental things, what are we to do? For many, having no explanation and unable to integrate what they know into their religious perspective, they lose their faith. I don’t think that is what the author is trying to do, yet the author exposing these issues without providing a completely satisfactory solution.
Most of what Thom Stark describes is known to the Christian world — just not the Protestant world, and in particular the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. For most of the world’s Christians, the Bible is Sacred Scripture because the Church says it is. The Bible was written within the Church, declared to be scripture by that same Church, and interpreted within and by that Church on the basis of a living Holy Tradition (also known as the general consensus of the Church Fathers).
When Peter wrote that Paul’s letters were scripture, which ones? Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthians; we have only the second and the fourth. Again, in Ephesians 4:15,16 Paul tells the Ephesians to read in church the epistle he wrote to the Laodiceans. The missing Pauline epistles were determined by the Church not to be scripture, while others became part of the New Testament.
Thom Stark contrasts the literalist, historical-grammical hermeneutic with three other hermeneutical methods of dealing with problem texts, each of which come up wanting. These are the allegorical, the canonical, and the subversive readings.
Stark recognizes that those employing the allegorical method recognize the problematic nature of some texts (particularly the genocidal narratives of the conquest of Canaan), yet argues that when this reading becomes the traditional meaning, it prevents people from confronting the problem texts directly, and dooms us to repeat the conquest narratives (as in the Crusades, the Colonial era, and Manifest Destiny) instead of learning their lessons.
The Canonical Method recognizes that the scripture was created within, by, and for the community of faith. Stark argues that the determination of what is and is not scripture was not created by the faith community, but by the elites within that community. The argument seems to be that because the process was not democratic, it may be that the elites chose those scriptures most amenable to their point of view and the maintenance of their status. This is a highly problematic argument, as it reads the modern western culture back into the situation as it existed in the past. Moreover, it ignores the fact that in the early church, bishops were sought out for persecution; some early records show that the term of a bishop was typically in the low single digits, and bishops often died as martyrs. To be elevated to the position of bishop was, in many cases, a death sentence. And finally, the idea that the Holy Spirit moved within the community of faith apart from the bishop was foreign to the early church.
The Subversive Method points out that in many cases a meaning can be given to a text that subverts its obvious meaning. In some cases this is justified; the Revelation of St. John is full of coded language suggesting the end and judgement of the Roman Empire. Even Jesus’ call to ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God” has a subversive message—since everything ultimately belongs to God, nothing rightfully belongs to Caesar. But it is possible to subvert the subversive message to justify confiscatory taxation, as took place in the Byzantine Empire, and under the Medieval popes. It is also possible to use scripture to justify racism, slavery, polygamy, and the subjugation of women.
Stark offers an alternative approach: viewing certain texts as condemned texts. Their status as scripture would be precisely because of what they reveal about us, and about what they fail to say about God. Under this reading, the text is valuable as an example of what not to do and how not to think. For example, few Fundamentalists think the fatalistic message of Ecclesiastes is an example for us to follow, but rather an example of just where an idolatrous and hedonistic life ends up. So too we don’t accept Satan as a role model to follow, even though his seven-fold “I will” is recorded in the book of Isaiah.
What Stark fails to recognize is the vibrancy of Holy Tradition as a guide for the interpretation of the text. The fathers recognized the problematic nature of some of scripture; not only that, but they wrote about it, and we use their writings today to help us deal with the same problems. We don’t hide these texts away, we don’t pretend they don’t exist, and we don’t explain them away. Just as the church has determined the canon of Sacred Scripture, so too the church has passed on the methodology of dealing with problem texts. This methodology is different on a case by case basis. In fact, there are competing hermeneutics within Holy Tradition, just as there are competing views about God within Sacred Scripture. None of this is either a revelation or a problem for the Orthodox. All the hermeneutics described by Stark are present to some degree or another, in some place or another, within Holy Tradition.
I finish this review as I began. If you are a Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestant, avoid reading this book, as you lack the cognitive framework for dealing with the information.