The violence in sacred texts: 11-25-11
November 25, 2011
Nearly all sacred writ contains passages that need a lot of explanation, given that they seem to say things out of harmony with that religion's primary thrust.
In the New Testament, for instance, Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5:29 this way: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away."
And that's not the half of it.
There are violent, dark passages in quite a number of places in both the Bible and the Qur'an, and religion scholar Philip Jenkins insists that it's time to face up to them and seek to understand what they can possibly mean.
So Jenkins, perhaps best known for his insightful book, The Next Christendom, has written Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses.
It's a book full of wisdom and insight for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It is sure to be rejected by some among those adherents who are strict literalists when it comes to reading sacred texts, but that, to me, just confirms its usefulness. I suspect that some of these literalists will simply come unglued when they read Jenkins writing this: "If religions are to succeed -- if they are to live, and grow, and change the societies around them -- then of necessity they must outgrow at least parts of their scriptures." And if not outgrow them, at least understand why some dark passages were written and what meaning, if any, they might have for adherents today. Even some devout Muslims may have trouble with Jenkins' acknowledgement that he's not a Muslim and, thus, "I do not believe in the precise divine inspiration of the text." In other words, Jenkins takes the Qur'an not as God's dictated words through an angel to Muhammad's ear but as a product of a particular movement in a particular period of history.
Jenkins' book is especially helpful for people who seek a reasoned and educated response to those who want to present, as Jenkins says, "the Qur'an as a terrorist tract loaded with hate propaganda." Indeed, says Jenkins, by comparison to the Bible, the Qur'an is lacking in verses that can be read that way: "If Christians or Jews needed biblical texts to justify deeds of terrorism or ethnic slaughter, their main problem would be an embarrassment of riches."
As Jenkins notes, "Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions -- all are in the Bible, occurring with a far greater frequency than in the Qur'an."
Besides, he writes, many of the problematic texts in any religion have to be understood in their proper historical context and how the religion has developed since those texts were written: "If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery. Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam."
Jenkins is wise to take account of the reality that many adherents of various faiths rarely study their own sacred writings. Indeed, in Christianity and Judaism, biblical illiteracy among people in the pews is rampant. And yet we find biblically illiterate people willing to condemn the Qur'an, which they almost certainly haven't studied either.
Jenkins (pictured here) puts it this way: "If Western believers, either Jews or Christians, start from a wholly inaccurate and selective view of their own faith, and its violent or intolerant components, they have no basis for dialogue with Islam."
So Jenkins wants Jews and Christians to go back to the violent portions of their scriptures so they "can be absorbed, comprehended, and freely discussed."
And we need not look long and hard to find such passages: "The Bible contains many passages that to us seem bloodthirsty or upsetting -- stories of casual murder, mass slaughter, rape, adultery, and treachery. In many cases, these texts are so ugly that they have been dropped out of memory."
One of Jenkins' most useful chapters is called "Truth and History." In it he describes the reality that many of the stories told in the Hebrew Scriptures were written hundreds of years after the events described and were written not to offer what we today would consider accurate history but, rather, to make political and theological points to the readers of the time. Indeed, Jenkins argues, some of "the historical credibility of these books is severely limited." For instance, he points out, there is almost no historical evidence that anything like Joshua's conquest of Canaan ever happened. And if that's the case, then we must reinterpret the violent accounts of that conquest found in the Bible to understand what they can possibly mean.
Now, not all violent verses fall outside the realm of historically trustworthy accounts, but even in those cases it is important to do the proper exegetical work to understand their purpose, and Jenkins helps guide readers through some of that meaning-extraction process.
In the end, Jenkins writes, it's vital that followers of all the Abrahamic faiths, including Islam, confront the violent texts in their sacred writings. But for Christians and Jews, "the more we explore the darkest Bible passages, the more they would benefit from being brought back into the wider story through public or liturgical readings. . .Not only can the dark passages be read, but they demand to be."
And Jenkins' new book can be an excellent guide for how to approach that task.
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THE SLIPPAGE IN RELIGION
No matter what you hear on the airwaves or read in cyberspace, America is becoming less religious, not more, it's reported. No surprise. In many ways, it's the post-Christendom Europeanization of America. But it's no straight line down.
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P.S.: For your holiday giving this year, may I immodestly suggest that you give family members and friends one of my two books that you yourself (surely) already have read: They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and/or A Gifit of Meaning, a collection of my more serious columns from The Kansas City Star. If you prefer to order directly from the University of Missouri Press, call 800-621-2736. Or if you're in the Kansas City area, see me or Rabbi Cukierkorn for the first book.