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10 April 2012

Meaning in Flux: How to Read a Religious Text

Over the last 67 year, biblical scholars have been pointing out that the New Testament is more a collection of texts from a community struggling with its own self-definition and identity than an established religion that has it all figured out. As more and more folks are embracing biblicism*, this becomes a problem. Case in point, the Book of Revelation was a contested part of the biblical cannon until--well, it's still contested in many ways. While the tendency to read the Bible texts (yes, plural) as established rather than as a record of conflict or as consensus rather than contested territory is related to biblical literalism and biblical inerrancy, I think that it leads to slightly different consequences. All three of these phenomena lead to intransigency and absolutism, but the established-community precept uniquely limits contemporary in-group acceptance and doctrinal fuzziness, that is, congregations that see the Bible as fixing belief rather than discussing it tend to be pretty exclusive.

This is quite ironic when one reads the books of the New Testament, even out of context. The Gospels give varying accounts of the same events. Acts is all about the negotiation of reform vs. schism. The Epistles are each one side of a dialogue, debates about belief, belonging, and behavior. (Revelation is clearly an outlier.) These books are all about the process of hashing out faith, not about codifying conclusiveness. Granted, the latter makes for stronger religions, but it also leads to more antisocial outcomes. More on that later.

* - Chris Smith coins and defines "biblicism" as "a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability."

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