Welcome to the seventh, and final, post I am doing for the mythology and the bible series. You can view the other posts here.
Last week I recapped where we had been, discussed the myths of the Beginning and the End held by a segment of contemporary Christians, and told you that this week I would be discussing the way that the mythology can function as whole—fairytales, legends, and myths working in concert.
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A distinction that I have lately been thinking about is the one we draw between the valorized text (in this case, the bible) and the texts we produce that mediate our relationship to the bible.
That is, when a sermon is preached—or when a scholar produces an exegesis—there are two texts in play. The first text is the particular segment of the bible under evaluation while the second is the sermon or exegesis.
The rhetorical goal of the scholar is to elucidate—usually to an academic audience, though it could be anyone—the historical, literary, anthropological, theological, or scientific context for a particular segment of the bible. Moreover, scholars may engage in a critical appraisal of the text using ideological criticisms like Feminism, Critical Race Theory, Post-colonialism, Marxism, etc.
Sermons, however, function rhetorically so as to form a bridge between the experience of the congregation and the location of the biblical text or, more frequently, the experience of characters within the biblical text. That is, preachers frequently draw from stories in the bible to admonish, encourage, or teach their congregations:
“Be like David, he was a man after God’s own heart. How can we be men after God’s own heart?; The apostles first went into Jerusalem, then Judaea, then Samaria, and then the ends of the earth. What are our Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and ends of the earth? How can we, like the apostles, spread the Gospel?”
Thus, the texts produced comment on the existing text of the bible. The scholar has typically devalorized the text by treating it like an ancient document. The preacher in most settings, but especially conservative evangelical settings, teats the text as fully valorized (this is indicative of, as I wrote last week, the modernist paradigm absorbed by fundamentalist and scientist alike in which truth and facts are the same thing). That is, the text of the bible is seen as holy, perfect, infallible, inspired, and inerrant. It is treated as penned by God.
So far so good. A third type of text, however, produced is the children’s version of bible stories. These versions are not merely commentaries on the valorized text. They subsume the valorized text. That is, they collapse the distinction between texts produced by modern people that comment in some way on the bible and the bible itself—they become the bible, at least for some children.
This is similar to what occurs in translations: we treat our English translations of the bible as the bible. But they are not the bible. They are translations, and translations inevitably reflect bias. A children’s version of a bible story is a translation of the English version into a form suitable for children. The story is then treated as the bible.
And it is in translation into kid form that the bible stories become fairytales.
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So what are some of the implications?
Well, the way I have presented the information is from the top down—exegesis, then sermons, then children’s versions. But that’s not the order in which we typically receive the biblical text. I know that I was first told bible stories (like Samson), then I heard and understood sermons, then, in college, I came into contact with scholarly treatments of the biblical text.
What happens when we start on children’s versions of the bible stories? Our children receive the biblical text as fairytales on par with Disney, Pixar, and Snow White.
(Which I don’t have a problem with at all. I happen to think that we could stand to put some distance between “truth” and “facts.”)
But when kids start hearing sermons that have completely valorized the biblical text—drawing moral lessons from their fairytales, as it were—they come to believe that the bible happens to be a true story, as opposed to all of the false stories they have been told growing up.
The “once-upon-a-time, far-far-away” land of Israel retains the fantastic qualities given it by the fairytale versions of bible stories, but is now fused with the modernist notion of scientific facts. Thus, the modern state of Israel becomes the legitimate heir to the ancient Kingdom of Israel, and thus all of its attendant promises. Just like Joshua was justified in conquering the Promised Land by force, and David was justified in defending it with force, the modern Israeli state is justified in its continued oppression of the Palestinian people. And America, as a Christian nation, is thus justified in aiding God’s chosen.
The collapse of the distinction between text and commentary that occurs in children’s versions is thus a Sign for the collapse between ancient Israel and modern Israel—a collapse with very real military and political consequences.
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Thus ends my series on mythology and the bible. It ended up going in a different direction than I had envisioned, but I appreciate where it ended up. Below you will find my abstract for the paper I am writing using this material. Thanks for reading.
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Abstract: The State of Israel, Mythology, and the Valorized Bible
The Middle East is a volatile place in the contemporary world, and it is made even more volatile by the presence of Israel as a geo-political entity. The history of the state of Israel’s founding and subsequent push to establish and defend itself from the surrounding nations is well documented, as is the current tenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine. Israel’s survival has been and is still largely dependent on military aid from the West—especially from the United States. While political scientists and historians may argue that the United States has had and continues to have a straightforward national interest in the success of Israel (as a bastion against “extremism”, as the only “legitimate” democracy in the region, as an ally in the “War on Terror”), and while Jewish groups may argue that the United States has a moral obligation to protect the Jewish people from ever being threatened with annihilation again, another group—the Christian Neo-conservatives—argue that the success of the state of Israel is necessary for eschatological reasons. This group, moreover, wields great influence and resources to lobby for its agenda.
My paper will seek to explain some of the reasons why the Christian Neo-conservatives believe as they do. I will argue that the Christian Neo-conservatives (like many before them, including the Medieval crusaders) read the bible mythologically, and thus uproot the bible from traditional moral, theological, historical, and grammatical anchors in service to a specific eschatological vision. This shift is rhetorical in nature in that those receiving the biblical text now are not the same as those who originally received it, nor are they the same as the scholars, theologians, and historians who have been careful to read the text with integrity. The shift in audience is a shift in interpretive communities and thus a shift in text. For, as Stanley Fish has argued, interpretive strategies precede the text, thereby “making them rather than, as it is usually assumed, arising from them” (218). The resultant text is a valorized version that legitimizes very real political and military action.
Following the traditional hierarchy in which fairytales (local stories about overcoming ordinary obstacles) fit into legends (regional stories that explain the status quo—political or otherwise) which fit into myths (cosmic explanations including origins and ends), I will demonstrate—beginning with the story of Samson in the book of Judges, proceeding to a discussion of both ancient and contemporary legends about the founding of Israel, and concluding with the explicit connections to Christian notions of eschatology, most notably in St. John’s Apocalypse and in Ezekiel—how the way the stories of the bible are read to, and by, the children of some conservative, evangelical Christians contributes to an underlying worldview in which the contemporary state of Israel is viewed in mythological terms and thus justified in its continued oppression of the Palestinian people.
Fish, Stanley. “Interpretive Communities” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 217-21. Print.