November 14, 2013

The Only Book You Must Believe Before You Can Understand

Jester reading a book
Jester reading a book (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Of all the books I have ever read and studied, I have only encountered one where I have been told repeatedly that I cannot understand it unless I first believe everything it says. Yes, I am referring to the Christian bible and the magic that protects it from being deciphered by non-Christians. This claim has always struck me as being thoroughly ridiculous and has led me to laugh in more than a few faces. It is not that I dispute the need to interpret some books, reading meaning into the author's words. Many books require this, and I can accept that the Christian bible might too (although interpreting what many claim is at least divinely inspired strikes me as arrogant). What I dispute is that the claim that one must believe a book prior to being able to understand it is anything but nonsensical.

I studied many books during my years in school. I don't mean I read them, although I did that too. I mean I studied them in the sense of critical analysis and interpretation. In elementary school, this largely focused on reading poets like Robert Frost and discussing what they were communicating. By grade 5, we were reading some of the less complex literary classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, and this would continue into junior high. In high school, the books become more complicated (e.g., Moby-Dick). The complexity continued to increased in college where I encountered everything from short stories written by African authors, modern literature (e.g., Beloved), and classic non-fiction relevant to my major (e.g., Man's Search for Meaning). Graduate school would bring more focused technical non-fiction reading, necessary due to the increasing specialization.

What much of this study had in common, regardless of the subject matter of the books involved, was that it was widely understood that some level of interpretation was often necessary. In studying a book, poem, or short story, we often examined themes, symbolism, and subtle nuances of meaning. Reading a book like Crime and Punishment meant that we would not simply engage in a casual reading but probe the author's meaning, discuss various themes, and even debate the intent behind various parts. I almost always enjoyed this, and I suspect it is a big part of the appeal behind book clubs.

It makes perfect sense that Christians would want to engage in some sort of bible study. If they really think this book is "holy" in some way, I would think they would want to read it often, think about it, and discuss it with others. And if they truly regard it as "holy," I would assume they would live their lives by it. But the idea that one cannot understand what it says without first believing it is silly.

When a Christian makes this claim, my suspicion is always that what he or she is trying hard not to say is something like this:
My bible cannot possibly mean what it says because so much of what it says is truly vile. Since I cannot defend what the bible actually says to you, I will instead defend my interpretation and cherry picking. Thus, you won't understand it as I do until you believe what I do (i.e., that we should ignore or re-interpret the many parts we don't like even while we claim that it is the word of some god).
The Christian is stuck claiming that his or her bible is "holy" because that is a core part of his or her faith. It is no longer open for debate; it is accepted as absolute truth. So what is such a Christian to do when confronted with one of the many vile parts of his or her "holy" book? His or her choices include defending the indefensible by arguing that the vile part is perfectly fine, re-interpreting the part away (e.g., "The parts of the Old Testament that make my god sound like a douche no longer apply"), or insisting that the person pointing it out is misunderstanding it.

Only the most rabid fundamentalists will pick the first option; the rest will rely on the other two. Of course, it should be noted that effective re-interpretation is likely to require some knowledge many Christians lack (you know, because few Christians seem to be willing to read their own "holy" book). This explains why the final choice is so damn popular. The Christian who has no idea what his or her bible says can still shout, "You just don't understand it!" at the atheist.

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