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26.7.02

I'm starting to think that writing the Bible down was one of the worst things that ever happened to Christianity.

The problem is the concept of scripture. To say that the Bible is scripture means that it is a complete and perfect record of truth. The text becomes authoritative in and of itself. This tends to create a sort of absoultism, the idea that there is one correct Christianity. The text has a meaning, that can be discovered by careful attention to every detail of wording (since everything, down to the smallest preposition, is there for a reason). The authenticity of the version being used becomes paramount, and conflicts over disputed verses revolve around whether the verses are "supposed" to be there. Obviously, this phenomenon of absolutism and authenticity is not solely a product of making the Bible a fixed text (and it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that). But it is an illustration of a problematic trend.

Contrast this with "living" traditions, whether they be "traditional" oral traditions like the body of Navajo myths, or scriptureless religions like neo-paganism. These religions provide their practicioners with a common vocabulary, shared reference points that can be used to frame ideas and expressions of truth or religious experience. Norse bards, for example, did not aim to recite myths word-for-word from memory, but rather to creatively shape the familiar outlines of a story into a new and interesting form, embodying morals appropriate to the situation and the audience.

Christianity is very malleable, too. While it has influenced centuries of Western thought, it has also been used by various movements. Much of what has been done through history in the name of religion was done simply "in the name of" -- not "because of," or "due to," but "justified by reference to." But despite this history, Christianity operates with the assumption that the practicioner's version is the "real" one that all others ought to be like -- hence the ironic situation of evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses expressing very diverse theologies but all claiming to be living as the first apostles did.

This attitude of authenticity has spilled over into non-Christian religions in the West as well. For example, there is a current in neo-paganism that stakes the religion's claim to validity on its roots being older than Christianity, that today's neo-pagans worship just the way people thousands of years ago in pre-Christian Europe worshipped. And those inspired by Eastern religions will sometimes assert that these traditions have retained a purer version of the original religion that was corrupted in Christianity.

Seeing Christianity as having one, unchangeable message has led to it being written off. Ever since Lynn White's charge that Christianity is the culprit in the modern ecological crisis, various ecological and feminist theories have written Christianity off as patriarchial, dominating, and otherwise unsuitable for today's reality. These types of charges partake of the idea of an "essential" Christianity, the idea that any other form of Christianity is ignoring parts of or distorting the "real" message. For example, a lecturer last semester was discussing a passage in one of St. Paul's epistles (I don't recall specifically where) that, while on the surface homophobic, had been re-interpreted by some in the queer community as empowering. She explained that her textual analysis showed that the real message of the passage was unfortunately homophobic, and therefore "revisionist" reinterpretations were just denials of the underlying homophobia of Christianity. While she may have been correct in ascertaining what St. Paul meant when he wrote the words that are in today's Bibles, it is the idea of scripture that led her to believe that the "real" interpretation is the only one that can be used.

This is not to say that all religions are infinitely malleable, or that any religious tradition works as good as any other in any personal and social context. And it is not to say that non-Christian religion is unnecessary or that non-Christians should "come back" and work within the Christian tradition instead of leaving it. I'm just raising these thoughts because in many contexts I've encountered criticisms of Christianity that suggest that the religion is one thing, and that thing is outdated or dangerous. Any attempt to find an ecological Christianity, for example, is seen as forcing the tradition to be something it's not -- using a screwdriver to pound in nails, so to speak. There is an assumption there that an outsider can define the tradition and state its limits, which is only possible if the tradition has one authoritative and universal identity.

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