Standing by 'biblical truth'?

When televangelist Pat Robertson made his much decried comments last month about the Haiti earthquake being divine punishment for a "pact with the devil", critics and defenders alike took him at his word that he was asserting a "biblical view". This just goes to show how little we know.

The willingness with which people attribute their (or other people's) religious and political prejudices to the Jewish and Christian scriptures - without reflecting meaningfully on either these texts or what else is, or has been, going on in human textual cultures - is amazing.

Biblicism and anti-biblicism are cut from much the same cloth, it seems, and neither have much to do with honouring the complexity, demandingness, disturbance (both positive and negative) and inspiration we find in the Bible - something that requires more than pro- or anti- rhetoric.

What brought me back to this was taking part in an online (but below the radar) discussion with some specialists on "biblical literacy" in our culture, and then finding myself reading a fabulous column by the doyen of American religion commentators, Martin E. Marty - whose musings on religion in the media we are honoured to reproduce on Ekklesia from time-to-time. (This one appeared on Marty's University of Chicago site on 18 January, but somehow I missed it at the time).

He writes, inter alia: "Mr Robertson seems to occasion such an outpouring of responses every time there is a natural disaster, for his words about what God had in mind in selecting subjects for destruction."

Going on to survey some of the the hundreds of thousands of internet references to all this, Martin Marty notes that many were from supposed 'Bible-believers' who defended Robertson, not noticing that, crucially, the “pact with the devil” phrase and charge did not come from the Bible.

He continues, tongue-in-cheek, but with the serious intent of questioning our own assumed knowledge, as well as Robertson's: Most commentators simply heaped on poor Mr Robertson. [But t]he incident shows development and expansiveness in Robertson, who has been one of the most consistent critics of secular humanism in all its forms. Yet for this – his televised revelation of the meaning of the catastrophe – the evangelist drew not on the Bible but on secular humanist sources.

You won’t find “pact with the devil” in your biblical concordance, as the phrase did not enter our culture from the Bible. Mention a “pact with the devil” and you will immediately be dredging up the explicit language of the Faust legend, whether from Marlowe or Goethe or Thomas Mann, who told classic versions of Dr Faust’s famed contract. Search the literature and you will find secular humanists touting the greatest, Goethe’s Faust, as a “secular humanist manifesto.” Something good to say about Robertson, then? Yes: We like to document popular evangelicalism’s enlarging scope; here is an instance. Could Robertson have been courting secular humanists with this turn to non-Biblical sources?

Goethe’s Faust is big in college curricula and Great Books clubs and among opera goers; but the story of a pact with the devil also shows up in less elite circles, including one most explicit source. Guy Endore’s Babouk (1934) is a fictionalised version of the incident Robertson used to explain the curse on the Haitian people, who, in his estimation, deserved the earthquake because of an ancestral pact with the devil. Stalinist Endore did his research in Haiti, and came back to tell the story of Babouk, his version of Duffy Boukman, believed to have been the agent of the Haitian revolution against the French. Could Endore’s bad Communist novel have been Robertson’s source? If so, then we see the scope of sources that Robertson takes to be “true stories.”

Some years ago, the redoubtable Barbara Smoker, former President of the National Secular Society (1971-1996), popularised the phrase "the Christians' book of horrors" to characterise the Bible. Leaving aside the dubious attribution of proprietorship, she was absolutely right to draw attention to the horror in Christian and Jewish scripture - just as humane Christians, in particular, have been wrong to ignore it. Some seventy genocides apparently divinely sanctioned, for instance.

But to assume that such 'sacred' texts - and others of a horrific nature in 'secular culture', too - are there simply to commend what they present, rather than to warn us about what can happen when our human imaginations are warped by false apprehensions, is to operate without any kind of hermeneutical centre. And that centre, for Christians, at least, is the self- and other-transforming love displayed (and experienced) in Christ: supremely, perhaps, in the Sermon on the Mount. "By their fruits, you will know them."

Texts, in other words, scriptural and otherwise, are created, received and interpreted by people. What makes them 'holy' or quite unholy, is how we read them - or fail to read them - in the light of a message of hope and a community of healing. This is why, rightly understood, Christians are people of a person (Jesus the Christ), experienced historically, spiritually and communally, before they are people of a book. The book is in-spired as it points to God's "saving action" (as the biblical language puts it) in history. When it is employed to justify hatred or destruction it becomes an anti-text, however.

This is not the end of questioning about "religious interpretation", of course. Far from it. But it is a good beginning. Much better than either uncritically endorsing or uncritically excoriating entire scriptural or textual traditions per se.

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(c) Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com, by the way. The quotations above appear courtesy of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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