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Jimmy Carter’s Bible



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Did you know that the former president has just released his own study Bible (the New International Version, with his comments and reflections)? I haven’t seen a copy yet, but he gave an interview about it to the Huffington Post in which he said some interesting things. Asked whether he thinks the Bible, overall, should be approached literally or metaphorically, he responded: “When we go to the Bible we should keep in mind that the basic principles of the Bible are taught by God, but written down by human beings deprived of modern day knowledge. So there is some fallibility in the writings of the Bible. But the basic principles are applicable to my life and I don’t find any conflict among them.”

That last part, I really struggle with. The Bible has been, all my life and still today, my favorite book, and the more I read it the more complex and provocative and contradictory it seems to me. In my experience, there are two sorts of people who can look at the Bible and declare breezily that they “don’t find any conflict” among its “basic principles”: 1) Holy men and women who are so suffused with love that they can really view the Bible synoptically, with a God’s-eye view, and so contextualize all the difficult parts that these no longer pose a problem. 2) Men and women who bring to the Bible a strong external standard of judgment — philosophical or, often, political — that enables them with great ease to declare merely human, and thus erroneous, any of the problem passages. As someone who belongs in neither of these categories, I make no judgment as to which category includes the former president. In either case, I envy his dogmatic certainty.

“Blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock” (Ps. 137:9). Reading a passage like that one, it’s easy enough to leap to a condemnation of fundamentalism.  (As should be clear from the following, I don’t use the word “fundamentalism” invidiously, but merely as shorthand for Bible literalism/inerrantism.) But earlier this weekend, I was reminded of the original reason I personally was attracted to fundamentalism — of the kind Carter is rejecting — a few years ago, and left the Catholicism of my youth to travel in that direction. I was leafing through the new edition of the Oxford Catholic Study Bible and saw some of the types of assertions that were commonplace when I was a boy: “Some aspects of the [Exodus] story cannot be historical.” “Many of the stories of David and Solomon are either legendary tales or creations of the Biblical writer.” You get the idea. The problem with this is that it is dramatically corrosive of the foundations of Jewish and Christian religious faith, as historically understood. If we reduce either of these religions to some metaphysical or ethical essence (an attempt commonly referred to, usually invidiously, as gnosticism), there is somewhat less of a problem; but even then, the problem remains that one is basically trying to interpret the religion against the grain of its original claims. Judaism and Christianity are historical religions, claiming specific intersections of the divine and the human. If these are “myths” in the religious-studies-department sense, these are intended to be myths of a very specific kind: true myths, ones that actually took place in the real world of history. But if these assertions are false, how trustworthy can the overall literary work, and the faiths based on it, be?

The most common argument I encountered among Catholics was that most of the problems were in the Old Testament, and that this should not affect my faith in the New Testament (and thus in the Church): an attitude that one might call neo-Marcionism. (Which I would summarize, with a certain degree of hostility — and, no doubt, unfairness — as follows: “The part of the book about some fellow named Moses crossing a lake is pure fanciful invention, but the part about some other fellow named Jesus rising from the dead is sober historical fact.”)  

So I know, from personal experience, the attraction of fundamentalism. Been there, done that: I rebelled against the de-historicizing that was prevalent in Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, and moved toward the fundamentalist approach.

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Since then, I have gone in another direction, trying the variety of interpretative strategies afforded by my mushy-moderate Anglicanism. But here’s the thing: I cannot let go of the text, in all its frustrating complexity. I know I don’t have the answers, about which part is true, and in which sense — and I just want to say that, for most of us, these questions are a lot more difficult than they appear to be to our 39th president.

Another point: At a time when the phrase “religious liberty” is on everyone’s lips, it’s encouraging to know that such an iconic Left politician as Carter is expressing a solid understanding of this principle. Asked about gay marriage, he says: “I personally think it is very fine for gay people to be married in civil ceremonies. I draw the line, maybe arbitrarily, in requiring by law that churches must marry people. I’m a Baptist, and I believe that each congregation is autonomous and can govern its own affairs. So if a local Baptist church wants to accept gay members on an equal basis, which my church does by the way, then that is fine. If a church decides not to, then government laws shouldn’t require them to.” This is, for the most part, exactly right — churches are entitled to their own rules, and that’s the core of the First Amendment. But the phrase “maybe arbitrarily” troubles me: I think there’s nothing arbitrary about religious liberty. The First Amendment means you’re allowed to build a mosque, not that you’re allowed to build a mosque unless it hurts somebody’s feelings and they assemble an angry mob against you. The First Amendment says your church can marry whom it chooses, not that your church can marry whom it chooses until political correctness makes the arbitrary decision that you’re no longer allowed to. I hope that if push comes to shove on this, President Carter will stick by the principle.



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