Sunday, January 09, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 7): Enter Fundamentalism

The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume publication that defended the Christian faith and was the foundation of the fundamentalist Christian movement.
We continue to read through the subsections of Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

In the last subsection, we pondered Kugel's question:
[N]ow that the genie is out of the bottle and modern scholarship has discovered everything it has discovered about the [biblical] text's original meaning, what is to become of the Bible?
In the present subsection we start to answer the question from the standpoint of Protestant fundamentalism--Kugel later will deal with other standpoints.

Fundamentalism, Kugel observes, emerges in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to modern biblical scholarship, the German "higher" criticism that developed a picture of the Bible's human sources and human fallibility. The fundamentalist stance, that the Bible is literally true and the product of divine inspiration, has remained fairly consistent to present day from its origins and from its articulation in the twelve volumes of The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915.

I must say here, however, that as a matter of convenience my summary oversimplifies this stance. I advise the curious reader to learn more about The Fundamentals from appropriate primary and secondary sources.

I also want to pause at the idea that fundamentalism is a reaction to modern scholarship and developments. Sociologist Alan Wolfe, in reviewing a new book by Oliver Roy called Holy Ignorance, hones in on a different model of fundamentalism:
Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. Roy proposes the most original — and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society. Whether it takes the form of the Christian right in the United States or Salafist purity in the Muslim world, fundamentalism is not about restoring a more authentic and deeply spiritual religious experience. It is instead a manifestation of holy ignorance, Roy’s biting term meant to characterize the worldview of those who, having lost both their theology and their roots, subscribe to ideas as incoherent as they are ultimately futile. The most important thing to know about those urging the restoration of a lost religious authenticity is that they are sustained by the very forces they denounce.
Now, I have not read Holy Ignorance, but if I understand Wolfe's summary correctly, the key difference between reaction and symptom is one of necessity. Fundamentalism, the thesis seems to be, is an expected if not inevitable consequence of cultural shift. It is not so much a critique of the shift as an acknowledgment that certain desired cultural norms and values are being disenfranchised, in part or in whole. Fundamentalism is the attempt to insulate these norms and values, to prevent them from being altered or scrutinized.

I personally am not yet comfortable with subscribing to Roy's thesis, via Wolfe, but it's worth considering and gives an interesting perspective on the question, what is to become of the Bible? From the fundamentalist perspective, I think, the very emergence of the question is part of the problem. Fundamentalism is both a product/symptom of this sort of question and a desire to eliminate that question, to remove it as something that could legitimately be asked.

In this context, it is perhaps less surprising to observe with Kugel that both fundamentalism and modern biblical scholarship emerge as Protestant phenomena. Earlier installments of this series have mentioned, albeit briefly, the Protestant beginnings of modern biblical scholarship. Fundamentalism, however, emerges not just to oppose modern biblical scholarship but also to resist the troubling questions and conclusions of both science and arguments from reason (as distinct from divine revelation).

Yet, conservative as fundamentalism is, it does not completely align with the approach of the Bible's ancient interpreters. The fundamentalist assertion "that almost everything Scripture says is literally true" departs from the traditional approach in an important way, for ancients viewed the Bible as a text that often hides its most important messages and true meaning. The fundamentalist drive for literal meaning would have been considered myopic to the point of debilitation by ancient interpreters.

Fundamentalism, Kugel says, starts from the idea "that Scripture speaks directly and literally to us today, without any need for traditional interpretations or ideologically motivated expositors dragging the text hither and yon." This starting point is not so far from that of modern biblical scholars, who also have sought to view the Bible apart from traditional interpretations and ideologically-motivated exposition. The difference between the fundamentalist path and the modern scholars' has been that modern scholars have read the text with a more historical emphasis. We could express the modern stance by re-writing Kugel's voicing of fundamentalism: "Scripture speaks directly and literally to us today about the world of its original production, reception, and dissemination." Modern scholars have thus seen the text as an instrument for learning about the culture(s) that produced the Bible.

Fundamentalism therefore has interesting connections and departures from both ancient and modern approaches. We have seen several ironies already. Fundamentalism is conservative yet avoids the approach of the ancients; it shares a modern distaste for unaware artifice and for ideology yet rejects modern inquiry into textual function and history. And in another irony, fundamentalism maintains an important link with the past:
Yet, in the broad perspective, the fundamentalist stance--occasional anti-intellectualism and all--has succeeded in preserving much of what is most basic about the Bible, the ancient approach to reading it. By contrast, what now seems naive is precisely the liberal faith that, despite their abandonment of a good bit of that approach, the Bible can somehow still go on being the Bible.
Thus, we are back to Kugel's question on what is to become of the Bible now that we know what modern biblical scholarship says about the Bible's original meaning. It seems at this point that Kugel suggests that the Bible cannot remain the Bible unless it is understood as its ancient interpreters understood it. That we have the intended understanding of Kugel here seems supported by how he closes this subsection, noting that both liberal and conservative strains in Protestantism lose a bit of the Bible:
What liberals and conservatives generally share (although there are, of course, exceptions) is a profound discomfort with the actual interpretations that the ancients came up with--these have little or no place in the way Scripture is to be expounded today. Nidrash, allegory, typology--what for? But the style of interpretation thus being rejected is precisely the one that characterizes the numerous interpretations of Old Testament texts by Jesus, Paul, and others in the New Testament, as well as by succeeding generations of the founders of Christianity.
So, we're left with the sense that the fundamentalist approach to modern biblical scholarship is rather unrealistic and intellectually isolationist (I am trying to be polite), while the liberal approach bowdlerizes the Bible. Not a great choice.

In the next subsection, Kugel examines more liberal approaches to the Bible, beyond only liberal Protestantism, and how they have dealt with modern biblical scholarship.

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