BOOKS: Stolen Bibles

By Roland Boer

Roland Boer is a research fellow at Monash University, and the author of ‘Rescuing the Bible‘. Apart from writing books, he loves to travel by ship when he can and cycle as far and as long as possible.

I would like to paint a landscape – the contemporary religious landscape. What does this landscape look like? Wherever we look reactionary and fundamentalist, or so-called ‘Bible-based’ religion seems to triumph. In Rome, one right-wing pope is followed by another. The current pope (a former head of the Inquisition) has just overseen ‘World Youth Day’ in a global show of reactionary strength. On a range of moral issues, the conservative regime in the Vatican attacks contraception, abortion and stem-cell research. Radical clergy and scholars constantly watch their backs. In parts of the Roman Catholic Church of Australia where the ultra-conservative Cardinal George Pell (he has been archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney) holds sway there is a systematic effort to return to a pre-Vatican II agenda, especially in theology, education and sexual morality. A former football player turned parish priest, Pell has risen rapidly through the hierarchy – all the way to cardinal elector – due to his uncompromising conservative stances on religion, sexuality, Islam, education, and the environment (he believes global warming is rubbish).

In the USA, Bible-brandishing fundamentalist Christianity is so deeply entrenched, especially in the southern states, that the primary question for teenagers is not, ‘have you had sex yet?’ but ‘have you accepted Jesus yet?’ Global warming, peak oil, the disaster in Iraq, an Iranian attack on Israel (or vice versa), even the possibility of a Democrat victory in the US elections are all signs of the imminent end of the world, the Rapture, Armageddon and then the return of Jesus. For a handy ‘prophetic speedometer of end-time activity’ one may even consult the ‘Rapture Index’.

In each case, the religious right bases itself on the Bible. In each case, they have driven the religious left underground. In each case, right-wing religious belief and practice is wedded to right-wing politics. Above all, they have stolen the Bible and claimed it as their own. At the same time the religious left has been all too ready to hand it over to them. This is one of the main reasons I set out to rescue the Bible from the religious and political right and reclaim it for the left in my Rescuing the Bible.

In order to do so I suggested a political alliance between the religious left and a resurgent secular left. And the slogan for that alliance is to be ‘as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves’ (from Matthew 10:16). The wisdom in question is a very worldly wisdom, one based on experience and maturity. Such wisdom or even cunning knows how to live in the world without, however, being caught up in its corruption and exploitation. So I suggest we call ourselves the worldly left, a coalition of the secular and religious left.

This idea of a worldly left – one that is as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves – takes place when a very diverse left is in resurgence. Here is one example: at the protests against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000 and then again at the G20 meeting in 2006, we found anarchists, environmentalists, socialists, feminists, various elements of the loopy left, and some religious groups for whom the protests were perfectly consistent with their own convictions. Rescuing the Bible sets out to respond to these two problems by someone on the religious and political left. The best way to summarise what I wanted to so with the book is by means of the six theses. Here they are:

  1. Since the old programme of secularism has run aground, I propose a new secularism that sees the entwinement of religion and secularism as necessary and beneficial, that reads the Bible in light of theological suspicion, denounces the abuse of the Bible, and fosters liberating readings and uses.
  2. Since the religious left has been marginalised and has had the Bible stolen from it, and since the secular left is on the rise, in order to rescue the Bible we need a politics of alliance between the religious left and the old secular left. I call this alliance the ‘worldly left’, one that is as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.
  3. Despite the best efforts to impose dominant viewpoints on the Bible, through canonisation and interpretation, it remains an unruly and fractious collection of texts. For this reason it is a multi-valent collection, both folly to the rich and scandal to the poor.
  4. The Bible is too important and too multi-valent a text to be left to the religious right. Thus, it is necessary to take sides with the liberatory side of the Bible, and in doing so we denounce the reactionary use and abuse of the Bible, for imperial conquest, oppression of all types, and the support of privilege and wealth.
  5. Taking the side of liberation, we also need to recover the tradition of revolutionary readings of the Bible.
  6. The Bible is one source for a political myth for the worldly left, a political myth that, while keeping in mind the perpetual need for theological suspicion, condemns oppression, imagines a better society and draws deeply on the mythic images of rebellious chaos.

To summarise: my task in Rescuing the Bible is to rescue the Bible from the clutches of the religious and political right, its most systematic abusers. It is far too important and too multi-vocal a text to be surrendered to right-wing agenda. As far as the left is concerned, the old divisions of religious left and secular left are no longer workable. So I argue that they should unite in a common front – a ‘worldly left’ – in order to reclaim and rescue the Bible for radical politics. Fortunately for such a common left, the Bible is so multi-vocal that it is perfectly plausible to draw from the Bible a deep current of revolutionary themes. And it matters not whether those who read the Bible in this way are ‘believers’ or not.
By way of conclusion, let me give one example of rescuing some specific biblical texts, namely the sticky texts of Acts 2:44-5 and 4:32-5. They read:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.

Now the company of all those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.

I said these are sticky texts. And they are so because they present a clear image of communal, if not communist living. So what do a range of scholars do with this text? They argue that such communal activity was voluntary and only for a short time (during a festival) and by no means the ‘imposition’ of a communist system. Or we find that such common living is restricted to that new invention of the last couple of centuries, the nuclear family (which, by the way, cannot be found in the Bible). Not only is this a very popular argument today, but it was also an argument of Luther and Calvin, who were desperate to avoid the communal interpretations of the Anabaptists and the abuses of Roman Catholic monasteries. Or, as neo-orthodox readings suggested, the qualities of unity, love and generosity are abstracted from the passage and the actual practice pushed into the background. In the last century the resistance to communism and the effect of the Cold War lies heavily on the interpretation of these texts. In reaction to claims by communist scholars such as Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg that these texts speak of an early Christian communism that has much in common with the communism we know, a wide range of scholars resisted such interpretations in the name of the private individual. So the historical possibility was undermined, the text spiritualised or its sense diverted into acceptable forms of cooperation such as the family or one’s local church. In short, a wide range of interpreters sought to negate the text.

Over against these efforts to bury such images of communist living, Rescuing the Bible sets out to reclaim them. A powerful way of doing so is to recover a tradition of readings by notable radicals and revolutionaries for whom the Bible was central. For example, Acts 2 and 4 were important for Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of 17th century England who saw in them the inspiration for their peaceful political, social and economic movement of cultivating the commons and inviting all to join them in communist living. It has also been a crucial text for The International League of Religious Socialists, which has over 200,000 members and represents religious socialist movements in 21 countries and across a number of religions (www.ilrs.org), or Étienne Cabet (1788-1856), who, arguing that communism is in fact pure Christianity, fled France to establish socialist or ‘Icarian’ communities in the United States, or Father Thomas J. Haggerty, a Marxist Roman Catholic priest and founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (the ‘Wobblies’). And then there is Jose Miranda, who in his Marxism and the Bible cites these verses as part of his argument that communism and the classless society have their roots in the biblical tradition. These images of communal living join others in the Bible as well, such as Micah 6:8, Isaiah 35:5-7 and 61:1-2 to develop what I call a political myth. These texts do not present a pure golden age to which we should return; rather they form a powerful motivating myth that provides a sense of what might be possible.

5 thoughts on “BOOKS: Stolen Bibles

  1. Reproduced here in full is a detailed response from Michael F. Bird at Euangelizomai. The original post can be read at: http://euangelizomai.blogspot.com/2008/10/roland-boer-bible-and-secularism.html

    Roland Boer, the Bible, and Secularism
    Tuesday, October 14, 2008
    Michael F. Bird

    Over at Religion Compass Exchange, Roland Boer has a post on Books: Stolen Bibles which raises some interesting and provocative points. Let me offer some thoughts in relation to Roland’s post (at Roland’s invitation!):

    1. Roland assumes that the left is correct in their views and values. Now I write this as a social conservative and a proponent of a free market economy with socialist sympathies. I cannot join the radical left and here’s why. I believe passionately in civil rights and defending the most defenceless which is precisely why I’ll part with my head rather than consent to abortion on demand and euthanasia. I think high levels of government intervention in a free market is better than a communist system against the ownership of private property. Legalized drugs profits only drug dealers and prostitution, legal or illegal, is the most common means of exploiting girls under the age of 17. To give another example, Christian sexual ethics of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage (despite the fact it’s not uniquely Christian and is common in many non-western cultures) is not oppressive but is actually good for individuals and society in my view. Compare that to the sexualizing of children in recent art exhibitions in Australia and I’ll chose Benny 16 over Bill Henson any day of the week! I’m not stupid enough to try legislate Christian sexual ethics for people who are not Christians, but I tire of being called a sexophobe because I belong to a tradition that values chastity, purity, and fidelity. (Note, none of these issues are raised by Roland and it’s just my rant as to why I’m not a leftie).

    2. What Roland calls the extreme religious right seems to refer to those who hold to teachings and beliefs that are centuries old (esp. in regards to sexuality, the uniqueness of Christ, belief in the authority of Scriptures, etc). The problem here is that you can become right wing just by standing still in 2000 years of Christian teaching! Roland also seems glabberghasted by the fact that the Pope is Catholic! If Roland wants to rescue the Bible from those who use it to support the Iraq War, oppress the Palestinians, oppose climate control measures, support American military and economic hegemony, and the right to carry arms and form militias – no objection from me and I’ll give you an “amen” – but I think his idea of the religious right also seems to absorb those more moderate Christians who would adhere to what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”. Now maybe Roland has teased this out elsewhere, but there is alot of people in between the extremes represented by Liberation Theology on the one hand and those represented by the Rapture Index on the other hand. Most of us evangelical Christians are neither!

    3. An alliance between the religious left and secular left? I see no reason why the secular left will ever want to make use of the Bible any more than the Vatican would want to make use of the Humanist Manifesto. Some secular groups (I think of the Greens in Australia) are determined to exterminate the non-religious left from the public landscape. The Australian Greens oppose the existence of Christian private schools and public schools having chaplains. The left wing intelligentsia preaches pluralism and tolerance but does not tolerate anyone who does not accept their view of religious and social pluralism. As for the religious left losing the Bible, well, the problem is not that they lost it, but they abandoned it. In the left-leaning American Episcopal Church their mission is based more on the UN Millennium Goals and Al Gore’s home movies than on Scripture. Call the Bible a fractious and multivalent document if ya like, but in ecclesial communities it is a symphonic arrangement of voices that sing about the story of God, God’s Word, and God’s new world revealed in his Son. Perhaps this is what the religious left needs to learn again rather than taking a course on Marxism 101.

    4. The pro-religion secular left (i.e. those who see religion as having a legitimate and helpful place in a secular society) would do better to partner up with moderate conservatives rather than gravitate to the vocal but impotent ultra-religious left and spend their time fighting the ultra-right. Despise the evangelicals if ya like for their opposition to gay marriage and abortion, their claim that Jesus is the only saviour, but take into account their philanthropic exploits. I know of more Christians Doctors who leave their practices and go to Africa and Asia than areligious or atheist Doctors who do the same (now there can be atheist Philanthropists, Bill Hayden comes to mind), but you’re more likely to see the Salvation Army on the Streets of Sydney after dark helping the homeless than members of the Australian Humanist Society. As James Crossley and I concluded in our book How Did Christianity Begin? secularists and evangelicals can work together to enhance the human condition. Though we might disagree with what is enhancing (e.g. gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research) there can be agreement on fighting world poverty, HIV-AIDS programs, and promoting religious freedom. If you know of organisations like the International Justice Mission, Tear Fund, or Compassion Australia, then you’ll see that the evangelicals have already gone ahead of you.

  2. Mike Bird, Evangelicalism and the Left

    See http://www.stalinsmoustache.blogpsot.com

    Mike Bird has posted a reply to my piece on Religion Compass on ‘Stolen Bibles’. It’s called Roland Boer, the Bible and Secularism. For the sake of my argument, I’ll assume Mike is an intelligent evangelical with a social conscience. His reply makes a few good points, but then makes some woeful errors.

    I agree that the religious left has as much abandoned the Bible as had it stolen from them. All too often you will find that the religious left finds the Bible an embarrassment and is happy to update it with a version that keeps the ethical teaching and dispenses with the stories of miracles, with the myths and legends. As an example, I recently gave an invited lecture at the Humanists Society. After the discussion one of the old men came up to me and said that many of those present had been members of churches but then found that they could hold to the ethical teachings of Jesus and dispense with the God stuff. However, they were as committed as ever to making the world a better place. That leaves me wondering whether Mike would be in good company with these humanists. Sure, he wants to keep the God stuff, but he is out to make the world a gentler, kinder place. But here’s the catch: I would argue that these humanists draw on the Bible as much as Mike does. You have to ask which Bible has been abandoned and/or stolen. Mike’s own definition is extraordinarily narrow: the story of God, God’s Word, and God’s new world revealed in his Son. As one example, it leaves out the legendary story in Acts of the first Christians living in a communist arrangement where they had all things in common.

    I also agree that many evangelicals find the inspiration for their philanthropic efforts and (mild) social justice ventures in their religious faith. As Mike points out, some NGOs like Tear Fund have precisely such a commitment. But this point actually enhances my own argument, since I argue that evangelical religious commitment and a (mostly reforming) social agenda should go hand in hand. In fact, they have and do. The quaint William Wilberforce is one example: a Tory and evangelical, he was at the forefront of the parliamentary efforts to abolish slavery. Among many others, I could point to the Sojourners group as well. I would go so far as to argue that the dirty little relationship between the political right and evangelicals is one that is a betrayal of the impulse of what evangelicals hold dear. It is not about moral issues such as abortion and euthanasia (moralising should be anathema to evangelicals), nor is it about free market capitalism and the rights of the individual (they are parts of a liberal program that are suddenly not so popular in light of the global financial crisis). It is about metanoia, a radical change of the very coordinates by which we live. That is a radical program if ever there was one. There is a long history of radical evangelicals Mike might want to consider before touting a moderate reforming agenda. A contemporary example is the political volatility in charismatic forms of Christianity sweeping many parts of the poorer areas of the world. The religious right is all too ready to claim this development as a sign of a reactionary turn, but the spirit is a dangerous and unpredictable thing. It can easily turn very radical: if the spirit of God tells you to oppose a government, depose a ruler and establish a communist society, then you had better listen to what the spirit says.

    And I agree that there is a sliding scale between left and right. I have used this convenient opposition since it is well known. But I am fully aware that it is not so clear-cut. For that reason I prefer terms such as radical over against reactionary. In between you’ll find the reformers, who want to tinker with the current system, and the conservatives who prefer not to change too much (and are therefore a little short on imagination). It seems to me that Mike is somewhere in between conservative and reforming.

    Apart from these three points, Mike make makes one blunder after another. He begins by defining the left (by default) as follows: it is against civil rights; it is for abortion and euthanasia; it wants legalised drugs and prostitution; it favours libertine sexual practices and the sexual exploitation of children. Do I need to say that this fits in all too well with the image of the left produced by the religious right, especially in the United States? As a modest suggestion may I point out that the political and religious left is against the systematised greed that we find in free market capitalism, against the systemic exploitation of people for the sake of profit? As a Calvinist (of sorts), I do assume that people are depraved; the last thing we want is an economic and social system that encourages and enhances that depravity. Instead, we on the left are in favour of a system that enhances the basic idea of drawing from all according to their ability and giving to all according to their need.
    Further, Mike pulls out the old furphy that the religious right stands in 2000 years of continuous history. This tired old point usually turns up when the religious right feels challenged. We find in the 19th century when the communists were first making inroads and we find it again now. The former Treasurer of Australia, Peter Costello, was fond of the statement. And so is Mike. It is simplistic as it is untrue, but it is characteristic of those who wish to fabricate an unbroken evangelical tradition. In order to sidestep the point that theirs is a new position, they claim it is actually one that recovers an old tradition.

    To say that the secular left is not interested in the Bible displays pure ignorance. It has been interested and it remains so. I’m involved in a project that shows how the so-called secular left has been vitally interested in the Bible and theology. Here I deal with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, Antonio Gramsci, Terry Eagleton, Louis Althusser, Slavoj Žižek, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, Lucien Goldmann, Julia Kristeva, Fredric Jameson, Giorgio Agamben, Georg Lukács, Antonio Negri, E.P. Thompson, Gilles Deleuze, G.E.M. de Ste Croix, Michael Löwy, Alberto Toscano, Sara Farris, and of course, Marx and Engels. Many of these critics are vitally important to the way we think now. I didn’t need to make such a long list, but it does show that Mike is on thin ground. All you need do is look at a large group of left journals to see how much interest there really is. If we go further back, before Marx and Engels, we find that the left was religious by default. Karl Kautsky’s four-volume Forerunners of Socialism traces a whole series of radical political movements that were deeply religious. Among many others, he discusses the various mystical and ascetic movements, the Waldensians, Lollards, Taborites (a 15th century religious movement that championed asceticism, communal living and the establishment of the kingdom of God by force of arms), those around the Peasants Revolt and Thomas Müntzer (who took Luther’s reforms to their radical and logical conclusion), the Bohemian Brethren (who believed that the kingdom of God was among them in a communal life and worship and who had a profound influence on Czech literature through the translation of the Bible) and the Anabaptists of the Radical reformation more generally. The group Marx and Engels first joined was called The League of the Just, the first international communist movement that took its inspiration directly from the Bible.

    Finally, let me return to my second point concerning the inspiration for social justice, altruism and radical politics. Mike argues that evangelicals are far more likely to get involved in these things (apart from radical politics) than those with secular reasons. Quite simply, that is not my experience. Some evangelicals do engage in such activities, but they are by means in the majority. Attend any anti-capitalist protest and you’ll meet anarchists, environmentalists, socialists, feminists, various elements of the loopy left, as well as religious groups for whom the protests are perfectly consistent with the Bible. But they form a small number amidst the vast gatherings at these protests. However, it is precisely because all these groups do gather that I have argued for a politics of alliance between the old secular left and the religious left.

  3. Another response from Michael F. Bird at Euangelizomai. The original post can be read at Roland Boer’s blog, Stalin’s Moustache: http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=2686865990298298181&postID=6239217323324834165

    By Michael F. Bird

    Thanks for a thoughtful response, rigorous but charitable, and it clarifies things we share in common and the things we disagree on. A few short comments:

    1. My reference to the Bible as containing “God, God’s Word, and God’s Sin” is an attempt to extrapolate from the Bible a narrative that can accomodate a diversity of events and voices including the so-called primitive communism of Acts. I wouldn’t play them off against each other.

    2. I never quite said that the religious right is identifiable with 2000 of continuous history, but only that some teachings that are held do have an ancient pedigree.

    3. On the history of Marxist interpretation of the Bible – I concede – it’s not my field.

    4. On vilifying the left by all the stuff that I’m against, yes, I plead guilty, but you do represent the religious right with a similar strategy.

    5. I would say that there is a difference between a bunch of 19 year old anarchists attending an anti-global protest, and an evangelical family and moves to Mongolia for humanitarian work! The former is committed to the point of convenience, the other is willing to pay a great cost. When the anarchists sell up and move to China and risk their lives to spread their message, then I’ll put them on par with evangelicals.

  4. Another cogent response from Dr Anne Elvey, a research scholar at the Melbourne College of Divinity

    Hi Roland,

    I’ve been trawling through old files on my computer looking for something and of course came across something else, a review article by Luke Timothy Johnson “How not to read the Bible” critiquing politically/ethically motivated biblical studies, specifically Carol Delaney’s Abraham on Trial, which I haven’t read, and Regina Schwartz’s The Curse of Cain which I have. Getting old now (published in Commonweal in 1999) the article touches on something that still bothers me. I agree that we need all sorts of political/ethical/socialist/ecological alliances for thinking/reading/acting, but how do we keep in dialogue with traditions of interpretation that hold the text in its multiplicity as something the interpreter should be open to, to the extent of potentially having her or his positions unsettled. I feel there’s a point here. This is not a dialogue with those who want to close off biblical texts to interpretation but who want to open them in another way and with a more “faithful” connection to their contexts as read within communities of Jews and Christians, past and present. What happens to this kind of reading when we give priority to an ethical (and my own is ecological) agenda? I think a Bible and Critical Theory seminar a couple of years ago touched on some of these issues.

    I was also wondering if I might start a new thread. Based on your analysis in Rescuing the Bible, what might be a way forward for those of us who read the Bible in or on the fringes of academia? I am thinking not only of the ‘how’ of reading but of the structural context in which we read – where in the humanities at least, and I think also in the so-called pure sciences, full-time or even permanent part-time work in academia is few and far between, and a tendency toward casualisation of the work force in some higher education sectors keeps others at a remove from the kind of scholarly collegiality that is its own kind of creative alliance…

    Regards,

    Anne

  5. Anne, thanks for your thoughtful reflections. There are a few things I’d like to say in reply. Obviously Luke Timothy Johnson’s review has raised an important concern for you, namely the danger of focusing on one reading to the exclusion of other possible readings. I’m not a great fan of Johnson (for other reasons), but what you pick up from his review is that there is a risk of a certain fundamentalism of the left. Often that comes from those who struggle intensely with the religious right in their respective churches. I can understand it, but I have little time for that approach. What I do argue in the book is that the Bible is very multivocal and that it naturally leads to a range of interpretations. What else would you expect from a collection of literature over such a stretch of time? It would be like collecting Shakespeare, Goethe, Marx and Nietzsche into one volume and expecting them to agree. Any univocal sense comes from those final editors with their loose sense of an over-arching narrative and ideology. But it is very shaky, to say the least.

    This raises another issue. You picture a range of contexts and communities, each with readers that have different emphases and interpretations. And you ask how we might remain open to all those possibilities. I would suggest that the picture you evoke is related to a comment that Anne Atkins made when we debated the book on BBC Radio. She suggested I was ‘cherry-picking’ the texts I like and dumping the ones I don’t. My response was to say that it is not the best image. Biblical narratives are not like an orchard or perhaps a supermarket in which one can choose a reading that suits you. More often than not the stories ask you to take sides. Do we side with a god of white terror and with the powerful rulers, or do we side with those who rebel and seek to overthrow them, the rebels who are again and again cast as disobedient sinners? Now I sound like a left fundo! Where the multiplicity comes in is with the sheer diversity of rebels. We are not cut from the same cloth.

    Your question about structural contexts and those on the fringe of academia is a really important one. I’m a full-time researcher and writer. Universities seem to keep employing med granting bodies keep giving me money. So I can write quite a bit and not have to worry about shelter and food. Occasionally I have looked at the prospect of not having that security since I have refused conventional academic jobs, but that’s about it. What we actually have now (in Australia at least) is a small number of people with traditional academic positions and an increasing number of very good scholars with none (I don’t really fit either group). Like yourself, they may have ‘honorary’ positions, which basically means that the university gets money from what you do, but they give nothing back. On the other hand we have overpaid people in senior protected positions. Recently, a number of universities have begun ‘trimming’ their budgets. Who are the first to go? The ‘flexible’ workers, i.e. casual staff. Those with permanent positions have the luxury of opting for a ‘golden parachute’. And who said class was an issue of the past? Recently, I was in the context of such discussions. The questions was: how are we to cut costs so we stay in the black? I looked around the room, which was full of people in senior positions, and suggested that all those paid over $50000 a year should take a pay cut and make the money available for those not in permanent positions or indeed to employ more people. Needless to say, it didn’t go down well.

    So I wonder whether it’s time to think laterally about this. It’s not the complete answer, but a reduction in pay for those overpaid academics, along with a reduction in workload, would be a start to fairer redistribution and more opportunities. Another approach, as we’ve discussed, is an association of scholars on the outside, a lobby group to pressure universities and governments for a better deal and a new way to think about the situation.

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