Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"The Author of Leviticus Would Have Been Cool With It"

An image showing a hand holding some kind of old-fashioned pen and writing on a scroll. Image source.
So let's suppose I'm writing the bible, and God "inspires" me to write this:
Kids played soccer outside the church.
Let's assume we believe that the bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God. So, based on this one sentence, can we make any conclusions about God's opinion on the pressing issue of "is it called 'soccer' or 'football'"?

Well, you might say, this passage uses the term "soccer" because the author was an American. But the passage doesn't say that "soccer" is the only correct term and that "football" would be incorrect.

All right let's say I'm "inspired by God" to write this:
Kids played soccer outside the church. Some people think it's called "football" but they're wrong.
So here we find, in the inspired word of God, the statement that referring to soccer as "football" is, in fact, wrong. And, you know, the bible is inerrant, so that means this is The Definitive Truth on the "football vs soccer" debate. It's a sin to call it "football." The bible is clear.

Let's suppose I'm "inspired by God" to write it like this:
Kids played soccer outside the church. There was a British man there who was not very intelligent, and he called it "football."
Heh. Now what can we say about this? The text- the inerrant text- tells us two things: the British man was not intelligent, and the British man called it "football." Clearly the author intends for readers to link those two things together- the author is saying that people who call it "football" are less intelligent, and just plain wrong. But if you look at the actual words of the text itself, it does NOT explicitly say those two facts are at all connected.

So my question is, what part is "inerrant and inspired by God," exactly? Just the text, or also the not-exactly-explicit messages that reflect the author's own biases?

Yeah I'll admit my own biases on this- I'm not a fan of British English because I'm an American and I'm living as a minority here in China, where the English that's taught in schools is way more British than American. I'm homesick and I'm tired of recalibrating my English so it's compatible with silly British stuff that Chinese people learned in school. I'm tired of trying to explain that this is pudding and this is jello and this is jelly but the translation software might tell you otherwise because British people have a totally different understanding of what's pudding and what's jello and what's jelly.

(But on a rational level, I do realize that the rest of the world all calls it "football" and there's no objective right or wrong about language. And obviously the bible wasn't written in English.)

But here's my point: If you believe "the bible is inerrant and inspired by God, and God used imperfect people to write it", then why is there so much study and debate over "what the author intended"? Maybe "what the author intended" was actually wrong. When people claim that the bible is inerrant, are they actually claiming the author's thoughts and intentions and opinions while writing were inerrant? That is quite a claim.

(And again, let me be upfront about my biases: No, I no longer believe the bible is completely inerrant and inspired by God. Maybe some parts are, but definitely not the whole thing.)

Here's an example from the bible: Genesis 30:25-43 describes how Jacob put striped branches in the water the goats were drinking, so then they gave birth to striped offspring. (Jacob did this because he had made an agreement with Laban that all the striped or spotted goats in Laban's flock would be Jacob's.)

Now, the text itself only says that Jacob did this, and then the offspring were striped. It doesn't technically say that striped branches actually cause goats to give birth to striped baby goats. And I used to be an apologetics nerd; I know that when somebody comes along and says "hey that's not how genetics works", the correct answer is "well yes, we know from genetics that striped branches won't cause the offspring to have stripes. Really it was God who made the offspring striped, because God wanted to bless Jacob. Jacob thought it was because of his little striped-branches scheme, but that really had nothing to do with it."

But let's imagine we're interested in "what the author meant" and we're having a conversation with the author:
So, what did you mean when you said Jacob put striped branches in the goats' drinking water, and then they gave birth to striped offspring?

I meant that when female goats look at striped branches, they are more likely to have baby goats that are striped.

Did you mean like, just in this one particular case that's what happened, or did you mean that's something that's true in general?

Yes that's how it always works. Anyone who wants striped goat babies can try this at home.
I believe that, based on their ancient understanding of science, the above hypothetical conversation is "what the author of Genesis meant." Would Christians who believe in inerrancy accept that this incorrect understanding of science is "what the author meant" but then claim it doesn't matter because it's not what they wrote? What they wrote can still be interpreted as inerrant. So... no issues for inerrancy?

Or, let's suppose the apologetics explanation I mentioned is actually "what the author meant." Let's see how that conversation might go:
So, what did you mean when you said Jacob put striped branches in the goats' drinking water, and then they gave birth to striped offspring?

I meant that Jacob thought his striped branches were causing the baby goats to be striped, but actually that's not how science works. Actually it was God intervening to make them striped.

What do you mean by "God intervening"?

I mean that God favored Jacob- not Laban, not Esau- so he chose to bless Jacob by giving him more goats.

What do you mean by "God favored Jacob"? Why would God like Jacob better than Laban or Esau?

"Jacob" is just a way cooler name, obviously, so that's why God liked him better.
Okay it's a silly example, but my point is, you can keep asking "what did you mean by" questions- to anyone, about any topic- and sooner or later you will inevitably hit upon some bizarre/ignorant/nonsensical belief that they hold. Because we all have beliefs and biases that aren't really rational or true. So what I'm asking is this: For those of you who believe the bible is inerrant and are SO INTERESTED in "the author's intended meaning", where do you draw the line between what's inerrant and what's just the writer's own flawed beliefs?

The only solution that could potentially make sense is to say the literal words of the text are inerrant, but "what the author meant" is NOT necessarily inerrant- though it is certainly useful and informative to discuss "what the author meant." I don't see any way to separate out "what the author meant" about one particular bible passage they wrote, such that their opinions on that specific passage form a closed, inerrant system of beliefs that is in no way connected to their imperfect understanding of reality.

But what does it even mean to say the words of the biblical text are inerrant, but "what the author meant" by those words is not? How can words have a meaning which is separate from what the author meant by them? I'll give you an example: Suppose I use the term "red shirt." What does "red shirt" mean? Well it's a reference to the characters on "Star Trek: The Original Series" who wore red shirts and always died in attacks or accidents, and the main characters didn't care about them- their deaths were just a way to show the audience that our heroes were in a dangerous situation.

But then you say "no no, apart from the context of Star Trek, what does 'red shirt' mean?"

That question doesn't make any sense. If I, as a trekkie, say "red shirt", there is no possible way to understand it besides as a Star Trek reference. You can't remove it from the context of my experience watching Star Trek and expect to understand my meaning. It's not like I'm using some intrinsic, context-independent definition of "red shirt" and then adding the Star Trek thing on top of that. No, the Star Trek thing is the entire meaning.

In the "red shirt" example, it's easy to see how it's possible for a word or phrase to literally not have any meaning at all if one attempts to separate it from the opinions and lived experience of the writer or reader. But it's not just because it's a term from a TV show. I believe ALL OF LANGUAGE is like this. ALL OF LANGUAGE has no meaning apart from the lived experiences of people.

See, I know this because I speak Chinese. And in the process of learning Chinese, I didn't just read a dictionary and memorize an abstract definition for each word- no, if you want to learn to speak a language, you have to study by speaking the language. It's about being in situations where you use the words. It's about talking to people. It's about experiencing the culture. How can you talk about what a word means just by itself, without situations, people, and culture? There is no meaning apart from those things.

In sci-fi movies, characters can "download" a language into their brain, or there's a "universal translator" so everything is in English- but here in the real world, languages don't work that way. Tell me this, after you "download" Chinese into your brain: What is a 发票 [fā piào]? A dictionary will tell you it means "invoice" but I'm here to tell you it doesn't. Personally, if I absolutely have to translate it into real English words, I call it a "fancy receipt"- it's a special kind of receipt that serves as proof that the seller paid tax on the income from the sale. There are regular receipts, and then there are fapiaos. At a restaurant they'll give you a normal receipt when you pay, but if you are getting reimbursed by your company or something, that receipt isn't good enough- you need to ask your waiter to give you a fapiao. And usually the waiter will direct you over to a cashier with a special printer just for fapiaos, and the cashier will ask you if they should print your name on it, or your company's name, or what. The fapiao is usually printed on narrow paper like a receipt, and always has a very officially-looking red stamp. For some people, depending on how the salary structure works at their job, some of their income may be tax-exempt if they can submit fapiaos for it- for example, at one place I worked in China, I submitted fapiaos for the rent I paid on my apartment, and then I didn't have to pay tax on that part of my salary. It's a very special, very official type of receipt, and there is no equivalent concept in the United States.

Try downloading that into your brain. It's impossible to really understand what a fapiao is without that lived experience. Without ever having the feeling like you're lost in a giant bureaucracy and you're just screwed because you don't have the right fapiao. (International people living in China actually say "fapiao"- we don't really try to translate it to English. Whereas a lot of Chinese people call it "invoice" when they're speaking English because they don't realize that we don't have that concept in English- they don't realize it's not something you can just easily translate like that.)

Here's another example: I was talking to an American friend, let's call him Mark, who also learned Chinese. He mentioned the fact that the Chinese word for "giraffe" is "长颈鹿 [cháng jǐng lù]", which, if you translate each character individually, is literally "long neck deer." He said, "Before I started studying Chinese, I never thought of a giraffe as being like a deer, but ya know, it kind of is." Then I told Hendrix (whose first language is Chinese) about what Mark said, and how it was true for me too- it had never occurred to me that a giraffe is like a deer. Hendrix was SHOCKED. How could someone live their entire life without realizing that a giraffe is like a deer????!!!!!

My point is, language is connected to the way we think. If someone's first language is Chinese, they probably conceptualize a giraffe as being like a deer but really tall and with a long neck. Whereas if their first language is English, they think of it as just an unusual animal that's not really similar to any other animals. Obviously no matter what language you speak, you are able to study biology and find out what animals a giraffe is actually like- but those biological facts will be layered on top of the implicit assumptions you were taught when you learned your first language. Language affects the way we think. And vice versa.

All of language is like this. Words mean nothing without culture, without people, without experiences. So how can someone say the literal words of the bible are inerrant, but the "author's intended meaning" is not? The "literal words" have no meaning by themselves. And how can someone say the "author's intended meaning" is inerrant, but the author is still a flawed person with an imperfect understanding of reality? Where is the line between the author's thoughts on the bible passage they wrote, and the rest of their opinions about the world?

I titled this post "the author of Leviticus would have been cool with it" in reference to the argument, made by some queer Christians and allies, that "in the bible, where same-sex relationships are condemned, it's always in the context of rape or pedophilia or other exploitative relationships, not consensual relationships between equal partners. If the writers had known about consensual same-sex relationships, they wouldn't have condemned them." I don't agree with this argument- though I do believe it can be an important first step for people coming from a "the bible is clear" background.

Because, who cares how the author of Leviticus would have reacted in this hypothetical situation? Seems like the only reason someone would even be talking about this is if they believed all the author's opinions were inerrant- not just the ones they wrote in the bible. But that's ridiculous- I've never heard a Christian make a claim like that. Usually they say "the bible is inerrant and inspired by God, who used imperfect humans to write it."

Maybe the author of Leviticus would not have been okay with same-sex consensual sex, but God was okay with it so God didn't "inspire" them to write that particular opinion of theirs in the bible. [That is, if you interpret what they did write as only referring to coercive relationships- which the text doesn't say explicitly, so again this gets into what the author wrote vs what the author meant.] Or, we could invent all kinds of hypotheticals about "God's opinion was this, the writer's opinion was that, this particular aspect is inerrant and this one is not." Maybe it's a fun game, but I'll just put my cards on the table here and say it doesn't actually matter to me because I don't believe the bible is inerrant. I believe the bible got lots of things wrong.

When you actually start to think about how "inerrancy" would work, how it could be that imperfect people wrote a perfect book, you'll see it doesn't really make sense. And it makes even less sense for Christians to be so concerned about "what did the author MEAN by this?" Are they really claiming that not only the bible is inerrant, but also everything the authors "meant" when they were writing the bible is inerrant? How can that be? That's not how language works, and it's not how humans work.

No comments:

Post a Comment