Here’s a thought experiment: Could fundamentalists accuse the rest of us of a profound intellectual disorder? Do non-fundamentalists fail to read the Bible properly?
As we’ve been discussing lately, conservative Protestants in Fundamentalist America insist on the importance of the Bible. But in order to be meaningful, they often repeat, such reading must be done prayerfully. This injunction is so ubiquitous it almost fades into meaninglessness. That is, the instruction to read prayerfully is such a commonplace that it almost becomes part of the intellectual wallpaper of Fundamentalist America. But if we stop and look carefully at the importance of reading prayerfully we might learn a good deal about the nature of the Bible in Fundamentalist America. For us outsiders, an honest and humble attempt to understand the meaning of prayerful Bible reading might help us understand the meanings of the Bible in Fundamentalist America.
To do so, we need to take a look at what it might mean to read prayerfully. As the Reverend Craig Ledbetter (to be fair, a voice from Fundamentalist Ireland, but the accent does not seem much different from that of Fundamentalist America) described recently, reading prayerfully means inviting the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding. Without such a guide, Ledbetter writes, “much . . . will seem only foolishness.” It means wrestling with the Bible, conversing with it, praying with it. Anything else will lead to “a God of [one’s] own design.”
Or, as another advocate suggests, reading prayerfully means that the reading must be done with the “major goal . . . that we become more and more satisfied with God. Pray that this encounter through the word produces that fruit.” Reading the Bible without that prayerful attitude will not result in any sort of meaningful religious experience.
In the words of another non-American Bible-lover, the Archimandrite Justin Popovich, those who do not have their questions answered from reading the Bible “have either posed a sense-less question or did not know how to read the Bible and did not finish reading the answer in it.”
This notion is the heart of our thought experiment. What if a non-fundamentalist reading of the Bible meant that we simply do not know how to read the Bible? What if it meant we non-fundamentalists read with some sort of overly “flat” approach? Could non-fundamentalists be accused of reading with an autistic approach?
Before we pick it apart any further, let’s start with a few givens. First of all, autism spectrum disorders are a very diverse group of phenomena. People with these disorders can think and behave in very different ways from one another. But let’s take as a given that one distinguishing feature of autism is a tendency to understand other people as object-like. This does not mean that people with autism are necessarily selfish or aggressive, but only that many people with autism do not relate to other people the way non-autistic people do. Autistic people often relate in a distinctly unengaged, unemotional fashion.
Here’s another condition we need to set: reading the Bible prayerfully means investing one’s self in the reading. It is very different from reading for information. The Bible, read prayerfully, is one part of a dialogue, or even a multilogue. The voices of the past, the voice of God, the voice of the reader, all can become part of a conversation in which the reader takes a profoundly active role. Reading prayerfully means doing much more than simply reading to find out what the Bible says. It means approaching the Bible with an open and humble heart. It can mean treating the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, but it must mean reading with an understanding that what we read may be beyond our comprehension. The fault, in that case, must be understood to be more than just an inadequacy of the text, but a failing of the reader as well. Reading prayerfully means putting other things out of our mind and entering into the reading as if we are entering into an intimate conversation with God. Reading prayerfully means praying to find understanding in the Bible.
For non-fundamentalist people like me, this is a foreign experience. I have read the Bible, but I can’t say I’ve ever read it prayerfully. When I read the Bible, I experience it as I’ve been taught to. To me, it seems like a sometimes edifying, sometimes brutal, sometimes incomprehensible collection of traditional tales from Jewish and early Christian tradition. I find it very difficult to understand why the words of this collection of tales should be presumed to be inerrant, just as I find it difficult to understand why one religious leader in Vatican City should be presumed to be able to speak infallibly. I think there are lots of people who think the way I do. It does not mean that I am not Christian. I find it easy to be Christian and yet not look to the Bible as an inerrant collection of God’s word.
But let’s return to our thought experiment. Many liberals, ex-fundamentalists, and secular people assert that fundamentalists have an infantile intellectual approach to the Bible. Fundamentalist Bible exegesis is accused of missing the ambiguities and ambivalences that come with a more sophisticated reading. Instead, this line of argument continues, fundamentalists are intellectually “frozen” into a simple inerrant reading of the Bible. To be clear, I am not making this argument, only acknowledging that this is a common indictment of fundamentalist culture. I imagine informed fundamentalists will recognize it as well.
But what if we put the shoe on the other foot? What if we outsiders tried to imagine how fundamentalists could critique a non-fundamentalist reading of the Bible? This is where the shaky analogy to autism comes in. I wonder if fundamentalists could compare a non-prayerful reading of the Bible to autism.
People like me who do not read the Bible prayerfully could be compared to people with autism spectrum disorders. By not pouring myself into the reading, by not opening myself up to the possibilities of a new and profound truth coming to me during and through my Bible reading, I am approaching the reading “flatly.” I’m reading the Bible the way some autistic people relate to other people. They understand intellectually the concept of other people, but they often do not share the emotional experience of relating to people.
Is non-prayerful reading like that? Do non-prayerful readers like me understand we can get information from the text, but not relate to the text in a way that prayerful readers do? So, for instance, by reading the Bible as if it were just another book, do we misunderstand the possibilities of truly relating to the text? Here’s an example: a non-prayerful Bible reader can certainly find parts of the Bible that seem to contradict one another. There seems to be two different creation stories in Genesis, for instance. Or, we can read about Noah drinking and cursing Ham and conclude that these supposed prophets were not so upright after all. We can find in Abraham’s murderous faith clear signs of undiagnosed mental disorder. Then we can dismiss the Bible as a parochial collection of outdated tribal tales. We can wait for the Bible to overcome our skepticism; wait for the Bible to prove itself beyond a rational doubt. And when it does not do that, we can allow ourselves to feel superior to those who still cling to its stories.
But that treats the Bible as if it were a mere object. It relates to the Bible the way some autistic people relate to other people. It does not approach the Bible with the necessary attitude. Therefore, there is no surprise that the Bible does not share its lessons. A human relationship in which only one person shares herself would also not prove very fulfilling.
Does it hold water? I’m not sure. But at the very least, this thought experiment might help non-fundamentalists see their theology through fundamentalist eyes. By acknowledging our theological deficiencies from the fundamentalist viewpoint, we can begin to understand how different a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible can be. We can avoid pat dismissals of fundamentalist intellectualism. We can steer clear of an all-too-common smugness among secular intellectuals about the possibilities of non-secular intellectual culture.