by Liam Scheff
I’m no atheist, I am a spiritualist, and I don’t really believe in any historical Jesus (the magical Jewish guy for whom there is **no history written** till 70 years after the magical birth and 40 or more after the big wizarding events). But I do understand and have a feeling for why people love and need Jesus – at least in the spiritual sense.
The people I know who do it right take it as a spiritual beacon. It’s a place on the horizon, a note in their soul that asks them to be better than our lower chakra instincts (consume, defecate and screw – not in that order). It’s a reminder to rise to the 4th chakra – that of the heart, of compassion, and to act in accordance with generosity and kindness in a world plagued by, well, “consumers.”
I do the same thing with my totems and Deity figures. They mean a great deal to me. (Scream, Fundies, Scream!)
What’s a disaster, though, is religious and Biblical literalism. Here are four very common problems with taking the Bible (or any ancient text) literally.
First: Rinse, Wash, Transcribe.
If you imagine that you can take anything from the ancient world (or even from yesterday) as ‘literal and absolute,’ then you’re kidding yourself – or you haven’t ever done any language-to-language translation, or long-form transcription.
You want to try? Okay. Get today’s newspaper and write what you see on an entire page. Reproduce it as well as you can in a hand-written document. You can’t correct it; you’re writing in ink. You have to keep going. See what you get in terms of errors made…
Now imagine that the newspaper was written, not like this:
“Today’s Headlines: Barack admits he’s a pawn for the military-petroleum corporate complex. And Britney’s back and sluttier than ever!”
So, are you gonna make any mistakes as you do this – for an entire news sheet? How about for a 10,000 word scroll? Or an entire book? Because that’s how the texts of the ancient world looked. All capitals, no punctuation, no spacing.
Don’t get tired! Don’t skip a word! Don’t skip a line! Don’t skip a paragraph! Don’t jump from section to section while your eyes wobble and fidget! Don’t leap from similar words to similar words and forget where you are! And…GO!!
Second: Translate Inerrantly
And that’s not all, folks. Now that you’ve gotten some practice butchering ancient manuscripts that are in your language, let’s move to the major leagues and do what’s required of a real scribe. Find a scroll in another language – let’s say one you learned in high school and even studied in college. Now, didn’t you have a semester of German after you had four years of French? Good! You’re just the gal for the job.
Here’s an old Deutsch journal. We want you to translate it from your third language into your first. You know, “translate.” Change each and every word – each phrase, metaphor, simile and colloquial expression – from language to language. Ready? Steady….Go.
Ouch. Oh, of course we all know you’re going to lose a great deal here, both subtle and wildly unsubtle shades and states of meaning. Just remember, it’s the “inerrant” (un-erring, without error) word of God. Right. Don’t worry about that, though. We’ll just say that the text has “tenacity.”
Third: Do You Think You Could Spice It Up A Little?
We can’t stop at just translation. We’ve got to improve things a little bit. I mean, there were some good stories jotted in the margins by the last guy who read the paper. Let’s include those in the translation. Right. Just plop them in right…there. Good. Sure, that one, about the “cast the first stone, ye without sin” thing. Oh, and that “Trinity” concept. Sure! (We’ll let the academics call that an “interpolation,” but it’s just good, harmless fun with the “inerrant word of God” to us.)
Now alter some of the text according to the dictates of current fashion. Because while it was okay to say “young woman,” for example, in the original text, that term doesn’t really “sell” the story. Let’s substitute the word, oh….“virgin.” Even though it’s a different word, even though it changes the meaning. It’s “inerrant!”
Fourth: I’ll Have The Basilisk Special With A Side Of Leviathan
You want some real fun? Look up: mythological creatures in the Bible. It’s a veritable Harry Potter petting zoo.
Some of the ‘animals’ are more or less original to Hebrew and Christian texts, and some were added later in “special editions” like the King James Bible. How does it happen? Just take the word for a kind of animal, and insert a better animal. How about… “Unicorn?” Yeah, that will work nicely.
Job 39:9-12King James Version (KJV)
9 Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
11 Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?
12 Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?
Are you beginning to see the problem?
Don’t Take It So Literally
The world is not a literal description, because words are not literal. They are figurative. They are containers for sloshy, fluid, approximate, poetical meaning.
We are not literalists. We are stories and memory. And stories and memory are even more flexible than the messy world of translation and transcription.
Stories and memory. Don’t take it all so literally. Or you’ll make fools of us all.
Read on, Macduff:
Liam Scheff is author of “Official Stories,” drilling to the core of the gooey religious center of science.