Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible is a postmodernist’s dream-handbook, calling for an end to biblical interpretation on account of texts being seeded with too many possibilities of meaning. The secular scholar, according to this wisdom, should not attempt to recover a text’s original meaning, but rather address how the text has been understood and why it’s so hard to understand. The subtitle of the book is “Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously”, which is ironic, since there’s not much left to take seriously by the time you reach the end.
On the positive side, I like the author’s “criticize and be damned” approach (on which see also here) which treats the integrity of religious texts the same as any other. And one can hardly dispute his claim that the texts of the Hebrew Bible, as we have them today, don’t stand as products of single authors (having been edited, rewritten, and repackaged over and over again). But to go from this to embracing an extreme postmodern hermeneutic, and then hold secularism hostage to it, asks abusively much of us.
Not suprisingly, Berlinerblau focuses mostly on the Hebrew Bible since its process of textual assemblage was considerably more complex — and more successful in burying original voices — than in the case of the New Testament. But he considers Paul briefly in his chapter on same-sex eroticism (pp 101-115). After addressing texts like Lev 18:22, Gen 19, Judg 19, Rom 1:26-27, and I Cor 6:9, he concludes:
“The endeavor to extract the originally intended message of some putative biblical author concerning homosexuality is a hopeless task. It is an aspiration soaked in theological preconceptions about Scripture’s underlying meaningfulness. It has no place in secular inquiry.” (pp 112-113)
Where to begin with such nonsense? First of all, secular inquiry has nothing to do with postmodern assumptions about the irretrievability of original meanings. Secular inquiry is simply about interpreting texts to the best of our ability without regard for sacred convictions. Sometimes things may be unrecoverable, but it’s not an inescapable rule of the game. Second, it’s obviously possible to get a hold on original intentions (when recoverable) and leave one’s “theological preconceptions” checked at the door. Secular and confessional scholars alike have proven capabable of doing this.
Someone like Paul may be an elusive figure, but some interpretations do him more justice than others. Yet in his survey of various interpretations of Rom 1:26-27 and I Cor 6:9 (pp 106-109), Berlinerblau refuses to acknowledge one as being any better or worse than the other: “secular hermeneutics is reluctant to champion any reading” (p 106). I think secular hermeneutics can do more for us than cop out as a general policy. An argument that Paul condemned homosexual acts committed only by heterosexual people is clearly bogus, and we should say so. (The ancients didn’t understand sexual orientation like we do.) But an argument that Paul, as an honor-shame macho man, hated male homosexuality, but didn’t have much to say about female homosexuality (if Rom 1:26 points to alternative heterosexual behavior instead of lesbianism) has a lot going for it.
At one point Berlinerblau tries distancing himself from death-of-the-author agendas and reader-response theory (p 81), but in fact there’s little to distinguish his position from that of classical postmodernism. He may insist on a finite set of meanings seeded in scripture, but it’s a very large finite set (p 82) — large enough, I think, to accommodate Barthes’ absurd notion that “writing is the destruction of every voice and point of origin”.
I can’t help but wonder if the need to erase original meanings stems, at least in part, from an unease with confronting certain historical figures on their own terms. If one doesn’t like the biblical authors, but is tired of disliking them, pretending they don’t exist becomes an oddly elitist alternative. (Berlinerblau does state that secular scholarship should be elitist in nature (p 7).) It allows the scholar to remain aloof from the question of our relation to these figures, and whether or not people like Paul are implictly “for” or “against” us, or can teach us in any way.
But in some ways that’s a phantom fear. It’s possible to like a biblical author despite his hostile and alien beliefs. Here I’m with Donald Akenson. He’s as secular as they come, and says the following about Paul:
“However frequently one encounters distasteful attitudes in Paul’s epistles, these moments are irrelevant. They should be treated as epiphenomenal, like a rain shower occuring in the face of a volcanic eruption. Whatever his rebarbarative moments, Paul seems to me to be the character who is most authentically defined of all the figures we find in the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Talmuds… Paul is a jagged, flawed, and therefore totally convincing human being. And, unlike everyone else in the scriptures and the Talmuds, he has left us writings that are not merely ascibed to him by others, but are unassailably his own creation… When we finally become at ease with his angular personality, he talks to us in his oblique way of the historical Jesus and starts us on an historical pilgrimage that is pure joy.” (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, p 13)
We don’t need to dislike Paul for his homophobia, intemperance, and sectarian hostility anymore than we need to dislike the shogun Ieysu Tokugawa for his xenophobia and penchant for ordering people to commit seppuku. This is especially true if (as Philip Esler explains) we’re not obligated to agree with them.
Berlinerblau, like most postmodernists, has made a very limited contribution in arguing against a hermeneutic of overconfidence. I certainly agree with him that we shouldn’t be avoiding hard questions about the nature of the biblical texts. But we also shouldn’t be avoiding harder questions by pretending all voices under the texts are equally obscure.