Confessions of a Cult

While my wife and I were out and about this weekend, we decided to stop in at a few antique stores. On the bargain table ($1 table) outside one of them, I found a nifty little gem of a religious book.

(By clicking the link above, you can find a free online version of the book)

IMG_20140805_101520529

 

My wife looked at me like I was a nut when I picked it up, but I shrugged and she’s used to me doing weird things so she left me alone. I opened the front cover and looked for the date.

It be old

It be old

I’m always being told that the bible is supposed to be taken in context; that most of it isn’t supposed to be read literally. I was interested in seeing whether people in the era that this book was published thought the same thing. Personally, I think the idea that the bible is steeped in metaphor and allegory is a modern phenomenon, which is handily used to try and explain away its less savory or magical bits.

So let’s take a peek at what some people believed in a religious sense back when this book was published.

On page 45 you can find this:

Question: “Is a member of the church not at all allowed to enter into matrimony with a person who is not agreed with him in faith and doctrine?”

Answer: “No. For this is contrary to the marriage institution; and he who thus enters into matrimony, acts contrary to the law of God, and the doctrine of the apostles. Deut. 7:3, 4; Judges 3:6, 7; 1 Cor. 1:10; 7:39; Phil. 2:1, 3.

And then this one:

Question: “Can also a lawful marriage, for any cause be divorced?”

Answer: “No. For the persons united by such marriage are so closely bound to each other, that they can in no wise separate, except in case of “fornication.” Matt. 19:9

Seems to me like they took what the bible says pretty seriously. You weren’t allowed to marry someone who didn’t share the same faith or no faith at all. They even use some pretty strong words, such as ‘contrary to God’s law’, that leave little doubt in the readers mind what they thought of marrying outside the faith.

The second question and answer is pretty straight forward – you don’t divorce unless your spouse fornicates on you. Period.

What if you’re husband liked to beat you?

Guess you just stay married.

You’d think the lord of the universe would be able to give better advice than this.

On page 47, you can find advice on how best to shun people who disagree with the church or faith. Basically, according to this book, unless someone is dying from hunger or dehydration, you’re to shun them in public.

But what about the magic bits, such as the Garden of Eden story, with the talking snake, magic fruit and a woman made from a rib? Surely they thought this was a metaphor or allegory for something else, right?

Nope.

No mention of metaphor

No mention of metaphor

For centuries the bible was taught as the literal or inspired word of God. Today, many think they somehow know how to interpret this stuff better than people back then. How do people distinguish between what is supposed to be literal and what is not?

If you’re a believer, do you agree with this book? If not, what makes your interpretation better or more correct than theirs?

If you say the Holy Spirit is what guides you, you can find in this book the author saying pretty much the same thing. In fact, there are over 30,000 Christian sects, each one differs slightly from its brethren, and most of them claim that this Holy Spirit helps them understand the bible best.

Either this Holy Spirit is unreliable, doesn’t exist or it just likes to fool humans.

 

 

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21 Comments

  1. That book is specifically for Mennonite ministers so is only of relevance to those who follow that faith. It has no relevance to me. Note that I’m firmly convinced that religious thought should be constantly reevaluated in the light of new knowledge, and as that manual had not changed in over two hundred years before before its printing, I personally view it as an interesting historical document. Others are free to make their own judgement.

    Now down to specifics. As you haven’t specified what a believer is, I’ll make the assumption that I fall into your definition and try to answer your questions.

    Do you agree with this book? No. Our understanding of the world and history has changed over the centuries, especially over the last three hundred years since that manual was first written. Knowledge is growing at an exponential rate, and I don’t see why religious thought should be excluded. I wouldn’t say that my interpretation is better. It’s different because I live in a different time and place to the original author(s).

    Leaving aside any argument of what the holy spirit might be or if it exists, isn’t it possible that the human condition might be the reason for variations in interpretation and the belief that their interpretation is the only correct one?

    As for arguing that the bible was always interpreted literally, I would like to point to the two contrary and irreconcilable versions of the creation as told in the first few pages of the bible. As far as I’m aware there was no attempt to meld both stories into a cohesive whole until fundamentalism brought up the belief that a literal interpretation was necessary. We now know that in many societies fact and fiction are not so rigidly separated in stories. The moral or message is more important than accuracy. The compartmentalisation of fact and fiction is a relatively modern Western concept.

    I can read my grandchildren stories where animals talk and walk upright. These stories can be absolutely enthralling to the children and the characters are real. But do they believe such creatures exist the outside the story? Absolutely not. However they are able to talk about them as if they do exist.

    • Hi Barry. Nice to see you and thank you for your thoughts.

      “That book is specifically for Mennonite ministers so is only of relevance to those who follow that faith. It has no relevance to me.”

      Yes. It’s only one sect of the thousands of Christian sects. It might raise questions for you though, such as why is your sect more right than theirs.

      “Note that I’m firmly convinced that religious thought should be constantly reevaluated in the light of new knowledge”

      That’s great to hear. Can I ask what denomination you belong to? That way I don’t make any assumptions about what you do or do not believe in, and conversation will flow more smoothly.

      “I wouldn’t say that my interpretation is better. It’s different because I live in a different time and place to the original author(s).”

      Wouldn’t you think that an all-powerful, all-knowing God would take this into account when inspiring such a book?

      Living in a different time and place also wouldn’t change whether something was literally true or not.

      “Leaving aside any argument of what the holy spirit might be or if it exists”

      As a Christian, I never understood it either and would try to avoid talk about the holy spirit.

      “isn’t it possible that the human condition might be the reason for variations in interpretation and the belief that their interpretation is the only correct one?”

      It very much is. Again, you’d think God would know this as well.

      “As far as I’m aware there was no attempt to meld both stories into a cohesive whole until fundamentalism brought up the belief that a literal interpretation was necessary. We now know that in many societies fact and fiction are not so rigidly separated in stories.”

      Because they were oral stories before they were written down. Like any oral story that is passed down (telephone game) it changes with the telling. This is why it’s a myth and not true. There may be grains of truth in the story that the myth grew up around.

      I find very little ‘moral’ about a good many of the stories in the OT though. The Garden is one, the flood another. Not a whole lot moral about condemning an entire species because of eating from a magic tree or genocide.

      “I can read my grandchildren stories where animals talk and walk upright. These stories can be absolutely enthralling to the children and the characters are real. But do they believe such creatures exist the outside the story? ”

      That’s true. But you don’t tell them it’s the word of God. I’m all for using the good bits that can be learned from such texts.

      Thanks very much for your comment. It was very thoughtful.

  2. Actually, perception of the old testament (let’s please call it the Torah, because that’s its name) as allegorical and not literal goes WAY back — thousands of years. The amount of interpretation on it is impossible to even calculate. Jewish law in its entirety dates back to before the middle ages, though that’s when they started writing it down. Thousands upon thousands of pages and so much was lost over the ages when (usually) Christians burned synagogues. And they burned the people who knew what was in the books too.

    It’s pretty much Christians who introduced literal interpretation. You aren’t going to find a lot of that kind of fundamentalism amongst Jews. I’ve never met anyone — rabbis, religious folks, anyone — who took (for example) Genesis literally.

    So clarify your terms. You are not discussing “religious people” or “the bible” in general. You are talking about fundamentalist Christians who have never been the majority or even mainstream. That they’ve gained so much traction in this country in the 21st century is a very American thing. It is NOT the rule. It is the exception.

    • I agree with you Marilyn. A literal interpretation of the Torah/Old Testament is a Christian invention. The peculiarity that is American Christian fundamentalism takes the most extreme form of literal interpretation. Christian fundamentalism is growing in NZ, but its influence is insignificant compared to the U.S.

    • I agree with you somewhat. However:

      “It’s pretty much Christians who introduced literal interpretation. You aren’t going to find a lot of that kind of fundamentalism amongst Jews. I’ve never met anyone — rabbis, religious folks, anyone — who took (for example) Genesis literally.”

      Not really. For instance, a quick search about rabbinical teachings on Genesis brings this:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-manis-friedman/new-twist-old-story_b_2017349.html

      “Do you know the story of Adam and Eve? If we truly understand what took place on that day in the Garden of Eden, it would help us understand a lot about what we are supposed to being doing here in this world.

      In the beginning, G-d created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden with very specific instructions: “You may eat the fruit of all of the trees besides for that one.” What will happen if you do eat from that forbidden tree? “The day you eat from it you will die.”

      Sounds literal to me. Even more so if you read the entire article.

      http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Torah/Genesis/Adam_and_Eve.shtml

      “The first chapter of Genesis states that God made man in the sixth day of the Creation, fashioning him in His own image and giving him dominion over the rest of creation. The etymology of the word Adam connects it with Adamah, “ground or soil,” and with Adom, “red.” This suggests that Adam was formed from red soil or clay.

      The second chapter of Genesis tells the creation of man in more detail. God created man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. He placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. God told the man that he could eat from every tree in the garden, except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, under penalty of death.”

      That’s a site dedicated to learning the Torah. No mention of metaphor. Sounds literal to me.

      Why do so many Christians (huge percentage in the US) not ‘believe’ in creationism? Is it because of the creation myth in the bible being thought of as literal or that it’s being taught as an allegory for something else?

      My money is on the literal. Even when I went to Sunday School, Genesis was taught as literal.

      Here’s some more Torah learning sites that teach it as the literal truth.

      http://www.jewishpathways.com/chumash-themes/garden-eden

      http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/246606/jewish/The-First-Human-Beings.htm

      “So clarify your terms. You are not discussing “religious people” or “the bible” in general. You are talking about fundamentalist Christians who have never been the majority or even mainstream.”

      Not really. Religious people is what I meant.

      And are you talking about the small minority of Americans who say the bible should be taken literally?

      The poll numbers are 30% of Americans who think the bible should be taken literally. Those numbers are down as well, as religion weakens.

      http://www.gallup.com/poll/148427/say-bible-literally.aspx

      “That they’ve gained so much traction in this country in the 21st century is a very American thing. It is NOT the rule. It is the exception.”

      They’ve actually lost traction but they’ve taken over a political party and they sway the other.

      However, before America was founded, the bible wasn’t taken as allegory – it was taught as fact. It was taught in a literal sense. The metaphor/allegory angle is what is new.

      Thanks for commenting. I love your passion.

      • You need to read more than a headline and a first paragraph. And you need to understand something about what you’re reading AND WHO WROTE IT.

        I did read your two linked items. Ether you didn’t read them or totally missed the point. The first is a (very brief, intended for non-scholars, remedial Torah or the mis or un informed) discussion of the meaning of specific symbols in that piece of text. At no point is there any suggestion you should believe there was a literal garden of Eden (there was, by the way, but only in a geographical sense) or a literal snake. They actually ask “who or what is the snake” as one of the questions for study. If it was a literal snake, why would they ask that?

        The Chabadnik site is a new translation of a section of the Torah. There’s NO interpretation with the text. It’s a TRANSLATION of an old text. What you make of it is up to you. They don’t even give you a hint.

        Please don’t assume every religion is the same and offer website links as “proof.” You’ve proved nothing and the links are irrelevant to your point. Sometimes, a point is arguable — a matter of opinion. In this case, you are simply wrong, That’s not what it says and not what it means. Really.

        • “And you need to understand something about what you’re reading AND WHO WROTE IT.”

          I did.

          “They actually ask “who or what is the snake” as one of the questions for study. If it was a literal snake, why would they ask that?”

          Because it gives you the answer and you’re meant to regurgitate it.

          “Please don’t assume every religion is the same and offer website links as “proof.” You’ve proved nothing and the links are irrelevant to your point. Sometimes, a point is arguable”

          I disagree. You’ve not made your point. Just made excuses for what it actually says. It talks about Genesis as if it’s real. Anyone reading those links can see that for themselves.

          You skipped the poll stats. You skipped what people actually say and then charge off and accuse other people (me) of not reading the links I posted. I read them all in their entirety. I wanted to see if what you said was factual and found it wasn’t.

          Do all Jewish people read Genesis as literal?

          No.

          Do many?

          Yes.

          Are they less inclined to read it as literal now?

          Yes, because of evolution and science.

          Are there still people who teach Genesis as real?

          Of course!!!!

          You can pretend that isn’t the case, but it is. It’s true of Judaism as it is in Christianity. You don’t have people pushing intelligent design in schools because Genesis is thought to be an allegory for something else.

          “What you make of it is up to you. They don’t even give you a hint.”

          The hint is what they wrote. Excuses need not apply.

          Since the first links weren’t enough, here’s one who is even trying to make a case for a non-literal Genesis: http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2008/09/how-i-understand-genesis.html

          “When the Torah states, for example, (Genesis 1:11) that plants were created on the third day, that means basically two things: the first time plants appeared on earth was a Tuesday and also each Tuesday, even this week, plants are being renewed by spiritual emanations from God (as it says in the literal translation of Psalms 136:7 “To Him making great lights” in the present tense; God is even now energizing them). The same is true for all the days of creation in Genesis 1. This is why Sabbath observance is so central to Judaism – even now, God ceases creating for one day each week and we affirm our belief in Him by doing so as well. The Bible’s first thirty four verses are absolutely literal, however they are not describing historical events which happened one time only. Rather, they are describing a cycle of creative events which continues constantly and which did, at certain points in history, millions or billions of years ago, bring these aspects of the universe into physical form for the first time. The first plants may have appeared 500 million years ago – but they appeared on Tuesday and this week they also received renewed energies on Tuesday. The same applies to each other day of the six days of creation. This is what Genesis 1 teaches us. (This also explains why there are “two creation stories” in Genesis. There aren’t. Genesis 1 is not merely history.)”

          Exactly my point!

          Some parts are literal and some parts aren’t and the parts that aren’t are full of woo talk.

          Your original statement was this: “It’s pretty much Christians who introduced literal interpretation. You aren’t going to find a lot of that kind of fundamentalism amongst Jews.”

          I’ve shown you this simply is not true. Jews have also used literal interpretation. And you can easily find lots of rabbi’s who teach it partially or fully as being literal.

  3. “Why is your sect more right than theirs”
    It’s not. It’s better for me, I can’t speak for anyone else.

    “Can I ask what denomination you belong to?”
    My denomination isn’t relevant as it has no creed or dogma, so no matter what I believe, there’s likely to be a few (or perhaps many) that will have a different view. The denomination is around 350 years old and has never considered the bible to be “God’s Word” in a literal sense. Having said that, I’m sure there will be a few members who think differently. Most members would not subscribe to the notion of original sin. Most would say that heaven and hell are concepts, not places. There’s no common view on the nature of God. It ranges from being an abstract concept to the more traditional concept of God held by most denominations. Most probably don’t consider Jesus to be literally the son of God, and I suspect that few would acknowledge his divinity. As belief Is “between you and God”, most would consider proselytising inappropriate. Knowing the denomination won’t do much to help much to understand what I believe in.

    “Wouldn’t you think that an all-powerful, all-knowing God would take this into account when inspiring such a book?”
    Perhaps, if you believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing God, and you believe that God directly inspired the authors, instead of my view that the authors were inspired by their belief in God.

    “I find very little ‘moral’ about a good many of the stories in the OT though”
    I would go to so far as to say there are some horrific stories there. Genocide, murder, betrayal and more. Did God command these things, or did the perpetrators use God to justify their actions?

    The Garden is clearly a myth (unless you believe in creationism), and the two versions of creation describe two different views of the relationship between man and god. It tells more of the nature of the authors than it does of God. The flood is probably a story of a disastrous local flood, the survivors looking for a “cause” for the flood decided it was a punishment for some transgression. Some fundamentalists believe that AIDS is a punishment from God for society tolerating homosexuality. That doesn’t make it so.

    “But you don’t tell them it’s the word of God”.
    Of course not. But then I wouldn’t tell them the stories in bible are the Word of God either.

  4. Geez, you had to dig up this stuff, Mike! (they belong in an antique store!). We poured over and sometimes memorized some of these historic confessions in seminary. Old words; old thinking. Now, we grow up (we could hope).

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