A mere 13 years ago, Christian Smith wrote American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. That was the book that explained why people were becoming Evangelical and Orthodox Jews in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It also explained how modern and engaged Evangelicals are not the same as Fundamentalists. It allowed one to differentiate Centrist Orthodoxy, Engaged Yeshivish Orthodoxy, Kiruv, and Chabad from old-time Ultra-Orthodoxy and from liberalism. It rejected as non –empirical both secularization theory and those nostalgic for old time 1950’s Orthodoxy.
Six years ago, he published Soul Searching: The Religious And Spiritual Lives Of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press,2005 read by many Orthodox educators. Several mehanchim offered in 2008-2009 to lend me their copies as a way of showing me they are in the know. And in 2009, he wrote the book about twenty somethings – that led to articles in the Jewish papers last year about the new affiliating patterns of college and post-college students, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Oxford University Press. Smith just issued a new book and if the reception of his other books are any indication, it will be much discussed in the newspapers next year and the year after. The new book is The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, in which he deals with the hopelessly un-intellectual and non-empirical way that religious texts are dealt with in evangelical circles.
Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. When he wrote the prior volumes, he was a committed Evangelical teaching in a religious setting. Recently, he converted to Catholicism because he believes in a more complex tradition; he also just published a book on his conversion. So his book will have a greater knee-jerk rejection by less thoughtful Protestants.
Smith opens his book stating that his book is not an attack on authority or the Bible and that he is not a skeptic nor a liberal so he will not be referring to them. He is writing is within the non-liberal spectrum of the religious community. “The goal of the book is not to detract from the plausibility, reliability, or authority of the Christian faith or from scripture.”
He identifies a number of traits that he calls Biblicism and finds them lacking. Jews should not get caught up on the fact that Evangelicals have a high view of the Bible while Orthodox Jews use the interpretive tradition of the Talmud and Halakhah because most of his comments apply equally well to the way the halakhah is used by Orthodoxy and the Orthodox high view of the Talmud. If it helps you – substitute the word Talmudism, Halakhah or Hazalicism for the word Biblicism. Or think of his book as if called “Halakhah made Impossible.” Judaism and Christianity are not the same, an Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are not the same – so there are differences that we should note. But the commonalities of group think, fighting liberalism, and lack of self-awareness are similar (see below for details).
Here are his basic tenets of this univocal approach.
• Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the detail of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
• Total Representation: The Bible (or halakhah) represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humans, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
• Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to belief and life are contained in the Bible (halakhah).
• Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible (halakhah) in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
• Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts (and Rabbbinic and halakhic tetxs) is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
• Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical (halakhic) text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible (halakhah)from scratch.
• Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible (halakhah)on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
• Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid at every other time..
• Handbook Model: The Bible (halakhah) teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
Smith understands that this is not a “formal” position held by evangelicals, and that different people and groups hold and emphasize various aspects of these points differently.
Smith sees that Biblicists minimize differences between people, texts, and interpretations. – Most “real” believers all believe the same thing, due to error they may disagree slightly. Smith says that is wrong.
Evangelicals turn necessity into virtue and they create books like “four views on x belief” or “the debate between r and s on that belief. Jews do the Rashi-Rambam or the Rambam-Ramban debate. For Smith, even that is illusory, there are way more opinions out there, the reception of texts has greater variance, and there are wide debates over the meaning of a text. On important matters the texts and tradition are not “clear, consistent, or univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned most highly skilled readers to come to an agreement…: That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever present reality.” We have massive fragmentation of opinions. The fact that believers have worked for centuries to sort through these differences does not change empirical reality.
Many of those Biblicists establishing certainty are doing it with pre-interpretive assumptions not supported by any univocal text. They debate divergences constantly but assume the other side is just wrong or influenced by sociology. They never realize there may be other readings of the tradition. They do not connect the social splitting, factionalism, and controversies to the very complexity of the tradition. When divergent groups come together it is because they found common ground and avoiding discussing secondary issues.
What of thinking that the Divine word is so complex and multidimensional that it is greater than one interpretation, but there is a higher synthesis? It does not take away from the interpretive pluralism of the text.
Can there be so many misreads by others if the text is harmonious and self-sufficient? According to Smith, what are the common causes of routinely divergent readings? Texts have a vast array of terms, concepts, genres, styles, narratives and statements. Then the reader applies paradigms, essential themes, and organizing frameworks to create a single statement. Biblicist groups ignore leftover texts and think the left over texts can be explained away if rightly understood. Biblicists contend that there is really only one meaning and it is found in the words.
Smith argues for a multi-vocality, polyseme of meaning, diversity, and divisions. Multiple possible meanings are NOT from reader’s subjectivity, but rather the texts give rise to more than one possibility and that there is more than one (or even more then 3,4, 5) legitimate interpretations.
Smith shows that the goal of Evangelicals (and Orthodox Jews ) and their Biblicism was to resist liberalism
Texts are read through common sense realism treating texts as a realistic picture of the world. Meaning is from collecting facts and texts are treated as if religious texts were the same as civil engineering or gardening. Words are seen as offering direct meaning.
This Evangelical reading works because people live in “small worlds,” echo chambers of their own denomination. The more homogeneous the social network, the more the given position is taken for granted.
Biblicists can give sermons on scripture’s view of dating, the economy, TV, or childrearing without any self-awareness that the conenction between the tetx and contemporary reality was not explicit in the text. They do not acknowledge the large amount of outside information they brought to bear in their interpenetration and the latitude of interpretation from the same tetxs.
In addition, Smith thinks that people establish their religious group identities and priorities through establishing difference. Organizations thrive on competition and rivalry; skirmishes and conflicts generate energy. Therefore they don’t take the substantive claims and positions of the other group seriously. Groups blatantly ignore texts and passages used by other groups to cheer their own position. And in the rhetoric of America, they make arbitrary determination of another group’s cultural relativism.
These are some highlights of the first half of the book, which deals with data and sociology. The second half tries to offer solutions from a religious perspective and to think theologically. Maybe I might deal with some of the second half.
Any thoughts on the application of this book to Judaism? Is Talmud or halakhah in contemporary hands different?