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Left-Handed Bible

Denis Solomon • 898 words

In a letter to this newspaper a reader accused me of “political correctness” for defending gay rights. I might have answered that at some times, and perhaps still in some places, the defence of black rights would be subject to the same accusation. “Politically correct” is a vacuous term because one man’s “political correctness” is another man’s moral imperative.

Nevertheless, any thinking liberal must confess to misgivings at some of the lengths to which advocates of perfectly just causes go to make a point. And language being what it is, namely the most faithful objectification of the human psyche, the search for “politically correct” language is replete with the traps into which everyone who tries to tamper with language invariably falls.

The question, though, is not whether the movement for women’s liberation has been damaged by the inevitable jokes about “doberpersons” or “girlcotts”, or by the spectacle of seminars on “lesbian flirting techniques” at the NGO forum of the Beijing Conference. It is, rather, on what terms the leaders of any movement are prepared to mobilise followers.

Bertrand Russell, asked what kind of power he would like to have over his fellow men, answered “intellectual power” – the capacity to sway men’s minds by rational argument. “I would rather” he said “be explained by my worst enemy among philosophers than by an admirer innocent of philosophy”.

Religious and political leaders tend to operate differently from this. The enormous upsurge of religious fundamentalism everywhere, and the imminent hijacking of the United States political system by the “religious right”, endows with particular immediacy the question of the depth or superficiality of mass religious or political commitment. The Christian churches have never hesitated to encourage the devotion of their members on grounds on which no sane person would agree to buy a second-hand car. In relation to the scriptures, in particular, churchmen, while themselves always conscious of the historical relativity of these documents, have signally failed to communicate this to the laity. Advances in New Testament scholarship, particularly knowledge of the historical Jesus and his milieu, remain a closed book to the faithful, as do relatively well-worn facts about the canonicity of the scriptures themselves: how much a matter of chance it has been that particular writings are included and others excluded, and how much of the dogma is the result of historical accident: the fact, for example, that Jesus’ divinity and the particular nature of it was determined at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 – by a ballot.

Efforts to endow the religious impulse with intellectual rigour or practical utility invariably encounter the hostility of the religious establishment: Spinoza is excommunicated by the Jewish community; Kant is silenced by the King of Prussia for trying to accommodate God and reason. In our own little sphere, Gerry Pantin’s statement of psychological liberation theology diverges signally from the product of his brother’s hot line to the Curia.

In this context attempts to “modernise” the scriptures, to make them more “relevant”, is fraught with ambiguity. The most recent of them, the “politically correct” Bible, whose official title I have mercifully forgotten, is an outstanding example. Fearful of rejection of the Message by groups immersed in their own legitimate sectoral interests, the authors have produced such horrors as “our father-mother who art in Heaven”, in deference to women’s lib, and have even eliminated the “right hand” of God, lest the likes of Brian Lara feel discriminated against.

This must invite the conclusion that Christianity is seeking to propagate its message with the same devices as the lesbians of Beijing. But what is far worse, it must alienate those thinking people prepared to grapple honestly with the metaphysical implications of the great archetypal myth that the Christian scriptures represent, whatever their canonical shape or historical accuracy. Such myths are inseparable from poetry, and the stuff of poetry is metaphor. The King James Version is one of the greatest poetic works in the English language, and the metaphors it contains are drawn from archetypes – fatherhood and motherhood (not father-motherhood), sacrifice and atonement, nationhood and kingship, loyalty and betrayal. How the quasi-biological archetype of insemination by a god can be maintained through hermaphroditic language is a greater mystery than the creation itself.

This poetry had already been seriously eroded by the more accurate, but far more prosaic, modern translations of the Bible. “When the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” says more to me about woman as the vehicle for the ongoing miracle of creation than “when her time was near” or any such product of a college creative writing course. The politically correct Bible will complete the process of trivialisation.

What goes for religion goes for politics, and the proof of it is the deliberate manipulation of the superficial aspects of the religious impulse by the high priests of the great political religion-substitutes of the twentieth century – communism and fascism. In our own country, political leaders have always mobilised followers by means of the superficial exploitation of myth, and as their policies fail the hunger for miraculous solutions becomes not less but greater. Genuine politics, like genuine religion, is not only myth but the painful product of the operation of work and thought upon myth. Which is why so many of the most religious people are technically atheists.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top