When it comes to reading religious texts, intellectual curiosity and reasoning can only take us so far. We must approach them with a mind open to complexity, beauty and troubling honestyby Lucy Winkett / June 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
The Roman Catholic theologian James Alison has coined a useful phrase to describe how holy texts are harnessed in the cause of strongly-held opinions. “Clobber texts,” as he calls them, are short portions of scripture taken out of context and quoted to provide a “ta-da!” moment of rhetorical victory. A variant of what used to be called “Bible bashing,” the use of “clobber texts” is more prevalent now than ever. Especially if you can fit them into the length of a tweet.
As a modern reader (and preacher) of scripture, I am worried by the use of “clobber texts” that hurt and exclude, suppress and confine our fellow human beings. But anyone, religious or not, who is troubled by the programmatic use of holy texts to justify terrorism, territorial ambition, discrimination or religious abuses should read John Barton and Karen Armstrong’s new books.
These two formidable scholars have produced serious and inspiring contributions to a highly-charged contemporary debate. Both take it as axiomatic that scripture can be related in interestingly creative ways to ritual and belief. They also highlight that the dominant western mode of understanding religious texts—an individual reading a printed book on their own, deciding what to believe and then persuading others of that belief—is at best unhelpful and, at worst, a violation of what scripture should truly be for.
Barton has been lecturing at Oxford for 40 years. An ordained priest as well as a scholar, he writes from the perspective of having to use the Bible in everyday religious contexts as well as studying it in an academic one. Although he provides much historical description and contextual analysis here, he is also making a powerful argument. There is great difficulty, he says, in mapping Biblical texts directly on to the belief systems of Judaism and Christianity. Put bluntly: “The history of Christian use of the Old Testament is a history of attempts of varying dexterity to get the text to say things it doesn’t.” The Bible has not been a blueprint: over time it has required continual creative interplay with religious practice and interpretation.
Such creativity, he says, can have a bright future. But only if we abandon both…