State of Emergency: The Demise of Secularism


By Pearl Abraham

Published April 14, 2006, issue of April 14, 2006.
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The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously

By Jacques Berlinerblau

Cambridge University Press, 232 pages, $19.99.

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God, it turns out, is not dead, but secularism might be — unless it deigns to take another look at itself, at God and at God’s book, and seeks to study and know what it professes not to believe. This, according to Jacques Berlinerblau, is the news of the 21st century, despite the intellectual achievement of a “prepostmodern golden age of science and reason,” with such “members of the pantheon” as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Emil Durkheim, Max Weber, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre.

In “The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously,” Berlinerblau makes the case that secular scholarship of the Bible — the word he uses to designate both the Tanakh and the New Testament — is urgent and necessary if we are to remain free to doubt and disbelieve, free to continue not to “live under the hegemony of the Book.” It is worth noting, as Berlinerblau does, that this freedom on which secularists — by which he means “‘secular humanists,’ ‘free thinkers,’ ‘atheists,’ ‘agnostics,’ ‘brights,’ ‘universists,’” all “members of overlapping secular sectaries,” who “define themselves in opposition to religion, albeit religions about which they know very little” — so depend, arrived in the modern world courtesy of religious scholars who, though deeply pious, were also true to the critical method of higher learning. Their worldly rewards for these efforts: “heresy trials, excommunications, and faculty expulsions.” This hard-earned freedom, Berlinerblau posits, now hangs on the willingness of secularists to become self-critical, rethink their beliefs, relinquish outmoded ideas that are no longer viable or even true, and, above all, to recognize that secularism itself is in a state of emergency, both intellectual and otherwise.

In the history of modern biblical scholarship, higher criticism’s quest for textual origins is credited with giving rise to secularism when it cracked the lockbox of the Book as God’s word and revealed a whole assembly of authors working over at least a millennium, hundreds of “writers, editors, jurists, copyists, theologians, censors, party hacks, and so on,” editing, superimposing, juxtaposing, omitting, mistranslating and rewriting a text they’re said to have thought of as the word of God. But even in the pre-literary, pre-canonized stage, before the Book was assembled, the stories “lived a long, unstable, and constantly fluctuating existence,” delivered orally by skilled raconteurs, complete with the natural variations that are likely to occur in oral retellings. Schooled in the instability of oral tradition and, much later, in the haggadic narrative style that allows for, even appreciates, “fanciful retellings of tales,” ancient listeners and readers regarded these stories as the repository of their hallowed tradition — an ancient community known as the Dead Sea Sect of Qumran believed that these were stories about themselves — and therefore sacred. They didn’t seem to require proof that the word, or every word, was God’s own; a much more nuanced idea of sacredness than we generally ascribe to believers seems to have been at work here. Indeed, questions about the Pentateuch’s authorship date back to at least the talmudic era, if not to the time of composition of the Pentateuch itself, since they make their way into the texts one way or another, by way of assertion and reassertion, which suggests an anxiety on the issue of authorship. The talmudic rabbis wondered how it was possible for Moses to have written the final eight verses of Deuteronomy, since they recount the story of his death. Answers and explanations vary, as expected in an exegetical literature, with one tradition suggesting that the commandments are indeed the word of God transmitted to us by Moses, and the rest is history. Responding to the question of authorship in the 12th century, Ibn Ezra, wrote: “Let him who understands the secret be silent.”

That the Book has many authors, and as a result presents inconsistencies and a multiplicity of meanings rather than one meaning, disturbs only modern readers. Berlinerblau allows that “composition by aggregate” resulted in “countless possibilities of meaning,” but he stresses that it also yielded “biblical texts that quite literally have no sense,” that yield “countless impossibilities of meaning.” He quotes the Rev. Professor John Barton, a contemporary theologian, remarking that “the Israelite literati were not unduly preoccupied by the need — our need — for a book to contain unity, internal coherence, and closure,” and that biblical editors had “a weak sense of genre… material which we should regard as too disparate to be juxtaposed in a single book is freely intermingled.”

That’s one way of understanding the compositional process. One could also think of complex juxtaposition and intermingling as sophisticated editing for an audience capable of finding coherence and meaning in pattern, symbol and repetition, which is very different from the simpler modern idea of a perfect book, as one that stays on message. Studies of oral traditions and ancient cultures indicate that audiences usually knew the tales, and that the pleasure of hearing them again was in the language and style of a particular delivery and in the variations on the original. Writing about the Bible, literary critic Northrop Frye made the point that “we are so possessed by the modern notion that all the qualities we admire in literature come from the individuality of an author that it is hard to realize that this relentless smashing of individuality could produce greater vividness and originality rather than less. But so it seems to be.”

After introducing and exploring the question of biblical authorship, Berlinerblau goes on to examine how Scripture is read and why there is almost no consensus about what it says. This is “a book about the Hebrew Bible’s composition and its interpreters,” Berlinerblau announces in his introduction. It is also, notably, a book that attempts to serve as a call to action for renewed secular scholarship of biblical texts newly necessary in a world largely populated by believers. This isn’t a facile stance to take, and Berlinerblau deserves credit for his courage. He has written an important and provocative book, complete with helpful summaries at the end of each chapter, which should appeal to lay readers who aren’t usually attracted to books on biblical topics published by academic presses.

The final section of the book looks at how the Bible continues to be misused in the debate on such contemporary issues as intermarriage in Judaism and homosexuality in Christianity. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, there seems to be no evidence of a ban on intermarriage in general, only warnings against specific Canaanite nations perceived as Israel’s enemies, and there is no conclusive censure of same-sex eroticism. Indeed, a close reading of biblical texts reveals no definite position on either issue, but rather a refreshing reticence that refuses to condemn, an ambivalent open-endedness that is underappreciated in modern discourse.

With these two chapters on contemporary issues, and one additional chapter on how the Qur’an and Islam could benefit from critical secular scholarship, Berlinerblau provides a good model for what secular biblical scholarship can achieve. He takes the time to spell out and differentiate between what the Bible actually says and what fundamentalists claim it says, between the Bible’s ambivalent positions and the right wing’s simplistic conclusions. He understands the powerful political reasoning that motivated self-serving interpretations, criticizes them and properly urges a secular nontheological reading and understanding of the texts.

It is therefore a huge surprise that in making the case for secular counter-exegesis as a way to defend and save secularism, which may indeed need saving, Berlinerblau fails to recognize that his proposal, motivated as it is by political exigency, is also unfortunately another maneuver for power over a book that has a long history of just such self-serving manipulations. Shouldn’t this much misused and maligned text, the Book, one of mankind’s first books, be read for its aesthetics and for what it tells us about the human, ourselves, our ancestors and our, yes, hallowed origin myths? The biblical texts, with their recognizable symbols and shared references, are, after all, complex documents based on a multitude of stories crystallized into one story, and finally put in writing by editors, redactors and scribes who were working from a variety of sources and over a millennium of time. Thomas Mann’s “Joseph and His Brothers,” a book that expands the very succinct lyrical biblical tale to, in the most recent translation, a 1,492-page novel, opens with the sentences: “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?” Requiring that the Book, our story, remain on message, or answer to the latest modern, secular or fundamentalist ideal, would only simplify it toward meaninglessness.

Pearl Abraham is the author of, most recently, “The Seventh Beggar”(Riverhead, 2005).

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