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James F. McGrath

For such a memorable one-liner (not that the broader context isn't also worthwhile!) I made you my "Quote of the Day."


Great post, John.

Why oh why - among scholars & intellectuals - why aren't there more rebels against tradition and the church who DON'T also rebel against God, Faith and Discipline?

I, too, would love to see that big broom. What *is* it going to look like? If GOD gets involved, I suspect it will look quite wonderful. There's something I should pray harder for.

Thanks again...


I'm honored, James. Keep on thumping.

Hey Bill,

Just remember that serious rebellion is serious business. Do you know the story of Rudi Dutschke?

Tim Bulkeley

Have people of the left stopped reading the Bible? Or is this a particularly North American phenomenon? I realise that the right has had considerable success in the USA, by aligning itself with a firey brand of extreme legalistic literalism, in coopting the way the Bible is popularly percieved. B ut it would be a real pity to give in to such abuse of the Bible!


An interesting question, Tim. You tell us.

In New Zealand, who owns the Bible, the left or the right? Do either one or the other show any signs of understanding it?


Why not back to ANY poetry?

The bible doesn't give you the machinery to analyse and grow as a thinker unless you also embrace the whole rabbinic tradition of interpretation, which parallels (as does Islamic scholarship) the greek miracle of logical analysis.

Most people aren't particularly inspired or profound thinkers. As you say, the bible thumpers don't know what they're thumping (except in out of context literalist repetition - they too have no interpretive intellectual machinery).

For the left to take back the bible (which would especially please all the "jesus freak" poverty extolling hippie types), they would NEED at least a little basic education in poetry and logic.

It won't work (spiritually OR politically) without a strong "secular" education (read: humanist or fundamental or just not specifically religious) or else the bible thumpers, left or right, are just like peasants who believe they have something big, but are too dumb either to realize its limitations or even to use it for what it can indeed provide.

I don't know what magical super smart people Paglia has met who self identify as religious conservatives but I bet she's pulling her stories out of thin air and reconstituted, neuroticised childhood memories of church going.


To Tim. My observation is that the left has not been reading the bible for many decades (in North America, but in Europe too) except for a very very small selection of chapters offered in introduction-to-world-literature courses from English lit university departments.

There is no discussion of it, there is not even reading it out of curiosity, unless you were raised by a religious family (left or right).

It has , in the public sphere, especially among more affluent liberals, become a symbol of the republican party. The left has TOTALLY ceded any and all talk of tradition/history/excellence to the right wing as being a preoccupation of reactionary/authoritarian medievalism.

The result is that the only time you hear anything about the bible, it's being used to justify war and prejudice by the far right.
Or it's used minimally by the left as a political rhetorical point to accuse the right wing of hypocrisy, as in, "oh yeah?! you think you're so Christian? Jesus would never promote war/theft/brutality/greed the way you guys do ..."
and there's never anything beyond that. From either side.

It must be pretty nice in New Zealand (if you're from where the host says you're from), to have avoided such an intellectual degeneration.



Thanks for your comments.

The Jewish and Christian traditions have rich and deep traditions of reading the Bible that express themselves in a calendar of readings (a lectionary), clusters of texts that are associated with specific holidays and life events (for example, Psalm 23 and funerals), a devotional life at the individual level (such as reading a Psalm a day and a chapter of the book of Proverbs a day), a zillion metaphorical transfers into the realms of sacred and secular music, literature, the fine arts, all the way into the media. "The Bible and Film" is a particularly rich vein.

I would reframe your point about tradition reading the Bible "cooked" rather than "raw" by making the suggestion that you can't really read the Bible "raw" unless you have first learned to read it "cooked."

Reading the Bible "raw" remains a huge adventure and a subversive one. But you first have to be immersed in a tradition to push back against. Dabblers who read the Bible between watching episodes of "Friends" or "Lost" or "American Idol" are not going to go very far.

Leftists would have to become strategic thinkers again before they took the Bible seriously. They would also have to participate in religious life. With however many reservations, but still participate.


Dividing Biblical exegesis into cooked and raw, while excluding the logical possibility of reading the bible as an unordained, unbaptized, uninitiated outsider who "reads" the words as pure poetry and relates its narrative to the forms of his own society (which he perceives as universal or not, depending on his anthropological experience/research) forces a dichotomy between
social institutional acceptance and rejection.

In which case, how are we to say that we respect or interact with various traditions, sects, within a religion, without exercising a subversive and a re-ordering agency?

Perhaps if interactions between members of distinct churches take place on policies where they find agreement, they can achieve mutual reinforcement without an immersive participation but a rather tangential one.

Of course, when different sects and different religions co operate in this way, it's certainly "nice" but it doesn't go very far.
Counting beads in a group really is the ONLY way to FULLY understand the Jewish or catholic experience, which is the only true path to the text.

I don't suggest leftists have to think strategically (everybody tries to think strategically when partisanship is the order of the day). In fact, I've never seen so much strategic rhetoric from either side as what I hear when there's a democrat president and the left feels it isn't getting what it wants or that it's side is attacked/embarrassed.
Rather, leftists and rightists must think philosophically. Which is sometimes a deep immersion in an objective, natural, psychological "moment", but with a self conscious awareness intervening. Such a thing, of course doesn't exist in the Foucault/Saussure inspired perversion of many modern academic theologians, who have absorbed the Ivy league's social theory but very little of deep philosophy and multiculturalism.

Thank you for your reply.


As for the "bible and film" as a point of evidence to the resonance that the Testaments have in modern culture, that's certainly 30 years out of date. Despite the occasional Bible themed movie, biblical narrative no longer has any resonance within pop culture, circa 2010.
The passion of the christ is the one box office exception, a combination of true church going faithful who were not swayed toward or away from a tradition by the movie. And seculars who just wanted to see the big box office "event". That movie has left no trace on the contemporary culture and there are no others of significance that even make the attempt.

The closest thing today to religion in film is a debased kitsch about scary, foreign arab (hence muslim) terrorists. A bland meme that hazily floats between increasingly rare "realistic" action movies (as opposed to x-men and the matrix, with their slight, pretentious and, for most audiences, unidentifiable religious allegory).

As for the artistic legacy that remains in the great religious works of the past. Yes, they are there but they are not being transmitted. It isn't just kids who don't listen to Bach, tour the cathedral and rent "barrabas" on dvd. Adults who have seen them, often seem to have forgotten them. Really FORGOTTEN them, in every sense.


Sorry to hog your blog so much but it's a real intellectual/spiritual desert today.


Hi adonisamson,

Feel free to comment all you like.

Here are a few random remarks.

I did not intend to eliminate from consideration an unbaptized reading of the Bible. On the contrary. But even an unbaptized reading of the Bible will not treat it as pure poetry unless the reader pre-emptively chooses to wall herself off from the truth-claims of the text for fear of being knocked off her horse and blinded by the light.

The beautiful thing about the traditional mode of hearing Scripture is that the text is presented raw before it is interpreted ("cooked") in worship. A good sermon or homily will allow one to taste the text both raw and cooked.

I second your call for more philosophical reflection. I would consider that a strategic move in the best sense of the word.

If one begins all over again to relay philosophical foundations to public discourse and mass media culture, it will, I submit, force one back to the root metaphors contained in theistic discourse. Two very different authors agree on that much (and more):

Terry Eagleton, "Reason, Faith, and Revolution"
a leftist who "cantat extra chorum," a heretic in his own camp.

Steven D. Smith, "The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse." His thesis is that secularists are smugglers who, in order to advance discussion in the public square, introduce frames of reference that ultimately depend on theistic understandings.

I disagree with you that film is a complete wasteland or only Muzak. I don't expect or even want film to present the same solutions to life's dilemmas as are to be found in Scripture and tradition. I just want film to identify the dilemmas and problematize them until it hurts.

The Coen brothers have done some great films in this sense: No Country for Old Men, for example.

Random examples of films that serve as excellent springboards into discussion of any number of themes at the intersection of politics, spirituality, and ethics:

V for Vendetta
Schindlers List
Saving Private Ryan
Apocalypse Now

It is not at all difficult to show how these films traffic in the same dilemmas the Bible is famous for dealing with with even greater poignancy.

Once in awhile, films self-declare that they are biblically themed. The Truman Show, which I love, is a long meditation on Psalm 139, a fact laid out for the viewers near the end (the sail of the escape boat has "139" written on it). Do you have to know what the film is, at a semi-covert intellectual level, in order to get it? No, but if you make the comparison, the film is activated at a whole 'nother level.

Gary Simmons

LOST is not particularly Bible-themed, but it certainly has plenty of references, both explicit and implicit.

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