The Battle for the Bible

BindingWe continue our celebration of the 30th anniversary of Binding The Strong Man, Ched Myers’ political reading of Mark’s Gospel.  Today, as the lectionary once again pivots to the Gospel of John, we share an excerpt from Binding, in which Reagan-era Ched clarifies the ideological nature of interpretation–almost thirty years before 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump.

The truth is, the “battle for the Bible” today has increasingly less to do with theological divisions and allegiances and more to do with political and economic allegiances.  This is perhaps more evident in many Third World countries, where churches are becoming polarized along class and ideological lines.  In Latin America, for example, we see the base communities empowering the poor masses through a more popular model of church.  This predominantly Catholic movement has, with almost Protestant fervor, restored Bible study, along with grass-roots social analysis, to a central place in the life of the community.  In stark contrast stand the words of Pope John Paul II in his opening address to the Puebla episcopal conference in 1979:

We find “re-readings” of the Gospel that…purport to depict Jesus as a political activist, as a fighter against Roman domination and the authorities, and even as someone involved in the class struggle.  This conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as a subversive from Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechesis.

While magisteriums continue to insist that the Jesus story has nothing to do with politics, peasants in Brazil, Paraguay, and El Salvador are thrown into jail on charges of subversive activity–for the crime of meeting to study the gospel.  This is the true struggle over “biblical authority” today.

But here in the metropolis a shift is occurring as well.  Until recently, for example, American fundamentalism insisted that religion had nothing to do with politics.  However, the recent politicization of the Christian right in the USA under the banner of Reaganism has changed the landscape drastically.  Behind the leadership of such figures as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Christian groups that were once staunch privatists now militantly insist that faith does indeed have everything to do with public life, and are busily organizing military aid to anticommunist guerrillas, picketing abortion clinics, and stumping for increased military spending.  It may well be that the new ideological synthesis they offer is protofascist, with disturbing parallels to the agenda of the religious right at the time of the rise of the Third Reich, as R. Pierard and R. Linder have argued.  But the fact remains that the whole nature of the debate has changed: we need no longer belabor whether the Bible calls us to political practice–only what kind of practice.  The churches, in my opinion, should welcome this renewed ideological struggle over how the Bible is politically interpreted and used.

This commentary enters that debate from an unabashedly partisan stance.  But to speak of a partisan reading is not to endorse attempts to consciously manipulate and control the text through previously established assumptions, and a truly “critical” reading should ever be aware of this danger. The hermeneutic circle simply makes it incumbent upon interpreters to state preconceptions and concerns openly, where they can be seen and critiqued–not only by other interpreters, but by the Gospel itself.  For it must be kept in mind that Mark’s story overtly solicits commitment from the reader. We are bound therefore to use reading strategies appropriate to this text’s intention; to suppress its profoundly partial character amounts to the worst betrayal of all.

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