Since a recent GQ Magazine article outed his homophobic and pro-Jim-crow views, left-wing commentators have declared open season on Phil Robertson, the patriarch of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” Robertson, based on his reading of Christian scriptures, considers homosexuality a sin and predicts that homosexuals will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.
In Salon, Joan Walsh pronounced Robertson a “bigoted pseudo-Christian.” AnotherSalon author, Brittney Cooper, a self-professed “reluctant Evangelical,” took aim at Robertson’s “conservative theology,” denouncing the “violence” that it “does to gay people in the name of God.”
Cooper’s Bible and Robertson’s Bible are the same. However, Cooper’s practice of “hermeneutic [interpretive] consistency” differentiates her from Robertson who likely reads scripture literally (as if a literal reading were possible). Those of us who treasure scripture would do well to emulate a thoughtful and compelling approach like Cooper’s. Hers is a living theology.
For Cooper, the “first and foremost” truth disclosed by the Bible is that “God is love.” Intent on making scripture consistent with this fundamental truth, she rejects passages that contradict it. Cooper acknowledges that the Bible sanctions slavery. But since she is certain that a loving “God is not a racist,” she rejects racist scriptural passages. She agrees with Robertson that the Bible “declares sex between men to be an abomination.” But since she is certain that a loving “God is not a homophobe,” she rejects homophobic scriptural passages.
Robertson would find Cooper’s approach anathema. Literalist Christians consider scripture to be the verbatim transcript of God’s revealed laws, beliefs, and commandments.
Contra Robertson, a living theology, according to Jewish theologian, Michael Fishbane, treats ancient, sacred writings as more than simple and fixed storehouses of information. A living theology, Fishbane writes in Sacred Attunement, includes an intentional, ongoing effort of "adaptation and clarification" of religious texts. This effort helps us remain alert to the traces of transcendence that break through our everyday consciousness and to “sustain (and even revive)” them “in the normal course of life.”
Readers of the Bible who eschew the effort of adapting and clarifying scripture cut themselves off from traces of transcendence. Their theologies are dead.
Also, the unquestioning acceptance touted by such as Robertson is neither coherent nor honest. Though literalist Christians believe that they take scripture at face value, they necessarily, at some level, interpret it.
On some issues the Bible is inconsistent or opaque. Martin Luther, who advocated relying on scripture to decide all issues, discovered that, at times, it is silent on important questions—for example, child baptism. As a result, each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constructs meta-Bibles out of passages we select from the actual Bible. We assemble proof-texts that make sense to us or align with our commitments and values. We downplay Biblical proscriptions that inconveniently conflict with our favored mores—for example, the indifference of many contemporary Protestants to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce. Contradictory passages are set aside (Cooper does this with admirable transparency and clarity of purpose) or hyper-interpreted until they harmonize.
Consider in this regard, Robertson’s likely view that God so loved us that he sent his only Son to die for us on the cross. This is an interpretation of the crucifixion to which St. Paul hints in the New Testament but which did not enter the arc of Christian thought as a fully rendered doctrine until Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed the satisfaction theory of Christ’s atonement.
Proof-texting and interpreting the Bible is unavoidable.
In addition, as Fishbane notes, the books of the Bible were spliced together. Varying worldviews and theological commitments are interwoven, sometimes within a single passage. Thus, scripture itself is an example of the work of interpretation and revision; its internal disagreements invite us—nay, prod us—to follow its lead and adapt and clarify. By doing so, we keep scripture and our theology alive.
Fishbane helpfully recommends reading events in the Bible as “theological expressions of primordial truth. The narratives of scripture thus become paradigms of perennial matters bearing on divine presence (both transcendence and immanence), as well as the human response to them.” More generally, “the old words of scripture are spaces for ever-new moments of spiritual consciousness and self-transformation.”
Christians like Robertson resist looking for such spaces and maintain their (imagined) literal grip on scripture. Joan Walsh calls Robertson a “bigoted pseudo-Christian” but she’s wrong about the “pseudo-Christian” part. Robertson is a Christian; his beliefs rest on interpretations at odds with those she prefers. There’s no doubt, though, Walsh is right about the “bigoted” part. Let’s be clear: Robertson’s dead theology is downright ugly.
References and Further Reading:
Magary, Drew. “What the Duck?” GQ, January 2014.
Cooper, Brittney. “Evangelical church’s ugly truth: ‘Duck Dynasty’ and Christian racists.” Salon, December 24, 2013.
Walsh, Joan. “2013: The year in whiteness. From Phil Robertson to Megyn Kelly, peddling white grievance became a bigger, crazier, more lucrative racket.” Salon, December 30, 2013.
Fishbane, Michael. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008.
Axelrod, Jim. “A&E can’t win on ‘Duck Dynasty’ flap.” CBS News, December 28, 2013.
Fixmer, Andy. “A&E Ends ‘Duck Dynasty’ Patriarch Suspension.” Bloomberg, December 28, 2013.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of A&E's "Duck Dynasty"
Author and editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the Divinity School (mainly funded by the Marty Center, free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.