Today, in driving up through the back highways of middle Georgia, I passed a tiny church labeled BIBLE TRUTH TABERNACLE.
There’s lots to unpack here—there’s the traditional Southern Baptist/evangelical biblical inerrancy strain, with its claim that the Bible is absolute and infallible, the inerrant Word of God. That belief is possible only if you exclude all knowledge of church history, of Aramaic/Greek originals, of the Council of Trent, etc., etc. Too much has changed with that collection of texts to believe that King James took dictation from Jehovah.
There’s the subset strain that regards the Bible as a rulebook, God’s rulebook: “God said it, and I believe it.” That one goes squirrelly as soon as you’re forced to examine even just the Pentateuch alone with anything approaching an attention to detail. (The same can be said of treating the text as history or science—it just cannot be done without a lot of crippling cognitive dissonance.)
Have said all of this, here are my thoughts on the BIBLE TRUTH TABERNACLE, admitting that it is all my fantasy and not based on direct observation. In other words, just like the inerrantists.
The pastor/preacher of the BTT is probably also the founder. He—it’s always a he—believes not only that the Bible is TRUE, he believes that he understands that TRUTH. He reads the text closely—indeed, he reads it cover to cover every year—and as he reads, he sees the TRUTH—he constructs the TRUTH—and he transmits the TRUTH to his flock every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night.
But here’s the rub, of course: he has no knowledge of the historicity of the text, as an object of time and a subject of change. It is completely outside his ken how that book developed—or even that it did develop. It’s as if he were a lab experiment in religious thought—everything he thinks he understands about his religion is practically sui generis.
I don’t even need to impute any kind of restrictive/negative social attitudes towards the leader of BTT—although I would be astounded if he were a supporter of gay marriage, for example—to posit that much of what he has perceived to be TRUE isn’t really.
My model for this is Miss Sally Clovis [name changed to protect the innocent] at Newnan High School. Poor woman, she was a holdover from an older time, and the only reason why she was allowed in the same room as the college bound students was that Richard Smith had decamped to The Heritage School that year.
The text we were studying was the Romantic poem “The Prisoner of Chillon,” Lord Byron, about a martyred family in the 16th century. The narrator and two of his brothers were chained to pillars in the dungeon of the Castle of Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva, and the two brothers die while the narrator lives. (Their imprisonment was due to something about freedom. It was political in nature.)
But Miss Clovis told us that the poem was about family—even the title was a clue, seeing as how it had the word chillun in it.
Even at seventeen—or perhaps especially at seventeen—I knew how hysterically wrong that was. Sally Clovis had no French, and no context of European sociopolitical thought 1790-1830, and so she interpreted what was right in front of her as best as she knew how—and went splat on the unyielding Windshield of Pedagogy.
[To be fair, I don’t think anyone but me even understood how wrong she was. I still use her as an example (not naming names, of course) of how GHP prepares students to take charge of their own learning: when I saw that I was not going to be taught English Lit, I knew it was up to me to learn it myself. My classmates just saw a year off.]
Anyway, that is how I envision the pastor of BTT: he reads with no context, no exegesis, no sense of history or theology. What he sees, he filters through his own experience. When he runs into material that is resistant to immediate literalization, I’m sure he perseveres, works on it, gnaws on it, until he sees the pattern, sees the TRUTH. It feels good, when God reveals to him His Words, the meaning of His Minds—he rejoices in the opportunity to share the TRUTH with his church—he is blessed.
Very mock-worthy, very pitiable, indeed. But as these ideas formed in my head, zooming up through middle Georgia, I found myself rebutting myself almost immediately: why not? Why not the chillun version of the TRUTH? He is merely limiting God differently than I limit god, his misunderstanding differing from mine in ways that each of us would find inexplicable. We all name the Tao—it is unavoidable—and if his naming connects him to the Mystery, to the Void, and comforts him, why should I find it risible or distressing?
I’m sure I’m condescending to the man. I’m working on that. No, I don’t believe his understanding of the Mystery is “correct,” and I’m equally sure that his beliefs are restrictive and damaging, but how can I privilege my interpretation of his sacred text over the only way he has to approach it? What are my alternatives other than to set up my idol next to his and pray for flames to consume him?