Puritanical Victorianimosity

puritansIt always amazes me when fairly modern interpretations of scripture are represented as “traditional” or “ancient.”  Most moralizing uses of scripture are as recent as the Victorian era (1837~1901), and many date back to the Puritan era (1550s~1660s) but almost none have anything to do with their original meaning.  Most of our Hebrew and Christian scriptures had a practical, ethical, provisional, or regulatory function — the moral and valuative aspects have been layered on over the past 500 years using a modern, Western, educated, materialistic, and privileged-class spatula.  Most writers of our holy scriptures would hardly recognize many of the meanings we draw from their writings today.

Look at many of the popular names (for girls from the upper class) that emerged during the Puritan era and returned during the Victorian era: Constance, Charity, Prudence, Harmony, Hope, Angelica, Faith, Patience, Chastity, Patience, Felicity.  For boys, the Bible ruled: Matthew, John, James, Luke/Lucas, Mark/Marcus, Paul, Peter, Samuel, Bartholomew, Nathaniel, and David were far and away among the most popular male names.  These male and female counterparts defined the trend in theology at the time as well — blending the qualities and characteristics of virtue with the Christian faith.  A subtle but significant shift occurred during this Victorian period — the redefinition of key terms:

  • Christian = righteous
  • holy = serious and dour
  • good = abiding by a strict moral code, created by the wealthy for all to follow
  • sin = doing anything that the powered upper class (i.e., white guys) deemed vulgar (prostitution is a sin, having a mistress is not; the poor stealing food for the family is a sin, slaveholding is not; women speaking in church is a sin, spousal or child abuse is not, etc.)
  • faith = the power and will to control self and others — discipline, rules, boundaries, punishments for failure define “faithfulness”

Much of what we believe and debate today about things like poverty, disease, evil, human sexuality, life (including abortion), death (including capital punishment), gender and ethnic relationships has little to do with ancient Israel or 1st century Palestine, but everything to do with the Puritan and Victorian phases of Western development.  Both are characterized by a deep desire to control the uncontrollable, and to master the unconquerable.  Christian religion in Western culture has traditionally been about power.  From the deep uncertainties and ambiguities of life, we seek to impose order.  Perhaps no other subject better illustrates this than homosexuality.  First, it is important to remember that “sin” meant “missing the mark,” or doing that which does not align with the conventions that produce safety, health, and security for the whole community.  Second, the community ruled — individuals were of less importance than the group, tribe, or nation they were a part of.  Sin was a condition of brokeness in covenant with God and community.  It wasn’t all about the individual.  Third, spirit and flesh were not divided in the same way we divide them.  All things were spiritual matters, but also all things were practical matters.  The point of fasting was indeed a way to honor and thank God for all God provided, but it was also intensely practical.  Eating five days a week instead of seven meant that food would last the whole year, and there would be no fear of starvation at winter’s end.  Homosexuality was viewed as sin because it did not support the community need to be fruitful and multiply, to grow the tribes to a size where they could contend with larger nations and armies.  Having male babies was a high value, so there could be no value to sexual practices that could not result in offspring.  Homosexuality “missed the mark,” as did masturbation, bestiality, and a host of other creative options.  Indeed, homosexuality was deemed an abomination (as was eating shellfish…), but pre-Puritanism, an abomination merely meant “something less than it should be,” not something outrageous and offensive.  No, the outrage and the offense are all ours.  Westerners imposing a morality that the early, pre-modern and primitive people of Israel never dreamed. 

Drinking, gambling, (smoking hadn’t been invented in the Middle East this early) and a host of other “sins” had no moral implications, but simply ethical practicalities.  Drunkenness was not helpful, and it was often destructive.  Gambling was a form of stealing, especially when cheating was involved.  The acts weren’t so much the problem, as the larger impact on the whole community.  And sometimes human beings actually do grow up, evolve, and achieve enlightenment.  Slavery and gender-politics are two very clear areas.  At a time when faith communities tolerated slavery and believed it was in the best interest of the whole, no one questioned its morality — it was an issue of practicality.  Survival in ancient times depended on two things — production and military force — so “owning” workers and soldiers “made sense.”  It isn’t apparent whether anyone every asked the question, “Is this right?”  The only question seemed to be, “is it necessary?”  One of the blessings of the Puritanical/Victorian moralization of Christianity is that the, “Is it right?” question led to the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and is currently fueling a growing enlightenment about other faiths and lifestyles.  So, it’s not that moralizing isn’t helpful or appropriate, when used well, just that much of what we moralize has little to do with what the Bible says, even though we use the Bible to defend our positions.  The Bible endorses slavery and “keeping women in their place,” but that doesn’t mean either is right.

We have a simple choice to make concerning the Bible — will we use it as a tool or as a weapon?  If a weapon, is it a sword or a shield?  If a sword, is it for attack or defense?  If a tool, is it to build or to repair?  Is it to cut, to pound, to connect, to raise, to support?  The problem with any tool is it can be used as a weapon.  The role of leadership in the church is to choose carefully and to choose well.

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7 replies

  1. Wow…. This actually involves a level of formation that we have been unable to do at the Seminary Level let alone in our pulpits and classrooms. There is among Chrisitians of all stripes a level of comfort in denying placing scripture in the historical and social contexts both among the left and right. There are folks who are very sure that recent interpretations are the ‘correct’ interpretations. Can there be a balance in the Church at this point? Recent events amongst certains denominations seems to indicate that major split is occurring along these lines of interpretation with each branch ‘cleansing themselves’ of those who don’t agree. Your blog codifies the battle lines.

  2. This was a very good read. I’m always challenged by the evangelical focus on “personal” salvation, as if we’re all disconnected and can operate without depending on each other. True, it was more critical back in biblical times (interdependence), but the “I’ve got mine” view so prevalent in evangelical and republican circles is antithetical to the gospel. Dallas Willard appropriately coins this as “bar code Christianity”. Our modern view of salvation is so impoverished and I can’t help but nod in agreement when you say that biblical writers would be appalled at our modern interpretations.

  3. We have a simple choice to make concerning the Bible — will we use it as a tool or as a weapon? If a weapon, is it a sword or a shield? If a sword, is it for attack or defense? If a tool, is it to build or to repair? Is it to cut, to pound, to connect, to raise, to support?

    I like the way you say we have a simple choice and then pose five questions. I’d hate to see a complex choice.

    Your point about moralism is interesting. I think I understand what you are driving at when you draw a dividing line between ethical and moralism, but it is not entirely clear to me.

    • For me, an ethos is a guiding principle while a moralism is a hard and fast rule. Justice is an ethos, but laws proscribed to ensure justice moralize. Thou shalt not kill is an ethos; but moralizing debates what killing is prohibited (murder) and what killing is okay (in time of war). To be ethical is to be fair; to be moral is to be right. Fine line, fuzzy line, simple line, complex line. It isn’t easy — but it shouldn’t be as hard as we make it. Am I confusing you more?

      • It’s not that the delineation is difficult, it’s that is serves someones purpose of power. Ethics doesn’t necessarily impose authority, morality does. Justice vs. judgment.

  4. WOW…You should read the Bible someday. The book and people you are discussing here have NO resemblance of reality. I have been a Christian for almost 30 years and have NEVER seen anything that you proclaim.

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