Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Literally"

I was watching the movie Prayers for Bobby yesterday.  It’s about a Christian fundamentalist mom, Mary Griffith (played by Sigourney Weaver), whose son was gay and committed suicide.

After her son’s death, Mary visits the local Metropolitan Community Church, which reaches out to gays and their families, because she learns that her son attended there.  At the MCC, she meets the church’s pastor, Rev. Whitsell (played by Dan Butler, who also played “Bulldog” on Frasier), and she barrages him with Bible verses and accuses him of confusing people by saying that homosexuality is not a sin.  When Mary points out that Leviticus 20:13 says that men who lie with men shall be put to death, Rev. Whitsell retorts that the Torah also mandates the death penalty for adulterers and disobedient children, yet we don’t take that literally.  Although Mary is not yet a convert to Rev. Whitsell’s position, that particular argument gets to her.

The scenes in which Mary interacts with Rev. Whitsell were my favorite part of the movie, even though I wish that they had been longer and more in-depth.  Rev. Whitsell was compassionate towards Mary, yet he was also clear that he would not be bullied. Rev. Whitsell also had interesting things to say about religion, even though I can understand why many may not find what he said to be adequate.

What I want to address in this post, though, is Rev. Whitsell’s argument that we don’t take the Bible passages about executing adulterers or stoning disobedient children literally.  I wonder what exactly he—-or others who say this—-mean by “literally.”  I myself interpret those passages literally in the sense that I believe that they are about executing adulterers and disobedient children.  I take those passages at face value, and I do not see them as symbolic or figurative.

My hunch is that what Rev. Whitsell meant is that most Christians don’t apply those passages literally, or they don’t believe in applying them literally.  Some Christians do, but they believe that these laws can only be enforced under a theocracy, not by private individuals.  Many Christians, however, would say that those passages only applied under the Old Covenant and are not applicable anymore.  They may interpret the commands literally, but they don’t apply them according to what the text literally says, and they are cool with that.

Personally, I find these sorts of discussions interesting, but they seem to me to lead to dead-ends (at least from my perspective as a Christian).  Okay, so both sides (in this case, conservative and liberal Christians) pick and choose from the Bible.  Can the Bible now be authoritative for people?  If so, how?

7 comments:

  1. Thomas Aquinas said Old Testament law applies on in natural law areas, not ritual areas. [I am probably not quoting him right.] In any case in Torah law there is is some degree of discussion about what gentiles are obligated in. It is not an area of interest so it is scattered around and not thorough.
    In any case sex between males is among the things gentiles are not allowed according to the Torah. As for dissident children- there are rather strict conditions for which that law applies.
    In any case there is never a death sentence unless any act is done in front of two kosher witnesses and warning is given. The warning has to be about the reason for the prohibition and also the punishment and the perpetrator has to acknowledge the warning. It is like Miranda rights in that respect. Otherwise the case is thrown out of court.

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  2. Yeah, some of the Jewish halakhot on the disobedient son strike me as very literal----both parents have to lay hands on the disobedient son, meaning they both have to agree that what he did merits execution. And the biblical text does say both parents have to lay hands on the son!

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  3. What i meant to say was that the actual laws surrounding the disobedient son are almost impossible to fulfill. The amount of meat he needs to eat and wine also are almost humanly impossible amounts. Plus you have the general requirements for any penalty of doing the act in front of two witnesses and also they have to give warning about the crime and the punishment. And there has to be acknowledgement of the warning. That goes for any crime in the Torah.

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  4. Then why have that law? Would it be for those extreme cases? Or would it be just to highlight that young people rebelling is wrong?

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  5. I am not sure of why the law exists. I think there is a lot of commentary on that problem. This is not a big subject in the Talmud. There is one lonely Mishna about the rebellious son and the Talmud seems satisfied with the idea that there never was such a son and never will be one. I assume the reason for the law has to do with higher Platonic worlds. That is it is not just the threat of the penalty but the fact that in the real reality the penalty exists. It is just here in this cave that we don't see it.

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  6. That would be interesting. It would seem to go against one Christian understanding of the Torah----that it was instituted on account of human sin. If people were not disobeying their parents, there would not need to be a penalty for that. One would think, then, that such a penalty would be especially relevant here in the cave.

    Those are my scattered thoughts...

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  7. i think we assume people will disobey their parents but the Torah wants there to be connected with that the most severe penalty at least in potential-if if it is not carried out.

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