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Harold Bloom and Walter Ong Can Help Us Formulate a More Rigorous Critique of Biblical Fundamentalism

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 18, 2011: In their op-ed piece in the New York Times, Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens are far too kind to their fellow evangelical Protestants ("The Evangelical Rejection of Reason," Oct. 17, 2011). A more rigorous critique of evangelical biblical fundamentalism today is needed.

            The Bible is a work of human authors. It emerged out of a certain ancient cultural matrix. We should not be superstitious about the Bible as a culturally conditioned artifact of human culture. On the contrary, we need to deepen our understanding of ancient cultures, on the one hand, and, on the other, we need to deepen our understanding of our own cultural conditioning in modern Western culture, which emerged historically after the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1450s.

Fortunately for us, ways of thinking about the Bible advanced by Yale's prolific literary critic Harold Bloom, who describes himself as a Jew who no longer trusts in God or in the covenant, and by the late cultural historian and cultural theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), an orthodox Catholic priest, can help us work our way toward a more rigorous critique of evangelical biblical fundamentalism today than the critique advanced by Giberson and Stephens.

In his book "Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present" (1989), Bloom makes a salient observation about our way of thinking, including the way of thinking evangelical Protestants today: "Frequently we forget one reason why the Hebrew Bible is so difficult for us: our only way of thinking comes to us from the ancient Greeks, and not from the Hebrews" (page 27). He goes on to characterize Greek thinking and "Hebrew psychologizing" (his term) as two "irreconcilable" (his term) modes of thinking.

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Mutatis mutandi, our only way of thinking about the Christian Bible, which includes the Hebrew Bible as the so-called Old Testament, comes to us from the ancient Greeks, and not from the early Christians.

For centuries, formal education in Western culture has inculcated in students a Greek way of thinking. As Bloom suggests, a Greek way of thinking is the default position of functionally literate people in Western culture today, as it has been for centuries in Western culture, especially after the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1450s. Thus for all practical purposes, our cultural conditioning today in a Greek way of thinking is like a portable prison-cage that we carry around with us wherever we go.

Let me spell out the import of Bloom's position. All claims made by fundamentalist Protestants today regarding their interpretation of the Christian Bible are based on "our only way of thinking [that] comes to us from the ancient Greeks" and not from early Christians. However, mutatis mutandi, not just Protestant fundamentalists but also biblical scholars and all other functionally literate Americans think in a Greek way of thinking.

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But could we make the self-conscious and deliberate effort through study and through our capacity for intellectual empathy to approximate an ancient Hebrew way of thinking and/or an early Christian way of thinking? This may not be easy for us in Western culture today to do. Let me explain why not.

In his book "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine" (2005), Bloom says, "Whoever you are [in Western culture today?], you identify necessarily the origins of your self more with Augustine, Descartes, and John Locke, or indeed with Montaigne and Shakespeare, than you do with Yahweh and Jesus. That is another way of saying that Socrates and Plato, rather than Jesus, have formed you, however ignorant you may be of Plato. The Hebrew Bible dominated seventeenth-century Protestantism, but four centuries later our [Western?] technological and mercantile society is far more the child of Aristotle than of Moses" (page 146).

As I have indicated in the bracketed insertions, I understand Bloom to be referring to people in Western culture today, not to people in non-Western cultures around the world today.

In his book "The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century" (1939), Perry Miller shows that seventeenth-century college-educated New Englanders were followers of the French logician, educational reformer, and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572). Of course the Western tradition of formal logic goes back to Aristotle's treatises about formal logic.

In his book "Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason" (1958; 3rd ed., 2004), Ong works with the aural-visual contrast that he borrowed from the French philosopher Louis Lavelle's book "La parole et l'ecriture" (1942). In Ong's account of the Western tradition of logic, he aligns the formal study of logic with the rise and dominance of visual cognitive processing, but not with aural cognitive processing. To this day in Western culture, writing and reading help promote visual cognitive processing, not aural cognitive processing.

In the terminology that Ong uses, when Bloom refers to "our only way of thinking [that] comes from the ancient Greeks," he is in effect referring to visual cognitive processing. By contrast, the Bible is an anthology of writings by highly oral people whose cognitive processing was, in Ong's terminology, aural cognitive processing, not the kind of visual cognitive processing that Ong aligns with Greek philosophic thought.

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So if we want to try to transcend our Greek way of thinking and try to cultivate an intellectual empathy with and understanding of oral cultures, then we should study Ong's work about oral thought and expression. When we understand oral thought and expression, then we will be able to understand that the Bible is based on aural cognitive processing, not on visual cognitive processing. By contrast, the literal interpretation of the Bible is based on visual cognitive processing, not on aural cognitive processing.


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
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