Approaching the Bible

256px-Neil_deGrasse_Tyson_at_Howard_University_September_28,_2010By Max Hartley
Max Hartley is a senior studying Anthropology and Asian Studies, with a focus on East Asia. She is particularly fascinated by mythology, religion, and the influence of folk religions in the modern age, as well as shamanism in its many forms, particularly as it is practiced in Korea.

This article from the Huffington Post, notes prominent physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson stating “don’t try to use the Bible as a textbook.” This small statement could mean a lot in its implications.

By discouraging a literal interpretation of the bible, Tyson himself is making a statement on the way in which he interprets this particular text. Setting aside the minefield of debate surrounding the veracity of the Bible in any manner, it can be understood that it is a text laying forth the mythological framework for a religion. As such, Tyson advocates the study of the bible as allegorical material, believing that this makes it more compatible and adaptable to modern times. The antithetical approach therefore often mandates a selectively literal interpretation, which Tyson would then argue leads to the contention between science and religion that figures so prominently in the United States today.

Political issues aside, this makes for a fascinating (and admittedly polarizing) example of the multiple ways in which mythological texts can be interpreted and how those interpretations are motivated by the interpreter themselves. Tyson is a scientist, nonreligious, and noted advocate of teaching evolution in school systems. As such, it stands to reason that he would argue in favor of a less literal interpretation of the biblical canon — which has itself already been trimmed down by those with their own individual motives in order to craft the picture they desired to present to the world. Someone interpreting the bible literally may argue that this is all due to divine inspiration and the guiding hand of God, and as such would bring with them their religious mindset as they interpret its teachings.

Whether or not this text or any other was intentionally meant one way or another is quite honestly unknown, and that intent can be considered irrelevant regardless, as the text has been coopted by various groups with various attributed meanings over time. The text has been left to generations of personal interpretations, personal motives steering the text through the process of selecting the canon, of translation after translation, of selecting which of the prescribed Catholic canon different sects of Protestantism will recognize. As such it presents a perfect example of the mutability of a text over time, and the importance of recognizing this fact when studying and considering texts and interpretations.


Photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson at Howard University September 28, 2010 by Bruce F Press [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons