27 July 2014

Biblical Moralism, American Exceptionalism, and the Minor Prophets

One of my pet peeves with much of what passes for biblical interpretation, especially of the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, in popular Evangelicalism goes by the name "moralism." For the moralist, biblical narratives are a sort of inspired Aesop's Fables: "Dare to be a Daniel" or "Be Brave Like David." In other words, the "stories" are stripped of both their immediate textual context as well as their place in the unfolding canon of the Scriptures as a whole. A closely related phenomenon is leprechaun Christology, which finds the only meaning of texts from the books of the Prophets in an atomistic connection to the New Testament revelation of Jesus as Messiah.

One of my other pet peeves is a Christianized version of American exceptionalism. Somehow, it wasn't until 1789, 1776, 1620, or, here in the Old Dominion, 1607, that the mighty work of building God's Kingdom on earth really got off the ground. All that stuff in Europe, the Middle East, Persia, Africa, and India, where the Church already had been active for over 1500 years, wasn't the real deal. America is--or at leas was--the Promised Land. The Patriot's Bible, anyone? Which leads ineluctably to to a "spiritual" account of America's decline. (See some of my comments along these lines from a week ago here.)

So, imagine my surprise when I came across American Exceptionalism or Declinism: Lessons in Leadership and Ethics from the Twelve ‘Minor’ Prophets  by Hershey H. Friedman, Miriam Gerstein, and Paul Fenster (download here), which is a fascinating Jewish take on applying the text of the Hebrew Scriptures to America. Needless to say, no leprechaun Christology and only a weak form of American exceptionalism. The authors' take on the insights of the so-called Minor Prophets are on track when it comes to understanding them in their immediate context: "These prophets were not as concerned with predicting the future as reprimanding the leadership and telling them what lay in store for them if they did not mend their ways."

Yet their straightforward application of the specific messages of the prophets to Israel (and primarily Judah) to contemporary America fail to situate matters in their canonical context. Israel's prophets were first the messengers of God's covenant lawsuit. And that covenant was recorded in Torah. Unless America is party to God's covenant with Israel--which it isn't--taking the prophets' observations as prescriptions for America runs the risk of either misconstruing the place of America in the world or turning the prophetic message into decontextualized--albeit insightful--political suggestions. On the other hand, perhaps this article is what the drafters of the Westminster Standards would call the "general equity" of the Law.

Despite some reservations, this article is a very interesting read and should prove useful to those who--equally without contextualizing--turn the message of the Hebrew Scriptures into support for a libertarian-capitalistic state.

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