From when we are young we develop a narrative that helps us understand who we are, who we are becoming and why we are here, a narrative that we largely adopt from our parents and then develop gradually over time.
Perhaps more interesting than what this narrative says is what it avoids saying, what it does not symbolise. For while we come to see this story as describing who we are it often has nothing to say about certain behaviours we engage in. There are behaviours that we enact which we treat as taboo in that they exist and yet remain unspoken. This is somewhat analogous to a family who never speak about an affair that everyone knows took place. It is a reality that has not been given form in the discourse of the family. In a similar way there are things we do that clash with the clean, coherent and cohesive story that we have about ourselves. Acts that are patently real and yet not acknowledged as such. By definition these are very hard to see because they are parts of our personality that have not been brought to the light. In order to find them we often need others to reflect back what they see. These kinds of encounters can be described as wounds from a friend because they are difficult conversations that expose something we would prefer not to acknowledge, yet they are required if we hope to grow and mature. When confronted with our taboos we can initially be astounded and then engage in an act of rationalisation in which we try to deny the truth of what has been pointed out.
An example will help. Often tabloid talk shows operate with a similar logic. Someone is brought onto the show, often thinking they are there for a reason other than the true one, and confronted with some problematic behaviour. They may have a problem with overeating, aggression or drug abuse. In such situations the individual might initially be shocked and surprised by the accusations (having never articulated the material reality themselves). Then there is often a point where the person considers what is being said but dismisses the accusations (claiming they are false) or defends themselves (claiming the actions were justified and can be explained within the coordinates of their current self-understanding). However, sometimes after the initial shock and defence the individual might break down and admit that they have a problem, at which point they are often offered professional help by the presenter. Of course by using this example I am not defending such shows, in fact I would be concerned about their effect for what they attempt to do is take a number of key moments in the process of human change and make them all happen in a 20min slot for entertainment. This however makes them useful in seeing how disavowal (not seeing what one sees), defence (trying to justify oneself) and acknowledgement (bringing ones own behaviour before oneself) operate.
We can see the same logic at work with the way that many people read the Bible today. For large numbers of churchgoers it is presented as a clean, coherent and cohesive text, an image that we tend to adopt for ourselves. Then, depending upon what we think the message of the text is, we simply refuse to see anything that might contradict our reading. We thus treat those parts of the text that might contradict our interpretation as taboo. In other words we see them without acknowledging them, we look at them in much the same way as a cow gazes at a passing car. When we are confronted with the broken nature of the text and the way in which we have repressed some parts of it at the expense of others we can often be shocked. Talking with young Evangelical Christians about the text I have often found this reaction. They simply never thought it was possible even though they have read the text a number of times themselves. When the facts are presented there can often be an anxiety and even hostility as they either explicitly avoid looking at the evidence provided or attempt to find ways of integrating the new information with their already existing worldview. Finally however there can be a point of recognition that opens up a different way of approaching and engaging with the text.
There have been various attempts by the liberal tradition within Christianity to remove parts of the Bible that they don’t agree with (e.g. the Jefferson Bible), something that conservative Christians have vehemently attacked. However the truth is that the conservative Christians simply engage in a different, more clandestine, form of deletion. One that doesn’t require physically cutting up the text: they do the cutting internally.
Philosophically speaking the claim that the Bible in its entirety is literal and inerrant (i.e. self-evident, internally coherent, and a reflection of the mind of God) operates as a ‘master signifier’. This means that it is a claim without any specific content that is worn as a badge to let you know what team you play for. It doesn’t matter too much how you actually fill in this empty container as long as you make the claim. It functions then as a shibboleth that identifies you as being in a certain tribe.
For as soon as one attempts to actually enact what it might mean to hold the bible as literal and inerrant (i.e. to fill this claim with content) one must treat large parts of the text as taboo. What becomes clear is that the person who makes the abstract claim that the bible is literal and inerrant, when enacting the claim, always refutes themselves.