Most of us are familiar with the Christians who bellow at every opportunity that every “jot and tittle” in the Bible literally happened for realsies. Creationists die on that very hill. In fact, most culture warriors do.
Of course, on the other end of the religion pool, liberal and progressive Christians think that only some of the Bible’s stories really happened.
Christians have never really worked out a consensus on this issue, much less on any issue in their religion. Every group has its own pet theories about what literally happened and what’s just metaphorical. Some go in for more stuff that literally happened, and some go in for way less. Some small number of Christians think nothing in the Bible–or as close to nothing as makes no nevermind–really happened. (We call this last group surprisingly accurate.)
Regardless of where they hang out in the pool, many of them insist that Jesus Christ Supahstah really existed, had a real-world ministry in Judea, got executed for whatever reason, and then literally rose from the dead after a bad half-weekend in Hell.
Between the two extremes, most Christians work out for themselves what sounds totally real and what sounds as nutty as a fruitcake floating in a creek.
Why Authoritarians Love Historicity.
As a claim, historicity tends to pop up a lot when we look at authoritarian Christians. And there’s a potent reason for that association. Authoritarian Christians move very smoothly from historicity (“the Bible relays accurate history”) to Biblical literalism to control-grabs.
As their name suggests, folks like that are all about authority. And they see no greater authority than that of an omnimax god. In fact, I used exactly the same logic myself the night I decided to re-join Pentecostalism!
In order to borrow the kind of all-encompassing real-world power they want to wield, authoritarian Christians need real-world authority to borrow. They need to be able to point to an ultimate power-source, a most supreme rule-giver, a real-world boss whose word overrides all other customs and laws.
This borrowed authority becomes their permission slip to control and abuse others. That way, when people reject their power-grabs, authoritarians can point to that authority source and say Yes, but this super-duper-powerful being told me to do this and so I must, and–more importantly–so must you.
For now, the authority source these Christians use derives from their mangled misinterpretation of the Bible.
In their hands, the myths in their idolized book become reasons why they simply must be allowed to trample everyone else in sight and control every aspect of our private lives.
Why Authoritarian Christians Need Historicity.
Imagine the Creation myths in Genesis (there are two). In the main one, an ultimate authority–a god–creates a downline (Adam). This god delegates to Adam a little authority over the world and demands obedience. Then he provides Adam with his own downline, Eve, who owes Adam her obedience.
If Christians consider that story metaphorical, then a lot of authoritarians’ power-grabs start looking really silly. But if Christians consider that story literally true, then complementarianism–the notion that the Christian god commands women to obey and serve men–starts looking like a non-optional divine decree.
Further, without a literal, historical Creation story, Christians lose a literal Fall of Humankind. ZOP! BWOP! It just vanishes from the picture! If Adam and Eve never ate the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, then they never lost their god’s favor and never got kicked out of Eden–and were never cursed, in kind, by their “loving” god.
And with those losses, Christians also lose Original Sin.
If there’s no Original Sin, then humans aren’t stained from birth. They lack “sin” imputed to their accounts that they can never, ever expiate on their own.
And then, the whole Crucifixion begins to look very superfluous. Humans don’t need a “Last Adam” if we never actually had a First Adam!
Liberal/progressive Christians offer up other explanations regarding the death of Jesus. Not all of them sound persuasive, but they’re working on the problem. Let ’em. Christians have never arrived at consensus about the Crucifixion either. But literalist Christians, who need the borrowed authority that literalism provides, get unnerved by these attempts (see: the comments on the first two links in this paragraph).
Authoritarians need something else from literally-true historicity, too.
The Other Function of Historicity.
There’s another problem authoritarians solve through Biblical literalism.
Authoritarians get really unnerved by nuance and gray areas. They feel uprooted and adrift in the face of uncertainty. In a real sense, they need to feel like they are on solid ground that will never, ever change. Even if their situation feels unfair, unjust, and completely one-sided, if they think its rules are unchanging and divinely-sourced then they’ll stick with it. And even if those rules do, in fact, change constantly then they’ll insist to the end that they’ve always been at war with Eastasia.
Authoritarian leaders adore the sleight-of-hand of Biblical literalism and inerrantism. Through this sideshow act, they sell their followers a bill of goods about their beliefs being unchanging and divinely sourced.
This or that. Black or white. Up or down. With them or against them.
Historicity falls neatly into place alongside the ultra-polarized mindset of authoritarianism. It soothes those who cling to it.
Literalism Outside of White Evangelicalism.
Rigid authoritarianism exists in other places outside of white evangelical Christianity, of course.
Longtime readers might remember a young man I encountered who went in for that same sort of historicity within Hellenic paganism. Since then, I’ve run across similar pagans who went that route in both eclectic and reconstructionist flavors of paganism. But there simply aren’t enough pagans to make these folks much of a threat outside their own local groups.
And, too, a growing number of Catholic authoritarians arise in that end of the Christian belief-pool (reminding me of the Swamp Thing). They use Catholic materials to make their case, but otherwise they act exactly like their culture-warrior pals in evangelicalism. The Pope keeps trying to stamp them out, but the problem with wingnuts applies as much to Catholicism as it does to evangelicalism. Without tethering itself firmly to reality, a group can easily slide into weirdness and be overtaken by power-hungry authoritarians.
Outside of religion, we note with great alarm the high number of super-authoritarian groups in the United States. From white nationalists to sovereign citizens, they all think they derive their worldviews from rigid, unchanging interpretations of various governing documents from the past. One can see this same rigid interpretation of governing documents in the worst-of-the-worst homeowner associations. Many people in these groups also fall in with religious extremism–but not all.
Wherever rules exist without sufficient checks on those in power, expect power-hungry people to show up to game those rules to kingdom come.
Live by the Literalism, Die by the Literalism.
Of course, this very insistence on literalism eventually spells the end of belief for millions of Christians.
Many Christian leaders teach that believers can know Christianity is TRUE YES TRUE because the Bible’s myths literally happened. Belief in Creationism now represents an actual marker belief for extremist flavors of Christianity.
The equation goes: In order to be part of this tribe, you must also believe these myths really happened.
So if believers pierce through the belief package of historicity, then they may well decide that Christianity itself isn’t true. Every time something big happens in the news, immediately forums and comment boxes flood with conspiracy theorists. They twist and shoehorn the events into their ideologies, or–if that proves impossible–they seek to negate them to preserve their beliefs.
Thankfully, I crashed into reality instead.
Millions of other ex-Christians followed much the same path out of the religion. At a guess, I’d reckon that in recent years, an insistence on historicity as a support for Christianity has harmed the religion more than it’s helped.
More and more often, people examine the Bible and find it looks exactly like what we’d expect it to look like if a god had nothing to do with its making. Far from divine wisdom and ineffable secrets, it contains purely human knowledge and philosophies we can trace through neighboring cultures.
And once we work out that it contains as much real history as it does pizza, to adapt Penn Jillette’s hilarious quote, it’s a short leap to wondering what else doesn’t stack up.