Archive for March, 2012

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 2)

by   |  03.29.12  |  Bible, Gospel

This is a continuation of a prior post on the Bible and what it does and does not say.  The series will continue next time as well.

To respond to the claim that the Bible is immoral, a claim often made in our current world,  it makes sense to try to unravel several distinct charges that can be made against the Bible on moral grounds:

  1. The authors claim that God favors some people over others, while also arguing that “God is no respecter of persons”;
  2. They attribute to God behaviors, attitudes, and values that in a human being would be considered highly unworthy or immoral;
  3. They advocate, or at least defend, violence against vulnerable people, most notably the Canaanites, but also others; and
  4. They turn a blind eye toward slavery and the mistreatment of women.

All of these would be serious charges if true.  A demonstration of them would reduce the Bible to a heap of nationalistic texts more worthy of Fox News than of a great religion.  The fact that some Christians attempt to defend imperialism, warfare, racial or economic discrimination, and other horrendous practices in the name of the Bible certainly makes the task of defending it harder.  Still, I will try to understand it, in part by rescuing it from some of its self-appointed defenders and in part by showing that many of the charges against have little or no basis in fact.

To take the first charge first, it is very important to understand what the Bible actually says about the election of Israel.  Hate-groups on both the left and right of the political spectrum have often used the biblical notion of election to brand Jews as arrogant or dishonest.  At many historical points, the attack on election has linked directly to persecution.  It is thus highly surprising that some enlightened secular critics of Christianity on the political left should employ such simplistic understandings of biblical teaching.  In the Bible, election does not imply some sort of special treatment.  It implies higher standards of justice and peace.  Nor is election an end in itself, for as the single most important text on the subject, Genesis 12 puts it, “in you shall all the nations of the world be blessed.”  Judaism’s contribution to human civilization has been almost incalculable, especially given the small number of Jews who have lived at any given time.

Nor does the Christian understanding of the Church’s election as a grafting onto Israel (see Romans 9-11) imply special treatment, since the Church understood itself as people redeemed from sin, not as people who have merited a relationship with an ever-benevolent God.  When critics charge Jews and Christians, and thus the Bible, with self-promotion in pursuing a doctrine of election, they simply do not understand what we are saying.  In fairness, we often do not understand well ourselves.  But the problem lies much less with the Bible or the religious doctrines of the two faiths than with our failure to live out the implications of our own beliefs.

The second objection is more serious, and it has occupied biblical interpreters since at least the first century BC.  The great Jewish biblical interpreter Philo, roughly a contemporary of Jesus, already addressed this question in a series of commentaries on the Pentateuch.  His answer, which has often been followed in one way or another, was to interpret the biblical texts about God’s emotions and actions metaphorically, even allegorically.  In such a construal, God does not really express anger or joy, sorrow or frustration.  Such attributions of character or behavior are simply the closest human equivalents for untutored minds.

Such a strategy has obvious problems, not least that it seems simply to dodge the text’s plain statements in the interests of a predetermined agenda.  But is this really what Philo and his countless followers are doing?  After all, texts do signify in many different ways, and metaphor is an important one, widespread in many cultures and bodies of literature.  Moreover, given the fragility of human language, its lack of precision even for describing human lives, is it really so implausible to think that our words and discourses would suffer from serious limitations in their talking about an infinite being?  Surely Philo’s approach is not as off-base as it seems at first.

To get hold of the biblical approach to divine characterization, we might propose several considerations.  (1) Things may not always be what they seem in a text.  For example, when Yahweh asks the Satan to consider his servant Job and then allows the poor man to experience various trials that would prove his valor, we do well to ask what is going on.  On the one hand, the Almighty seems to have immense confidence – almost too much confidence – in human capacity for virtue.  On the other, Yahweh’s motivations are not entirely clear.  Not only must the reader allow for the demands of a narrative – a character has to initiate a trial in order for the following theological discourse to have some connection to human experience – but the precise motivations of Yahweh are not entirely clear even within the narrative.  By wagering on human integrity, doesn’t God (in the story at least) intend to disagree with those human beings who would defend cosmic justice by erasing the dignity of their own species?  In other words, how do we take the narrative itself, as a realistic representation of an event in history or a history-like happening, or as a parable not to be taken literally?  Surely the last options makes most sense of the literary goals of the book of Job.  Thus it would be silly to imagine that the author of Job imagines God as a puppet-master working humans through their paces to illustrate his own superiority (which is never in question in the book of Job or the Bible as a whole).

(2) If texts are not always what a superficial analysis of them would make them seem to be, how do we know when we’re giving them due consideration?  The short answer is that we have to become better readers, attentive to subtlety.  This is not some exercise for a small elite group.  It is a task available to all, and in fact, a very democratic task in many ways.  The church and the synagogue have always existed as reading societies – among other things! – fostering thoughtful, engaged, life-changing consideration of story and song, prophecy and wisdom.  At least we try.  And we should keep trying.

(3) So, to continue the response to the second charge, we have to be very careful not to assume that the various biblical texts’ portrayal of God are straightforward.  We should always ask, if a text portrays God as angry, say, what the source of the anger is.  Is anger about injustice inappropriate, for example?  Would a deity unmoved by suffering or oppression be preferable to one who loved good and hated evil in some way or another?  Something to consider.

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 1)

by   |  03.16.12  |  Bible, God with us

            Why do Christians love the Bible?  Since many millions of us read it fairly frequently, and hundreds of millions of us revere it as a communication from, or at least about, a benevolent God, what in it makes reasonably intelligent people take it seriously?  These questions seem particularly acute when we recognize that many of the props that supported the Bible for some of its readers (belief in its scientific accuracy, for example) have been kicked out from under it.  They also become pressing because many of the efforts to “save” the Bible only work by suppressing any sort of careful reading or questioning of it.  Too often, Christians take refuge in sentimental, “what does it mean to you?” approaches that substitute a certain kind of approved experience or even emotional profile for any sort of activity that deserves the name of thinking.  So, we should ask the question, again, is the Bible reliable?  Why do we love it so?

            Perhaps we might begin with what the Bible is and is not.  It is not a book of science.  It says nothing about how species develop, the hydrology or geology of the earth, the size of the observable universe, or any number of other questions that we modern people are legitimately interested in.  People who love the Bible are thus free to pursue scientific inquiry full on without worrying that they will somehow transgress a spiritual boundary.  Since science is not the only way of understanding reality – and in many ways is a far less interesting and informative way than philosophy, history, or poetry – to say that the Bible is not a scientific work in no way denigrates it, anymore than saying that my child is not a supernova somehow makes her less interesting or important.  Only the crudest sort of eighteenth-century reductionism (which often is still being played out in the popular media, oddly enough) could think of “non-scientific” as a flaw.

            Also, the Bible is not a blueprint for all human societies in every time and place.  Although many of its readers attempt to read off its pages some sort of map for their lives either individually or collectively, it simply does not work this way, at least not in a simple, straightforward fashion.  There is not always a straight line between a given biblical statement and a behavior or practice in the real world of believers.  There never has been, and sensitive readers have always known that.  Moving from Bible to behavior requires careful thought in the context of a community of faith.

            What is the Bible, then?   A simple read-through would reveal a great many forms of literature, a multitude of ideas and commitment, and, in short, an extraordinary collection of human experiences and emotions.  Page after page of soaring poetry in every mode of human life from ecstasy to horror and despair.  Stories about kings and prophets, and of course Jesus of Nazareth and his marvelously self-deprecating disciples (who after all, gave us the stories of their own failures).  Visions of redeemed worlds and cosmic struggles.  All these things and more populate the pages of the Bible.  Much of it is poetry to be relished for its imagery and its profound insight into human existence.  Much else is narrative to be entered into with imagination and sympathy for the predicaments in which we find ourselves.  The very earthiness of the Bible, its refusal to embrace churchy, sentimental (that word again!), washed-out views of reality makes it both challenging and endearing.  It is still the inevitable book.

            At this point, however, many modern readers may offer objections that seems to them serious (though I personally find them much less so than I used to).  “If the Bible is just poetry or just story, then in what sense is it true?  Isn’t it just propaganda for somebody’s beliefs somewhere, maybe even just a power play?”  One hears this sort of thing all the time, and it makes sense to try to respond to it in some way.

            The first objection strikes me as the less serious.  We might well ask a question or two in response.  “What do you mean by true?”  Surely you don’t mean simply “verifiable” or “repeatable” in the way scientific experiments allegedly are.  If you do, then you are simply begging the question: only things that are verifiable and accessible to all are true because only things that are verifiable and accessible are true.  How do you know that the statement itself is true, since it can’t be testable in any timeframe or circumstance that would be manageable?

            Take, for example, the lovely little line from the Song of Songs: “Love is as strong as death.”  It comes near the end of the book after some of the most gorgeous passages in literature describing frustrated longing for one’s lover.  Is it true?  If empirical verification is our only avenue to truth, then of course we are at sea, since we can’t measure, much less compare, the strength of love or death.  Their  inevitability is our experience so far, but who can speak of the future, and who can say if “strength” and “inevitability” are the same thing?  Yet is it true?  Certainly our experience seems to indicate reasons to believe that it might be, and we often act as though it is.  I think we could multiply such examples a thousandfold, not only from the Bible, of course, but from all of human literature.  There is simply no reason to reject the Bible on grounds of scientism, since the belief that only science provides truth is simply a prejudice, an unwarranted assumption that is self-contradictory on its face.

            The second objection is thus more serious, in my view, and it is where most modern critics of the Bible land.  The claim we often hear is that the Bible is simply immoral, that it advocates practices and beliefs that hurt real people and that it attributes to God attitudes and beliefs that in a human being would be considered reprehensible.  This claim is so serious that many religious thinkers have felt a need to address it, going back more than two thousand years.  That will be the subject of my next post….