Friday, January 13, 2012

(Mis)understanding the Bible

The people have spoken; therefore, I will be posting segments of Clayton's essay followed by my observations and critiques. I sat down at the laptop intending to write a response to Clayton's segment on "Transcendent Virtue" first, and though I've written about the topic of god and morality before (in reference to a discussion I had with Clayton, interestingly enough), and I've written about the issue more than once, the notion that "there is no morality without god" still pervades both the conventional wisdom of theists as well as Christian apologetics, and thus the topic deserves to be addressed yet again.

I will get to that, but I need to digress for a moment. There is an underlying premise throughout Clayton's essay; namely, the claim that those who criticize the Bible either haven't read the Bible enough or lack "an extensive understanding of the Bible." As I read through the section on "Transcendent Morality" in Clayton's essay, this part jumped out at me:

The charge that I've heard that the Bible endorses rape comes from a dramatic misreading (or a lack of reading) the stories in which the events are described. God never endorses rape, or ritual human sacrifice, or a whole host of other things He is accused of endorsing by those without an extensive understanding of the Bible.

So... whenever the god of the Old Testament is accused of, say, genocide or endorsing slavery or allowing rape and mistreatment of women or just being a selfish, petty, violent, abusive, egomaniacal Doucheasaurus Rex who demands your love, worship and blood sacrifice as though he's as insecure as a junior high kid who just got stuffed in his locker by the football team while the girl he has a crush on watched and giggled, the Christian can fall back on the old familiar accusations used by many a biblical apologist: you just don't understand what the Bible is really saying. You haven't studied the original languages, or investigated the historical and cultural context. It seems, no matter how well-studied a critic is, if her view of the Bible makes god look bad in any way, the Christian accuses her of "not knowing the Bible well enough." I remember using this tactic when I was a Christian apologist, and in retrospect, I see now that it was just a way to dodge the issue.

Christians - at least the ones I respect - admit that the Bible can be difficult to understand. Even the Christians who refuse to admit this can't deny all the denominations, divisions, differences, deviations, divergence, disputes and disagreements among Christians over every issue of orthodoxy and orthopraxy under the sun. We can blame humans for not listening or misunderstanding god's revelation, but at some point we have to start questioning the messenger.

Did god - the alleged "omni"-everything being that he is - really think that this was the best way to communicate his will, his love, and his "transcendent morality" to humans? Let's assemble a bunch of really old writings in different languages (which of course will have to be translated), written before there were even books, put these writings together later on, call this collection "God's Word" and let the human race misread, misunderstand and misinterpret this collection of obviously unclear writings which only serve to prove that, if god is anything like his "inspired" word, he must be omni-ambiguous. If, as the Christian apologists claim, the Bible is difficult to understand - and if so many intelligent critics of the Bible lack "an extensive understanding of the Bible" no matter how much they've read it, then perhaps the Bible isn't what these Christian apologists purport it to be.

Time for Bible Study!

"But," some apologists might say (and as I used to say), "the Bible's purpose isn't to be God's revelation to the world. God revealed himself to various people in various ways, and ultimately he revealed himself in Jesus. The Bible is simply the records of these revelations, as well as a guide for believers who have already responded to God's revelation by faith." The effectiveness of "god's revelation" aside (and that has it's own set of problems), I have to ask: how do you know what the purpose of the Bible is? The book by itself is difficult to understand, and god never provided a handbook or list of instructions on how to read or use the Bible. And even if that is the purpose of the Bible, wouldn't it be nice if this "guide for believers" actually contained clear guidance?

The Bible reminds me of the early 80s TV show, The Greatest American Hero. The main character Ralph is given a special red suit that gives him super powers. The problem is Ralph lost the instruction booklet that tells him how to use the suit, and so each episode features Ralph trying to learn how the suit works by trial and error (mostly error). The problem with the Bible is that we have no instruction manual to tell us how god wants us to use this book. If we can glean any information about god and the Bible from the 38,000 or so different Christian denominations in the world today, it's that hermeneutics in the church is also a process of trial and error - and, again, mostly error. Either god in his infinite wisdom failed to provide clear instruction on how to read, study and use the Bible, or this book isn't the inspired word of an infinitely wise god.

[Digression over. Discussion of god and morality next.]

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