As you’ve already heard from Evan, the post I had initially created was taken down. Quite honestly, it was pretty dang sub-par, and really just a sad attempt on my part to push off the inevitable day when I’d have to conclude my little series on Western Christianity (i.e., Protestantism) with some pretty hefty accusations.
This is going to be a big one.
My past couple of posts on religion (well, general Western Christianity) have dealt largely with complaints regarding the nature of “organized” religion, and can be generally dismissed with a statement like “Well, those people are clearly just distorting the message.” We’re going to be heading a bit deeper today, with some questions about the message itself.
Let’s talk about the idea of “Biblical Inerrancy.”
This idea that the Bible is in every respect 100% without mistakes and is divinely authored is probably one of the most foundational elements of Christianity. It’s one of the few unifying characteristics across denominations, and while you get some debate over what’s metaphorical and what’s factual, there’s really no argument that the keystone of Christianity is wholly and completely true.
Now even if you don’t maintain this view, the reality of the situation is that the Bible is the single most influential book in history, let alone culture. As such, we’re going to need to address it and the context in which it’s commonly viewed from. The unquestionable nature of the book has become so ingrained in our society, that a description for anything unimpeachable is “gospel.”
I’m going to be questioning that today.
In 2001, a Texan woman drowned her 5 children in a bathtub, believing it to have been the will of God. Andrea Yates was found not guilty on grounds of insanity.
I was only a kid back then, but I still remember how people would change the channel as some faux-news anchor finished up some scandalous new coverage and sigh “What kind of sick person would think God would ask something like that?”
The same reaction was elicited when Dora Tejada of Nantucket suffocated her 3-year-old daughter by shoving a rose down her throat. God, she said, had told her it was the only way to exorcize the devil possessing her child.
Paul Knipe, a British national, attacked an elderly South African tourist in May of last year, claiming he was acting on orders from God.
And our response is always the same:
“These people are clearly insane. How would I react if God told me to murder someone? God wouldn’t ask.”
I’ve mentioned before that I attended a religious college. While the education was easily one of the best in North America, the downside was that bi-weekly chapel attendance was mandatory. Up in the balcony of the Wesleyan chapel, I had my first real introduction to what some might call “High Church”- organ music, red pleather hymnals, and call-and-response liturgy- which essentially means whenever the speaker finished a verse or passage, he or she would say “The word of the Lord.” In unison, the congregated would respond “Praise be to God.”
Let’s try that now. I’ll write out a Bible verse and the call- you say the response:
“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices…”
Colossians 3:8-9, ESV
The word of the Lord.
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
1 Timothy 2:12, ESV
The word of the Lord.
“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”
Deuteronomy 22:28-29, NIV
The word of the Lord.
“And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.
And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity:
Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which were before the house.”
Ezekiel 9:4-6, KJV
The word of the Lord.
Stop me when you’re feeling uncomfortable.
What I’m saying isn’t anything new- people on all sides of the issue are well aware of these verses and have been trying to cope with them. Some might argue that killing toddlers is, as harsh as it sounds, a mercy compared to having them starve in the desert. Heck, Lamentations 4:9-10 pretty much says just that. Others assert that the whole bloody, stabby, stony history of ancient Judea was meant to be a historical reflection of grace- some maintain that the endless laws heaped upon the ancient Israelites was to “make a point” about legalism and grace and the like.
That seems to be stretching it a bit.
Still others maintain that such a command was purely metaphorical. This Assemblies of God site asserts the following:
“The sweeping words like ‘all,’ ‘young and old,’ and ‘man and woman,’ however, are stock expressions for totality — even if women and children were not present. The expression ‘men and women’ or similar phrases appear to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, ‘without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders.’”
Again, this seems like it’s stretching it.
William of Ockham, a medieval Franciscan monk and philosopher, came up with a concept today commonly known as “Occam’s Razor.” In simplest terms, William of Ockham posited that for any question, the answer that made the fewest assumptions was typically correct or “the simplest answer is usually right.” Now let’s take that rational line and apply it to the justifications of these and other divinely sanctioned atrocities theologians are attempting to explain.
If I came to you with a book other then the Bible, listing demands from on high for the razing of cities and the slaughter of livestock, the simplest explanation for my actions would be that I had fabricated the thing and am using it for my own evil ends. The same standard of criticism is not, however, offered towards the book of Leviticus. Rather than trying to bend backwards to offer some rationalization of what would otherwise appear to be atrocities, why not call it out? Heck, C.S. Lewis, who gets treated by contemporary Western Christians as some sort of lost apostle, stated something of the same lines in his science fiction novel Perelandra:
“How far does it go? Would you still obey the Life-Force if you found it prompting you to murder me?”
“Or to sell England to the Germans?”
“Or to print lies as serious research in a scientific periodical?”
“God help you!” said Ransom.
(Hint: Ransom’s the good guy).
Why is it that we can call golden bull on other religions, but never have to suffer the same line of questioning? If all reason, morality, and scientific evidence point to a certain truth, why would we be required to suddenly throw all that to the wind?
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
That was Galileo Galilei, whose defiance of the church-mandated geocentric theory brought down a torrent of persecution upon him. Galileo, you see, had not just questioned that past few centuries of scientific theory, but had directly contradicted a Biblical verse about the sun standing still the sky. If the sun is held still, it must otherwise move, if the sun moves, the heliocentric theory of earth revolving around it must be false.
Granted, this is one of the times where you can legitimately claim “metaphor.” The sanctioned killings and legalized slave-trade can’t so easily be defended.
So why try?
Because the Bible itself is the sole medium (barring special revelation) through which God speaks to man?
You know what text doesn’t seem so crazy about that concept?
The Bible- Romans 1:20 specifically.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
I’m a big fan of Enlightenment thinking, and the whole concept of the existence of “natural law” seems to be echoed in this verse. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, “man is born free…”, etc. You don’t need a manual to tell you not to disembowel captives on top of a ziggurat.
But again the Bible, compiled years after the book of Revelation had been written, is the cornerstone of the Christian religion, and that I believe, more than any question of truth or morality, is the reason murder in it gets defended, while murder elsewhere is decried. It’s the hard reset. Take out the cornerstone and the whole structure comes crashing down. Everything is up for questioning- from hierarchies to homosexuality, from slavery to the sabbath, from Revelations to the role of women. We have to start from scratch.
Look, I know there’s no way I could even begin to cover the full scope of what I’m trying to examine. Even now, I’m sitting next to a small mountain of chicken-scrawl notes about the “Q Document”, the early Christian treatment of heresies, and some particularly stupid views mega-church pastor John Piper holds on the place of women.
With this closure of my little foray into religious discussion, all I’m really going to ask is that you consider the questions I’ve raised here. In a conflict between what appears Biblical and what appears moral, which side do you choose? If you’ve got to jump through fire to reconcile the two of them, is it really truth you’re after? I’m asking that you grapple with this.
If God is truth, but truth believed only so long as it supports a literal 6 day creation, the slaughter of the Canaanites, or the damnation of gays, it seems like it’s no longer God being believed in but Christianity.
I think the term for that is “idolatry”- and I don’t think Leviticus has exactly an all expense paid vacation mandated for those caught performing idolatry.
So concludes my series on religion. Bring on the-
You didn’t think I was gonna forget my Spanish Inquisition gif, did you?
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Thanks for your article and for an earnest attempt to walk the line–to be reasonable without going overboard.
I only have a few points to add to the mix, because I think you’re raising good questions.
First, here are some articles that I’ve recently read that try and answer some of those points.
Further, at one point, you posited that
” ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, “man is born free…”, etc. You don’t need a manual to tell you not to disembowel captives on top of a ziggurat.”
On the one hand, the Enlightenment was steeped in Christian values as well as those of all the cultures that influenced who they were: from Germanic paganism to Greek mythology/philosophy/culture. Every generation of thinkers is a product of their cultures–or something like that.
On the other, when you consider a more-than-humanistic view, based in the Christian tradition, man is not born free–and I expect you have your objections to that. We can talk about it if you like. On a simply human level, man /is/ free unto himself, and /shouldn’t/ owe his base existence to others–unless you count family ties. Again, I think you speak for a more individualist culture in that. (again, because culture, product of, etc.) And given the right circumstances, it is not a stretch of the imagination that “disemboweling ones captives on top of a ziggurat” is inherently immoral. I’ll cite Cacambo from Voltaire’s Candide for that–ever the pragmatist.
Next, you referred to the Bible as the cornerstone to Christianity, “Take out the cornerstone, and the whole structure comes crashing down.” Within the text of the Bible, Christ is the cornerstone, and you’re right that taking out the cornerstone makes the whole thing come crashing down. I don’t think it’s meant to be an instruction manual or a moral code. Not entirely. It’s a book about a creator getting close to his creation, and it is terribly convoluted, in that it turns in on itself and is a lot to trudge through–if that’s what you’re doing. The crux of the book is the Redeemer. Everything before builds up to him, and everything after is a consequence thereof.
Finally, “If God is truth, but truth believed only so long as it supports a literal 6 day creation, the slaughter of the Canaanites, or the damnation of gays, it seems like it’s no longer God being believed in but Christianity.” I think you have a valid point, and we (Christians) need to keep asking questions and reevaluating how to interpret and respond to those and other difficulties in our body of believers.
I was going to go in to that whole “keep the conversation going” stuff we kept hearing in the last few years at Houghton, but I know better. Instead, I’ll finish with this: yes, Gordon. These are issues. We, as humans, need to tackle these kinds of issues. I know I’m not–and I hope you don’t think you are either–at the final answer to them. Maybe we won’t be there for a while. Shall we keep working on it?
I like to think that scripture is fully inerrant but not absolutely inerrant. I also like to keep in mind that when interpreting scripture, you can’t interpret it all the same. Letters written to one group of people should be read in a different light than the Psalms, for example. I think people get a little crazy when they give the same weight to Paul’s ideas as they do to God’s direct commandments, even though Paul’s letters are still important. We also have to be really careful not to rip things that happen out of context entirely.
Context, however, still doesn’t really cover it. The historical books of the Bible cite divine sanctioned slavery and genocide. Even if we argue that Paul’s seemingly misogynistic views on women were his own personal opinion, we can’t so easily dismiss the claims of Leviticus that the city-burning was demanded from on high.
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