7/29/2006 View Comments
When I was a Christian, I was in a permanent semi-paranoid state. The heathens, I’d been told, were always watching me, to see if I really was a faultless Christian.
My fellow Christians were always watching me for signs of backsliding, so they could straighten me out with “wise” words of timely, “loving,” advice.
God was always watching me; after all, that was his job: to keep me in a short leash, so he could protect me from danger and keep me accountable for my sins.
The devil and his angels were always watching me, hoping that I would leave the straight and narrow and I could be mercilessly attacked, since once fallen, God couldn’t protect me anymore.
Quite honestly I was going insane, because I had sincerely believed all that. When the psychologist told me that I was in an unhealthy, permanent state of stress, I didn’t believe him. He said that I had an on-going case of fight-or-flight response, in which my nervous system considered all outside stimuli an almost death threat. I, he said, was producing a high amount of cortisol that was depressing my immune system. That, he believed, was the reason for my multiple aches and pains.
I carefully considered the guy’s statements for a while. I started to watch myself. I noticed, for example, that when I was driving, my shoulders where always tense. I was normally worried about what the driver behind me thought of my driving. Also, when entering a room with strangers, I thought I was being closely scrutinized and judged.
I must admit that the way of thinking was instilled in me systematically by my undiagnosed insane mother. Christianity, however, didn’t help appease my affliction; on the contrary, it encouraged it. The paranoia I was taught as a child was magnified by the Christian belief system. A Christian would say, “Well, that is your problem, because I’ve been a Christian for xx years and I don’t have any of the problems you report.”
To that I would respond, “Sure, you don’t. You didn’t grow up in my house, did you?” I would also add that they didn’t go to any of the churches I attended or didn’t experience my life losses and my disappointments.
But I would have to assure the well-meaning Christian that his growing-up years were not trouble free; otherwise, why would he or she believe fairy tales of a god who says he loves us but will still send most of the world’s population to hell for not believing in his so-called son?
If I could, I would enlist the help of anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists to help me answer that question. Since that isn’t possible, I will venture an observation of my own: many people who cling to Christianity come from homes were they were spanked, severely controlled, or otherwise abused. They were conditioned to obey and follow, making the structure of the church appealing to their submissive nature. I have observed that children who have controlling parents get used to being told what to do and become lazy at using their brain for even simple endeavours such as which flavour of ice cream to order. For these people, having a black-and-white, completely thought-out belief system like that of Christianity is handy. They really don’t want to think. They’re not used to it.
I know that was the case with me and with many Christians I know: we found our dysfunctional family of origin reproduced in the church, and that provided a high level of comfort and familiarity. Psychologists do say that children of dysfunctional families feel more comfortable in settings similar to that of their early memories. That’s why daughters of alcoholics end up marrying alcoholics.
Christians go to my blog to hassle me for writing against the Christian church—I should move on they say. Well, why wouldn’t I speak out against an institution which makes use of a person’s miserable life’s experiences to send him or her even deeper into emotional trauma?
Is it only me? Am I the only one who suffered emotional consequences from my involvement with Christianity? Am I just a bitter asshole trying to insult a “good” group of people? I think not. I think anybody who has studied history will realize that Christianity has always been on the side of the privileged, that while some good has been done in the name of Jesus—much more harm has been accomplished.
You, Christians, disagree with me? That’s too bad, because that’s my opinion and I am sticking to it.
7/26/2006 View Comments
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
—2 Timothy 3:16
One day the older daughter said to the younger, Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father.” That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and lay with him.
“THE B-I-B-L-E, YES, THAT’S THE BOOK FOR ME.” WE SANG LOUDLY, SCRUBFACED, girls in dresses and boys in tidy pants. The year was probably 1968 or ’69, and scores of us were attending Vacation Bible School, a week-long event like a day camp that is still held each summer by churches across America. One summer, not long ago, my nephews attended four of them back to back. Some churches use commercially published curricula; some make up their own. The advertised materials have catchy themes, like “Power Up! (Jesus helps you to power up),” or “Rickshaw Rally (Racing to the Son),” or “Mission Possible (sharing your faith with your friends).” If the church is large enough, children split by age groups and, in the company of their peers, do art activities, sing songs, and listen to stories taught by enthusiastic volunteers. Bible Schools vary, but they share the same intent: to introduce children to God’s wonderful Word. “I stand alone on the Word of God—the B-I-B-L-E.”1
What they don’t teach in Vacation Bible School is that the Bible is laden with contradictions that can be reconciled only by contorted logic, improbable conjecture, and leaps of faith. These range from transcription errors to historical inaccuracies, internal contradictions, and logical impossibilities. Evangelicals who have left the faith often attribute their de-conversion to the fact that they finally sat down and studied the Bible, including the parts that are neglected in sermons and Sunday schools.
A number of books and websites now catalog the errors in the Bible. One particularly thick tome is called The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (to contrast with the doctrine of inerrancy).2 For over a decade, its author, C. Dennis McKinsey, also produced a monthly periodical on the topic. Some biblical “errors” are stories that contradict each other, since many Bible stories are repeated more than once. Other errors are texts that align with pre-scientific understandings of the natural world but contradict what we know now about chemistry, biology, or physics. Another category of problems involves opposing commands, incompatible images of God, or contradictory theological statements. Yet another category includes failed prophesies and promises. Occasionally, even, one book of the Bible misquotes another or distorts the meaning of an earlier text.
For modernist Christians, who acknowledge the human construction of the Bible, the actual contents of the book come as no surprise and pose no threat. From their perspective, it may even seem petty to harp on errors and contradictions that are simply to be expected when humans struggle to comprehend the Divine. And yet, the importance of such harping cannot be overstated. Millions of people believe the Bible to be inerrant, and their numbers are growing. This belief leads them to adopt social and moral priorities that range from silly to cruel to dangerous. This chapter contains a small sampling of obvious contradictions in biblical texts.3 Acknowledging small errors such as these can open the door to examining deeper moral and spiritual flaws in the Bible texts.
How Bible Stories Contradict Science
The Bible records histories that contradict what we now know to be the laws of biology, astronomy, and physics. These histories also contradict findings in the fields of linguistics, neurology, and infectious disease. While they contradict recent discoveries, they are consistent with pre-scientific understandings of how the world works. In other words, they fit the scope of human knowledge, and misinformation, that would have surrounded the writers during the period when they were produced.
- God creates day and night and plants before the sun and moon are created (Gen. 1:3–5, 11, 16). Note that some ancient peoples believed that the sun ruled the day but did not cause the daylight. Creation of day and night before the sun and moon would be consistent with this view.
Adam lives 930 years, Seth lives 912, Enosh 905, etc. (Gen. 5).
- Biblical genealogies fix the date of creation around 4000 BCE. Evidence exists that human cultures predate this time by tens of thousands of years and that the age of the earth is around 4.6 billion years.
- Human linguistic diversity results from a wrathful miracle. God punishes those who built the Tower of Babel by making them unintelligible to each other. Prior to this only one language exists (Gen. 11:1, 7–9). We now know how languages split off from each other. Linguists can trace their evolution, mapping changes to human patterns of migration and contact between or isolation of linguistic groups. Ironically, in the previous chapter of Genesis, people are divided into nations, everyone “according to his language” (Gen. 10:5).
- A flood covers the Earth with water more than twenty feet above the highest mountain. (Gen. 7:19–20) This would require rainfall at the rate of 8460 inches per day for forty days and nights to cover the planet in an ocean five miles deep and bury Mt. Everest under fifteen cubits (or 22 feet) of water.4
- A race of giants inhabits the Earth before and after the flood (Gen. 6:4, Num. 13:33). No evidence, archeological, anthropological, or otherwise suggests that this was ever true. Note that these verses also contradict the biblical account of Noah’s flood.
- Jacob alters the genetic characteristics of cattle by letting them view a striped rod (Gen. 30:37–43). Note: although contrary to modern science, this is in keeping with the understanding of the time. It has not been uncommon for primitive people to believe that offspring are altered by things a female sees during her pregnancy.
- There are winged creatures that go about on four legs, and the Israelites are given detailed rules about which they can eat (Lev. 11:20–23). In reality, winged insects all have six legs, and winged mammals and birds have two.
- A house can be infected with the disease leprosy, and God prescribes a cure (Lev. 14:33–57). In actual fact, although leprosy horrified ancient peoples because it caused disfigurement, it is extremely difficult to transmit, would not be caused by a house, and rarely spreads even by direct contact with infected persons.5
- The sun and moon stand still so that Joshua can finish abattle (implying the rotation of the Earth is halted) (Josh.10:12–14). Imagine, if you can, the implications of Earth abruptly halting its rotation.
- The shadow of the sun moves backwards, implying that the Earth reverses its rotation. (2 Kings 20:11, Isa. 38:8).
- Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen (implying a flat Earth or a small “known” earth) (Matt. 4:8).
- A wide variety of psychological, neurological, and physical disorders are attributed to demons and are to be healed by casting out of demons (1 Sam. 18:10, 11; Matt. 9:32–33; 12:12; 17:14–18; Acts 5:16, etc.).
These oddities are defended by literalists in a variety of ways. They may argue that a Hebrew or Greek word has alternate meanings that are more compatible with scientific understandings of the world. They may gather one-sided evidence to support their belief that miraculous oddities actually occurred. For example, some Evangelical scholars insist that a day is missing from history based on astronomical calculations, and that it can be traced back to the time of Joshua.6 Or they may simply assert that things are different now. Needless to say, these arguments often put them at odds with scholars who don’t have a literalist agenda.
Many oddities are explained, even by biblical literalists, as figures of speech. One example is the story in which Satan takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain from which the kingdoms of the world can be seen. Another is six “days” of creation. The figure-of-speech argument doesn’t work, though. When an author uses a metaphor, he or she understands that it does not represent literal reality. So do his or her readers. Authors, even fallible, human ones, take care not to use figures of speech that readers will mistake for non-figurative speech. Yet this is what happens with the Bible. For centuries, virtually everyone regarded these passages as literal. Since many of them fit a pre-scientific world view, there would have been no reason for people in the past to assume otherwise. Would an all-knowing God dictate metaphors that he knew people would interpret as literal truth?
How Bible Commands Oppose Each Other
The Bible contains mandates that are mutually incompatible. It is impossible for them both simultaneously to express the will of God. Many of these are differences between the Old and New Testaments which Evangelicals explain by saying that Jesus created a “New Covenant” or new agreement between God and humans. However, inconsistencies also exist within the Old Testament and within the New Testament. Furthermore, the old-covenant vs. new-covenant distinction is dubious given that Jesus himself is quoted as saying that he had not come to abolish the (Old Testament) Law. The distinction is also logically dubious given that Evangelicals believe that God is unchanging and that the Bible, from the very first page, conveys his highest priorities for humans. Thus, it is worth considering contradictions wherever they may occur.
- The covenant of circumcision is to be everlasting (Gen. 17:7, 10–11). Circumcision doesn’t matter (Gal. 6:15).
- God encourages reproduction (Gen. 1:28). God says that women are spiritually unclean after giving birth and require purification (Lev. 12:1–8). Note that the issue is not physical uncleanness; the purification required after giving birth to a girl is twice that required after birthing a boy.
- Abraham and his half sister marry with God’s blessing (Gen. 17:15–16, 20:11–12, 22:17). Incest is wrong (Lev. 20:17, Deut. 27:20–23).
- God gives us wine to gladden our hearts (Ps. 104:15). and
Jesus turns water into wine after wedding guests have drunk
all wine provided (John 2:1–11).
Believers are commanded not to be drunk with wine (Eph. 5:18).
- God prohibits making any graven images (Exod. 20:4).
God instructs the Israelites to make graven images (Exod. 25:18).
- God prohibits the killing of innocent children (Exod. 23:7).
God approves and even demands the slaughter of innocents Num. 31:17–18, Deut. 7:2, Josh. 6:21–27, 7:19–26, 8:22–25, 10:20, 40, 11:8–15, 20, Judg. 11:30–39, 21:10–12).
- We are not to rejoice when our enemies stumble or fall (Prov. 24:16–18).
The righteous rejoice when they see vengeance (Ps. 58:10–11).
- Anyone who calls someone else a fool deserves hell (Matt. 5:22).
Jesus calls people fools. (Matt.7:26; Matt. 23:17, 19; Luke 24:25.)*
- Divorce is wrong except in cases of unchastity (Matt. 5:32).
Divorce for any reason is wrong (Mark 10:11–12).
- Jesus says not to resist evil but to love your enemies (Matt. 5:39, 44).
Jesus repeatedly curses his enemies (Matt. 6:15, 12:34, 16:3, 22:18, etc.).
- Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17–18; Luke 16:17).
We are told he abolished it (Eph. 2:13–15, Heb. 7:18–19).
The contradictory mandates contained in the Bible are one cause for the splintering of Christianity into denominations and sects. They are what allowed Quakers to live as Christ-centered pacifists while the Puritans slaughtered natives for the glory of God.7 They are the reason that Eastern Orthodox artists devoted centuries to creating sacred images which Spirit-filled iconoclasts later smashed and burned. They are the reason that some fundamentalists forbid family planning, while others see God as mandating stewardship of all resources including parental time and energy. Church members who attended the funeral of a murdered college student, Matthew Shepherd, with signs proclaiming “God Hates Gays”and “Gays Deserve Death” believed they were following a biblical directive. So do congregations who post “open and affirming” statements communicating their acceptance of homosexual worshipers. Each of these courses of action has a solid basis in some part of scripture.
How Images of God Conflict with Each Other
Changing concepts of God are addressed in another chapter, Evolutionary De-ology, but the fact is that incompatible images of God exist even within the same parts of the Bible, within both the Old Testament and the New. Christian leaders—ministers, missionaries, and writers—focus on those images of God that fit their preferences and then downplay the contrary parts of scripture. Some passages get discussed frequently; others almost never. Carefully chosen texts are used to support a wide range of behavior and of moral priorities on the part of believers. Human behaviors can be called “godly” even though they are diametrically opposed to other behaviors that are also called godly.
- God shows no partiality (2 Chron. 19:7, Ps. 145:9, Acts 10:34,
God chooses favorites including his Chosen People, descen
dants of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3).
God hated Esau and loved Jacob before the twins were even
born (Mal. 1:2–3; Rom. 9:11–13).
God decides who will be born dumb, deaf, blind, (Exod. 4:11).
God has mercy on whom he chooses (Rom. 9:18).
- God is angry, vengeful, and jealous (Gen. 4:15, Exod. 20:5, Num. 25:3–4, etc.). God is love (2 Cor. 13:11, 14, 1 John 4:8, 16).
- God forbids punishing children for the sins of their fathers
God punishes children for the sins of their fathers (Isa. 14:21,
and throughout the Pentateuch).
- God sows discord (Gen. 11:7–9).
God hates anyone who sows discord (Prov. 6:16–19)
- God cannot even look on evil (Hab. 1:13).
God created evil (Isa. 45:6–7, Lam. 3:8, Amos 3:6).
- God does not lie (Exodus 34:6, Deuteronomy 7:9–10, Thess. 1:2). God condones trickery (Gen. 34) and deludes people (2 Thess. 2:11–12).
To be blunt, because the Bible was written over a time period spanning centuries and was integrated “by committee,” the biblical God is a mass of contradictions. The more carefully and completely one reads the Bible, the more incoherent the image of God becomes. If one attempts to build an image of God that integrates all of the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors the scriptures describe, the resulting description is nonsensical. Words have to be redefined so thoroughly that they become meaningless.
How Bible Stories Are Contradictory or Garbled
It is common for a story to appear more than once in the Bible. The book of Genesis repeats the creation story. Joshua and Judges repeat early accounts of battles and events that occurred during the formation of the Hebrew nation. Later writings refer back to earlier writings. And when they do, the stories often vary. Sometimes they are altered in ways that call into question their very meaning.
- God created sea creatures, birds, and land animals before
man (Gen. 1).The birds and land animals were created after Adam, aspossible companions for him (Gen. 2).
- The birds were brought forth from the waters (Gen. 1:20, 21). They were formed from the ground along with the beasts (Gen. 2:19).
- All humans not on the ark were killed by the flood (Gen. 7:21). There were giant humans after the flood as before the flood (Num. 13:33). Noah and his family entered the ark, then they entered it again (Gen. 7:7, 13).
- To show his faith, Abraham offered up his only begotten
son Isaac (Heb. 11:17).Abraham had a son, Ishmael, who was born before Isaac (Gen. 16:15).
- Jacob was buried in a cave at Machpelah bought from Ephron
He was buried in a sepulcher at Sechem bought from sons
of Hamor (Acts 7:15–16).
- David slew 700 Syrian charioteers and 40,000 horsemen (2
David slew 7,000 Syrian charioteers and 40,000 horsemen (1
The gospel stories alone contain a host of inconsistencies. In Matthew, Herod slaughters innocent babies to destroy the Christ child, in Luke he does not. In Matthew, Jesus says that John the Baptist is Elijah the Prophet, yet in the Gospel of John, the Baptist denies this designation. In one account, a Roman centurion comes to beseech Jesus to heal his servant. Another text reports that the centurion sends the elders of the Jews on his behalf. When Jesus is arrested, Roman soldiers dress him in a scarlet robe or in one that is purple, depending on which account you read. Perhaps the most well-known conflicting stories in the New Testament are the varying accounts of the resurrection. A tongue-in-cheek quiz that can be found in Appendix I illustrates how widely they differ.8
Literalists often claim that contradictions are simply fragments of the same story, even when this seems dubious. The process of integrating such details is called harmonization. Apologists work to weave a story that includes all of the pieces from various descriptions of an incident. If this is possible (and it always is) then there is no contradiction. Take, for example, the story of the centurion and his ill servant (Matt. 8:5, Luke 7:2). A harmonizing solution might be to suggest that the centurion first sent the elders to talk with Jesus and then spoke with him directly. In the case of the contradictory resurrection accounts, apologists argue that they are simply written from the vantage points of different eyewitnesses, all part of the same larger story.
The critical flaw in this approach is obvious: just because it is possible to weave a story doesn’t mean the story is true or even reasonable. Ask any prosecuting attorney or judge. Competing explanations must be examined in terms of likelihood and logic. One must ask: which is more likely, that these pieces make up one obscured but coherent story or that they simply disagree? This question is largely ignored by apologists because they hold an a priori belief in the inerrancy of scripture. Given this assumption, any account that harmonizes discrepancies and supports inerrancy has an absolute advantage over one that doesn’t. Any interpretation suggesting that a contradiction is, in fact, a contradiction must be wrong. Therefore it is wrong. Case closed.
How Do Biblical Prophesies and Promises Stand Up?
Evangelicals teach that the Bible is bursting with fulfilled prophecies, especially Old Testament verses that foretell the birth, life, and death of Jesus. But even the most frequently cited verses should be treated with caution; prophecies and fulfillments tend to converge in the telling. Professional fortune-tellers have a shared set of techniques that they use to create the illusion of fore-telling: one of the most common of these is vague or mystical sounding predictions, the meaning of which is clear only in hindsight. They count on the human mind to link prophetic utterances and later events in ways that seem improbable, even supernatural. Without intending to, we are all prone to finding marvelous connections where none exist. Even the Bible writers were no exception. For example, a verse in Isaiah says that a young woman will conceive and bear a child. This verse was taken out of context and altered by a gospel writer to provide evidence for the virgin birth of Jesus.*9 It is now quoted by literalists as proof positive that Jesus was a long-awaited Messiah.
Besides the dubious nature of many “fulfilled” prophecies, some very explicit biblical promises and predictions turn out to have been untrue.
- Jesus says that some alive at the time of his sermon will still be living when he comes with his new kingdom (Matt. 10:23, 16:28). They are all long dead. Two thousand years have passed since he promised to return “quickly.”
- Jesus says that a prophet cannot perish outside of Jerusalem (Luke 13.33). He, himself, was crucified outside the city on the hill of Golgotha.
- Jesus promises that his followers will do greater works than he did (John 14:12). He walked on water, healed the blind and deaf and raised the dead. They did not.
- He promises that if he dies, all men will be drawn unto him (John 12:32). Yet untold millions have lived and died without ever hearing anything about Jesus.
- Jesus says that the end of the world will come when the gospel has been preached to every kingdom, and Paul claims that this had happened by his time (Matt. 24:14; Rom. 10:13, Col. 1:23). We now know of entire tribes that passed into extinction without any awareness of Christianity.
- Believers are told that they will be able to drink poison or handle snakes and not be harmed (Mark 16:18, Luke 10:19). Yet members of churches that handle snakes as a demonstration of faith are bitten with fatal results.10
- Jesus tell his followers: “Ask and it will be given; seek andyou will find” (Matt. 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10). Yet many ex-Christians tell of years spent praying to have their doubts removed before they finally abandoned the faith.
Some apologists argue that these apparently failed promises are really misunderstandings. They say that the true meaning in the words of Jesus and the apostles was abstract and must be understood within a broader theological context. But consider this: the Jesus of the gospels used simple sayings and stories to teach simple people. When the stories were parables, he interpreted them. To argue that the meaning of his promises is hidden, abstract, or available only to scholars and theologians is a denial of the ministry of Jesus as depicted in the gospels.
Jesus told us to approach God like children approaching a heavenly father, with simple child-like trust, which Christians, from the beginning, have done. Early on, Christianity spread among the poor and uneducated—simple people, like those Jesus chose as disciples. Even today, this is where much missionary work takes place: in rural Africa, in the highlands of Guatemala, in the inner city. It would be far more difficult to win converts if these people thought of God’s promises—of healing, material blessings and answered prayer—as theological abstractions. And it would be downright ungodly of God to reveal himself in such a way that vast numbers of people would turn to him because they misunderstand his message. My children call that kind of behavior “tricksy.” It is.
Imagine: I promise my daughter a reward, whatever she asks for, if she comes home with an A on her math test. She brings home her paper with a big A and a silver star at the top, hands it to me, and waits, bright-faced, expectant. “Oh,” I say, “what I really meant was that all that studying would have its own reward, that you would have the satisfaction of having done well. See how good it feels?”
“But you promised whatever I asked for! You lied to me!” she protests.
“Oh, no.” I tell her, “I didn’t lie. It’s just that you don’t really understand what you are asking for. If you understood what to ask for, then you would get what you want.”
This chapter illustrates the challenges faced by those who take the Bible as their “firm foundation.” A whole industry has sprung up to convince believers and nonbelievers alike that these difficulties are inconsequential. Shelves of books argue that transcription errors are trivial, historical errors don’t exist, and the natural laws were different in times past, or that modern science is simply wrong. They tell us that doctrinal contradictions are really misunderstandings of doctrinal nuance and complexity, and that in the Bible God has always been fair and loving, however much the stories might seem to suggest otherwise.
Gleason Archer, Ph.D. was a leading apologist for biblical inerrancy. His book, New International Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties,11 opens with a set of “Recommended Procedures in Dealing with Biblical Difficulties.” Here is the first guideline:
Be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists, even though you have not yet found it …we may have complete confidence that the divine Author preserved the human author of each book of the Bible from error or mistake as he wrote down the original manuscript of the sacred text.*
Archer’s guideline is in direct opposition to the rules of scientific inquiry, the rules that have led to the greatest accumulation of knowledge and technology in the history of the human race. Archer says, essentially, that the reader must start the process of inquiry by assuming a certain outcome. Don’t look for the most likely hypothesis suggested by the evidence, he says, nor the one that is most straightforward or reasonable. Start by believing that a certain conclusion is already true. Then, rather than looking for evidence that might prove you wrong, which is what science would demand, look for evidence that you are right. Examine the evidence through the lens of that conclusion. Ask yourself, “What explanations or interpretations can I come up with that would allow me to maintain my belief that these texts are not contradictory?” If you can find any at all, then you have succeeded in your task. By implication, if you cannot, the problem lies with you, not the text.
Archer’s approach, in almost any other field of inquiry, would be considered preposterous. (Rule 1: Decide in advance what you want to believe is true.) Imagine this approach being applied by the physician who is diagnosing your lethargic child, or the judge who is trying a criminal case, or the husband who is in marital therapy. The risks are, respectively: misdiagnosis, wrongful imprisonment, and divorce. Imagine it as the approach of the cold-fusion researcher, the engineer trying to decide whether a space shuttle is ready for flight, or the president trying to decide whether to take his country to war. Imagine it as the approach of a parent who wants to find out whether her teenager is sexually active. The risks range from public ridicule to spectacular catastrophe, from unnecessary war to painful estrangement.
How then, is this approach fit for evaluating some of the most crucial questions a human can ask: Why are we here? What is the meaning of God and goodness? What is the taproot of morality? How might we build a just and compassionate society? And how shall we express our need for meaning, community, and joy?
When could it be more important to constrain our own biases, to open our minds to difficult truths, than in the pursuit of our highest values? Surely our quest to understand goodness must be as intellectually rigorous and honest as our quest to understand molecular biology or physics or any other area of scientific inquiry. Yet this is not the approach taken by Evangelical scholars who defend the Bible as the literal word of God. Their methods are not those of scholarly inquiry but of debate and legal defense.
The lengths to which literalists will go in their defense of the Bible, even wedding themselves to foolishness, suggest that biblical literalism is rooted in fear. Most literalists are deeply moral people. But they mistakenly believe that abandoning the God-concept of our spiritual ancestors means we must also let go of their quest for meaning and any moral truths they may have discovered. They fear that without perfect and timeless scriptures, we humans will lose the ability to make contact with that perfection which transcends time—the great “I AM,” as the God of Moses calls himself.
If one imagines the Bible as a gift, this is a fear that the package is the wrappings, that unwrapped it will be empty. If we acknowledge and explore its human construction, the Bible will lose its power to connect people with the ultimate sacred reality that we call God. The peace, communion, and moral inspiration offered by Christianity will evaporate. But consider that the opposite may be true: it may not be possible to place the wrapped package on an altar, exalt the wrappings themselves, and genuinely appreciate what lies inside.
When the Bible is understood in its literary and historical context; errors, contradictions, and inconsistencies pose no threat to spirituality, whether that spirituality is theistic, non-theistic, or even explicitly Jesus-centered. The graver threat to what Christians call godliness may be fundamentalism—religion that flows from literalism and fear, religion based on anachronism and law. Fundamentalism teaches, in effect, that the tattered musings of our ancestors, those human words that so poorly represent the content of human thinking, somehow adequately describe God. Fundamentalism offers identity, security, and simplicity, but at a price: by binding believers to the moral limitations and cultural trappings of the Ancients, it precludes a deeper embrace of goodness, love, and truth—in other words, of Divinity. In fact, as we shall see in upcoming chapters, it also has the power to put believers on the side of self-centeredness and cruelty.
*The same Greek word mo-ras’ meaning stupid or dull, is used in both Matthew 5:22 and Matthew 23:17 and 19. In other places Jesus uses even stronger words that are translated “fool.”
*In Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word translated “virgin” in most English language Bibles is actually ha’almah or “the young woman,” not habethulah, meaning“the virgin.” Some English translations have corrected this, including The New English Bible, The Good News Bible, and The Revised Standard Version. Furthermore, taken in context, the verse is a promise to King Ahaz and Judah of deliverance from their enemies during a time of war.
*Some Inerrantists take exception to Archer’s qualifier: that inerrancy is limited to the original manuscript. They insist that if a perfect God made a perfect revelation to humankind, then he did not limit himself to perfect revelation in ancient Hebrew alone. Christians who take this stance may believe in the inerrancy of the King James Version in English and the original translations into other languages as well. But because this argument is easily tested, scholarly inerrantists usually limit themselves to making claims about the original text.
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7/24/2006 View Comments
The Rapture is headed for New York City, and just in time for Christmas. In Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a Christian-themed videogame due out this October, the New York skyline smolders during the End of Days, the faithful have been called up to heaven, and the remaining New Yorkers are engaged in an epic clash between the Tribulation Forces and the Antichrist's army of Global Community Peacekeepers (aka UN Peacekeepers).
Evangelical videogame makers are praying that Eternal Forces will finally enable them to tap into the $25 billion global videogame market. They hope their "Christian" values-themed game will capture the same audience that has made bestsellers out of violent standards like Grand Theft Auto and Halo 2.
The Left Behind: Eternal Forces videogame is based upon the wildly profitable "Left Behind" series, written by Rev. Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The "Left Behind" books have sold roughly 65 million copies and are second only to the Bible in sales of Christian texts. The series revolves around an eccentric interpretation of the Bible that sets the Armageddon in Iraq and refers to Saddam Hussein as a servant of Satan. President Bush is a big fan of Rev. LaHaye's brand of dominionism. Prior to the 2000 election, Bush met with LaHaye and other Christian fundamentalist leaders to cultivate the support of the religious right.
Game point, spirit point
Eternal Forces is a real-time strategy videogame, meaning that a player manipulates an entire army simultaneously, as opposed to the common first-person shooter games in which a player controls only one character. In essence, the player becomes the commander of a virtual army, deciding when to unleash weapons from an arsenal of guns, tanks and helicopters. Of course, since this is an evangelical game, soldiers lose "spirit points" each time they kill an opponent, leaving them prey to the Antichrist's forces and in dire need of replenishment through prayer. To top it off, each time a soldier slays one of the Antichrist's soldiers (who are UN Peacekeepers, remember), he triumphantly cries, "Praise the Lord!"
Eternal Forces caught the media's attention in May, when it premiered at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The Los Angeles Times reported that in order to foster buzz for the videogame, the game's co-creators, Troy Lyndon and Jeffrey Frichner, plan to issue a million advanced copies to churches nationwide. That announcement galvanized Jonathan Hutson of Talk To Action, a forum for discussing the religious right, into action. Hutson, who identifies himself as a Christian and a patriot, said by phone, "I'm offended by a game that allows children to rehearse mass killing in the name of Christ or the Antichrist."
In several lengthy blog posts, Hutson charged that Left Behind: Eternal Forces usurps the now iconic imagery of 9/11 because it is set in a post-apocalyptic New York. "Why are the ambulances patrolling the streets with '911' written on their roofs instead of a normal paramedic star or cross?" Hutson questioned. "It's outrageous to exploit September 11th to make a buck!" Hutson also alleged the game's "Praise the Lord!" battle cry is not far from the "God is great!" words of the World Trade Center terrorists. (Left Behind Games was formed in October 2001.)
Hutson's primary objection to Eternal Forces is Left Behind's proposed marketing campaign. The strategy of advanced distribution through mega-churches and pastoral networks has been employed in the past few years with resounding results. Both The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia were screened in churches throughout the country before theatrical release. A more notable example is The Purpose-Driven Life, the bestseller by evangelical pastor Rick Warren. Prior to publication in 2002, Warren distributed a million copies through his Purpose Driven Network of mega-churches with congregations in 162 countries worldwide. The book went on to sell over 22 million copies to become the all-time best-selling nonfiction hardback.
While Left Behind's decision to follow a proven business model isn't particularly surprising, Hutchinson discovered a startling level of collusion between Left Behind and Rick Warren.
Mark Carver, the executive director of Purpose Driven Ministries in every region except North America, turned out to be the business advisor to Left Behind Games. Hutson was incensed by this apparent conflict of interest, which he termed "endorsement by association." He challenged, "Where is the pastoral leadership while a bigoted videogame is being networked and marketed through mega-churches?" After two heated posts on Talk To Action that echoed across the blogosphere from the Huffington Post to BlondeSense to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, Mark Carver resigned on June 5. A day later, Hutson received official word from Purpose Driven notifying him of Carver's resignation and declaring that Warren and Purpose Driven had no plans to endorse Left Behind: Eternal Forces.
Hutson isn't the only one outraged by Left Behind: Eternal Forces. When Jack Thompson, an attorney and crusader against videogame violence, learned that Tyndale Publishers permitted Left Behind Games to adapt the Left Behind series, he dissolved his relationship with the publishing company. In addition to the Left Behind books, Tyndale also publishes James Dobson and Thompson's own manifesto on the dangers of videogames, Out of Harm's Way.
Thompson said he hadn't read the "Left Behind" series, but says there is a difference between the books, which are targeted toward adults, and the book-based videogame for adolescents. "[Left Behind Games] is taking adult-themed violence and marketing directly to kids," Thompson said from his Miami office. "It's a perfect example of how we're exporting pop-culture sewage to the rest of the world."
Thompson cited brain scan studies by Harvard and Indiana University that he claimed illustrate a link between witnessing videogame violence and copycat crimes. "There's an inherent, emotion-driven impulse in juveniles," he said. "Every parent knows that what kids get in their heads has behavioral consequences." Thompson said Left Behind's decision to distribute a million advance copies of their videogame to mega-churches nationwide is "a dangerous, hypocritical, non-Christian thing to do, and an example of how pop culture is transforming the church."
Level of violence
Jonathan Hutson says he wasn't opposed to videogame violence per se. "The level of violence in this videogame is not at issue," he said. "Rather, it's the indoctrination in Christian supremacy because the game rehearses and instructs children in the mass killing of New Yorkers for the sake of Christ and that is an abomination." He also said he was appalled that in Eternal Forces, corpses are left on the streets. "It's outrageous that this game has a feature to allow cold corpses of New Yorkers to pile up on the streets. No one gives them a decent burial."
While Left Behind denied repeated requests for an interview, it did issue a formal statement. The company dismissed Hutson's remarks, insisting that he was unqualified to comment on the game because he hadn't played it. Left Behind did, however, verify that LaHaye's anti-government philosophy had found its way into the videogame. "The Antichrist's forces are on the warpath, actively hunting down and exterminating all resistance to his one-world government. This includes the good guys -- the Tribulation Force -- defending themselves against Satan."
Left Behind maintained that while there is violence in the game, it's not bloody or graphic, and it anticipates getting a Teen (T) rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
The question remains whether Left Behind can justify its videogame violence with the Bible. If a player's only penalty for killing New Yorkers is a loss in spiritual points, then violence actually goes less punished in Eternal Forces than in seemingly more violent competition like Grand Theft Auto, in which homicide results in being pursued and arrested by the police. And in Grand Theft Auto, bodies disappear shortly after being killed.
Evangelical Gamers fire back
Although Left Behind wasn't eager to discuss its videogame, other evangelical videogame developers regard Eternal Forces as the breakthrough they've been waiting for to bring Christian games into the mainstream. Ralph Bagley, the godfather of Christian gaming, runs Christian Game Developers Foundation. Until now, its titles Catechumen and Ominous Horizons have been the darlings of the Christian videogame industry, having sold about 80,000 and 70,000 copies, respectively. "We've fought the perception that if it's a Christian videogame," Bagley said, "then it has to be cheesy with sub-par graphics."
Bagley hopes Left Behind: Eternal Forces will prove that Christian videogames can be both high-quality tools to reach people through ministry and entertaining alternatives to current videogame hits. He is not alone. Greg Schumsky, CEO of Covenant Studios, knows there are not a lot of Christian games out there for older audiences. Following in the wake of Eternal Forces, Covenant plans to release a game next spring called Journey of the Time Pilots, which involves traveling through time to catch Nazis who have stolen religious artifacts for Hitler.
"I think this game is going to open the doors for other games to get into the mainstream market," Schumsky said of Eternal Forces. Like Schumsky, most Christian game developers covet the mainstream audience and feel the reason they haven't broken through is because videogame critics compare their games to more successful market standards like Grand Theft Auto. Christian game developers say the comparison is unfair because they believe their games are morally superior.
Neither Schumsky nor Bagley seem too worried about violence in videogames.
"'Revelations' is pretty darn violent to begin with," Schumsky said, "so how do you candycoat that?" In the past, however, Bagley has spoken out against violence in games like Grand Theft Auto and Narc. When I asked Bagley whether he would mind gamers playing as the Antichrist, he replied, "As long as Christ wins out in the end, I'm open as long as it doesn't go overboard, though the last thing I would want to see is people getting on there just to kill."
Bagley said there was a distinction between running street gangs in videogames and commanding the anti-Tribulation force in Left Behind. He thinks this violence can be portrayed in a "tasteful manner," if done within the storyline. Unlike Jack Thompson, Bagley doesn't believe that videogame violence invariably leads to enhanced aggression in game players. "I think maybe 99.9% of kids playing Grand Theft Auto and other games probably won't be affected. I pray the rest won't be affected by the violence."
"Used with the permission of AlterNet.org."
7/21/2006 View Comments
Can God be surprised? Surprise is the basis of laughter. Can God laugh?
Can God think? Thinking means weighing alternatives. But if God knows everything then can God think?
Is God metaphysically free? Did God ever choose his character and his moral standards? Does God ever know what it is to make a choice?
Is God Good?
If God didn’t need anything, then why did he create us? To say God’s nature is love and he wanted to share his love with us doesn’t help for two reasons, 1) Most of us will end up in hell, which means he knowingly created heaven for the minority on the screams of billions of people who end up in hell; 2) If life was already perfect for God, then God did not need to share any more love with anyone else. Why break this purported perfect harmony for the pain of dealing with us and the pain of those who end up in hell?
Once God decided to create us, if he planned everything in advance as the Calvinist believes, or if he foreknew everything would happen with certainty, then why bother creating us? What’s the point?
What is the basis of God’s foreknowledge?
If God gave us free will and he knew we would abuse it so badly, then why give it to us? Isn’t it incumbent for the giver of a gift to be responsible for whom he gives that gift? And isn’t the giver of a gift blameworthy if he gives gifts to those whom he knows will abuse those gifts? Should we make drugs available to 8 year olds and alcohol available to 6 year olds? Would you give a razor blade to a two year old?
Can God create free creatures who always obey? For the Calvinist this would’ve been no problem, so why does it bring God more glory to decree what we see here on earth and later in hell, than one where we always obey? For the non-Calvinist Christian, what is different for those in heaven such that they will have free will and never disobey? Will there be sin and another rebellion in heaven? Why not? And if God can make people obey in heaven then why didn’t he first create us such that we always obeyed here on earth too?
Did God foreknow that Adam and Eve would sin? If so, then he would also know in advance the reasons why they chose to sin. And if he knew in advance what those reasons were, then he could’ve corrected them and/or provided them more evidence to believe him. If, for instance, Adam and Eve needed more evidence that God meant what he said if they eat of the fruit, then couldn’t God have given them more evidence, like he purportedly did to Moses and Gideon who both doubted? To withhold this needed evidence is to be at fault for doing nothing to help Adam and Eve in their temptation.
Why didn’t God create us with a propensity to dislike sin? We have an aversion to drinking motor oil. But we could still drink it if we wanted to. Why couldn’t God have created in us an aversion to sin like we have an aversion to drinking motor oil?
Why did God create the universe with a big bang and the slow long evolutionary development of galaxy, star and planet formation, and then all of a sudden “switch gears” and instantaneously create Adam & Eve in an instant? Was it harder to create the universe than the peak of his creation such that it took him billions of years to create the stuff of the universe but a snap of his fingers to create the apex and crowning jewels of his universe?
Why is a supposedly omniscient and completely understanding God so barbaric, even allowing slavery, knowing full well the suffering people would experience because it wasn't one of his ten commandments: "Thou shalt not own slaves nor buy and sell them for profit."
Why is a supposedly omnipotent God not able to stop the 2005 Indonesian tsunami that killed a quarter million people before it happened? If he had stopped that underwater earthquake from happening none of us would have known that he did and hence he wouldn’t have revealed himself in any ways he might not have wanted to. Since all it would have taken is a “snap” of his fingers to avert that tragedy then isn’t he morally responsible for it? If we were God we would be morally obligated to do so. Why isn’t God? And if he is morally responsible for it, then he wanted it to happen for some greater good. That’s right, he wanted it to happen. What is the greater good here?
Here's another good one by Dagoods. How is it that one member of the trinitarian Godhead can intercede on our behalf with another member of the Godhead? Does one member of the trinity, Jesus, know or want something that God the father doesn't? see here.
7/20/2006 View Comments
"I don't want to be alarmist, but this is actually quite alarming," Michelle Goldberg said. She was referring to the subject of her new book, "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," which chronicles the steady rise of the neocons of Christianity.
Whether she's attending a Ten Commandments conference or joining Tony Perkins' conference calls to listen in on what D.C. agenda will be passed on to congregations, Goldberg's reporting offers insight into a movement that has reshaped the nation's political and cultural landscape. Goldberg did not go undercover, nor wear any disguise. Rather, she simply showed up, listened and learned. And what she has learned is definitely alarming.
Traveling around the country on her book tour, Goldberg notes that many people have approached her with stories that illustrate the religious intolerance that is the hallmark of an aggressive Christian movement. On a muggy day in Brooklyn, Goldberg sat down with me to discuss the need for Americans -- particularly progressives and liberals -- to recognize the sophisticated intellectual structure of Christian Nationalism, and how it has succeeded in constructing a parallel reality based on Biblical rhetoric and revisionist history.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?
Michelle Goldberg: I've done reporting on the subject for a long time. One of the first pieces I did on the Christian right was on the ex-gay movement. What struck me going to the Exodus Conference was that it takes place in this whole entire parallel universe. They have their own psychologists, psychological institutions and their own version of professional medical literature. The amount of books, magazines and media, and the way it almost duplicated everything that we have in our so-called reality, is remarkable. What struck me years later when I was reporting on the Bush administration was that the parallel institutions that I had first come into contact with were replacing the mainstream institutions -- especially in the federal bureaucracy.
Roychoudhuri: Can you give an example?
Goldberg: In the Department of Health and Human Services, the people they hired to formulate sex education policy, at both the national and international level, didn't come from the American Medical Association or the big medical schools. They're coming from places like the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which is this Christian Nationalist medical group. [The group says it is a "nonprofit scientific, educational organization to confront the global epidemics of non-marital pregnancy."]
One of the earlier stories I did for Salon was on the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) which does family planning, but they don't do abortion, mostly safe childcare and reproductive health through clinics all over the world. Congress had appropriated $35 million to the UNFPA. There's this group called the Population Research Institute -- another one of these parallel institutions. They're radically anti-family planning and claim that population control policies are part of this "one-world conspiracy" to cull the population of the faithful so that the "one-world government" can more easily assert its control. On the website it said that not only is overpopulation a myth, but all the people on Earth could live comfortably in the state of Texas. I did this story in 2002. I still had this naïve idea that this kind of thing would remain marginal.
But what's amazing is that Population Research Institution went on to testify before Congress saying that the UNFPA promotes forced abortions in China. These kinds of accusations start echoing up the ladder to the point where Bush froze the UNFPA funding. This despite the fact that the State Department had already sent a delegation to China to investigate and said there was nothing to these accusations at all.
There's a myth on the left that's been fostered by Thomas Frank. I think it's a mistake to think that the religious right hasn't got anything. Frank has fostered this idea that the right votes to end abortion and gets a repeal of the estate tax. They've actually gotten quite a bit. One of the main ways they are rewarded below the radar is by being given vast amounts of control over American family planning policy abroad.
Roychoudhuri: What is "Christian Nationalism" and what characterizes it as a political movement?
Goldberg: Christian Nationalism is a political ideology separate from evangelicals. Evangelicals are about 30 percent of the American population. Christian Nationalism is a subset of 10-15 percent. It's less a religion than it is an ideology about the way America should be governed. It has this whole revisionist history claiming that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the separation of church and state is a fraud perpetrated by seculars. What follows from that are ideas about Christianization of institutions in American life, and that the courts have vastly overstepped their authority in the enforcement of the separation of church and state.
Roychoudhuri: Throughout the book, you show examples of the Christian Nationalist movement pushing for special privileges under the banner of equal rights. The change in the hiring rights of faith-based social programs seems to epitomize this.
Goldberg: The words that they use for that is "religious freedom in hiring rights." Religious groups have been able to get government checks for a long time. But they used to have to abide by 1956 civil rights law which has an exemption for religious groups. So, if you're a church you can prefer Christians, mosques can prefer Muslims, but the catch has always been that if you're contracting with the government, then you have to abide by the same civil rights laws as everybody else. Bush, by executive order, overturned that so that government-funded charities are no longer bound by the laws. Now, there is job training, drug treatment and preschool programs that are totally separate. The job is 100-percent taxpayer funded, but they can say in the help-wanted ad, "Christians only."
Bush wanted to get the Salvation Army aboard the faith-based initiatives. The Salvation Army then brought in a consultant to Christianize certain divisions. He asked the human resources director at the Salvation Army headquarters, Maureen Schmidt, whether one of the human resource staffers at the social services division, Margaret Geissman, was Jewish, because she had a "Jewish sounding name." Schmidt told him that she wasn't. So then he went to her and said, "I want a list of homosexuals who work there."
She said no. She's a really conservative lady, but she was totally appalled and refused to do it.
Roychoudhuri: How did this kind of shift occur? Is there an architect behind these faith-based programs?
Goldberg: The architect of the faith-based initiative is Marvin Olasky. He was an advisor of Bush's campaign. Bush wrote the foreword to Olasky's book, Compassionate Conservatism, I think people hear "compassionate conservatism," and it sounds like a banality, but if you know Olasky's book, you know it's outlining something very specific. Olasky believes that America is in moral decline and that we need to return social services to churches. He also believes that conversion is an important part of the process. This book laid out exactly what he thought we should be doing, and Bush went and did it.
Roychoudhuri: Your book discusses the role that megachurches play in the politics of the right. Can you explain the ties?
Goldberg: It's not all of the megachurches, but it is many of them. There's different kinds of connections. New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard is the pastor there. He has a call with the White House every single week. Other churches are networked in through the Family Research Council in D.C. It's run by Tony Perkins who has these conference calls that I actually got the number for and started listening in on. All these pastors call in and Perkins basically updates them on his latest conversations with the White House and the congressional leadership. He tells them what kind of issues he needs to focus their congregations on. So he would say you need to have your congregants write to their senators about abolishing the filibuster or about confirming a certain judge. He's literally relaying marching orders from Washington, D.C.
Roychoudhuri: Do you think congregants are aware of the connection?
Goldberg: I kind of doubt that people in the congregations know that but I'm not sure that they would be particularly angry or outraged about it. It would only outrage you if you believe in the separation of church and state, that church shouldn't be a political party.
Roychoudhuri: You frequently discuss the similarities between Christian Nationalism and fascism and totalitarianism. Were you conflicted about broaching this?
Goldberg: Among liberals, there is always talk about fascism and there's a kind of agreement that you can't talk about it more publicly without sounding like a lunatic. You don't want to sound like you're comparing Bush to Hitler. We have no language to talk about the intermediate stages of this kind of thing. But there are these really unmistakable parallels to fascism, not as a government system, but to fascism in its early stages. Before fascism is a government, it's a movement. It's not born in power, it comes to power. I think it's time to talk about fascism or another word for it. Christian Nationalism is one way to talk about it. But there are things that are going on that are not normal, they're not politics usual.
These things are always subtle and gradual, but there are moments when all of a sudden you think "Oh, they're drawing up lists of people who are gay at public agencies." I don't want to be alarmist, but this is actually quite alarming. Just recently, there was a story about a Jewish family in Delaware who moved after fearing retaliation for filing a lawsuit regarding state-sponsored religion. As I've been traveling around the country, and I've been traveling a lot, I keep hearing about things like this happening all over the place.
There's one abortion clinic in Mississippi right now and Operation Rescue is planning to close it down. In parts of the country, doctors are living under constant terrorist threat and it's a daily battle. If you're in other parts of the country, you can be completely unaware of it. I keep hearing from people on the coasts who say, well, I'm sure the pendulum will swing back. But my sense is that, for instance, gay people who are living in conservative states or Jews who are living in places where there aren't a lot of other Jews, definitely feel something is going on and it's affecting them on a day to day basis.
Roychoudhuri: You see this becoming an even more polarized battle in the future -- the secular vs. religious. Barack Obama recently gave a speech in which he advocated for a middle ground, and for progressives to embrace their faith. Do you think that's a viable option?
Goldberg: Obama's speech to me was interesting. I thought that there were some things about it that were really valuable, and some things that were really destructive. What he said about people feeling that there's something missing in their life, and speaking to that, was right on. The religious right gives people the narrative arc both for their own lives and then the country as a whole and it's very comforting to people. Giving someone a list of policies -- even policies that will make their lives better can't really compare to that.
But what was destructive was that he took for granted right-wing rhetoric that has no basis in fact. He said, "What's the matter with the Pledge of Allegiance, I don't think anybody is really bothered by the 'under God.'"
He's right; most people aren't bothered by it. It's a myth that liberals, not to mention Democrats, have done anything against the Pledge of Allegiance. The only people trying to take the "under God" out are a few individuals representing themselves. When that California guy sued to have the "under God" taken out of the pledge of allegiance, he wasn't being represented by the ACLU, or the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He was representing himself.
Roychoudhuri: What do you think it's going to take for progressives and liberals to gain more currency?
Goldberg: One thing that the right does have that you don't have on the left are these umbrella organizations. Most years, I go to the Conservative Political Action Conference which brings together the religious right, but also the neocons, the hate government people like Grover Norquist, and the gun owners. They see each other there once a year, they have weekly meetings that Grover Norquist holds where he brings together representatives from all the different right-wing groups. Then there are institutions like the Heritage Foundation that has religious right social policy thinkers but also neocon defense people. Not everybody believes everything in the movement, but there are these interlocking circles and this social milieu where people meet and ideas circulate. We don't have that.
We don't have one meeting that brings together the feminist groups, gay groups, civil liberties and environmental groups. I feel like I'm always talking to like-minded organizations, and they don't know what the other group is up to.
Roychoudhuri: Any sense why that is?
Goldberg: There is progressive funding available for programs, but not for institution-building. It's just now that they're starting to come up with journals about these ideas that should underlie where the progressive Democrats should go. There has been a real neglect in part because people held the right in such contempt. There was never any appreciation for the depths of the intellectual infrastructure. Even though the stereotype is that liberals are the academics, there is, in certain senses, anti-intellectualism among policy and political people who don't see how that structure roots people, shapes ideas. It's more than just crafting a message; it creates this whole interwoven skein of values and assumptions. Now we're starting to see an attempt to create that on the left.
The other thing that I think is really necessary is creating something parallel to the right's Concerned Women for America. Let's say it gets in the news that the Dover school board is talking about introducing creationism. We know the ACLU is great when it gets to the legal issues, but even before it gets to that stage, we need consultants calling up the people on our side saying, "Here's what we're up against, this is what to expect, this is how you can talk about it in a way that will resonate with people." You have the information, but it's just not getting to those people. Whereas, on the other side, you do have consultants calling up coaching people through it before it even gets to the table.
Roychoudhuri: You're very solution-oriented in the last chapter of the book, but you clearly state that you think it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Goldberg: It's already worse since the book came out. There's an idea out there that once Bush is gone, or maybe if the Republicans lose Congress, then we'll all be free and clear. Obviously, there's nothing more important to me than seeing the Republicans lose Congress. But, it's entirely possible that most Americans are going to vote Democratic in the polls but that Republicans will still control Congress. The huge structural advantages the Republicans have created for themselves have to be addressed before anything else can be solved. I would say the collapse of the Republican Party is really important, but the Christian Nationalist movement is not a majority. I don't think there needs to be a majority to affect policy.
Roychoudhuri: You write of a pretty enormous communication chasm: "Dialogue is impossible without some shared sense of reality... What's lacking isn't just truth, it's the entire social mechanism by which truth is distinguished from falsehood." How can we regain that?
Goldberg: I found the last chapter the hardest to write because I do feel like in certain ways the problem is much larger than any solutions I've come up with. There are all these voices on the right that can say almost anything without consequence. You would never see Kerry joining hands with someone from the Black Panther Party or someone from the ANSWER coalition. But there are people on the right who are calling for theocracy and almost nothing they say discredits them; they're still treated as respectable mainstream voices.
It's important to get people to pay attention to who these people really are. People don't know what Reconstructionism is, so it doesn't occur to them to be shocked when they see a Reconstructionist on a panel or at a banquet table with congressmen. That should be politically damaging; that should be embarrassing. And the media needs to stop treating it as "some people say this" and "some people say that" as though it's balanced, as though they're legitimate points of view.
Also, journalists should take these religious groups seriously enough to ask about them. I'm totally agnostic on the question of whether Bush is a true believer or totally cynical, I think he's some combination. Somebody asked Bush at a public meeting whether any of his Middle East policies are informed by his vision of the End Times. That to me is a totally legitimate question and he didn't really answer it. If these people are saying they take their religion seriously, then people have a right to ask what is it and do you believe x, y or z.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/38830/
7/18/2006 View Comments
Each time an article appears somewhere that carries the words “intelligent design” and “creationism” in the same sentence the Discovery Institute feels compelled to respond. They desperately want to distance themselves from biblical creationists because they know it will hurt their chances of slipping intelligent design into classrooms in our public schools. The latest attempt by Bruce Gordon to disassociate intelligent design with creationism is over the top. He actually claims that “most current ID theorists of consequence not only are not creationists, some of them aren’t even theists”. Most are not creationists?
Well let’s take a look at what the definition for a creationist is. Merriam-Webster’s says a creationist is a proponent of “a doctrine or theory holding that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by God out of nothing and usually in the way described in Genesis”. So a creationist is someone who believes everything was created by God, usually, but not always as described in Genesis. Do most current ID theorists of consequence fit that bill? You bet they do. Let’s look at what the Discovery Institute, the organization that bills itself as the “nation’s leading think researching intelligent design” has said about it.
In the now infamous “Wedge Document” authored by the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, now called the Center for Science and Culture, goals of the organization were defined. One of their two “governing goals” was “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”. (http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?id=349) That certainly fits the definition for creationism. But that’s not all they reveal about their intentions.
Under the “spiritual and cultural” heading their goals include “major Christian denomination(s) defend(s) traditional doctrine of creation and repudiate(s) Darwinism”.
Notice here that they don’t cite any theory they want to advance, but the “doctrine of creation” is what they want to defend. And what do we call people whose stated goal is to defend the traditional doctrine of creation? We call them creationists and rightfully so. Included under the same heading is the goal of “positive uptake in public opinion polls on issues such as sexuality, abortion and belief in God”.
How can this be reconciled with what Bruce Gordon is claiming? He says “Young earth creationists are biblical literalists who circumscribe their approach to science by deduction from Holy Writ. Intelligent design theorists are scientists or philosophers of science who derive their conclusions inductively from the empirical study of nature, following the evidence where it leads without regard to antecedent constraints artificially imposed by theodical desiderata or philosophical naturalism.” First off, ID proponents like to use the qualifiers “young earth creationists” and “biblical literalists” when trying to distance themselves from creationism as Dr. Gordon does here. But one can be a creationist without being a young earth advocate or a biblical literalist. Creationism, as stated earlier, is just a belief that everything was created by God. As Dr. Gordon put it in his article, “being cheddar is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for being cheese.”
Second, Dr. Gordon says that ID theorists follow the evidence where it leads “without regard to antecedent constraints artificially imposed by theodical desiderata” (theologically desired things). So how can one follow the evidence regardless of ones theological desires and still pursue the stated goal of replacing “materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”? Those two goals are mutually exclusive.
In the Discovery Institute’s “So What” response to the Wedge Document (http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?id=349), they say “Even so, our critics insist that the “Wedge Document” shows that the case for intelligent design is unscientific because it is based on religious belief. But here again they fail to grasp an obvious distinction — the distinction between the implications of a theory and the basis of a theory”. It is the Discovery Institute that repeatedly fails to make that distinction. An implication is “a logical relationship between two propositions in which if the first is true the second is true” (Merriam-Webster’s). ID proponents have assumed the second proposition (creation by God) is true and their stated goal for advancing the first proposition (intelligent design) is to support the second proposition. That makes creationism the basis for their “theory”, not an implication of it.
The reason the Discovery Institute has to constantly battle the idea that intelligent design and creationism are inexorably linked is that creationism is the basis for, not an implication of, intelligent design. Those with any inclination towards honesty will continue to make that connection. But undoubtedly the Discovery Institute will not. Honesty is not one of their stated goals. Defending the traditional doctrine of creation is.
The Discovery Institute claims to be the nation’s leading think tank researching intelligent design. One would have to assume that to make that claim they feel that their fellows are among the “current ID theorists of consequence”. So who among them are not creationists? Bruce Gordon says “most current ID theorists of consequence … are not creationists”. I doubt that is true. He would certainly struggle to name a few who are not creationists and could not back up his assertion that most are not creationists without limiting his definition of creationism to young earth, biblical literalists creationism. Why would someone who is not a creationist conduct research for an organization whose stated goal is to defend the doctrine of creation in the first place? It would certainly not be for career enhancement.
The better question is-why would someone like Bruce Gordon make the claim that most ID theorists of consequence are not creationists? The answer is because the courts have ruled that teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional and the only way creationists can see around that is to dress creationism up as a scientific theory. But they know that the flaw in their disguise is that virtually all of the people promoting this “scientific theory” are creationists. So they replace creation with design and God with intelligent designer and label themselves scientists or theorists instead of creationists. Well you can be a scientist and a creationist. You can be a theorist and a creationist. But apparently you can’t be honest and be a creationist. If you contradict yourself and say on the one hand that your goal is to defend the doctrine of creation and promote belief in God and say on the other hand that you are not a creationist and you have no regard to antecedent constraints artificially imposed by theodical desiderata or philosophical naturalism, then you are dishonest, both with yourself and others.
Posted with the author's permission.
7/16/2006 View Comments
How many sermons have Christians heard about Joseph and Potipher’s wife where the preacher asked something like this: “How many men would've been able to overcome this temptation?” And they conclude with, “I fear not many men here could’ve overcome this.” What are preachers saying here?...That Joseph was a man of faith and had real strength of character, but most men, even Christian men, do not. And yet when a Christian (former one) like me actually does succumb to such a temptation, these same preachers are quick to condemn me. Isn't that odd? Which is it?
The story of my affair [which took place 15 years ago(!)] that I tell in my book, Why I Rejected Christianity, is a story that shows the church is the only place that shoots its own wounded. Say it isn't so? If someone has a problem, the church is the first to condemn.
Christians stress that the marriage vows are sacred. And what part of those vows is most important? Sexual faithfulness. Why? Aren't there other vows there too? Like to love, honor, and "obey?" LOL. There are Christian couples out there that can boast of being faithful to each other in marriage for 25 years and more, but they hate each other and bicker and fight all day long. But whoopee, they're faithful to each other! Big deal. Their marriages are a sham.
Ethicist Richard Taylor wrote a book on Having Love Affairs (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982) and he discusses whose fault it is when there is an affair. I am not excusing myself here, but as he explains, there may be more to it. “Though a wife may be ever so dutiful, faultless, and virtuous in every skill required for the making of a home, if she lacks passion, then in a very real sense she already is without a husband, or he, at least, is without a wife. Similarly, a husband who is preoccupied with himself and his work, who is oblivious to the needs of his wife and insensitive to her vanities, who takes for granted her unique talents and who goes about his business more or less as though she did not exist, has already withdrawn as a husband, except in name.” “What must be remembered by those persons who wish to condemn adultery is that the primary vow of marriage is to love, and that vow is not fulfilled by the kind of endless busyness exemplified in the industrious and ever generous husband or the dedicated homemaking wife…What has to be stressed is that the first infidelity may or may not have been committed by the one who is having an affair. The first and ultimate infidelity is to withhold the love that was promised, and which was originally represented as the reason for marriage to begin with.”
Christians are still condemning me here at ex-Christian.net. Why? Because that's what they do, and it should be no surprise to atheists here that Pastors have problems with sexual sin. Now I am happily married to an atheist and faithful to her. I love that woman. She is my best friend.
In my opinion Christianity is psychologically harmful by creating and maintaining the circumstances whereby we do wrong, since we cannot be free to express ourselves or even confess our problems to other Christians for fear of condemnation. I no longer have to hide my true feelings about anything with my wife since I no longer have the Christian guilt trip and the potential condemnation that goes with it.
For the record, it wasn’t just my affair that led me to reject Christianity. I could’ve gotten beyond the damage that had done to my faith. It was being cut off from the church, of which the affair with her was the catalyst. Taken together with what I was learning at the time, and the subsequent church experiences I had, I eventually came to reject my former faith.
By the way, haven't you seen documentaries on TV where a con-artist (male or female) got someone to marry them for their money and then killed them? There are people out there like that. Wake up! This woman wasn't that bad of course, but she was a modern day Potipher's wife who sought to destroy me because I was speaking out against pornography in town and she was a former stripper who had it "in" for preachers like me. And I never said it wasn't my fault, either.
Now, deal with my arguments. I want to stress the fact that my thinking has indeed changed. You cannot explain away my present ideas by pointing to these bad experiences in my life. They may be what provoked my thinking, but they don’t explain my thoughts. I am an atheist regardless of the experiences that led up to my present way of thinking. In talking with me you will have to deal with my arguments. Otherwise, I could point to your past experiences and explain your beliefs away as a product of what you have experienced too! People believe and doubt for a wide variety of reasons, and that’s all there is to it.
The real questions to me are: 1) Why God allowed this in the first place, if he knew the outcome would be that I'd become an atheist because of it and eventually lead others "astray;" and, 2) Why does the church shoot its own wounded?
7/15/2006 View Comments
I'd like you to know about this workshop coming right up. Feel free to call me and discuss. 510-292-0509
A weekend intensive for moving beyond religious indoctrination and reclaiming a life of joy, creativity, and connection. Led by Marlene Winell, Ph.D.
This workshop is for “recovering fundamentalists” or anyone who has left an authoritarian belief system and would like to accelerate their personal growth. I believe these belief systems foster separation – from the self, from others, and from the world. After leaving, a major task is to heal and strengthen these connections. Recovery requires developing a healthy relationship with yourself, which includes respect for your own worth, trust in your own intuitive wisdom, and expression of your own creativity. New frameworks and new skills are also needed for deep connections with others, as well as engaging with the world in the here and now. “Spirituality” needs to be reexamined.
The weekend is a powerful group experience of sharing deeply, exploring liberating concepts, and supporting each other in trying new things. In addition to discussion, we will use experiential methods including art, guided visualization, movement, and role-play. There will also be time for shared meals, relaxation, and fun. Because we are staying together, we will have the chance to get acquainted and begin a lasting support system beyond the weekend. As a special bonus, we will have massage treatments available. The weekend will begin with a talent night and party.
WHEN: FRIDAY, July 28, 7PM - SUNDAY, July 30, 3PM.
WHERE: Elmwood part of Berkeley, CA
COST: $320 for the workshop, $120 for housing and meals. Total: $440
A deposit of $100 will secure a space.
Early registration discount: $20 (Full payment by July 15)
To register or request information, send an email to email@example.com with your contact information and a bit about why you want to attend. You will receive more details and a registration form. You can also call 510-292-0509. Register soon to save a place. Group size is limited by design.
About Dr. Winell: Marlene Winell is a psychologist and Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies. She grew up in a fundamentalist missionary family, spent some years as a "born-again" Christian, and then went through her own recovery and growth process. She has worked in human services for 30 years and specializes in helping clients who are recovering from religious indoctrination. She is the author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. Her private practice in Berkeley, CA. includes counseling individuals, couples, and groups. She also consults by telephone.
Comments from previous participants:
“A wonderful retreat. I will never be the same.”
“Loved it. The exercises combined with the discussions really created a dynamic experience for me. The openness and the welcoming atmosphere made it easy and comfortable for me to share my thoughts and emotions.”
“Wonderful weekend! The tools, especially the monster/child/adult metaphor, and how to integrate and deal with it were very helpful. I enjoyed all the others: a talented, loving, real and compassionate group of people…I have been enriched.”
“This retreat is a great way to connect with others and reaffirm that you are not alone in your healing process. We were able to identify our own hidden issues through others stories. Marlene provides a supportive, nurturing environment to validate and affirm each participant, regardless of their stage in religious recovery.”
“Enjoyed your sense of humor. Really felt your connection with us. You created a safe environment for us with your unassuming approach and kind demeanor.”
“You understand, you love us through it, you give us real tools to use, you accept non-judgementally, thank-you!”
“Marlene is skilled, intuitive and informed. She has a gentle but firm way of guiding a person through the healing steps and skill building needed for coping with the negative aspects of religious upbringing.”
“You were very empowering. I want to feel empowered rather than helpless and so many other programs (12 steps) make you feel helpless.”
“I would come again without hesitation.”
“Retreat is worth it. Lots of guidance and nurturance will be provided if you can just get yourself to the retreat. Get yourself to the retreat and much else will fall into place.”
“I have since realized that my life is filled with promise and potential and that I have the necessary resources to make it (whatever it is) happen.”
7/11/2006 View Comments
The Bible Stands
The Bible stands like a rock undaunted
‘Mid the raging storms of time;
Its pages burn with the truth eternal,
And they glow with a light sublime.
The Bible stands like a mountain towering
Far above the works of men;
Its truth by none ever was refuted,
And destroy it they never can.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD, THE BIBLE WAS AS TIMELESS AS MY PARENTS. ALONG WITH
the foundations of the earth and the valleys of the sea, it had always
existed in its present, unchanging form. As a teenager, I spent hours
weekly studying its passages under the guidance of others, wiser and
more experienced than I. The contents of the Bible opened up to me. I
learned the basics of “biblical exegesis,” the methods by which Evangelicals
analyze scriptures phrase by phrase, word by word, even turning
to the original Greek or Hebrew to better mine the depths of meaning
layered into each perfect word of God. It never occurred to me to ask
the book’s history, because it had no history. Like God, it simply was.
Even through college, when I took one course called Old Testament as
Literature and another called New Testament Theology it never occurred
to me to ask about the histories of the Bible rather than the histories in
the Bible. This may sound odd to someone from a more liberal background,
one in which Bible texts are taught and studied in their historical
context. It may sound even more odd to someone from a background
external to Christianity. But as humans go, my ability to hold unquestioned
assumptions is not unusual at all.
In childhood and adolescence, each of us spends years building a world
view, a mental house that we can live in comfortably for the rest of our
lives. This is a process that psychologists call identity development.2
The deep structure of this house includes our basic ethnic identity,
political orientation, religious beliefs, occupational goals, and moral
framework. As adults, most of us do at least some cosmetic remodeling—
shifting our priorities and fine tuning our values—but it’s rather
unusual for an adult to go back and re-excavate the foundation. Unless a
life event, often something traumatic like a divorce or a death or a failed
career or emotional breakdown, opens up cracks in the deep structures,
we normally limit demolition and reconstruction to the upper stories.
Constantly remodeling our foundational assumptions is simply too costly
from the standpoint of emotional energy and life disruption. The earlier
a foundation block was set in place, the more expensive it is to dig it out.
If I hadn’t spent years as a high school and college student wrestling
with depression and bulimia, both of which failed to respond to devotion
and prayer, I might never have begun the process of questioning
that ultimately dismantled my faith. It is curious—and curiously human—
that even after my faith lay in rubble, I still was able to walk past that
familiar rubble without seeing it, without ever picking up and turning
over individual bits of my old foundation, like the Bible itself.
Once I did examine the Bible of my childhood more closely, here is
what I found:
The Bible is a collage. It is a collection of documents written over a
time span of 600 years or more. These documents take many different
forms and reflect the varying socio-political context and intent of their
authors. Like middle-aged lovers, each piece has a complicated history.
Some show signs of having their roots in oral traditions, in storytelling
or chant. Others appear to be fragments of liturgy. Older documents
may be quoted loosely or even misquoted. The Bible occasionally refers
to other texts, some no longer in existence.
Every piece of the Bible existed in some form as an independent
document before it found its way into the Holy Book. Pieces of text
written at different times circulated separately from each other. Later,
some of these manuscripts were brought together into canons: agreedupon
sets of most sacred writings. Experts argued about which ones
should be in and which ones should not. The canonization of the Hebrew
Scriptures was left largely in the hands of Jewish scholars, while
Christian authorities made decisions about the collection of writings that
would become the New Testament.
How the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible Came To Be
I said the Bible was written over a time span of at least 600 years. But
some of the content of the Old Testament had circulated for centuries in
earlier religious traditions. The first five books of the Bible, are known
as the Pentateuch, Torah, or books of the Law. According to tradition,
Moses gets credit for authoring the Torah, but linguists and antiquities
experts believe this authorship is unlikely. Evidence for authorship
by Moses relies simplistically on the claims the books make for themselves.
Analyses of individual texts suggest multiple authors and imply
that the books were crafted later. (The Moses story is set about 1,500
years before the time of Christ.)
The books of the Torah integrate stories and legal codes inherited from
cultures that inhabited the Middle East at the time that the tribes of the
Hebrews emerged. For example, the story of the Great Flood appears in
the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian religious text that pre-dates
the time of Moses by about five hundred years. The hero, Utnapishtim,
is warned by the god Ea to build a ship 120 cubits in length, breadth, and
height. (Noah is told to build one of different dimensions.) Utnapishtim
brings into the vessel not only the seed of all of the animals, but of all the
craftsmen as well. It rains for six days and nights, in contrast to the biblical
forty, before the boat lands on Mount Nisir. He releases a dove after
seven days, while Noah sends a raven first and a dove later.3
Similarly, the story of the baby Moses parallels the earlier story of
Sargon, who united the Sumerian and Akkadian kingdoms 800 years
before the time of the Israelite account. In the Sumerian tale, Sargon is
put into a basket of rushes and floated down a river. He is rescued by a
woman named Akki, who raises him in the royal court. But he eventually
breaks away and becomes a powerful ruler in his own right.4 The baby
Moses, too, is put into a basket of bulrushes by his mother and rescued by a
woman who raises him in the royal court. He breaks away with power
given directly by God and frees the Israelites from their Egyptian masters.
Other examples are scattered through the Old Testament. The creation
story of Genesis parallels the creation myth of the ancient Babylonians.
Out of primeval chaos and darkness, a divine spirit creates light;
firmament; dry land; the sun, moon, and stars; and man, before resting.
In some places, Hebrew writings draw on the surrounding Canaanite
texts. The sacred writings of the Canaanites depict their God, Baal, wrestling
against an evil one whose form is that of a serpent. Some hymns
praising Yahweh literally draw their words and cadences from hymns
praising Baal.5 The code of the Law, although it claims to have been given
by Yahweh to Moses, not only borrows legal concepts from earlier codes
but even at times imitates their linguistic structure.6
These elements inherited from earlier traditions nourished Hebrew
religious thought, which then produced additional sacred stories and
laws. Over time, fragments were woven together by scribes, and a
specific ordering of texts began to be handed down from generation to
generation. A small but important set of Hebrew writings would have
been recognized as sacred more than a thousand years before the Christian
era. These may have been primarily chants, prayers, and ritualized
stories that were used during worship.
It appears that the writings gathered into the Torah were accepted as a
sacred body by about 400 BCE, but evidence for an earlier date is scant.
The Samaritans, who split from Judaism in around 300 BCE, recognize
only the Torah as scripture, so scholars hypothesize that the other books
of the Hebrew Bible were not universally accepted within Judaism before
then. Over time, the Hebrew understanding of their God expanded,
and later writers documented this theological progression. Some of their
manuscripts would come to be seen as particularly sacred. The last books
now included in the Hebrew Scriptures were written more than a century
before the birth of Jesus, probably about 160 BCE. They would not
become an official Bible for another 250 years.
The Hebrew Bible was not finalized until nearly a century after the
death of Jesus. At the time, Judaism was threatened by both the growth
of Christianity and the loss of the Jerusalem temple, the center of
worship and society, which had been destroyed twenty years before. From
records that remain, it appears that about 90 CE Jewish scholars gathered
in a town called Jamnia, currently Yebna in Israel, to resolve disagreements
about the canon of Hebrew scripture. They feared that without a
clear center, Judaism itself would die. This center could no longer be a
place, it needed to be something Jews could carry with them no matter
where they might live. Ultimately, they declared thirty-nine books to be
essential to the Hebrew Bible. These books are the same as the current
Protestant Old Testament.
Modern scholars disagree about how important this process was. Some
argue that the participants merely formalized what was already broadly
agreed among Jewish leaders and worshipers. However, we know several
books were disputed by those present, including Esther, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel,
and Proverbs; and disagreements about whether certain books belonged in
the Hebrew Bible continued to spring up in the centuries that followed.
The earliest existing manuscripts of much of the Hebrew Bible are
from a set of scrolls found between 1947 and 1956 in caves near the
Dead Sea. It is believed that the scrolls were hidden for safekeeping by a
messianic Jewish sect that lived in the area.7 The Dead Sea or Qumran
Scrolls, as they are called, contain fragments of all of the books now in
the Hebrew canon except Esther, which has led scholars to speculate
that the sect that hid the scrolls may not have accepted this book as
scripture. (It is interesting to note that at the time of the Protestant Reformation,
Martin Luther also questioned the inspiration of Esther along
with the New Testament books of James, Hebrews, and Revelation.)8
Also interesting is that the scholars of Jamnia did not endorse seven
books Catholics call the Deuterocanonicals, also known as the Apocrypha.
The Deuterocanonical books are Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom
of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach), and Baruch. They were a
part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used
by Christians in the first centuries CE. In other words, at the time Christianity
was first spreading among the Gentiles, these books were packaged
with the other books of the Hebrew Bible. When the Apostles in the
New Testament quoted from the Old Testament, they almost invariably
quoted the Septuagint translation, which suggests the sacred body of
writings on which they drew included these books.9
Even after they were separated officially from the Hebrew Bible in Jamnia,
these books remained in the Christian Bible. When challenged by some
reformers, they were reaffirmed as biblical canon at the Council of Trent in
1500. In the years after the Reformation, they continued to be regarded as
scripture by many Protestants and as important sacred texts by almost
all. Ultimately, though, the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Puritans rejected
these books, and today most Protestant Bibles are printed without
them. I have never met an Evangelical who has read the Deuterocanonicals.
This history poses some thought-provoking challenges to the doctrine
of inerrancy. Councils are committees—human committees, presumably
fallible. Few Evangelical Christians, or other fundamentalists, would
insist that the decisions of church leaders, or, in this case specifically,
Jewish scholars, are perfect and without error. But in their fevered defense
of biblical inerrancy, this is exactly what they do.
How the New Testament Came To Be
The books that make up the New Testament were written over a time
span of about seventy-five years beginning about 50 CE. Thus, the books
that describe Jesus and claim to quote his words verbatim were compiled
a generation or more after the events they report.10
The first known proposal for a Christian canon came from a second
century Gnostic, Marcion. His list included a partial Gospel of Luke and
some of Paul’s letters, the only Christian writings he saw as inspired by
God. Marcion was considered a heretic, but he got things moving. In the
centuries that followed, Christian leaders responded to his challenge by
putting forth their own lists of sacred texts.
The first surviving list that includes the books of the modern New
Testament was written by Eusebius in the early fourth century. Eusebius
divided existing sacred texts into four categories: agreed on, disputed,
spurious, and those cited by heretics. It is noteworthy that he listed James,
Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John as disputed, and Revelation and Hebrews
as spurious.11 A generation later, church leaders adopted the modern
canon at a council held in 382 CE. Yet the Greek Orthodox Church continued
to debate the book of Revelation until the tenth century. The Syrian
Church, even today, excludes 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation
from its canon. The Copts and Ethiopians, both ancient Christian
traditions, have additional books not accepted by the Roman Catholic
Church and its Protestant offspring.12
Competing interpretations of Christianity flourished during the first
centuries of the Christian Era. Both Arianism and Gnosticism had particularly
widespread followings. Their power threatened the unity of the
church and prompted the church hierarchy to create unifying doctrinal
statements known as “creeds.” The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed,
statements of orthodox doctrine that are still recited by many believers
today, were developed to refute the “heresies” of Arianism and Gnosticism,
Christians who held the Arian view believed that Jesus was of different
substance than God, created by him, and that the Holy Spirit was
secondary to both of these. To combat such beliefs, the Council of Nicea
established the doctrine of the trinity and then drafted a creed to be
recited by believers, specifically asserting that Christ was equal with God.
“Only-begotten of the Father, that is to say, of the substance of the Father,
God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being
of one substance with the Father …”
Gnostics emphasized the spirit over the body. They believed that matter
is inherently evil and that only spirit can reflect the goodness of God.
For people who worshipped in Gnostic variants of Christianity, it was
impossible that Christ could be fully human. Gnostic believers had their
own version of sacred Christian scriptures. Many of the texts were burnt
or otherwise destroyed by advocates of the orthodox view and are known
of only because they are mentioned in other manuscripts. However, treasured
portions of these writings, now known as the Gnostic Gospels,
survived because they were hidden in jars beneath a boulder in the Egyptian
desert for almost 2000 years.13 These gospels offer a very different
perspective on the person of Jesus than do the writings adopted by the
Once an orthodoxy became established, communities of believers that
disagreed with this orthodoxy were persecuted and their sacred texts
destroyed.* As a consequence, much of the rich early history of Jesus
worship is lost. More than twenty gospels were produced during the
first three centuries of Christianity. Many were systematically purged by
believers who held the dominant views. Some that remain have been
gathered into a book called Lost Scriptures along with non-canonical
Acts of the Apostles, epistles, and apocalypses or prophesies.14
Those gospels that made it into the Christian New Testament—Matthew,
Mark, Luke, and John—reflect the orthodox perspective. Whether
they were the ones that most accurately described the life of Jesus or his
teachings, we will never know. The earliest surviving fragments of these
books date from about 175 years after the death of Jesus, and our first
complete copy is from 350 CE Paul’s letters make no mention of the
gospels, and few non-Evangelical scholars believe they were actually written
by the apostles whose names they bear. The structure and wording
of three (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) suggest that they drew on each other
or an earlier text, now lost. John is a later document and differs from the
others, not just in its structure, but in its emphasis on the deity of Jesus.
Literally thousands of copies of New Testament books in Greek and
Latin exist. These manuscripts are impressively consistent. Evangelical
apologists, or defenders of the faith, point to the similarity of these manuscripts
to illustrate how little the Bible changed across centuries of transmission.
However, virtually all of these copies date to the time when
Christianity was already the state religion of the Roman Empire. The
collection of writings contained in the New Testament had become an
official sacred bible by that time. As a consequence, the agreement among
these texts tells us little about how true they were to the literal words of
an historical Jesus.
Anthropologists point out that the time when traditions and texts
would have evolved and changed most was during the early period—
before an official canon of sacred texts was finalized. The record of those
early years is spotty at best partly because early Christianity spread by
word of mouth and partly because, as mentioned, once a view became
dominant, its adherents worked to obliterate all others.
How Do Modern Scholars Study the Scriptures?
Lives have been spent, and as we shall see in later chapters, lives have
been taken, in the quest to define one inspired body of scripture. The
resulting collection of sacred texts bears the marks of cultural evolution
and borrowings, of debate, of political influences, and of centralized
power imposing consensus by force; in other words, of human history.
Few worshipers may ask about the history of their Holy Scriptures or
about the criteria used for inclusion or exclusion of specific passages.
Fewer still may revisit the decisions made by their ancestors in the faith.
But among theologians, there have always been dissenting opinions about
the content of the biblical canon and the merits of different passages. At the
time of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin penned the following
words: “But in regard to the Canon itself, which they so superciliously
intrude upon us, ancient writers are not agreed. Let the mediators, then,
enjoy their own as they please, provided we are at liberty to repudiate
those which all men of sense, at least when informed on the subject, will
perceive to be not of divine origin.”15
Thomas Jefferson, deeply versed in
theology, went so far as to dissect a copy of the Bible, retaining those
passages he deemed worthy inspirations for worship and morality. His
goal was to excavate the authentic teachings of Jesus from under the
Platonist philosophy superimposed by early Jesus worshipers. The text
he created is known as The Jefferson Bible and is still available today.16
In the mid-twentieth century, Bible scholars from universities on both
sides of the Atlantic formed a group called the Jesus Seminar. Some were
believers; some were not. None were inerrantists, since inerrantism
doesn’t allow the type of inquiry they were about to undertake. Over a
period of years, seminar members examined the gospels using the methods
historians apply to analyzing other ancient texts. These methods are
called “higher criticism.” They looked at similarities and contrasts within
and among the gospels. They studied other texts from the same time
period, made linguistic comparisons, and dissected content. In the end,
they voted on which parts of the gospels they thought reflected the actual
words of a historical Jesus.
This process outraged conservatives, who said the vote trivialized the
sacred word of God. Yet in reality, the Jesus Seminar scholars were following
a time-honored tradition and engaging in the very process by
which the content of the Bible was established. Their criteria were new:
they based their decisions about each piece of text on linguistic patterns
rather than doctrinal orthodoxy or reputed authorship. Also, their level
of analysis was more detailed. For the council that ratified the New Testament
canon in 393 CE, the Synod of Hippo Regius, a “book” of writings was
either in or out. For the members of the Jesus Seminar, a phrase was
either in or out. But their goal– to make a best guess about the real teachings
of a real Jesus—was the same. So was their democratic approach.
Catholics who believe in biblical inerrancy are at least logically consistent.
They believe that God grants infallibility at times to the church
hierarchy and that he did so during the process of canonization. For
Evangelicals to insist on biblical inerrancy is bizarre. Evangelicals repudiate
the authority of the Catholic hierarchy and God’s control of Roman
Catholic history. In other words, they reject the very processes that
brought their Bible into existence while at the same time claiming that
the end product of those processes is perfect.
Some modern Christians call this stance “Bibliolatry.” Inerrancy, in
their eyes, is idol worship. It makes the Bible itself into a Golden Calf.
Inerrancy elevates a collection of human musings to a status that should
be accorded only to God himself. By doing so, it detracts from the human
struggle to grasp the sublime otherness of the Divine, whom we
humans see “through a glass, darkly.”
Biblical scholar Karen Armstrong argues that many literalist teachings
were created by a misunderstanding, a misapplication of the humanist
tools of reason and individualism to a body of ancient spiritual mythos
that was never meant to be interpreted in the concrete, and consequently
superficial, way it is now understood by modern Evangelicals.17
If we step back from debates about higher criticism and inerrancy, a
larger question looms: suppose God really wanted to make a perfect revelation
of himself to humankind. Does it not seem likely that he would
show himself in some form equally accessible to all rather than in a specific,
corruptible literary tradition?
Biblical inerrantists insist that the Bible is the perfect, unchanging, and
final work of God. They argue that if we do not take it literally and defend
its perfection, then we cannot take it seriously. But I, myself, wonder
if the opposite is true, if taking the Bible literally prevents the reader
from taking it seriously. It puts the reader at odds with the stance of the
writers themselves. Each author labored to reach beyond the traditions
that had been handed down and to move forward in understanding the
realities, moralities, and mysteries that we call God. All wrote during a
time when people didn’t keep journals just for personal satisfaction, which
means they wrote because they were interested not only in personal spiritual
growth, but also the spiritual growth of the societies in which they lived.
Instead of fostering growth, biblical literalism locks the believer into a
state of developmental arrest. A literalist can progress as far as the authors
of the Bible did in their struggles to comprehend reality and goodness,
but no farther. Worse, literalism demands the suspension of learning
and of critical thought. As external knowledge accumulates— knowledge
of science, history, linguistics, and human nature—this stance
becomes more rigid and brittle. And as moral comprehension deepens,
this stance becomes more regressive. Many apologists who defend a
literal interpretation of the Bible become contortionists or even sophists.
Though they claim to worship the God of Truth, they risk joining those
whom Christian author Scott Peck called “people of the lie.”
By contrast, understanding the construction of the Bible allows scholars,
seekers, and worshipers to honor it in keeping with its history. As a
collection of sacred documents spanning more than a thousand years, it
records the struggle of our ancestors to establish fair societies, to empower
moral instincts, to identify and explain evil, to comprehend the
cycles of birth and death, and to reach for meaning beyond the day-to-day
struggle for existence. Seeing the Bible in this way means that wisdom
can be gleaned from both the attainments and the failings of those
who have come before us, from their insights and from their errors.
How can one approach such a task but with both reverence and caution?
*The first of the Crusades that targeted other Christians was a pogrom to exterminate the Cathars, who lived in the region of modern France and practiced a Gnostic variant of Christianity. It is estimated that 20,000–70,000 Cathars died in the first wave of assaults, with an estimated half million killed in total, the last being burned at the stake in the mid-14th Century.