Category Archives: Christianity and the Bible

Defending the Old Testament: Genesis 3

At a writer’s conference recently, I spoke to a woman whose college-age son has left the church.  The woman told me that her son “feels there’s too much violence, bigotry, and superstition in the Old Testament.”  I suspect this woman isn’t alone, and that many people are driven away from Christianity because of the OT.  As a result, Christians need to be able to defend the OT against the most common objections.

The first step in defending the OT is to understand what the objections are, and that is what we’ll be doing in this OT commentary.

For our first lesson, we’ll be looking at the story of the Fall of Man, as described in Genesis, chapter three.

Naturally, some critics classify the entire story of the Fall of Man as a fairytale, pointing out that it features a talking snake and a God who walks around in human form.  To make itself more believable, the story also “explains” why snakes don’t have legs, why childbirth is so painful, and why life is so brutish (which it certainly would have been during the bronze age).

Ignoring such complaints, today we’ll focus instead on criticisms that are more difficult to answer.

If we remember the story, God tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, saying that “on the day that you eat from it, you will die.”

God’s commandment to Adam and Eve is where the trouble starts.  For one thing, the critic wonders why God would want humans to be ignorant of the difference between good and evil.  In addition, God doesn’t explain the reason for his demand.  Instead, he tells Adam and Eve that eating fruit from the tree will kill them.  Thus, right from the beginning of the OT, humanity’s relationship with God is based on irrational demands that are backed up with the threat of punishment.

As we move further into the story, the situation only becomes worse, because the serpent points out God’s apparent lie.  When the serpent asks Eve if she can eat anything in the garden, she says that only the one tree is forbidden, because eating it is deadly.  Once the serpent shows her that the tree isn’t poisonous, Eve understandably eats the fruit.  After all, knowing the difference between good and evil seems like a pretty important skill to have, especially when you live in a world where God lies to you.

God’s behavior again becomes problematic when he wanders into the garden “searching” for Adam and Eve.  God’s apparent surprise to find them dressed makes him appear less than omniscient.  And once God discovers Adam and Eve’s enlightened state, the OT makes matters worse by having God say, “If they eat of the tree of immortality, they will become like us.”  Thus, the OT seems to be promoting not only a very limited and weak God, but also polytheism.

Finally, in placing a curse on the entire human race for Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the OT makes God seem unjust and tyrannical.

Keep in mind that these complaints about the story of the Fall of Man remain valid, whether we read this passage literally or metaphorically, which is why they are more difficult to defend against than criticisms that focus on the fairytale qualities of the story itself.

The outside world reads the OT differently than Christians do.  Once Christians understand this, they can better prepare themselves to communicate with people who aren’t part of the church.

The Orthodoxy of William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison was more than an abolitionist, he was a follower of Jesus who promoted equality for all starting in the 1830s.  For most of his career, Garrison was called a fanatic, while even after the end of slavery in the United States, Garrison was treated by most scholars as a misguided oddball, someone who probably did more harm than good to the cause of abolition, thanks to his support for bizarre ideas like equality without regard to race or sex.  Until Henry Mayer’s wonderful biography of Garrison, All On Fire, we could say that most academics who discussed Garrison were products of their time, their conclusions about him clouded by their own prejudices.

Garrison had other strange ideas, of course.  He promoted pacifism, indulged in homeopathic medicine (in an age when doctors still used leaches and purgatives as cure-alls), rejected organized religion, and promoted a spiritual existence based in individual conscience.

In one way, however, Garrison was quite orthodox, because he continued to revere the Bible, Old Testament included.  To be sure, Garrison did reject the idea of inerrancy, and rather than trying to creatively interpret passages in the Bible that supported slavery, he acknowledged that they were wrong.  Still, Garrison continued to quote from the OT, often using it to support his ideas.

Of course, Garrison quoted anybody who supported his ideas, including poets, authors, and even the occasional politician.  However, like modern progressive Christians, Garrison’s use of the OT reinforced its status as a moral guide.

An Enduring Legacy

Garrison focused his energies not on political maneuvering, but on raising the moral values of the society around him.  His approach is perhaps the only way to truly influence public opinion.

When the U.S. ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, Garrison stopped publishing his newspaper.  Unfortunately, while the national constitution now prohibited slavery, Christianity’s constitution — the Bible — remained unchanged, its support for slavery as strong as ever.

As a result, Garrison’s legacy is threatened by the continuing authority of the OT — an authority he helped to maintain.  But Garrison isn’t alone.  For the last several hundred years, “progressive” Christians have been promoting various social reforms in spite of clear OT resistance to such reforms.  Almost always, though, the champions of reform continued to quote the OT as an authoritative guide to righteousness.

In other words, Christian have left a bulldozer parked next to the statue of their accomplishments, making it easy for an unseen future to destroy their legacy of tolerance and inclusion.

The Better Angels of our Bibles

In his New York Times bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker describes the many ways that violence has decreased in modern times.  It’s easy for us to overlook just how violent the past was, but torture, wars of conquest, slavery, witch burning, and public executions were all accepted practices.

As Pinker demonstrates, using not only historical examples but also statistics and a number of independent studies, it wasn’t just that people were tortured and burned at the stake, but rather that such practices were treated as “how we do things around here.”  News that someone had been punishing by having a tongue torn out or eyes gouged out would induce shock and horror in a modern audience, but for most of history such “cruel and unusual punishment” wasn’t unusual at all.

While Pinker focuses on the decline of violence and discusses morality only briefly, it seems fair to say that modern society has developed higher moral standards than at any time in history.  As Pinker points out, today we see racism and religious intolerance as intolerable.  We recognize genocide as unlawful and immoral.  We have child labor laws and even societies to protect animals from abuse.

In support of such changes, we’ve embraced the idea that everyone is created equal, to the point where many countries have granted women equal rights under the law, while even in places like the United States, where the Equal Rights Amendment was determined to be unbiblical, women still enjoy many privileges such as the right to vote and to own property.

Pinker’s book offers a number of explanations as to how these changes came about, such as widespread literacy and the ability of fiction, especially, to help us see the world through the eyes of others.  Whatever the mechanism, though, it seems clear that the Second Commandment of “Love your neighbor as yourself” has been quietly seeping into our culture.

Unfortunately, the elevation of our moral standards has left Christians in an uncomfortable position, given their continued reverence toward the OT.

Although our morality has improved, the OT’s moral system has remained stagnant.  This is a rather predictable problem.  So far, the preferred Christian solution to this problem has been to creatively interpret the OT, often inverting the clear meaning of the text.

Unfortunately, the disinterested reader isn’t fooled by convoluted interpretive games.  As a result, the darker aspects of the OT serve to drive people from the faith.

The solution to this isn’t reeducation, but honesty.  Christianity needs to focus on the NT, and relegate the OT to the role of a secondary resource.  In short, Christianity needs to focus on the better angles of its Bible.

New Theology, Same Bible

In talking about his 180-degree change of opinion regarding homosexuality, Christian author Brian D. McLaren said in a blog post that he

re-opened the issue, read a lot of books, re-studied the Scriptures, and eventually came to believe that just as the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) … we had been wrong on [homosexuality].

Never mind all those past (and in some cases, ongoing) mistakes, McLaren’s change of heart didn’t lead him to reject the Bible. In fact,

my love and reverence for the Bible increased when I became more aware of the … now-discredited traditional interpretations…. I was able to distinguish “what the Bible says” from “what this school of interpretation says the Bible says,” and that helped me in many ways.

Sigh.  McLaren comes so close to acknowledging the Bible’s flaws, but then backs away. Putting the blame on the erroneous interpretations of “those Christians back then” and “those Christians over there” is a dodge.  No, let’s be blunt.  Blaming “hermeneutics” is a lie.  And the willingness of Christians to go into a closet for two days, then come out with the opposite interpretation of scripture that they had before, demonstrates how unconcerned these folks are with intellectual honesty.

I think this is such a hard problem because the Bible is God for so many people.  These aren’t dumb people, though.  They’re just people who find the Bible easier to believe in and easier to relate to than the unseen God.  After all, the book is never far away.  You can see it, touch it, and hold it.  It actually talks back!  It’s the most magnificent idol ever.  And all that’s required to believe in it is that we ignore a few hundred (or perhaps a few thousand) anomalies.

The down side of such loyalty, however, and as I’ve said before, is that the OT retains its stature as a guide to morality, even as it continues to support all the bigotry and hatefulness that McLaren mentioned in his post.  I promise you, there will come a day when the OT will once again be used to justify slavery, the oppression of women, religious intolerance, and the oppression of homosexuals.  When that day comes, McLaren and his ilk will bear some of the responsibility, because they preferred to renounce honesty so as to cling to a book.

The Apostate Attendee

If you write for a Christian audience, especially a conservative Christian audience, the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writer’s Conference (BRMCWC) is the place to be.  With three classes per day, plus a keynote address each evening, the agenda is packed with information, and the people leading the classes that I attended not only had the credentials as practitioners, they were also excellent teachers — a combination that isn’t always guaranteed.  Of course, with more than twenty classes to choose from in most time slots, I sampled only a fraction of the material available, but the consensus of everyone I talked to was that the fire hose effect was a near constant across all the various classes.

The best networking opportunities came during meal times, served cafeteria style, with round tables seating six-to-eight people.  At lunch and dinner, instructors were spread out, one to a table, offering an extra opportunity to pester successful writers, editors, and agents.  Even for a shy person, the meals offer plenty of chances to practice your seven-second introduction and, possibly, your elevator spiel.

Most attendees appeared to revere James Dobson and Focus on the Family (before it went soft, that is).  Still, I managed to make it through the conference without serious difficulty, despite my closet deism/agnosticism and my mission of getting the Old Testament out of the Christian Bible.

I did get a lot of “You want to do what, again”?  A few responses consisted of “You can’t do that,” but an equal number of actual conversations balanced out the rejections from on high.  One conversation actively encouraged me, especially when I mentioned that the OT isn’t really PG-13 material, and the lady I was talking to mentioned the Lot-and-his-daughters story without being prompted.

To offset the encouraging conversation, I only had one near altercation — totally my own fault for pushing too hard against somebody clearly not receptive.  The woman told me I was being too legalistic, which I haven’t quite deciphered even now.  But I got the “you need to be very careful” message, while her opinion that “tolerance and acceptance are going to lead a lot of people to hell” was a good place for the conversation to end.

There may be conferences that draw a more progressive Christian audience, but wherever you fall on the political spectrum, the BRMCWC remains a good place to learn about the craft and the business of writing.

Is The Old Testament Authoritative?

According to a post from the “Practical Theology For Women” blog, “The Spirit is regularly moving to realign the Church with the Word of God. The Church isn’t to reform according to culture but according to the Word” (“Notes on Starting a Movement“).  That quote demonstrates the willful delusion that we can make the Bible mean whatever we want.  There wouldn’t be any need to “realign the Church” if society’s morals had remained fixed in place.  Only because our moral arc has curved upwards, as M.L.K. would say, has it become necessary for the “Spirit” to change the meaning of the words on the page.

Increasingly, our interpretation of the OT has become not just clever and creative, but has actually inverted the original meaning of the text – and this is true of all Christians, though it is more true of progressives.

If we wanted to be fully honest, we would acknowledge that the motivation here is to use the Bible as an authority, so as to privilege our personal beliefs and opinions over those of others.

An example of this can be found in a blog post by Emily Timbol, called “Is the Bible ‘Clear’ on Those Verses?’”

Timbol’s passion is to promote equality without regard to sexual orientation, a goal that our modern culture generally deems to be worthy and high-minded.  However, Timbol also wants to privilege what the Bible says, which forces her to get creative with her reading of the OT, so that it is seen

not as an instruction book, or a composition of verses meant to be dissected – but as a whole. A story….  There’s the Old Testament Scriptures, filled with pain, suffering, sacrifice, and the longing for the coming of a savior.

What Timbol describes is a non-canonical resource.  Once a book becomes a mere story – once a book describes history, not present day belief – it no longer deserves to be part of the canon, and it should no longer be treated as anything other than a book.  And yet, according to Timbol, “What is a sin is misusing the Bible….”  In saying that, Timbol elevates the OT above the ranks of ordinary books, so that she can use it to validate her predefined beliefs.

Such inconsistency is dangerous.  By insisting that the OT is a guide to morality, progressive Christians implicitly lend credence to those who use the OT to justify hateful agendas.  While the two sides disagree as to interpretation, what remains constant is the OT’s unquestioned authority.  Indeed, when progressive Christians are faced with a troublesome passage, they prefer to “change their interpretation” (Timbol) rather than accept that the OT is a kind of ink-blot that means whatever we want it to mean.

If progressive Christians want to treat the OT as a story or as a product of its time, fine.  But then let them stop promoting it as an authoritative guide to higher morality.

 

Practical Theology for Progressive Christians

Wendy Alsup runs a very successful blog called “Practical Theology for Women” (http://www.theologyforwomen.org/), where she approaches Christianity from a progressive point of view.  I want to respond to one specific blog post of Alsup’s, called “Some things you should know about women and the Old Testament,” (http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2013/05/some-things-you-should-know-about-women.html).

Alsup begins by saying “The Old Testament gets a bad rap among progressive Christians at times.”  This is true, but it is also an understatement, as it leaves out the agnostics, atheists, and former Christians who also view the OT as being morally unacceptable.  And while the so-called “texts of terror” that Alsup refers to do often describe the harsh treatment of women, that’s not the end of it.  Children, and sometimes even men, are seen as the unfair targets of extreme violence and bigotry within the pages of the OT.

Alsup points out how unfair these objections to the OT are, telling us that “without carefully connecting the lines, broad conclusions are made” about the OT.  However unfair and inadequate these broad conclusions are, they are conclusions that have shown up repeatedly over the lifetime of the church, with some of the first recorded Christian objections being raised by an old boy named Marcion in the 140s CE.

As Alsup points out, such misguided people sometimes conclude that the OT “is no longer God’s revelation of Himself to His people.”  It’s even worse than that, though, because such people often conclude that the OT was never God’s revelation.  For the Marcionites and the Manichaeans, this led to a focus on the New Testament.

For more recent objectors, the result can be worse still:  it can be a rejection of the NT as well.  This is one cost of associating Christianity with a book that is as subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation as the OT.

Consider the philosopher Thomas Paine, who wrote The Age of Reason as a denunciation of not just the OT but of Christianity as a whole back in the 1790s.  More recently, former evangelist Dan Barker, now an aggressive atheist, discredits all forms of religion in his book godless.

You Win!

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Christian apologetics has dozens of interpretive approaches for defending the OT.  What’s more, starting with Marcion, the church has always won that argument!  (If we exclude the fourteen books of the Apocrypha that protestants pulled from the OT during the Reformation, I mean.)  The church has a 6-0 record!  (Or else 5-0-1, if you consider the loss of the Apocrypha a tie.)   Congratulations.  Give yourself a pat on the back and treat yourself to an ice cold Fresca.

Now, though, let’s consider the cost of those victories.  The Marcionite and Manichaean religions were both major competitors to Christianity for several centuries.  But to bring the matter closer to home, consider the millions of people today who are raised in the church, but who leave, never to return.  Consider the millions of people who might like to be part of a kinder, gentler, more progressive spiritual community, but who can’t get past what they see in the OT.

It’s a mistake to think that we can reach those people by teaching them complicated interpretive methods.  The history of this is pretty clear:  the very presence of the OT inside the canon drives people away, and keeps people away.  And no amount of apologetics, hermeneutics, reason, or prayer can fix that.

On top of which, teaching people how to ignore their conscience isn’t the right answer.  That’s not a business Christians should be in.

The time has come for Christians to stop winning this argument.  It’s time for those who are stronger in their faith to listen to what Paul says in Romans 15:1, and stop pleasing themselves with the OT, without taking into account the spiritual cost their pleasure has for others.

As Alsup says, “this is how I’ve reconciled these with the Spirit in my own heart.”  Unfortunately, her attitude takes into consideration only herself, not the people who are being lost as a direct result of the OT’s presence in the Bible.  In effect, Alsup is herself ignoring the message in Judges 21:25, where “everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes.”

Given that we don’t have a king (or religious dictator) who can force everyone to acknowledge the OT as the Word of God, we need to pursue a more NT approach, and ourselves make a sacrifice, rather than demanding that those people make a sacrifice.

It’s time for progressive Christians to decanonize the OT.