Sunday, June 30, 2019

Caution: the Bible is a Dangerous Book

When I was young and green and growing like an emerald sprout in the steamy Mississippi Delta, I was an avid churchgoer—my junior and senior years of high school I worked on the staff at the Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly Grounds, served as president of High School Youth for Christ, and led the closing prayer at my high school graduation. Yet in all my religious training no one ever warned me how dangerous the Bible was when read prescriptively, and that is precisely the way I was taught to read it in a Mississippi Baptist church—prescriptively! Taking the Bible prescriptively is what one does when one regards it as a divinely inspired book. My teachers in those early years were not critical scholars and they all believed the Bible reflected a prescription for a successful life, one that was pleasing to God. They seemed confident that knowledge of and obedience to its contents would develop a strong Christian character. During those early years, however, no one ever cautioned me that in reading the Bible I should have to choose carefully between its mosaic of good ideas and bad ideas; and it is essential that readers learn to discriminate between the positive and negative ideas advocated in its pages! For example, the Bible rightly extols the positive qualities of a wife and mother—qualities worthy of emulation (Proverbs 31:10-13), but it also promotes a blatant misogyny that easily misleads the unwary prescriptive reader (1 Tim 2:8-15).

Here is another example of the need to discriminate carefully among better and worse ideas appearing in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Paul compares three religious abilities: love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), prophetic powers, and faith. He claims that the ability to love is the greatest of these three abilities (1 Corinthians 13:13). Unfortunately this judgment is something he seems to forget in Galatians, where he aggressively promotes the right kind of faith over some who disagree with him (Gal 1:6-2:14). Discriminating readers will recognize the need to choose between these two contradictory positions—love can lead to reconciliation, while insistence on the right kind of faith will inevitably lead to disunity—and even violence (church history abounds with such examples). A striving after love, is the ethically more demanding choice (1 Corinthians 13:4), while the other, insisting on the right faith, more likely than not will lead to callousness (Gal 1:6-9). It is far more difficult to treat with love and kindness someone who disagrees with your faith than it is to denounce and dismiss them (as Paul did).

The most insidious aspect of taking the Bible prescriptively, however, is that its authors view reality mythically (myth: things that exist only in the imagination), and subliminally they call for readers to share their mythical views. Yet to accept their views one is required to regard the universe as a battleground between the forces of light (God, angels, Holy Spirit, good spirits, etc.) and Darkness (Satan, demons, evil spirits, etc.). Bible readers generally assimilate such ideas without serious challenge. Yet no formal argument for the necessity of believing in such an unseen world is presented in the Bible; its mythical world view simply reflects the backdrop of Hebrew and Greco-Roman antiquity. Such concepts were in the air the authors breathed and the water they drank.

Now in the late autumn of my allotted years I am hard struck by the failure of the Church to handle carefully the greatest treasure of its historical past. The Biblical corpus is like the corpus of ancient Greek poets whom Plato accused of corrupting the minds of Greek youth by attributing things to the Greek Gods that were untrue (The Republic, 377A-383E). In his ideal state he virtually censored the reading of the poets by the youth for the damage it could do them.* Here is my question: Should the Church learn from Plato’s example, and insist that there be warning labels on Bibles—perhaps something simple like the following: “Caution; contains ideas in part that should not be taken as a prescription for modern life”? There are many types of literature (politics, medicine, etc.) whose authors urge that their ideas be taken as a prescription for modern life. They change with the times. Yet it is precisely because of the Bible’s continuing iconic status in American culture that it requires a warning label. What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, June 26, 2015: “The Sybil’s Wish: A Mythical Encounter.

21 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Charlie. Wise words. The Bible is such a mishmash of the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly--and all of these tangled up together in a muddle--that it's hard for me to see a way forward! E.g., I despair over how to get persons of biblical faith beyond the cosmology of ancient mythology! Anyway, thanks!

    Bob Fowler

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    1. Good Morning Bob,
      Thanks for posting. I must admit that I do not recall ever delivering a lecture on ancient cosmology, except in connection with the Creation Accounts. I have tried to make up for that in my blogs.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  2. Hi Charlie,

    Warning label: Claims of authorship can't be trusted. Whose ideas are whose?

    Regarding 1 Corinthians 13:1-13:

    "There is substantial disagreement among scholars about the authorship of this passage. Some think Paul wrote it; some think that Paul adapted it from a non-biblical source; some think it is a later interpolation into Paul's letter - no mention of God or God's anointed, the connection with what precedes and what follows are a bit forced - disrupts Paul's discussion of special gifts in chapters 12 and 14, unusual poetic structure and lyrical language..." p. 98, 113-114. (Dewey, Hoover, Mcgaughy, Scmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning, Polebridge: 2010)

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Hi Gene,
      Your caution on chapter 13 is noted. I share the skepticism that Paul wrote chapter 13 of first Corinthians. But I note that Dewey, Hoover, Mcgaughy and Schmidt were equally conflicted. They did not include the chapter among their interpolations but they put chapter 13 in their authentic letters in double brackets.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  3. It might be the leaders, church hierarchies and pastors who need the warning message, though, since it seems that they are the ones interpreting their handpicked “favorites,” those stories that they call historical while considering “myth” as an “old,” generally religious story labeled “false” by their myth, which they call “fact.” I enjoy myth. It attempts to explain polarities, like “good/evil,” power/powerless,” and “life/death.” In the gospels, it gives one the possibility of the poor getting rich, the unclean becoming ritually clean, the oppressed finding relief. It seems the major myth believed as well as a major emphasis of the Christian Bible, is resurrection from death. The themes were old when adopted in the Christian writings, but the writings put a different “face“ on them. Myth is “true” inasmuch as one understands that the narrative is not written to deliver twentieth century “history,” but to tell a story that brings hope, that reconciles the conundrums of life in the language and knowledge of antiquity. If I’d had the pains of cancer before modern medicine, I would have easily thought a demon had entered my gut with a large sword and was slashing away. Believing there was a “superhero” or god that could expel it would probably have been helpful.

    It, however, should be the pastors’ responsibility for educating their congregation of the mythic Bible. And, it seems that the veracity of the tales is essential to the message most of Christianity delivers. I’d wager that most who read the Bible are looking at texts religious leaders have suggested, whether in the “daily readings” literature, in a bulletin or during a church service. From the few church services and funerals I have attended, pastors tend to call the mythical a historical, once in a lifetime, story and strip it of the power of hope it once had, which is probably why the fastest growing religious category is “nones,” (around one quarter of the population last I looked at Pew) for those who aren’t affiliated with a group. To modern sensibilities belief is incompatible when it is based on legend passed as fact. The themes of the Jewish and Christian myths are reiterated throughout the texts, themes found in the royal ideology of “the good king” from the ancient Middle East. The themes seem far more relevant than the fiction encompassing them. Now, back to Aesop. His fables make for great myth. I reckon had there been talking animals in the gospels, folks might have been looking for a deeper meaning to the myth within.

    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. "It might be the leaders, church hierarchies and pastors, who need the warning message...should be the pastors' responsibility for educating their congregation of the mythic Bible."

      Dennis, you hit the nail right on the head!

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    2. I asked a good friend, Gene, a pastor who was both from the SBC tradition and who had a doctorate from their southeastern seminary, why this education didn't happen. He said there were two reasons: 1. Ignorance of biblical criticism. 2. Fear. The ramifications were just too much to sacrifice. When my friend's church was "purged" from the Georgia Baptist Convention, they had a party. Around the same time, the author of a great book, Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer U. was brought up on heresy charges because of the book ("When We Talk about God... Let's be Honest"). Apparently, they have been warned, not by the Bible but by reading it with their brains intact.

      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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    3. Another perspective is that there is a vastly insufficient number of inquisitive minds among the laity. Many times in my younger years I referred to the importance of the "priesthood of the laity" and mostly I got blank stares and being ignored. The laity, in general seems to have no desire to be inquisitive. And there is also the matter of the easy manipulation of the laity. As a young pastor I preached a sermon on the importance of the Consultation on Church Union (early 1970's); over a hundred folks came forward in support of my entreaty. In conversations the following week, few people had the same understanding of what I said, and I vowed never to have an "altar call" of any type again, and I stuck to that vow. And so we appear to have a one-two punch of apathy and a manipulation weakness standing in the road of any interest of a critical reading of the Bible. If a leader tells them to have faith in the blood of Jesus and they'll go to heaven, wow, the laity snaps up that get out of jail card in a second.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    4. There is little reason for folks to be inquisitive, since one reason for church attendance is to have beliefs reinforced. I wouldn't characterize it as apathy, necessarily. To me it is more like watching a magic show and being completely engrossed by the tricks, but not fretting over how it was done. (That happens to me every time I use a microwave oven or a computer.)
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  4. Charlie, the most dangerous aspect of the Bible (as I've said before) is the anti-Semitism of the Greek authors and editors who wrote the NT. Matthew 27:25 for example is used to demonize "the Jews" as Jesus killers. And we all know the consequences of that label and how it was used to do harm to Jewish men women and children. Whatever "danger" one perceives in the Bible and whatever warning label it may require- you cannot argue that no people on this earth have suffered more from the Christian NT than the Jewish people. If there had been no Jesus or no Gospel or no NT, there would be a lot more of them around today. Sadly, Christians don't seem to care or are in any way bothered by this fact in the slightest degree. They shrug their shoulders and say "Well that 's too bad." Elizabeth

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    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      I think of Jewish identity as follows: Jews are those who identify with the scriptures about Abraham and his descendants and Jesus was among these, those who identify with the teachings and example of the human Jesus, and those who identify with the gifts of the resurrected Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, so any follower of his is a Jew. If I harm any of these folks in any way, I condemn myself by harming my own Jewish brother or sister.

      We are all equally members of humanity, of course, and by condemning another I would be condemning myself.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  5. Re: Biblical warning

    Charlie,

    I certainly agree that a warning is needed to any current or future uninformed reader of the Bible (or any other similar document of other religions) of the nature of the document. The warning should consist of a simple statement of the truth: "This document is authored solely by humans that perceive their understanding of the nature of their god/s & humankind and has not been authenticated by any scientific means or body".

    Thanks for a well written blog!

    Jim

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  6. Gene I couldn't agree more about the lack of inquisitive minds amongst the laity... Why is that? Because I used to be one of them!! I still to this day don't know what shifted in me. It was gradual, not sudden. My limited observation is also in agreement with your assessment of a certain apathy in church goers... Most people want that get out of jail free card, that's a perfect description. In new age groups, people just want to repeat a mantra that will make them feel good instantly and banish their problems. (Not much difference between that and having faith in the blood of Jesus)

    Elizabeth in humid St. Louis

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  7. Charlie, I don't know where excerpt originated from but it was either written or spoken by Alan Watts. (Have you ever heard of Alan Watts?)

    "For many centuries the Roman Catholic Church was opposed to translating the Holy Scriptures into the "vulgar tongue.” To this day, you can still get rid of a Bible salesman by saying, "But we are Catholics and, of course, don’t read the Bible.” The Catholic hierarchy included subtle theologians and scholars who knew very well that such a difficult and diverse collection of ancient writings, taken as the literal Word of God, would be wildly and dangerously interpreted if put into the hands of ignorant and uneducated peasants.

    This may sound snobbish, for there is an assumption that, in the Bible, God gave His message in plain words for plain people. Once, when I had given a radio broadcast in Canada, the announcer took me aside and said, "Don’t you think that if there is a truly loving God, He would given us a plain and specific guide as to how to live our lives?”

    "On the contrary," I replied, "a truly loving God would not stultify our minds. He would encourage us to think for ourselves." I tried, then, to show him that his belief in the divine authority of the Bible rested on nothing more than his own personal opinion, to which, of course, he was entitled. This is basic. The authority of the Bible, the church, the state, or of any spiritual or political leader, is derived from the individual followers and believers, since it is the believers’ judgment that such leaders and institutions speak with a greater wisdom than there own.

    Why does one come to the opinion that the Bible, literally understood, is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Usually because one’s "elders and betters," or an impressively large group of ones peers, have this opinion. But this is to go along with the Bandar-log, or monkey tribe, in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books , who periodically get together and shout, "We all say so, so it must be true!" Having been a grandfather for a number of years, I am not particularly impressed with patriarchal authority. I am of an age with my own formerly impressive grandfathers (one of whom was a fervent fundamentalist, or literal believer in the Bible) and I realize that my opinions are as fallible as theirs.

    But many people never grow up. They stay all their lives with a passionate need for eternal authority and guidance, pretending not to trust their own judgment. Nevertheless, it is their own judgment, willy-nilly, that there exists some authority greater than their own. The fervent fundamentalist whether Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Moslem is closed to reason and even communication for fear of losing the security of childish dependence. He would suffer extreme emotional heebie jeebies if he didn’t have the feeling that there was some external and infallible guide in which he could trust absolutely and without which his very identity would dissolve.

    This attitude is not faith. It is pure idolatry. The more deceptive idols are not images of wood and stone but are constructed of words and ideas and mental images of God. Faith is an openness and trusting attitude to truth and reality, whatever it may turn out to be. This is a risky and adventurous state of mind. Belief, in the religious sense, is the opposite of faith because it is a fervent wishing or hope, a compulsive clinging to the idea that the universe is arranged and governed in such and such a way. Belief is holding to a rock; faith is learning how to swim and this whole universe swims in boundless space." Alan Watts 1915-1973

    Charlie, do you really think the Bible still holds an iconic status in American culture? In other words, do you think a significant number of people take it literally? Many thanks, Elizabeth

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    1. Good Morning Elizabeth
      I have heard of Watts but have never read anything he published (except what you posted here). And yes I do think, as I said in the last sentence of this blog, that the Bible enjoys an iconic status in American culture.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Maybe in certain parts of the USA, but only superficially does it hold any "status." It's a comforting symbol used ceremonially. Not sure how relevant it is outside the Bible Belt.

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  8. The “Bible Belt” is pretty far reaching. I have attended megachurches in southern California that are very much literalists in their interpretation of the New Testament, in particular. Do they actually believe that? Who knows? But that is what is preached, and they take great pride in being “Bible believing” churches. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The churches that are growing today are fundamentalist in nature. People want some assurance in a changing, confusing world. It’s pretty difficult, if not downright impossible, to reason with people who believe they have a hotline to God and use the Bible as a weapon. In that respect, the Bible can be very dangerous, indeed.

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  9. The “Bible Belt” is pretty far reaching. I have attended megachurches in southern California that are very much literalists in their interpretation of the New Testament, in particular. Do they actually believe that? Who knows? But that is what is preached, and they take great pride in being “Bible believing” churches. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The churches that are growing today are fundamentalist in nature. People want some assurance in a changing, confusing world. It’s pretty difficult, if not downright impossible, to reason with people who believe they have a hotline to God and use the Bible as a weapon. In that respect, the Bible can be very dangerous, indeed.

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  10. I must dissent. I believe the Bible IS the Word of God. I have had every doubt anybody else has, and every one has been answered. I am not a blind stupid person, but an educated health professional. I feel, also, that there is almost nothing I could say to all of you to convince you to my thinking; your ears are closed. However I am willing to enter into any debate if I sense an openness to truth.

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    1. Good Morning,
      If you believe the Bible is the Word of God, then obviously it is so for you. But describing what you believe about a thing is not the same as describing the thing itself, for you have only described your belief about that thing. Here is a caution: believing a thing to be so does not make it so.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  11. Re: My last comment statement as to why evangelicals voted for Trump

    Charlie & all,

    I might add that surely a large element of the explanation for why evangelicals or any other group did NOT vote for Trump can also be due to the same explanation, i.e. the influence of others.

    Jim

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