Category Archives: Politics and Culture

My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 1: Genre Matters

Picking up where we left off before–

Sam Harris wants to tie his interlocutors to a specific dichotomy about the Bible.  It’s either the inerrant word of God or a purely mortal product.  Because he knows his fundamentalist target audience already believes that, he doesn’t bother to make the case for accepting that dichotomy, nor does he bother to tell us why we should reject other views of the Bible between the extremes.  But there certainly are viable views in between the extremes that still allow for the scriptures to be authoritative for our faith without the need for an over-rigid theory of inspiration.

For what it’s worth, here’s where I am when it comes to issues of Biblical inspiration and authority:

1) No one wrote a history before someone wrote a history.  Okay, that’s tautological, I know.  But the point is that genre is important, especially regarding the Old Testament.  It is generally acknowledged that the first person who set out to write a history in anything close to the modern sense was Herodotus in 5th century B.C. Greece.  That was the beginning of a new discipline that sought to record events in a way that faithfully represented the accounts of those who were there.  Before Herodotus, there weren’t distinct histories, just epic stories that combined parts of what we would now label history, legend and myth.  If a superior intelligence wanted to communicate in written form to the tribal peoples of the ancient near East, he would be unlikely to choose to do so through history, a genre that was completely unfamiliar to them.  (It is so familiar to us that this is hard to imagine–we just have to do our best to get into the mindset of a 13th century Hebrew slave.)  If you compare the early sections of Genesis to other ANE creation accounts like Atrahasis or the epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll see some pretty marked similarities.  Skeptics consider that evidence against the Bible, but it’s only reasonable that God would communicate in a cultural form that was already familiar to the Hebrew people.  Giving them a history would have been a huge misservice when they only knew how to interpret cultural myth.  And here I mean myth as a literary form, not implying falsity, but noting that exacting historicity was not the point.

Is it possible to communicate theological truth through ahistorical stories?  Would God do such a thing?  Well, sure he would, and if you’re a Christian, you think so too.  Because we believe that Jesus was God and Jesus communicated through parables–one of the most culturally relevant genres of first century Palestine.  If Jesus chose stories about vineyard workers and banquets to communicate genuine truth about God and the kingdom, why couldn’t the Father have chosen ANE style epic form to communicate essential truths about himself and the world he created?

The Bible communicates through a tremendous variety of genres: songs, proverbs, letters, parables, apocalypses, law codes, gospels, prophecies, dramatic monologues, genealogies, and, yes, histories.  But there is no compelling reason to assign the label “history” to many early sections of the Bible, and I suspect that we only do so because of the weight of tradition and our own cultural familiarity with the genre.  When Genesis is laid alongside other contemporaneous literature, it’s clear that epic myth is a much better fit for genre.

And that doesn’t make Genesis less inspired or less authoritative, any more that understanding that there wasn’t a historical good Samaritan or prodigal son make those stories less authoritative.  (You do think that those are preachable, right?  And they tell us something about God, right?)  But it does mean that arguing about whether the days of creation were 24-hour days or eons, or whether the flood was world-wide or local, ultimately is about like arguing over what color the good Samaritan’s donkey was.  It’s not the point of the story.

I think it’s important to say that I didn’t come to this view of Genesis because I wanted to disregard it in any sense–and I don’t.  I came to this view because my evangelical Bible teachers taught me that to interpret a passage well, I had to understand its genre.  To me, the most conservative approach I can take is to assume that the Bible was written in the genres appropriate to its era(s), and not impose on the scriptures the forms and preferences of my own era.  To force the early Biblical passages into the genres I know and like regardless of the original cultural context is not a conservative move–far from it.  God communicated clearly within the constraints of the literary forms that were available to his readers.  He could not have done otherwise and expected them to understand.

Next up, assumption #2: Some Things That Seem Important to Me Don’t Matter to the Biblical Writers


Filed under Atheism, Bible

Atheists Think the Only Real Christians Are Fundamentalists

Author Sam Harris.  This picture, like his worldview, is black and white.

Author Sam Harris. This picture, like his worldview, is black and white.

I wrote before that “there’s a pretty thin line between Fundamentalism and Atheism,” and “It is the Fundamentalist position that there are only two coherent worldviews: Fundamentalism or Atheism.”  What I should have mentioned is that most atheists I interact with think that the only legitimate form of Christianity is Fundamentalism, and they continually read the Bible just like fundamentalists, do, only without faith.  Granted, that’s a big difference, but it’s important to note that the reading strategies are identical.  Atheists and fundies agree that the presence of contradictions or historical inaccuracies in the text would disqualify the Bible from functioning as divine scripture, which is why one side tirelessly compiles lists of Biblical errors and the other side tirelessly seeks to reconcile them all.  The reason that game goes on and on, unendingly, is that they are working from the same Enlightenment rules.  And it’s a pretty dumb game for Christians to play, since the rules stipulate that the other side only has to score one point to win the game.   If we don’t plausibly explain away every single alleged contradiction, we lose.  And you already know that I don’t think we can do that.

Or take the opening paragraph of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation:

You believe that the Bible is the word of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true. Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong.  The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t.  Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not.  We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so….

As a work of propaganda this is marvelous, and surely effective.  All Harris is doing is pointing out that he and the fundamentalists he is addressing share an identical black and white worldview.  He doesn’t have to persuade them to play by his rules–they are already on board.  All he has to do is play the game better than they do.  Actually, he doesn’t even have to do that, since they’ve implicitly agreed to the “if I score one point against you, you automatically lose” rule.

The really clever thing he does comes soon after, on page 5.

Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit.  Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t.  Either Christ was divine, or he was not….At least half the American population understands this.

This follows up on something he writes on page ix, in the introductory “Note to the Reader”:

In Letter to a Christian Nation, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms. Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the “Christian” I address. (emphasis mine)

Brilliant!  He not-very-subtly flatters his intended audience by declaring that fundamentalist/conservative evangelical Christianity is the most committed form of the faith.  He knows that if he can convince his readers that all the really serious Christians are inerrantists, his work is almost done.  He’s narrowed the field down to two options, one of which he’s pretty sure he can obliterate, even while he’s smiling and speaking softly the whole time.

Needless to say, Pope Benedict XVI might not be so quick to agree that the most committed Christians are fundies.  Or the Metropolitan Christodoulos of the Greek Orthodox Church.  Or the Episcopal priests I know who are doing poverty assistance in struggling urban neighborhoods.  Or the pastor at the Disciples of Christ church down the road who is active in homeless assistance.  Harris wants to measure commitment not by “perseverance in following the example of Jesus” (which seems like a reasonable definition to me), but by “adherence to a literalist reading of the scriptures.”  There’s no necessary link between the two, and if you were to tell most of the early church fathers that the only really dedicated Christians were strict literalists you’d have to wait for them to stop laughing before they could give you a cogent response.  In fact, the whole historical-grammatical interpretive paradigm only develops in the most recent four or five hundred years of Christian history, and really became prominent in the last three hundred.  That might seem like a long time, but for most of Christian history, the brand of Christian identity that Harris considers “the most committed form” didn’t even exist.

Lunch break is over…I’ll continue this line of thinking later.


Filed under Atheism, Church Culture, Politics and Culture

God Talk

Stanley Fish:

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

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In Response to Comments…

I really appreciate the folks that have dropped comments on my obscure little blog. Let me take a moment to respond to some of what you’ve said.

In the “On Not Voting” post, d.eris writes: “How would you read “render unto Caesar” in this context? As paying the tax and casting the ballot? Or paying the tax and casting off the ballot?”

caesars-image1Since the Gospel writers were in an imperial context, far different than a modern representative democracy, this matter of Christian political engagement won’t have an easy “chapter and verse” kind of answer to it. I kind of get why some folks think “rendering unto Caesar” means something like “doing what the government encourages you to do–short of obvious sin,” but I can’t make that leap myself.

Here’s the full context in Mark 12:

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.

The first thing to note is that Jesus was answering this question in a religious environment where it was a very hot topic.  Tax collectors were often viewed as collaborating with a hostile pagan government, and it was no secret that tax money would, in part, go to fund the armies which kept Israel from independence and freedom.  Since land and nationhood were some of the foundational promises of the Bible, it was pretty easy to construe payment of taxes as working directly against the plans of God.  On the other side, you had the folks who thought that cooperation really was the best thing, that God establishes all political leadership, and he must have, for his own reasons, elected Caesar to rule the chosen people for the time being.  Under this view, God is moving our money to Rome as part of his discipline, and we should accept that.   So they are asking Jesus a question designed to make him choose one side or the other.  Are you with the rebels or the collaborators?  You can imagine the consequence to his ministry if he actually makes that choice.  It’s going to hard to keep both Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot in his band of Twelve.  It’s a wonder those guys get along, anyway.

Instead of accepting the dichotomy as it was presented, Jesus reframes the whole issue:

“Who’s face is on that coin?”


“Well, then, it’s his money, anyway.  Give that to him and give God whatever has God’s image on it.”

Instead of taking a pro-Rome or anti-Rome stance, Jesus downplays the significance of taxes as a sign of political loyalty or resistance.   That stuff?  It’s not yours or God’s anyway.  There’s nothing riding on what you do with it.  Just give it back to Rome.

The second half of the sentence is incredibly under-emphasized in current teaching.  “Give to God what is God’s.”  This is what Jesus is really concerned with–that those who are made in the image of God, (human persons) are given to God.   I take this to mean that the state should be welcome to my money–it’s spiritually dangerous for me to hold on to that stuff anyway–but they can’t have me.  This is one reason that I side with people who are wary of Christians joining the military.  When the State gets my body to do with as it pleases, I’ve moved an icon of God into Caesar’s control.  And I don’t want my personhood compromised in the political machinations of the State, either, so I shun voting.

I think Philippians 3 should be carefully read in this regard.  Philippi is an incredibly pro-Roman society. (Remember their shout that “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice”?) Paul tells them that “their citizenship is in heaven.”  Not Rome.  Heaven.

George Washington can have anything with his picture on it.  Fine by me.  But he doesn’t get the stuff with God’s picture on it.  My personhood is off limits.  I belong to another.

How far do I with go with this?  My wife was fired once for abstaining from reciting the pledge of allegiance.  (Sorry, we only have room for one ultimate loyalty at a time.)  Refuse to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar and he can get awfully upset.

On a different note altogether:

In response to “I Thought Only Protestants Could Be This Cheesy,” David writes: “I cannot see what you’re trying to show. Can you tell me what it is? Before you hold off converting to Catholicism (if you were serious, there) please try to learn what the Church really teaches. There’s no doubt bad Catholics, just like there’s bad everything else. Don’t let Catholics give Catholicism a bad name. Please let me know if there’s something I can do to help here.”

Your helpfulness and kind spirit are much appreciated, David!  Here’s where I am in relation to Catholicism–after a long time of your standard Protestant anti-Catholic indoctrinations and distortions, when I started reading Catholics on my own, I was increasingly impressed with them.  There’s a lot of depth in the Catholic tradition that was sadly lacking from my own spiritual formation, and I’ve benefited tremendously from acquainting myself better with Catholic thought and history.  I now have a huge spiritual crush on Teresa of Avila, whose insight shouldn’t have surprised me, but did.  Still, I was teasing about about converting.  I can’t quite get there.  Anglicanism, maybe, but I don’t see myself in Catholicism.  I am, though, a huge admirer of all I see that is healthy and good about the Catholic tradition, which is why it especially irks me when I see Catholic imitating the Protestant-style church marketing.  We’re the ones who have a tendency to be flippant and pseudo-witty with the sacred.  I really need you guys to keep modeling what reverence and respect ought to look like.  It’s the antiquity, the meaningful tradition, and the sense of the ineffable Other that draws me to your tradition.  Stuff like the cheesy Sham-Wow ad parody undercut the best things that Catholicism offers to the rest of us.

But if I ever decide to cross the Tiber, I’ll send you an email.

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Filed under Bible, Politics and Culture



The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

Seriously–love your enemies, turn the other cheek, ‘vengence is mine’ says the Lord, do not return evil for evil–what do people think that means?  I don’t get this at all.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some Christians approved of torture, or even a substantial minority, but I’m just dumb-founded that church attendance is positively correlated with a pro-torture stance.  We are failing at some pretty fundamental spiritual formation somewhere.

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Easter Favorites

Kids’ books about Easter are on sale at Barnes and Noble.  Look here.  Nothing but eggs, bunnies (and pirates!) on the first page–you have to click over to page two and look down toward the bottom of the page to get to anything about Jesus.  The fertility goddess Astarte is continuing her attempt to steal the glory of the resurrection of the son of God and make it all about cutesy widdle rabbits and decorated ova.  And now she’s apparently teamed up with pirates.

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Filed under Politics and Culture, Rants, This Is Bad