Fischer: Being a Christian is the Essence of Patriotism

Christian fundamentalists love to quote verses from the Bible saying that God will bless a nation that follows his commands. Bryan Fischer is the latest to do so. In fact, he says that the single best way to be patriotic is to be a Christian and pray to him a lot because that will make him really nice to us.

Citing the passage from Leviticus in which God says that he will bless a nation “if you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands,” Fischer declared that if someone wants to be a patriotic American today, that means they must “worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

“No counterfeit religions, no cults, no counterfeit versions of Christianity, no occultic Eastern religions,” Fischer proclaimed. “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”…

“So that’s the most patriotic thing you can do today, ladies and gentlemen,” he concluded, “is worship God and obey him. And when you do that, you will be making the biggest contribution you can make to the country you love.”

So how does this work, exactly? We have more than 200 million Christians in this country, about 70% of the population. Is that not enough? What’s the tipping point at which God decides not to be an asshole to us? Do all the non-Christians have to leave for him to stop being a douchebag?

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  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    It takes a brave man to stand in front of a group of people and tell them how great they are.

  • John Pieret

    [Sigh]

    no counterfeit versions of Christianity

    Whatcha want to bet that includes Roman Catholics (75 million+) and Mormons (15 million+) ?

    Fischer and his ilk would deny anyone not just like them the right to be American.

  • D. C. Sessions

    How many is enough?

    Well, in general, if there are N Christians in the USA, and of those Christians the number of real Christians is R*N, the number required to get out of the penalty box is approximately 1.07*R*N.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    You could make a much stronger argument (from the NT, which is, um, the era we live in) that God does not want you (Christian) to be a Patriot. That nations (Jew or Gentile) no longer matter for Christians who, by our theology, are citizens of the kingdom of God. And that Christians are called to be well-behaved, respectful aliens and pilgrims (not nationalists or patriots) in whatever country they live in.

  • D. C. Sessions

    heddle: yes, you could make that argument. Christianity being the Rorschach test that it is you could make pretty much any argument. In witness whereof, people have. As to whether it’s a stronger argument or a weaker one, well, it’s a Rorschach test and the “stronger/weaker” reading is pretty much the dot product of your own inclinations and the argument’s thrust.

  • Larry

    Obviously, how ever many xtians there are, the mere presence of a single homosexual anywhere is enough to overcome them due to the overwhelming power of Teh Gay.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    D. C. Sessions,

    heddle: yes, you could make that argument. Christianity being the Rorschach test that it is you could make pretty much any argument. In witness whereof, people have. As to whether it’s a stronger argument or a weaker one, well, it’s a Rorschach test and the “stronger/weaker” reading is pretty much the dot product of your own inclinations and the argument’s thrust.

    That is a cop out and bullshit. By the same argument you should never analyze any book and try to determine what its author(s) intended. What does Moby Dick mean? Whatever the reader wants it to mean, not what Melville intended. Same for Aristotle and Plato. The truth of the matter is that anyone could ask the question–does the NT, taken just as is, support the idea of Fischer-like Christian nationalists/patriots, or does it support what I claim, that Christians are as aliens? Any interested and reasonable person, believer or atheist, with no ax to grind, could ask such a question and then read the NT and look for an answer. Just treating it as a book in which the authors are trying to get across something to the reader. My contention is that any such reasonable person would conclude that the NT teaching is more aligned with what I suggest. But even if I’m wrong, and more people would actually agree that Fischer got it right, it is still a cop out to regurgitate the simplistic mantra it will tell you want ever you want.

    (As an aside, I could give any number of personal examples where the bible tells me what I don’t want it to tell me.)

  • M can help you with that.

    So heddle is just as ignorant when it comes to literary criticism as when we talk about philosophy and ethics. I’ve learned something today!

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    M can help you with that. says,

    So heddle is just as ignorant when it comes to literary criticism as when we talk about philosophy and ethics. I’ve learned something today!

    Are you going to say how I am ignorant about literary criticism, or just make an pusillanimous assertion?

    And who is the “we” for which you are a spokesperson–because frankly I believe this is the first comment of yours that I have ever read.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Heddle, the Christian canon [1] is internally inconsistent. One of those little theorems of logic (or rhetoric, if you want to be all period about things) is that any axiomatic system that contains a contradiction can prove anything.

    So, yes, it’s a Rorschach test. For the past millennium or so orders of magnitude more theological disagreements have been settled by pointed steel than by pointed logic. One might suspect that this implies something about the literary work in contention.

    The Church wasn’t so foolish all those years in prohibiting the laity from reading it.

    [1] Whichever one you pick

  • M can help you with that.

    You take the intentionalist version of literary interpretation as obviously true — either ignorance or arrogance, and it’s a non-exclusive “or.” “A text means what its author intends it to mean” is garbage-level interpretation; it’s also unnecessarily metaphysical (proposing a “true meaning” which can be approached with more or less accuracy, but which is presumed rather than demonstrated to exist and which has no physical repercussions) and has shades of the authoritarian (there’s a single arbiter of meaning, i.e. whoever wrote a particular text).

    This intentionalist approach to literature also seems to fit theological (vs. historical vs. literary) consideration of religious texts. It’s your whole schtick on FtB, isn’t it? “Ah, all these people saying obnoxious things claim to be Christian, but I have the real interpretation of the Bible, therefore my version of Christianity is the correct one and I speak for Christianity.” Part of why that doesn’t hold much water here is that most commenters don’t seem to buy your model of the text. There’s the Bible, a collection of texts written in multiple languages by many people over several centuries; and then there are Christians, a community identified by their relationship to that pile of texts and all their varied interpretations of it. We’re not invested in an authoritative “meaning” of this set of texts; hell, without a single author, the “what did the author mean?” game (which can be interesting and/or amusing even if you’re a non-reactionary reader) can’t be applied to the Bible as a whole but to the varied and only vaguely known authors and editors of individual texts. (That’s a fun way to get some history, though — but you have to bring in the actual history, and again it’s a motive to move away from intentionalist readings when the authors’ intents are just historical facts rather than revealing a preferred way to read.)

    The short version — texts don’t say anything. The author’s intent isn’t metaphysically embedded in the text. Acts of written language, which, like any other acts of language, are open to multiple interpretations to varying degrees. “Meaning” is an act, not a property. And serious reading starts when you look at the whole process of writing/interpretation/language rather than mining for “what does it really mean?”

    And my “we” here is collective — you may not have paid attention to my previous comments (I may have changed my title, and past comments may not have been memorable), but I’ve certainly read yours. We who read and comment at FtB (including you) do cover philosophy and ethics quite a bit — and you’re consistently terrible.

    It’s interesting that you imply that the use of “we” in my comment implies that I’m a “spokesperson” — another side of your penchant for authoritarian readings, I suppose.

  • some bastard on the internet

    (As an aside, I could give any number of personal examples where the bible tells me what I don’t want it to tell me.)

    Wasn’t that kinda D.C.’s point? That the bible has enough bits in it going in completely contradictory directions that it takes a rather small amount of cherry-picking to get it to endorse what you want it to endorse?

  • some bastard on the internet

    Wow, I type waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too slow.

  • Chiroptera

    heddle, #4:

    When I think back and try to identify all the little points that contributed to the doubts that eventually led me to leave Christianity, this one, I think, was one. All the jingoistic nationalism that I was hearing from the pulpit just wasn’t matching up with what I was reading in the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    Heddle, the Christian canon [1] is internally inconsistent. One of those little theorems of logic (or rhetoric, if you want to be all period about things) is that any axiomatic system that contains a contradiction can prove anything.

    That is more cop out wrapped in some woo. Suppose we take as a given that there are inconsistencies. The genealogy of Christ, the accounts at the tomb, etc. Suppose in fact that we accept (in my case, for the sake of argument) that Ehrman is right about everything. That does not imply that you could not discern whether or not the NT is more aligned, perhaps overwhelmingly more aligned, with either the patriot/nationalist view or the alien view.

    Many people think there are internal inconsistencies in Plato’s Republic. Does that mean it is pointless to try to understand what it teaches? After all, it could be anything we want!

  • colnago80

    Re #5, #6, and #11

    Folks, this is just a demonstration of the blog’s resident physics professor and former math department chairman’s patented no true Scotsman shtick.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    Chiroptera #14,

    Bingo.

    some bastard on the internet says

    Wasn’t that kinda D.C.’s point? That the bible has enough bits in it going in completely contradictory directions that it takes a rather small amount of cherry-picking to get it to endorse what you want it to endorse?

    No you missed the boat. D.C (as I understand it) argues that the bible says whatever you (or I) want it to. I’m pointing out that it often says, to my reading, exactly what I don’t want it to say.

    M can help you with that. says

    The short version — texts don’t say anything.

    Sorry I am a scientist. Woo-babble like this, ripe for Sokalization, is just nonsense to me. If reading a book and trying to understand what the writer is trying to convey–what was his or her intent was–is passé, then you are right and I am ignorant.

    And you didn’t answer who the “we” was. Does it include, say, Michael Heath and colnago80? Just one? Neither? I just want to get a handle on who this enlightened “we” is (in addition to you, of course) that has a firm handle on philosophy and ethics.

  • D. C. Sessions

    You take the intentionalist version of literary interpretation as obviously true

    Hard not to, when the text itself claims to be the authoritative Word of God. If you then read the text in light of the Author’s intentions, you’re there [1]. Of course, someone else reads the same text in the light of a different set of assumed intentions and gets different answers. Before long, you have the logic of pointed steel.

    The alternative is to read the text as literature. Which implicitly rejects the whole “Divine authorship” basis for theology and before you know it one of two things happens: the literary society ends up on a pointed wood argument in a hot debate, or they drift away from any authoritative religious involvement.

    We can see that whole process playing out today. In the USA, the fundies are doing the intentionalist thing and reading their own wishes as the Word of God. Including editing the whole Sermon on the Mount to be a mandate for the poor to raise themselves up by their bootstraps. In other parts of the world, we have the Wahabists and others reading 19th-century innovations into a branch of Islam that derives from the Mongol invasion rather than anything passed down from the much more liberal time of Mohammed. All, of course, as the unchanging will of Allah.

    In the meantime, the mainstream Christianity of Europe and the USA has settled into a rather pale “be excellent to each other” sort of mutual acceptance. When tolerance and mutual acceptance extends to tolerating and accepting heresy, it’s hard to convince people that the text and doctrine are really all that important.

    Before you know it, you end up with a dangerous number of people like me who like an occasional game of exegesis as an alternative to pinochle. Maybe I really should try to learn bridge.

    [1] Yes, it’s begging the question — in the precise sense.

  • M can help you with that.

    heddle @ 17 —

    Sorry I am a scientist.

    …and I’m a scientist-in-training (i.e. grad student). That doesn’t mean we get to pretend that language is more clear than it is. It certainly doesn’t mean that we get to invent metaphysical entities (“meaning” in the sense you use) to as an excuse to ignore the reality of language for ideological reasons.

  • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

    The country must be 100% Christian, within a very strict definition of “Christian.” Catholics, Episcopalians, Quakers and other heretics don’t count.

  • D. C. Sessions

    D.C (as I understand it) argues that the bible says whatever you (or I) want it to. I’m pointing out that it often says, to my reading, exactly what I don’t want it to say.

    I’m saying that you can make it tell you anything. That includes telling you things that make you uncomfortable. Why you would choose to do so is your concern; I can think of several, many quite to your credit. But the logic stands.

    Suppose we take as a given that there are inconsistencies.

    [Specific deletia proposed for the sake of argument]

    That does not imply that you could not discern whether or not the NT is more aligned, perhaps overwhelmingly more aligned, with either the patriot/nationalist view or the alien view.

    Ink-blot [1] test.

    By editing it, you vitiate the authority [2] of the deprecated reading. Someone else choses different edits (perhaps more extensive ones) and gets different answers.

    One of the benefits of a lifetime spent among genre fandom is that you get to meet people who can spend whole weekends doing exegesis on The Lord of the Rings, on Star Trek, on Star Wars, etc. They’re fun pastimes. One of their greatest recommendations is that to the best of my knowledge nobody has ever been killed over a disagreement over the true relationship between Romulans and Vulcans or whether orcs are just a tribe of goblins.

    [1] I understand that the family has asked the world to not use the name “Rorschach” for the test any more, just as Dr. Heimlich’s heirs have requested that his name not be used for the abdominal-thrust lifesaving technique. I suspect that the effort is futile, but I’m feeling polite today.

    [2] And of course, by arrogating the power to deprecate alternative readings of the text you also vitiate all authoritative interpretations.

  • http://johnm55.wordpress.com johnm55

    Minor nitpick here, but back in the day when whoever was writing Leviticus, wasn’t he, she or it talking to the Jews? So maybe what is needed is a mass circumcision or something like that rather than a mass conversion to RTC ©?

  • D. C. Sessions

    PS: heddle

    That is more cop out wrapped in some woo.

    You’re getting pretty desperate when you throw that kind of unsupported rejection at an observation based on one of the most fundamental theorems of mathematics. I realize that physics tends to stick with continuous rather than discrete math, but that doesn’t really excuse writing off propositional logic as “woo.”

  • dingojack

    “… I realize that physics tends to stick with continuous rather than discrete math…”

    Even in Quantum theory?

    [Ducks back under the fainting couch, leaving you and him to fight].

    😉 Dingo

  • http://mikejmayberry.com blorf

    I have to point out a flaw with this line from Ed:

    What’s the tipping point at which God decides not to be an asshole to us? Do all the non-Christians have to leave for him to stop being a douchebag?

    One of the core tenets of the bible as I understand it is that God is always a douchebag. That is almost his entire schtick, isn’t it?

  • Michael Heath

    heddle writes:

    You could make a much stronger argument (from the NT, which is, um, the era we live in) that God does not want you (Christian) to be a Patriot. That nations (Jew or Gentile) no longer matter for Christians who, by our theology, are citizens of the kingdom of God. And that Christians are called to be well-behaved, respectful aliens and pilgrims (not nationalists or patriots) in whatever country they live in.

    This is a compelling argument, but only from an abstract perspective when referencing non-liberal Christians. In terms of what we actually observe that’s practiced; theologically conservative Christians overwhelmingly practice, promote, or at least enable – by way of their voting patterns – the worst kind of xenophobic patriotism we encounter amongst all major voting populations in the U.S. With no close seconds.

  • Michael Heath

    heddle writes:

    The truth of the matter is that anyone could ask the question–does the NT, taken just as is, support the idea of Fischer-like Christian nationalists/patriots, or does it support what I claim, that Christians are as aliens? Any interested and reasonable person, believer or atheist, with no ax to grind, could ask such a question and then read the NT and look for an answer.

    The biggest most influential voting group that opposes public policy consistent with the Beatitudes and Jesus passages on how we’re treat one another are conservative Christians, with no close seconds. We can’t describe a group by merely looking at cherry-picked passages of its dogma, we also need to consider a poplations behavior and the impact of their behavior.

    For example, in my area, we have a shortage of beds for the homeless, where we have incredibly brutal winters. Conservative Christian churches in this area do participate in providing shelter. But they’re also the primary voting force that’s successfully, and recently, shut down government-subsidized homeless shelters and stopped new shelter proposals from being started – in spite of the fact we have a shortage of beds for the homeless.

    They win both ways, they get to claim they’re all for helping the poor via their programs while being the predominant population that causes “the other” to suffer because of them. This is similar to conservative Christians claiming they support the reduction of unplanned pregnancies amongst the young while simultaneously being the sole obstacle to policies that we observe reduce unplanned pregnancies.

    I’ll continue to understand this particular population based on how they actually behave. That rather than watching a handful cherry-pick a few Bible verses where their behavior as a population is the chief obstacle in carrying out the objectives noted in those cherry-picked verses.

  • busterggi

    heddle, you missed a cherry.

  • Michael Heath

    “M can help you with that”,

    Some of us here actually enjoy debating heddle from the perspective that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

    Even from that perspective we end up with fatally defective arguments and the obvious observation that the very people who most energetically promote public policy based on the Bible and that it be sovereign over the government, are ironically, the people most committed to insuring we do the opposite if it helps women, children, and the “least among us”.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Even in Quantum theory?

    Yup. I won’t say you’ll never find a set-theory analysis published in the physics literature, but you can certainly spend an awful lot of time trying to find one. Or for that mater, have a look at the curricula for physics — no discrete math required anywhere (except, perhaps, for the computational side. Which isn’t required for the physics but for using the tools.)

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    MH,

    The biggest most influential voting group that opposes public policy consistent with the Beatitudes and Jesus passages on how we’re treat one another are conservative Christians, with no close seconds.

    I agree, and spend what influence I have (which ain’t much) saying to my fellow Christians that one of the worst, if not the worst development in Christianity (and certainly the worst in modern Christianity) is the rise of the religious right.

    DC #23,

    You’re getting pretty desperate when you throw that kind of unsupported rejection at an observation based on one of the most fundamental theorems of mathematics.

    Are you speaking of Godel’s theorems in #10? Because if so you didn’t state it correctly. Godel stands third in line behind QM and Bayes’ Theorem as great ideas co-opted by people who shouldn’t. I’d bet the farm that Godel did not intend that his theorem was applicable like this: you can take the gospels, with their inconsistencies, and prove say, “Goldie Hawn was in the grassy knoll and was the second gunman.”

    M can help you with that. says

    That doesn’t mean we get to pretend that language is more clear than it is.

    But is does, apparently, allow you to pretend statements like

    it’s also unnecessarily metaphysical (proposing a “true meaning” which can be approached with more or less accuracy, but which is presumed rather than demonstrated to exist and which has no physical repercussions) and has shades of the authoritarian (there’s a single arbiter of meaning, i.e. whoever wrote a particular text).

    is not pretentious, pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook. We can speculate on what the garbage heap meant in The Great Gatsby–but the bottom line is Fitzgerald had something in mind when he wrote it, and I am interested in what he intended, not some post-modern nonsense.

    “Ah, all these people saying obnoxious things claim to be Christian, but I have the real interpretation of the Bible, therefore my version of Christianity is the correct one and I speak for Christianity.”

    In this you are an outright liar. There is probably nobody on here who is more careful to go out of his way to state explicitly what should be assumed (and the same benefit of doubt afforded virtually everyone else) namely that what I state is my opinion. I defy you to find one instance where I made a definitive claim that I had the correct interpretation. I defy you find just one instance where I made a definitive statement that my version of Christianity is correct. I defy you to find one instance where I claim to speak for Christianity (This from someone (you) who spoke for an undefined “we”). If it is my schtick as you say, it should be easy to find these examples.

    You are a liar. And in my opinion the issue here is not that I claim I have the definitive, correct interpretation and that Fischer is wrong (because I never make such definitive claims.) No, the issue is this: you don’t like that a conservative Christian agrees that Fischer is being a jackass. It disturbs your insular view that all conservative Christians are like Fischer–which make things sooooo much simpler. No, “we” don’t want heddle to agree with us that Fischer is a jackass– “we” want him to side with Fischer!!! But since heddle stubbornly refuses to do so, “we” will lie about him and claim that heddle is claiming to be Christianity’s true spokesman.

    We who read and comment at FtB (including you) do cover philosophy and ethics quite a bit — and you’re consistently terrible.

    How very nice that you include yourself among the special snowflakes, the “we” of whom you speak.

  • dingojack

    D. C. Sessions – ‘E = hc’ anyone?

    :) Dingo

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    DC,

    no discrete math required anywhere (except, perhaps, for the computational side.)

    That is not correct. An obvious example is solid state theory which is based, in large part, on discrete point groups (as opposed to particle physics, which is based in large part on continuous Lie groups.) And as DJ alludes QM contains a lot of discrete math because, well, quantum numbers are by definition discrete. And then there is combinatorics (a type of discrete math), which plays a huge and fundamental role in QM, e.g. in spin statistics and symmetry.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    DJ, #33

    Better check that equation again! It is my opinion, and please, I am not trying to speak for all physicists, that it is in error!

  • Sastra

    @heddle:

    Secular scholars could certainly study the New Testament as an historical document and try to determine what the writer or writers were trying to get across, taking as many factors into account as possible (including the very strong possibility that the gospels were not a single coherent story with a single author and intended audience but a collection of stories by many authors and intended audiences.) So yes, some interpretations would and could be much more objectively defensible than others. Context provides a check whether we’re talking about what Melville meant, what Plato meant, or what Mark meant.

    The unusual problem with the Bible is that secular scholarsip WITHOUT the guidance of the Holy Spirit will probably not be the same as secular scholarship WITH the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    Do you think those two situations will come to the same conclusion?

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    Sastra,

    I don’t really understand your question. I don’t know how you could ever determine or assume that your scholarship was guided by the holy spirit. Nor do I understand the concept of “secular scholarship WITH the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (If that was a typo, then, again, I don’t know how a believing exegete can be certain of divine guidance.)

    What I think is that both secular and believers who make a good faith effort to read objectively and intelligently, allowing for context, genre, figures of speech, anachronisms, etc., can often agree on what the bible is teaching or at least on what it is plausibly teaching, even as they disagree on whether or not it is true.

  • colnago80

    Re Heddle @ #34

    I expect that the chihuahua meant E = h*Nu, where Nu is the frequency.

  • John Pieret

    heddle @36:

    What I think is that both secular and believers who make a good faith effort to read objectively and intelligently, allowing for context, genre, figures of speech, anachronisms, etc., can often agree on what the bible is teaching or at least on what it is plausibly teaching, even as they disagree on whether or not it is true.

    Really? Can you give us any examples of such agreements? … As well as your definition of those “who make a good faith effort to read objectively and intelligently.”

  • M can help you with that.

    heddle @ 31 —

    We can speculate on what the garbage heap meant in The Great Gatsby–but the bottom line is Fitzgerald had something in mind when he wrote it, and I am interested in what he intended, not some post-modern nonsense.

    You’re the one who thinks “what it means” is a major question. You’re using “meaning” as a property of a text, the existence of which cannot be demonstrated. That for you the point of studying literature is a matter of trying to uncover the thoughts of a person at the time they wrote something is how I can tell you’re not a literature person. It’s a rather dull, joyless approach to reading. And how would you even know if you got it right? “Intent” is a summary of past thoughts of a different person at a particular time; how is that supposed to be anything but woo? How is that more real or rigorous than looking at the ways that people can and do interpret a given text? Because that’s what I’d call the point, not to “speculate” about “meaning” — I’d rather look at a text and figure out different ways to interpret it, sort out how my own context/history/ideas might be affecting how I interpret, how other people might be inclined to different readings. I and other people can read a text, discuss what we get out of it, etc., all without speculating that there must be some inherent “meaning.” That’s metaphysics, and thus boring.

    I’ll skip the point where you also don’t distinguish between claim and parody — because, well, speaking of misuse of language…

    I’ll address this, though:

    No, the issue is this: you don’t like that a conservative Christian agrees that Fischer is being a jackass

    No, I just don’t like jackasses. It’s great that you think Fischer is being a jackass — but that doesn’t mean I have to think you aren’t one, too. I have a specific sort of dislike for jackasses who wander into someone else’s field and act like they own the place. I don’t think either of us is likely to start talking about how biologists are doing everything wrong; and neither of us is likely to have much patience for bullshitters who think they can make grand declarations about physics. You might consider applying the same principle to literature.

  • dingojack

    I = (2*h*c*c)/(L*L*L*L*L)*(1/(exp((h*c)/(L*K*T))+1)

    Was actually what I was thinking of.

    (But thanks for informing me of what I was thinking).

    @@

    Dingo

  • brucegee1962

    @heddle,

    Surely there’s one rather important way in which Jesus, the Gospel writers and the other compilers of the NT are different than Plato or Melville: neither of those two authors ever made any pretensions to speak for an omnipotent, omniscient deity.

    Whether or not they believe that Jesus shared his father’s omniscience, most Christians believe that his words were in some way inspired by his superior understanding of his divine father’s will; they also believe that God was somehow involved in the NT’s writing and compilation. But if God is omniscient, HE HAS ADVANCE KNOWLEDGE ALREADY OF ALL THE VARIOUS WAYS IN WHICH THE TEXT WILL BE INTERPRETED AND MISINTERPRETED! As the words go down on the page, God is watching from above, knowing perfectly well that centuries in the future Christians will be squabbling over their meaning.

    You could say, “Well, He did his best to make them as clear as he could, but many of us are just too willful and/or dim to figure out the clear meaning.” But that’s a copout. This guy is supposed to be omniscient AND omnipotent; if He’s capable of creating the universe, surely He ought to be able to come up with an unambiguous moral text. If I write an assignment for one of my classes, and half my students misinterpret what I wrote and turn in the wrong thing, then I’m a pretty poor teacher if I put all the blame on them for the misinterpretation. If I’m a good teacher, I will revise the assignment for the next time I teach the class and try to make my meaning clearer. God knew ahead of time about all the misinterpretations; if you know ahead of time that your actions will produce an undesired result, but do nothing to change your actions to improve the result, then by any moral compass you are responsible for the result.

    The biggest example is slavery — this is the issue that broke Christianity for me. I read a pro-slavery tract written in the 1850s in which the author patiently lists all the OT & NT Biblical passages that support the institution, and triumphantly concludes that slavery is entirely consistent with Christianity. And I asked myself this question — which was the end of ever thinking of the Bible as an authority on anything: “How would history have been different if one of the Gospels had quoted Jesus saying, ‘No follower of mine should ever keep another man or woman in bondage.’?” God KNEW ahead of time that His followers would split over this issue and fight a bloody war. If he had any influence over the NT’s contents at all, then He was certainly CAPABLE of making sure that one sentence got in there. Surely, if that sentence HAD been in the Bible, the century would have been very different. But instead, we’ve got Paul saying “Slaves, obey your masters” — a quote which God knew, as Paul put them on paper, would eventually cause Christians to accuse Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass of being sinners.

    Since the quote I name was LEFT OUT of the Bible, I could come up with only the following alternatives:

    1) Maybe Jesus really did say something like that, but it got left out of the final draft. He was perfect and said all kinds of great stuff that never got included in the final draft, but the writing and editing process was human and flawed. But in that case, how can we trust anything that’s in there?

    2) God really was on the side of the South during the war, because, well, He’s kind of a jerk and also a racist.

    3) God doesn’t actually care about any of these issues in which people invoke his name. As long as we worship Him, He doesn’t particularly care if His followers slaughter each other like cattle over slavery, or transubstantiation, or polygamy, or any of the other ways in which the words can be variously interpreted. So again, a bit of a jerk.

    4) God wasn’t involved in the writing of the NT at all — it was produced by humans with human motives — in the case of Paul’s quote about slaves, the motive of trying to transition the cult he was shepherding from a set of beliefs that mainly appealed to poor folks into something that would draw in the rich folks as well.

    And as you might guess, #4 was the one I ended up with.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    John Pieret,

    Really? Can you give us any examples of such agreements? … As well as your definition of those “who make a good faith effort to read objectively and intelligently.”

    I could give you many. Bertrand Russell, for one, gave the bible a fair reading and had many legitimate questions, some of which, when I read them were eye-opening, and caused me to change my position. Jason Rosenhouse always, in my opinion, read the bible fairly and found general agreement with what Christians say about it while also finding problems. I think John Loftus, while snarky, is generally fair, and I suspect (you can ask him) that we would be in overall agreement about what the bible is teaching. (While we would have violent disagreements about matters like the historocity, the early church, details about doctrine, how the canon was established, etc, but that’s a different matter) In fact, I think your question is a bit silly–because I would suggest that there is rather broad agreement that the NT, for example, speaks of Jesus coming, redeeming the lost, atoning for sin, and dying on a cross, was resurrected and promises to return. (Believing it, of course, is another matter).

    As well as your definition of those “who make a good faith effort to read objectively and intelligently.”

    Just as I described. Someone who treats the bible like any other book. Who allows that the writers had the full suite of figures of speech at their disposal. One who examines context. One who allows that the word chosen by the King James translators in 1604 (e.g., unicorn) might not have meant to them what it means to us, and for clarification in such matters looks to the biblical Hebrew or Greek. They don’t just say: “ha ha, the bible teaches about unicorns!’ In other words (I’m not sure why this required a definition–is it not obvious) people who do the best they can a setting aside biases and read in a scholarly manner, and who look at every point of contention and ask–is there a plausible way in which alternative interpretations might be correct?

    M can help you with that. says

    You’re the one who thinks “what it means” is a major question. You’re using “meaning” as a property of a text, the existence of which cannot be demonstrated.

    Where is that written in stone? Certainly authors can tell us what they meant, or leave behind commentary. And when that is not the case it doesn’t mean the there was no meaning–it only means we can’t discern the meaning with 100% confidence. But often we can with nearly 100% confidence. It doesn’t take Fellini to make a good guess about what The Scarlet A was about. And you’re right, I’m guilty, I am embarrassed to admit that you have exposed me–I really do think “what it means?” is a major question.

    You might consider applying the same principle to literature.

    Bleh. I don’t care if an English major says something about physics–I’ll criticize them if I think they are wrong and agree if I think they are right. And I don’t cotton to some know-nothing blog commenter speaking impenetrable nonsense for a gifted “we” telling me to STFU about literature or anything else. Hmm. So–you know lots about literature and science and philosophy and ethics. How fortunate that you chose to comment here!

    By the way, have you come up with any of those examples from my “schtick”? Here, I’ll repeat myself:

    I defy you to find one instance where I made a definitive claim that I had the correct interpretation. I defy you find just one instance where I made a definitive statement that my version of Christianity is correct. I defy you to find one instance where I claim to speak for Christianity (This from someone (you) who spoke for an undefined “we”). If it is my schtick as you say, it should be easy to find these examples.

    Until you do so I will continue to consider you to be a bald-faced liar.

  • Michael Heath

    heddle writes:

    What I think is that both secular and believers who make a good faith effort to read objectively and intelligently, allowing for context, genre, figures of speech, anachronisms, etc., can often agree on what the bible is teaching or at least on what it is plausibly teaching, even as they disagree on whether or not it is true.

    John Pieret:

    Really? Can you give us any examples of such agreements? … As well as your definition of those “who make a good faith effort to read objectively and intelligently.”

    I’m surprised by your skepticism. Liberal theology is largely built on a largely rational understanding of the Bible (though one that too often avoids empirical conundrums). In addition, a Jewish perspective of the NT also provides many examples where secularists and at least liberal Christians can agree; e.g., I found this book most enjoyable and educational: http://goo.gl/H0nYOq.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    brucegee1962 says #41

    I think you make some good points and I might answer you more later, but I have only time for a quick response.

    First I think that Christians think the NT was inspired is irrelevant to this argument. Which for me, at least, remains this: people (of all stripes) can read it and on many issues (such as whether Fischer is correct about Christian patriotism) come to a consensus.

    As to why god didn’t make it clearer, I don’t find that a vexing theological conundrum. In general I am not convinced by “I would do it better if I were god” arguments. Because if I were god I would save everyone, but clearly the bible teaches that some are lost–so that’s just a non-starter.

    I think the slavery question is a good one. Here is my quick opinion:

    The OT absolutely condones slavery for the Jews.

    The NT (in my opinion) neither condones nor condemns it. (It does condemn slave traders). In my opinion you can easily infer that slavery is contrary to Christianity from a) Jesus’ “love your neighbor” commandment and b) when Paul sent Onesimus back, he clearly sent the message to his owner (Philemon) that the right thing to do is free him. On a whole, however, I think Paul looked at slavery this way: it exists, but we are not preaching a social gospel but a redemptive gospel, if you are a slave then you can give good witness as a slave, in part by obeying your masters.

    I understand you can argue with that. But it is not as simple as you make it out. For it is possible that those pro-slavery Christians were never able to set aside their racism and/or their economic interests so it is not at all certain that they approached the bible with a willingness to study it as I decribed above. Maybe they did-but the NT being pro-slavery (as in condoning it as a good institution) is not at all obvious.

  • Sastra

    @ heddle #36:

    My question re scholarship on the Bible was meant to point out that believers are not supposed to limit themselves to secular analysis alone, as if the NT was simply an uninspired document of the time written by ordinary men with agendas created and defined by the literary, cultural, political, and religious concerns of a certain time and place. God uses scripture to speak to us today, so that we might understand. I think that the congruence then between objective academics and believers acting in “good faith” is going to differ more widely than you assume. One passage is explained in light of another and the “entire context” of God’s genuine message to humanity helps reframe the clear meaning of a text. Things get murky.

    So I think you’re partly right — the apolitical beyond-this-world focus really does find more literary support in the NT than this “Christian Nation” nonsense — but in a sacred text the guidance of the “Holy Spirit” can neither be ignored nor rationally justified. It can’t be rationally attacked, either. This is going to make it much more difficult to argue for what secular scholarship would conclude. .. and that’s already hard enough as it is. The evidence for God-as-President is weaker. Faith, however, gives strenghth to all things.

    I do find it refreshing though to find a Christian who wonders how one would determine for sure whether they themselves have been inspired, contacted, enlightened, embraced, or touched by the Holy Spirit. Usually atheists are assured (or reassured) that when it really happens you just know.

  • brucegee1962

    @heddle,

    I’m interested in your arguments. I’m glad you’re here with sincere questions and answers — I wish there wasn’t quite so much name-calling around here.

    There’s a lot I could respond to in @44, but I’ll just focus on this, which seems like the core of your argument:

    As to why god didn’t make it clearer, I don’t find that a vexing theological conundrum. In general I am not convinced by “I would do it better if I were god” arguments. Because if I were god I would save everyone, but clearly the bible teaches that some are lost–so that’s just a non-starter.

    The NT says many, many times that the relationship between God and humanity is analogous to that between a father and his children. But any parent knows that the most important way that a parent teaches children is by example; a parent who says “Do as I say, not as I do” is going to do a terrible job.

    And yet Christians fall back onto this ALL THE TIME. When an atheist says, “Here is an instance of your deity, who claims to be the fount of all morality, acting in an immoral fashion,” the immediate fallback position is “God’s ways are not the same as our ways, and His ways are ineffable and don’t make have to make sense to us.

    So that means the father/children analogy is junk. What you’re really saying is that God is just a “Do as I say, not as I do” parent. He installed us with a sense of morality, but is under no obligation to follow it Himself. So why should I be under any obligation to listen to anything he says?

  • brucegee1962

    Oh, as far as the Philemon letter is concerned —

    If I was a Southern slaveholder, I would hold that up as an argument of Paul being IN FAVOR of slavery as an institution. Again, Paul certainly could have said something like, “Hey, it’d really be better if you set ALL your slaves free.” But he didn’t, he just said they should set free this one guy because he’s so awesome. He’s implicitly telling Philemon (and also all the southern slaveholders) that if they want to keep everyone else in the household in bondage, he’s got no problem with that.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Are you speaking of Godel’s theorems in #10?

    No, I was speaking of the most basic possible rules of propositional logic. If your propositional system contains both A and not-A, whether as axioms or as deductions, you can prove absolutely anything by a simple reductio ad absurdem.

    The reason that Goedel’s theorem is called the “incompleteness theorem” is that it proves that any sufficiently powerful system will be either incomplete or inconsistent, and since an inconsistent system is logically useless the only interesting ones are incomplete.

    “Discrete mathematics” is a lot more than just integer objects.

  • Michael Heath

    brucegee1962 writes:

    The NT says many, many times that the relationship between God and humanity is analogous to that between a father and his children. But any parent knows that the most important way that a parent teaches children is by example; a parent who says “Do as I say, not as I do” is going to do a terrible job.

    And any human father who burned his children for all eternity would in no way be declared good or loving, but instead credibly described as the epitome of evil.

    heddle continues to avoid the biblical god’s inability to validate his existence, nature, and message to humans, all we have is bald human assertion which is logically incoherent. That along with avoiding the incredibly evil nature of a god who condemns mortals to unimaginable suffering for all of eternity – or the demonstrable evil of adults who celebrate a supposed god who supposedly has this attribute. I realize my latter assertion is not politically correct even within liberal quarters, but it’s the only moral position I can imagine.

  • colnago80

    Re Heddle

    This ought to ruffle your physicist feathers. If Yeshua ben Yusef of Nazareth is holding the universe together, he better do something about Dark Energy.

    http://goo.gl/XJTVZk

  • M can help you with that.

    heddle —

    Certainly authors can tell us what they meant, or leave behind commentary.

    “What they meant” is one thing; “what the text means” is something else. The former can be a mildly interesting question; the latter is metaphysical woo. This isn’t some obscure point; this is a basic idea in studying literature, or just in reading. Good literature is literature that rewards paying attention to the ways it can be read, not literature that provides the right number of clues to what the author wants the reader to think the author intended with the text.

    And I think you missed the point of the physics/biology/literature analogy; you’re stomping around in literature showing your ass in ways that would (rightly) piss you off if someone else were doing the same with physics.

    As for your repeated demand, here’s a repeated denial: I will not claim that an off-the-cuff caricature of your behavior here was a claim of a literal description. If that wasn’t clear, I apologize — but I don’t think your follow-up claims to know exactly what I intended are an appropriate response.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    brucegee1962 says,

    And yet Christians fall back onto this ALL THE TIME. When an atheist says, “Here is an instance of your deity, who claims to be the fount of all morality, acting in an immoral fashion,” the immediate fallback position is “God’s ways are not the same as our ways, and His ways are ineffable and don’t make have to make sense to us.

    Then you’ll have to debate those Christians. I have never made that argument in my life. I struggle mightily with with things like hell and Joshua’s conquest of Palestine. But what I don’t struggle with is why God didn’t write a more clear bible. Personally I think all the important parts (the gospel message) are clear enough to anyone who reads them.

    He’s implicitly telling Philemon (and also all the southern slaveholders) that if they want to keep everyone else in the household in bondage, he’s got no problem with that.

    I would say he is implicitly saying no such thing. He (Paul) has an opportunity with this one slave and he suggests, in no uncertain terms, that Philemon free him even. Perhaps I can not extrapolate and say that Paul would want Philemom to free all his slaves (assuming he owned more, the bible doesn’t say) but neither can you conclude that Paul, while sending a crystal clear message that Onesimus should be freed, is simultaneously sending a message “but who cares about your other slaves.” There is nothing there to support that conclusion. I think the strongest case you can make about Paul and slavery is he did not find it very important for his mission. It wasn’t on his radar. In fact, no type of political reform or rebellion was on his agenda. Nor was imposing Christian morals through legal action on his agenda. He didn’t want to force Philemon to free his slave, he wanted Philemon to see it was the right thing to do. (Paul wrote: ” I could be bold and order you [Philemon] to do what you ought to do [free Onesimus], yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” This is consistent with new testament teaching on sin–that it is more about the heart than about action. Paul found spreading the gospel to trump everything. Paul himself was falsely imprisoned on several occasions–yet he didn’t make a social or political issue out of false imprisonment. In prison? Then he’ll use his captivity to spread the gospel, even to his jailers.

    If I was a Southern slaveholder, I would hold that up as an argument of Paul being IN FAVOR of slavery as an institution

    Yes that is quite possible. Many will see what they want to see if they believe the food on their table depends on it. Nobody can be sure what they would do in that situation, or what they would do if they were German in the 1930s. The again, if it is in your economic interest you might even claim the bible supported your slaveholding not because you really believed it, but because it was expedient to do so, to provide a veneer of respectability. Do you agree that that is possible as well?

    DC,

    No, I was speaking of the most basic possible rules of propositional logic. If your propositional system contains both A and not-A, whether as axioms or as deductions, you can prove absolutely anything by a simple reductio ad absurdem.

    Fair enough, though I dispute that the bible should be treated as presenting an axiomatic system in the gospels, whose inconsistency (if I haven’t lost the thread) is being supposed. So again I ask–noting those (and I think it is mainstream) who argue that Plato had inconsistencies in the Republic, does that mean (if they are right) that all Plato’s philosophy is useless, because, well, it can be used to prove anything?

    “Discrete mathematics” is a lot more than just integer objects.

    I mentioned finite point groups and combinatorics. Is that what you mean by just integer objects?”

  • brucegee1962

    Switching argument tracks for a moment, here —

    The other problem with trying to figure out “what the author meant” is that people are motivated by all kinds of things, many of which they are not consciously aware of. It is entirely legitimate in literary criticism to discuss interpretations of texts that authors might be unaware of, or even vehemently deny — their desire to validate or resist commonly held cultural assumptions, for instance.

    There are lots of examples that I give to my students. In the Leonardo Dicaprio version of Romeo and Juliet, there is a scene where Mercutio gives a speech about Queen Mab, which in many productions is performed as a speech about the power of the imagination to horrify itself. In this movie, the speech is about drugs — and it works perfectly. However, it’s a pretty safe bet that Shakespeare wasn’t thinking about drugs when he wrote the speech. Does that mean the movie is wrong to give it that interpretation? I don’t think so.

    I heard an interview once with Joss Whedon on NPR. He said that when he was writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he would go on chat rooms incognito to eavesdrop on what people were saying. One time they were discussing a particular character (I’ve never seen the show, so I don’t know which one) whom they claimed was a lesbian. Whedon revealed himself and said, no, I write the show, and she definitely is not a lesbian. And one of the fans said, why don’t you come to the web page I’ve made, and I’ll show you all the evidence I’ve collected. So Whedon read all the evidence and said, wow, you’ve convinced me. So that character became a lesbian from then on. So the author doesn’t get to be the final word on “what a text really means.”

    The surface meaning of “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti is a straightforward Christ-analogy, where the “good” sister subjects herself to sin, without participating in it, in order to redeem her “fallen” sister. But no modern audience can read the lines “Come and kiss me. / Never mind my bruises, /Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices / Squeezed from goblin fruits for you” without thinking this is a seriously kinky poem. So is this a Christian analogy or a lesbian sex poem? The great thing about studying literature is that you don’t have to choose — it can be both at once!

  • RickR

    One time they were discussing a particular character (I’ve never seen the show, so I don’t know which one) whom they claimed was a lesbian. Whedon revealed himself and said, no, I write the show, and she definitely is not a lesbian. And one of the fans said, why don’t you come to the web page I’ve made, and I’ll show you all the evidence I’ve collected. So Whedon read all the evidence and said, wow, you’ve convinced me. So that character became a lesbian from then on.

    Sort of. The character was “Bad Girl Slayer” Faith. Fans were speculating about the lesbian undertones in the relationship between Buffy and Faith. Whedon heard about this and swore up and down that he absolutely did not intend any lesbian subtext. A fan had compiled all of the evidence from the show that had led to this speculation. And after Whedon examined the page, he conceded that even though it was inadvertent, there was TONS of lesbian subtext and that fans were completely correct in their interpretation, though the character remained heterosexual throughout the show.

    From the wikipedia entry on Faith-

    “Some fans argued that the show developed a lesbian subtext between Faith and Buffy; Jane Espenson states that Whedon says he didn’t intend this, but admitted it was there after he had it pointed out to him, jokingly attributing this to his subconscious.”

  • Michael Heath

    heddle writes:

    I struggle mightily with with things like hell . . .

    You’ve demonstrated no such quandary in this forum, or to my knowledge, even presented a justification where even a weak human moral standard would condemn the Bible’s god as evil.

    heddle writes:

    . . . what I don’t struggle with is why God didn’t write a more clear bible.

    While avoiding or denying the fatally defective implications of the Bible’s assertions regarding God. That along with the implications to humans if the Bible were true. The abject failure of the Bible to be based on evidence, logic, or an ability to clearly and consistently present its edicts is no small defect. Even remedial critical thinking take’s one down a rabbit hole when considering what you writes as,

    all the important parts (the gospel message) are clear enough to anyone who reads them.

    No, they’re not clear when we hold them up to evidence, logic, and the moral implications for God compared to other biblical claims – he’s good, loving, he cares for us, etc. That in spite of his failure to clearly express himself, reveal his existence, reveal his demands.

    The Bible isn’t retarded when read within its cultural and historical context; it is when we’re told by some humans it’s to be read as the inerrant word of God where we’re to blindly, slavishly, and childishly submit to this loving God or increase the threat we’ll burn in Hell forever.

    At least the biblical writers and editors realized when claiming how we’re to come to the Gospel they had no credible argument and therefore the need to submit in a way that causes suffering to humans if we used this thinking in other areas of our respective lives. The incredibly evil threat to human destiny does make perfect sense when it’s expressed by humans who have no coherent argument for their faith yet still seek to control others. We can expect characters like Bryan Fischer, Pat Robertson to far outnumber the type that feebly attempt to rationalize what has yet to be credibly rationalized. It’s made to order for demagogues.