Fanon and canon: ‘Harmonizing’ away the Bible

The Bible is a library disguised as a book. The two testaments of the Protestant Bible include 66 different books, many of which are themselves anthologies. And everything, in all of them, is canonical.

That gets a bit messy sometimes. Consider, for example, the book of Jonah — a vicious, devastating polemic against a particular strain of religious exclusivism. Jonah is canon. But so are books like Ezra and Nehemiah, which take the opposite side of this argument. In one sense, that’s perfectly logical and necessary. We can’t understand such an argument unless we’re given both sides of it. But in another sense, this is frustrating, because in making both sides of the argument canon, neither side is granted the definitive final word. That leaves the argument unsettled — something many readers find unsettling.

This scene has absolutely nothing to do with the story in Genesis 1.

This is an especially big problem if you think of the canon of scripture as something that’s supposed to be, above all, the final authority for definitively settling all disputes. If the canon itself is a library that includes diverse and competing views, then how can we rely on it to help us sort out the correct view from all the other possibilities? (Or, less charitably, how can we use it to prove that we are right and others are wrong?)

This is why the more authoritarian someone’s view of the Bible is, the less likely that person is to admit or acknowledge the enormous diversity that exists within the canon, within this library disguised as a single book. They tend to be rather hostile to the presence within the Bible of ongoing arguments, or different, incompatible versions of various stories.

That the Bible does, indeed, contain very different versions of various stories is fairly obvious if you pick it up and start reading at the beginning of either of the testaments. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy and a nativity story. So does Luke’s Gospel. But they are not the same genealogy and nativity story. Genesis starts with a creation story. And then it follows that with a different creation story.

Right off the bat, then, we have a choice to make. We can choose to accept that this apparent variation is a feature of the book(s) we are reading, and we can then go about trying to learn what such variation has to teach us. Or we can choose to say that this appearance of variation is a problem that must be solved, and we can then go about trying to explain away every such apparent instance of variety, dispute or diversity within the canon in order to buttress our notion that it serves as a clear, simple, unequivocal and univocal authority that can be cited chapter-and-verse to settle all disputes and answer all questions.

This second choice is quite popular. It’s so popular, in fact, that even those of us who choose the former approach still can’t help but absorb some of the imaginative solutions concocted in order to deny the diversity of the canon.

James McGrath wrestled with this in a post yesterday titled “How Many Adam?” He was surprised to realize one of the things he’d absorbed about the creation story in Genesis 1 even though it’s not in the Bible.

Yesterday in a Facebook group I participate in, it was pointed out that, unless one has the Genesis 2 creation account in mind, when one reads Genesis 1, one will not necessarily get the impression that God, creating Adam (which means humankind) male and female, made only one of each.

I’d put that in stronger terms than “one will not necessarily get the impression.” The story in Genesis 1 speaks of “multitudes.” Two people does not a multitude make.

This is important. Genesis 1 is not about Adam and Eve. They are not characters in that story. I’m emphatic on this point because the text is emphatic on this point. Let me quote from a post from last October (“Things that are not in the Bible: ‘In the creation account, God creates Adam and Eve, the world and everything in it in six days“):

In the first story and the first chapter in Genesis, God creates “humankind” on the sixth day of creation. Humankind was created “male and female” and is spoken of as plural throughout this story, but the story never says that only two humans were created on the sixth day. (Two doesn’t seem like much of a multitude.)

That same word for humankind — adam — reappears in the second story that begins in the second chapter, but there it appears as a proper noun, as the name of an individual character, Adam. In our English translations of Genesis, that Hebrew word adam is always translated into English in the first story — “humankind,” or “mankind,” or “man” — because there it is plural and clearly not an individual’s name or a proper noun. In the second story, however, the word is presented differently. It is capitalized and left untranslated to indicate that here — unlike in the first story — it is being used as the name of a single individual.

That post was in response to a CNN article garbling the difference between the different stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Maybe that’s to be expected from CNN, but earlier we discussed this same mistake when it was made by theologian and top-notch biblical scholar N.T. Wright. In discussing the notion of a historical Adam and Eve, Wright suggested the possibility of “God choosing Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God.”:

“God choosing Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God” is something that never happens in the Bible. That’s the opposite of what happens in the Bible. The first story says that all of humanity is made in the image of God, and we can apply that to the second story to infer that, because Adam and Eve are humans, that is also true of them. But these two stories cannot be made to say that Adam and Eve bear the image never attributed to them in their story while “others” do not bear the image attributed to them in theirs.

Any attempt to explain why “God [chose] Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God” is bound to be as helpful and insightful as trying to explain why God chose Adam and Eve to build an ark, or why God chose Adam and Eve to face Goliath armed only with a sling. Wrong story.

This matters. Smushing together the two separate stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 together changes the text and leads us to conclusions not supported by the text itself. It can be particularly troublesome when we confuse the two stories in just the way Wright does above. Take the “image of God” bit from Story No. 1 and puree it together with the “Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree” stuff from Story No. 2 and you’ve got the makings of a theory of original sin that contradicts both stories — a theory based not on scripture, but on the scaffolding of “harmonizing” we’ve built around it.

This is the problem with so much of the creative solutions we’ve invented to “harmonize” away the diversity within the canon itself. The fanon winds up replacing the canon.

Fanon” there is a term from the world of fan fiction. It combines the words “fan” and “canon” to refer to extra-canonical ideas that are so widely accepted in the fandom that they have acquired a kind of canonicity of their own.

I think this is a useful, clarifying concept in thinking about “canon” in its original, biblical sense. The distinction between canon and fanon may be helpful in sorting out the difference between the text itself and that whole scaffolding of attempts to “harmonize” away its diversity — all that stuff we’ve absorbed for so long that we’ve come to assume it’s there in the canon, even though it’s not.

 

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  • arcseconds

    It’s an important point.

    However, I’m not sure it’s necessary to exclude harmonizations altogether. A haromonization is a kind of an interpretation, and if we say ‘don’t harmonize!’ on the basis that the text doesn’t give its own harmonization, the any interpretation will be excluded, as the text doesn’t interpret itself.

    Without interpretation, not only can we not look for principles or guidance or clues about human interaction with the divine (or what humans took to be their interaction with the divine), we can’t even read it as a meaningless bunch of stuff that allegedly happened or a fictional story, or anything. Without interpretation it’s just a series of marks on a page.

    It’s important to be clear about what’s going on, though, and not to mistake your harmonization as ‘what’s in the Bible’ or the only possible interpretation thereof.

  • ReverendRef

    I’m not sure it’s necessary to exclude harmonizations altogether.

    Yes — but there’s a right way to harmonize and a wrong way to harmonize.

    A right way might be something like: In Gen. 1 God went on a creative kick, spent six days working, called his creation “very good” and then rested. In Gen. 2 God went on a creative kick, spent a day working, and finished by making a suitable partner for the single human. It seems that, by looking at these two stories side by side, God had an interest in establishing a creation in which everything is in balance and in right relationship with everything else.

    A wrong way might be something like: There can be no contradictions in the Bible because it’s infallible and inerrant. Therefore it’s clear that the story of Adam & Eve took place on the sixth, literal, 24-hour day of creation. We need to show that this is the case, otherwise people might think the Bible isn’t accurate.

  • Evan

    But why can’t we take both? Take the literary/moral/whatever-name interpretation telling us about God’s character, and say that Adam and Eve were created on Day Six of Creation Week?

  • ReverendRef

    Because they are two different stories. Conflating them into one simply to appease our need for consistency devalues them.

  • Jurgan

    I thought that, too, for a while, but it doesn’t hold up. The order is different. I’m pretty sure that “Adam” in Gen. 2 is created before animals, which is the opposite of the Gen. 1 story, where man and woman are last.

  • The_L1985

    Plus, as Fred points out, Gen. 1 clearly refers to God creating “multitudes” of people. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t meant in the Walt Whitman sense of “I am large; I contain multitudes.”

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I haven’t seen the English word “multitudes” in the text of Genesis 1 in any translation.

  • Jim Roberts

    EH, Check the first verse of chapter 2, which is really an appendix to chapter 1. When talking about the two accounts of creation, it’s a rhetorical convencience to refer to it as “chapter 1 and chapter 2” rather than “chapter 1 and a little bit of chapter 1 and chapter 2 up through, oh, about the top of chapter 3.”
    (In academia, it’s common to see the actual chapter and verse references)

  • arcseconds

    I’m sure this shows the depths (shallowness?) of my illiteracy, but until this moment I had thought that quote was due to G.K. Chesterton…

  • arcseconds

    Well, if we were to read the story as fiction, I think we’d be inclined to say “OK, so I guess when chapter 1 talks about creating humanity, that was when Adam & Eve were created”, wouldn’t we? Even allowing for the possibility of unreliable narration, this doesn’t seem to pose too much of a problem.

    (I know full well that Star Trek fans will attempt much greater feats of harmonization with the Star Trek canon… )

    So long as we admit there’s a gap between this reading and what the text actually says, and admit that other readings may be possible, I don’t see a huge problem here. Of course, you can go overboard with this, like trying to harmonize Genesis with, oh, I don’t know, Greek mythology. The text presents these accounts together, which does tend to encourage this (although, on the other hand, maybe we’re meant to contrast them more than compare).

    Trying to harmonize things between books becomes more problematic, though: that’s forgetting the Bible is a compilation made after the fact, not a single text.

    How are the fires going?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I just choose to ignore Enterprise as canon. To the extent that Voyager events “cross over” to other Trek I reluctantly allow that they would be canon too :P

  • arcseconds

    Basic Instructions points out that actually, the Enterprise is the only TV series that is canon any more:

    http://basicinstructions.net/basic-instructions/2011/12/25/how-to-have-a-recreational-argument.html

    It might still be preferable than accepting the 70s cartoon as canon… ;-)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    E-HEM, I speak of the non-rebooted timeline.

  • arcseconds

    bah, they’re all terrible :-P (anyone know a good ‘grumpy curmudgeon’ emoticon?)

    (I was going to say that they’re all just as bad as each other, but I’ll admit that badness comes in degrees)

    but I think Scott’s argument is powerful, no? The franchise dictates the canon (don’t they?) and they have dictated that everything from Kirk’s birth is now different to what it was earlier (haven’t they?)

  • MarkTemporis

    The seventies cartoon ISN’T? But…cat people!

  • FearlessSon

    To the best of my knowledge, Voyager is the only Star Trek show when the writers themselves eventually disavowed a particular episode (“Theshold“) as being cannon. That is not just “one of those episodes that fans would rather forget” (though it was that also) but rather “one of those episodes that the creators say doesn’t count anymore.”

  • The_L1985

    Ah yes, the “crew evolves into lizards and has lizard-babies” episode. Gee, I wonder why the creators would want to forget about that one?

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    What bugs me is that I’m fairly sure that the reason they “decanonize” it is that they believe its major mistake was that evolution always leads to more advanced and intelligent humanoids and energy beings, so having it lead to giant salamanders with Fu Manchu moustaches was clearly wrong.

    (Which is to say, the thing they think is “the” mistake is less wrong than both the actual mistakes and also the thing they think would have been right.)

  • arcseconds

    an episode that the creators disavow‽ congratulations, you’ve just interested me in watching a Voyager episode…

  • MikeJ

    Of course, you can go overboard with this, like trying to harmonize Genesis with, oh, I don’t know, Greek mythology.

    How about Mesopotamian mythology where Noah==Gilgamesh?

  • Alix

    Given that the epic does contain a flood story, it’s useful in a sort of “this is part of that family of stories” sense, and even from a cultural history perspective. But in terms of interpreting the Bible as a religious text, it’s a bit of a tangent, unless one is using the Bible as a sourcebook for ancient pre-monotheism religions. Which some do, me included.

    And here’s me being nitpicky: the proper parallel isn’t Noah = Gilgamesh, but Noah = Utnapishtim. (I can’t help myself, okay?) And if that’s true, that makes the God = trickster thing from the other day a bit more probable.

  • arcseconds

    I’m not sure exactly what kind of interpretation you’re going for here.

    It would be a bit strange to try to give an interpretation whereby you take the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis as one narrative, and try to make as much of what is stated in both works as consistent as possible, as though they were both substantially accurate narratives of the same events, which is what I’d take ‘harmonization’ to mean.

    However, it seems undeniable that the stories of Utnapishtim and Noah are related somehow. What would be less strange is to take them as both variants of an earlier account, and try to reconstruct that account somehow.

    Here is an illustrative example of what happens when you try to harmonize contemporary understanding of ancient history with the usual ‘inerrant’ interpretation of Genesis:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/sumerians-look-on-in-confusion-as-god-creates-worl,2879/

    (from a recent post of McGrath’s)

  • arcseconds

    It would be strange, though interesting :-) try it, and let me know how it goes!

  • The_L1985

    The Chaldean accounts, perhaps?

    “According to accounts attributed to Berosus, the
    antediluvians were giants who became impious and depraved, except one among them that reverenced the gods and was wise and prudent. His name was Noa, and he dwelt in Syria with his three sons Sem, Japet, Chem, and their wives Tidea, Pandora, Noela, and Noegla.”

  • Makhno

    Pseudo-Berossus and his followers are amazing – an attempt to harmonise the basically every myth they could think of. So Samothes, the first King of the Britons before the giants showed up to be conquered by Brutus the Trojan, is the son of Japheth. Noah and Janus are the same person, the Titaness Rhea is his daughter, Isis and Osiris are *her* children and Dionysos their stepbrother.

    Various eponyms of European peoples appear in this genealogy – Tuyscon, ancestor of the Tuscans, is an otherwise unknown son of Noah; Francus, ancestor of the Franks, a son of Hector; Belgius, ancestor of the Belgians, a descendant of Hercules; Allobrox, ancestor of the Allobroges (a southern Gaulish tribe), is a nephew of Dardanus, founder of Troy. And so it goes on…

  • The_L1985

    Ever compare the Sumerian and Hebrew flood myths? The similarities are almost eerie.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Here is the Sumerian flood story. See for yourself.

  • phantomreader42

    Whenever I hear or read the name “Gilgamesh” I get the bit from They Might Be Giants’ song “The Mesopotamians” in my head (Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal and Gilgamesh). This makes this conversation a bit odd for me.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Which Sargon? :-)

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    There’s always that moment when Sargon comes up before I remember that there was a Sargon other than the guy who lived in the glowing translucent ball that possessed Captain Kirk that one time.

  • arcseconds

    There is no Sargon but Sargon the Sorcerer.

    So I presume he grew up and became an energy being by the 24th century or whatever…

  • arcseconds

    Also, a pox on your FORTRANisms :-P

    Everyone (including logicians (‘=’ is the standard symbol for identity in the predicate calculus)) who isn’t soaked to the gills in FORTRAN or its bastard children understands ‘=’ to mean identity.

  • ReverendRef

    I think the problem lies in people trying to harmonize different stories to satisfy a need for consistency (as I just replied to Evan). I think it comes down to a real lack of faith. As has been said here before, “If one aspect of the Bible isn’t correct, then none of it is correct.” That thought scares some people.

    As for the fires:

    Big Windy Complex: 10,841 acres, 0% contained
    Douglas Complex: 38,406 acres, 17% contained
    Whiskey Complex: 8,337 acres, 30% contained
    Labrador Fire: 2,020 acres, 0% contained
    Brimstone Fire: 2,372 acres, 100% contained

    One firefighter death in a rollover accident. People generally safe, but a bad smoke day today.

    Thanks for asking.

  • arcseconds

    Yes. Western culture (especially the intellectual side of the culture) is kind of obsessed with consistency, and has been for centuries, which is a powerful thing in many respects, but we end up demanding it where perhaps it’s not warranted.

    It would be interesting to know what the ancient Hebrew attitude towards consistency in general and the two accounts in Genesis in particular was (which wouldn’t have stayed the same over time, necessarily).

    Later Rabbinical culture seems very comfortable with multiple, conflicting accounts, as exemplified by the joke about the Talmud that’s been doing the rounds. The Midrashic literature is quite famous for this.

    The other thing I always mention at this juncture is that the Rg Veda also preserves ‘conflicting’ accounts about the creation of the universe (and other matters). The conflicts are more obvious, but it’s also more obvious that it’s not necessarily the sort of work you’d expect narrative consistency, as it’s a collection of hymns that occasionally indulge in narratives, not a narrative work at all.

  • The_L1985

    Or even what survives of the Greek myths. They don’t even appear to agree on which god did the creating, or whether that was before or after Zeus and Chronos killed off their respective fathers.

  • Fusina

    I’ll continue praying then. I would appreciate prayers on a more personal basis–my husband had some bloodwork done and the doc wants him back in for a consult on stuff they found that is not ideal, my friend Dorene had a very bad fall and I was in a car accident–no one was hurt but my car got its front end pretty smashed up. It’s been a bad week.

  • Fusina

    Hi Eno. Go away and leave me alone.

  • The_L1985

    That does sound like a horrid week. Shall I send you good vibes?

  • Fusina

    Yeah. I’m pretty non religious when it comes to good wishes/prayers/whatevers. Getting to wish our resident troll would go back and hide under his bridge–downvoting a request for good vibes/whatevers? I currently posit his age around fifteen–that was the age I was when I was certain about everything. I’ve gotten a lot less sure about everything since then. Shades of grey people.

  • The_L1985

    I always like to make sure. Most people see that sort of spellcasting as silly-but-harmless, but I don’t ever want to offend someone by “doing magic on” them without their consent. :)

  • Fusina

    Wishing someone well is never (in my world) a bad thing. Wishing someone evil always is. I’m not sure where I am standing currently on the son of my friend who fell–she has COPD and he lives in her house, and he smokes in the house (in his room, with the door closed, because the smoke doesn’t get into the rest of the house…) =:-O He is allegedly her caretaker…

  • phantomreader42

    The problem is that what constitutes “wishing someone well” is not always agreed on. There are many people who think asking their imaginary friend to brainwash me and remove my capacity to think for myself would qualify as “wishing me well”. It does not. Of course, The_L1985 is not one of those people, nor to my knowledge is any regular commenter here.

  • Fusina

    My imaginary friend is not someone who wishes to remove your capacity to think for yourself. My IF would prefer you to be an honest atheist than a braindead religious. Um. that would be My IF, other IFs I cannot speak to the personal quirks thereof.

    Yeah, I am a christian… a totally heretical one. So be it. If love causes me to do other than the usual traditional shit, So will I do. Love wants the other to be happy, and if being atheist makes someone happy, I’m okay with it. I’m so going to fundy hell.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I would highly suspect that merely wishing that your health remain beneficial does not constitute harmful thought, even if expressed through prayer to a god(s).

  • Carstonio

    I admit that when I read about the boy with the pink headband being harassed at Walmart, I wanted the harasser to wake up every day in misery and wanted his dreams destroyed. I suspect I have that reaction because, whether I’m the parent or the child in that situation, I want to be safe from people like that. It’s very tempting to believe that the only way to convince such people to leave others alone is to make the consequences intolerable, like we’re dealing with wild animals.

  • Fusina

    I really, really like the Wiccan statement “An it harm none, please yourself.” Invites self examination and contemplation of consequences. In my opinion, more christians and atheists should do this. Because if you take harm and look at not just physical but also mental harm, you will tend to think more and move gently around others.

    Also, for those who wonder, I want to go to fundy hell–I do not think it is as they imagine it is.

  • LMM22

    Because if you take harm and look at not just physical but also mental harm, you will tend to think more and move gently around others

    But the kinds of harm you consider to be important are frequently determined by your culture rather than by your own moral principles. (Do you take environmental damage into account? Do you take indirect damage to your community into account when you make your decisions? Moving away, for example, may make financial sense for you — but it may drain your community and reduce the amount of support available to your parents as they age. Do you take those issues into consideration?

  • EllieMurasaki

    I think some harms are simply too vague to determine whether they exist. Like, you said “drains the community”–what does that mean? How do I know I’m harming the community by leaving? How do I know I wouldn’t be harming the community more by not leaving? And then there’s the question of, is it possible to live a life that harms no one? Oneself counts as someone, after all–if it makes financial sense for me to move and I don’t, I’m harming me, aren’t I?

    Further, how much am I at fault for doing a thing that harms someone when all my other choices are also harmful to someone? I’m thinking of the clothing industry–I can buy inexpensive clothing made by people who made pennies for their dangerous work, I can expend considerable sums of money and effort on finding and buying clothes made somewhere with wage and worker-safety laws at least as stringent as the US’s, I can expend enormous sums of money and effort on learning to make my own clothes, or I can not acquire clothes. The last seems least harmful all around, since after a point clothes are a want, but before that point clothes are a need.

  • LMM22

    By “drains the community,” I mean brain-drain or maybe an increase in the overall age (and a decrease in energy) in your immediate group. Maybe you can’t sell your house and so moving means a vacant house in an once-vibrant neighborhood. (And, strictly speaking, “harm none” doesn’t say *anything* about benefitting anyone. Moving might benefit you financially but, so long as you could continue in your same location indefinitely, not moving isn’t directly harming you.)

    Arguing about the exact points doesn’t matter — the point is that there are a huge number of angles to consider about *any* decision, and the angles you consider are going to be the ones that are defined by your culture. (We’re far off the original topic, but I think there’s a similarity here: There *is* no way to define morality from first principles. Even if you aren’t adhering to a dictated set of moral rules, the possible harms you can cause through your actions are going to be determined by the environment you’ve grown up in, not by you yourself.)

    And your discussion about clothing is (I think) almost an easier example to work with. A person raised in a strongly pro-union household is far more likely to put a lot more effort into finding union-made brands of clothing than someone else is who grew up shopping at Walmart.

  • Foelhe

    Is there any moral system that doesn’t depend on the environment we grew up in? Seems like any code of ethics worth its salt would be based on having a clear understanding of the situation, and we all have blind-spots. Not much you can do about that but try to make them smaller.

  • LMM22

    No, there isn’t — but that’s the point. A blank statement like the Wiccan creed makes you *more* culture-blind rather than less. If I give you an explicit set of rules, it’s really easy to see things that have been left out. If I tell you to use your own judgement, it’s a bit harder to realize that you’re making decisions based on the criteria you’ve already been taught to think in terms of.

  • Foelhe

    I… don’t think that’s true. And given how much of the discussion on this blog is about fundamentalist Christianity (obsessed with rules, generally asshats) vs egalitarian Christianity (depends heavily on love and empathy, neither of which are heavy on specifics) I’d really like to hear how you reached that conclusion.

  • LMM22

    Look, here’s the deal:

    The Wiccan tells you to consider how your action will harm someone. Great, right?

    Except that the ways that you think about harm vary from culture to culture. They vary *massively* from culture to culture — and they’re stupidly hard to determine. (That’s why utilitarianism creates so many moral dilemmas.)

    Telling people that they should think about how their actions impact others tells me that you think that other people don’t already. Telling *atheists* and *Christians* that they should do so suggests (to me) that you believe that those two groups aren’t doing so. *I* think that’s false. I suspect that the part that makes that even *more* incorrect is that there are plenty of people who could do things that (to you) seem to harm more people (or object to things that don’t seem to harm other people) yet are doing so because they are obeying the creed.

    Do I spend my time searching for union-made underwear? I’m sure most people will agree that slave labor is wrong, but the decision I make depends upon whether I’ve been raised in an environment where I *think* about where my clothes come from. Same goes with food purchases. Or where I move or what I do for a living.

    “Harming none” is all but impossible. The fossil fuels that are being burnt to power my computer are indirectly harming my grandchildren a century from now. Do I see that as an actual form of harm? Probably depends upon how much time I spend hanging around with climatologists. The same goes for every other aspect of my life. Utilitarianism is freaking complicated, and the Wiccan creed simplifies it in ways that are invisible to the average actor.

  • Foelhe

    Let’s take this one step at a time.

    “Except that the ways that you think about harm vary from culture to culture. They vary *massively* from culture to culture — and they’re stupidly hard to determine. (That’s why utilitarianism creates so many moral dilemmas.)”

    I don’t disagree with you, I just don’t think there’s any better approach to the issue. Authoritarian lists of laws can also have problems with spotting personal biases, and any other system you can think of has problems spotting personal biases. That’s because all these systems are applied by humans, who all, natch, have problems spotting personal biases. There’s no way to completely sidestep that issue.

    “Telling people that they should think about how their actions impact others tells me that you think that other people don’t already. Telling *atheists* and *Christians* that they should do so suggests (to me) that you believe that those two groups aren’t doing so.”

    … Sorry, but that makes no sense to me. I don’t think we should have murder laws on the books because everyone living under that jurisdiction would start murdering people otherwise, but because the people who would murder are in the wrong. (Plus punishment. Not a perfect metaphor, granted.) If you’re not being a dick, great, we’ve got no problem. If you are being a dick, stop being a dick.

    And honestly, I know a handful of people who follow the Rede, and it’s not like they insist I should adopt it myself. So I’m not sure what the issue is.

    [Edit: …Shit, I just went back and read Fusina’s post again. I guess I missed a line last time. Kinda agree she shouldn’t have called out specific groups there. Yeah, I think it’s true that some Christians and atheists should give more thought to not causing harm, but that’s also true of some Wiccans and most other groups I could think of.]

    ” I suspect that the part that makes that even *more* incorrect is that there are plenty of people who could do things that (to you) seem to harm more people (or object to things that don’t seem to harm other people) yet are doing so because they are obeying the creed.”

    Sorry, I’m not sure I understand your point here. Are you saying that people follow the Rede and hurt people because of it? Like I said earlier – we’re all human, people screw up sometimes. Just because someone philosophizes badly doesn’t mean we should give philosophy up as a bad job.

    “”Harming none” is all but impossible.”

    Okay, something a lot of people don’t seem to notice (including some Wiccans, admittedly), the phrase isn’t “harm none”. It’s “An [if] it harm none, [then] please yourself”. If-then. To me the creed is primarily about freedom, and basically makes the statement, “Hey, if you’re not ruining anyone else’s day, why not let your freak flag fly?”

    IMO, the reason it works as a moral creed is that it puts the focus on whether or not harm is being done. However, it does not explicitly say that harm must be avoided at all costs. There are situations where harm is inevitable or even necessary, and I don’t see those situations as being inherently against the Rede.

  • LMM22

    My objections are:

    (1) The statement that there are people — and, even worse, certain groups of people — who should take the Rede to heart, with the connotation that if they *did* take the Rede to heart, they would specifically stop doing things that Fusina sees as hurting others.

    (2) The statement that the Rede even does anything useful. Something vague like telling you not to harm people doesn’t do that — because the consequences that you consider and the consequences aren’t dictated by internal beliefs but rather by the ways that you’ve been raised to think about actions.

    Your final statement says that the Rede doesn’t even object to doing things that harm people — all it does is say you should feel free to do anything that doesn’t. Which, you know, makes it completely useless except in regards to a counter-culture philosophy opposing a culture that objects to acts for random reasons.

    Most cultures, for that matter, rationalize a lot of their taboos in ways that make sense to them — and they explain away a lot of seemingly-harmful acts in ways that make it sound like they’re *not* harming people. Foot binding, for example, was needed to get your daughter a good marriage. (Really. It stopped in part because Christian groups founded societies where families pledged that they would marry their sons to girls with unbound feet.) If virginity is valued in your culture (or if birth control is limited or if STDs are rampant), then having premarital sex with someone else *could* harm both of you — and that’s something that I’m sure a lot of parents would point out to their children. Hell, include “harm” in the form of “setting a bad example for your family” and you can object to just about anything.

    So the Rede is flat-out useless.

  • Foelhe

    “The statement that there are people — and, even worse, certain groups of people — who should take the Rede to heart, with the connotation that if they *did* take the Rede to heart, they would specifically stop doing things that Fusina sees as hurting others.”

    I agree that there’s no point in calling out specific groups, but if a person’s causing harm, telling them not to cause harm is pretty worthwhile, I’d think.

    “The statement that the Rede even does anything useful. Something vague like telling you not to harm people doesn’t do that — because the consequences that you consider and the consequences aren’t dictated by internal beliefs but rather by the ways that you’ve been raised to think about actions.”

    Two points I really should have made earlier in the conversation:

    1. Cultural differences are not the only reason people cause harm. Sometimes they cause harm because they’re self-centered, or are being oblivious when they should know better. Reminding someone that, hey, maybe you shouldn’t be selfish, maybe you should pay more attention to what you’re doing, that can be a necessary thing.

    2. Cultural differences are not insurmountable. If I don’t think I’m causing harm, but someone else does, I am perfectly capable of talking to the other person, figuring out why they think I’m causing harm and seriously considering what they have to say.

    At its best, the Rede – much like any creed for that matter – is about awareness. It’s a reminder that harm is something you need to watch out for. When people are willing to think about harm, and what constitutes harm, they’re less likely to cause it.

    “Your final statement says that the Rede doesn’t even object to doing things that harm people — all it does is say you should feel free to do anything that doesn’t. Which, you know, makes it completely useless except in regards to a counter-culture philosophy opposing a culture that objects to acts for random reasons.”

    Yeah, somehow I don’t think the word “harm” was tossed into the Rede just for kicks. Seriously, it’s a six-word sentence, a lot of Wiccans consider it the underpinning of their religion, I don’t think half the sentence is supposed to be completely arbitrary. It’s just not absolute.

    The point, again, is awareness. Are you causing harm is the first half of the rule. That’s the question you need to start with. And yeah, it doesn’t explicitly spell out exactly what harm is or how you should handle it if you are, because those questions aren’t easy. But asking them is still the place to start.

  • Carstonio

    Is that Wiccan principle aimed at the harasser, the victim, or both? It wouldn’t seem to be of much help for the latter.

  • Fusina

    As someone who spent a deal of time as a victim of bullies, I do not aim anything at the victims of harassers. When I am in a position of authority over others, I try to behave in a way which does as little harm as possible.

    I guess each situation must be inspected on its own merits. And this can also help the victim–it is not good for bullies to get away with what they do.

    So far as the aforementioned brain/age drain, that can happen naturally as a community ages. I saw it happen in my Mum-in-laws neighborhood. First she knew everyone, then as people aged, some died, some moved to nursing homes, inheritors sold the family home and the area changed. Did it cause harm? I don’t know.

  • ReverendRef

    Damn, sorry to hear about all that. Prayers for protection, peace and confidence.

  • The_L1985

    I do wish there were some way to undo the human-induced climate change we’ve created so far. I want to help so badly, but with fires that big there doesn’t seem to be much anybody can do. :(

  • ReverendRef

    Yeah, all this does make one feel a little on the helpless side. It’s not all climate change, though. In some respects, part of this problem can also be attributed to hardcore environmentalists who fight to limit any kind of logging at all. What this does is prevent good thinning practices and keeps the dead timber in place, and what it adds up to is so much kindling waiting for a lightning strike.

    I saw this a lot in Montana. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not “the environmentalists” fault; it’s just more complicated than that. I love our forests, but if we practiced “all things in moderation,” we might be able to strike a balance between both sides. And I know, fire can be good, healthy and necessary — it’s just complicated.

  • The_L1985

    To me, trying to harmonize Gen 1 with Gen 2 is like trying to harmonize either story with Greek mythology. Different words for God, different numbers of humans created, different order–one may just as well say “And on the 7th day, Prometheus gave Adam fire” as to say “And on the 6th day, the story from Gen 2 happened.”

  • Jim Roberts

    “Well, if we were to read the story as fiction, I think we’d be inclined to say “OK, so I guess when chapter 1 talks about creating humanity, that was when Adam & Eve were created”, wouldn’t we? Even allowing for the possibility of unreliable narration, this doesn’t seem to pose too much of a problem.”
    It does, though. The first account of creation, God speaks everything to life. This is made clear on the first day of creation. God speaks; stuff appears.*
    In the second account, God reaches into the dust and creates life himself.
    The first is a God, a real capital “G” guy who creates just because he’s that powerful. The second God, he’s a craftsman god – a little bit Prometheus, a little bit Epimetheus.
    Two different guys.
    * Honestly, this is the thing that sticks out to me about the first creation account.

  • LMM22

    There are tons of different kinds of harmonizations, though, and the one that you pick (as Fred points out) is pretty much determined by what tradition you’re coming from. Fanon often makes a lot of sense — but it’s something that no one coming directly from canon (as most Protestant groups claim to be doing) is going to agree with everyone else on.

    I heard a historian once who said that, in the early 1800s, when religion was still seen as something that could co-exist with reason, the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 was often interpreted as meaning that there was a huge gap of time between the creation of humans (in general) and the creation of Adam and Eve (who initiated, after the fall, the start of history as we know it) — and *that* gap was pointed to to explain why there’s so much clear geological evidence of things that existed prior to recorded history.

    Which is fanon, clearly. But it’s fanon that makes a huge amount of sense in context — and, honestly, interprets the text far more literally than creationists do today.

  • RtRDH

    Man I felt deceived, I thought this was going to be about Frantz Fanon and the Bible! :-)

  • arcseconds

    :-)

    I think that’s what I was kind of thinking myself at first, too, except I’m not very good with names, so it was more like ‘Fanon, fanon… I know that name from somewhere…’

    So I’m glad you mentioned this :-)

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Fanon often implied in the world of Christian rightists: Matthew 6:5 not only doesn’t exist, but Jesus said the opposite.

  • The_L1985

    You mean the Religious Right? Yeah, we call that “Tebowing” around here. :)

  • Lunch Meat

    I went back and read the linked post about N. T. Wright and the ten commandments, and wanted to ask a question but don’t want to post on a dead thread. A while back, someone (I think chris the cynic, who is brilliant) wrote a hilarious, completely non-sectarian and ambiguous version of the Lord’s Prayer. Anyone want to do the same for the Ten Commandments and produce a version that actually accords with USian law and that everyone could agree on? I tried to get one started, but i don’t think I’m clever enough.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Hitchens spoke these commandments, but they could use revision.

  • The_L1985

    I like all but #10. Any religion can be twisted into something horrible, but that doesn’t mean that religion itself is evil.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Hitchens doesn’t condemn all religion in his Commandments, only those forms of religion that have commandments which contradict his other nine commandments.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Thanks to the fact Chris hasn’t made his activity private, found it!

  • The_L1985

    Did you really have to say that stuff before “found it?” Most people on Disqus don’t bother to make their activity private.

    I don’t feel that I have anything to hide. I may say or do things that closed-minded people find offensive, but it’s not my fault if somebody chooses to go through my Disqus history and look for things to offend them.

    It’s also not my fault if someone points out something inaccurate I said on Disqus however-long ago, and ignores any subsequent responses to corrections with, “Oh, thanks! I guess I didn’t have the whole story on that.”

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    1. You shall not excessively worship money.
    2. You shall not secure for yourself access to money that unjustly enriches you.
    3. Take one day as a day of rest; adhere to it even under pressure to sacrifice your well-being to the altar of toil.
    4. Respect the person(s) who raised you, whoever they may be, if they treated you well, for they have gone to considerable effort to ensure your safety and long life.
    5. You shall not kill, except to protect your own life.
    6. You shall not, without reason, dishonor the commitment you make to the one(s) you love by seeking your pleasure elsewhere.
    7. You shall not steal, except if it would save a life.
    8. You shall not lie, except to save a life.
    9. You are entitled to a basic material standard of living, but greedily coveting someone else’s possessions or love partners is wrong.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I approve.

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    Well, now, this all comes down to a question of whether we’re aiming for commandments representing aspirational goals, or describing our actual behaviour. Your basic is-ought problem. Obviously, you’ve interpreted it on the “ought” side of things.

  • The_L1985

    I don’t know. Once you get old enough to understand the difference between truth and lies, you should be able to keep those.

  • themunck

    We’re missing a 10th.

    10. And if in doubt, be good to the best of your ability. Including your ability to judge what is best.

  • The_L1985

    Very nice! It always bothered me that coveting was tacked on the end of the usual 10 list, almost as an afterthought. (It bothers me more that, to keep it at 10, many Protestant denominations lump coveting your neighbor’s wife with coveting his possessions. I understand, but I don’t have to like it.)

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    1. Thou shalt remember the Razor of Occam, as stated by Hitchens-extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Thou shalt trust in the theorem of Bayes.

    2. Do not kill unless threatened or someone else is threatened by the one you kill.

    3. Do not steal, unless death or serious injury can be prevented by you stealing.

    4. Do not lie except to protect anonymity or to mislead those who may likely harm others so that the risk of them harming others may be decreased.

    5. Obey all agreements you make, unless the agreements you make are in violation of the other commandments.

    6. Treat people based on relevant characteristics, and not on irrelevant ones.

    7. Remember the nature of incentives. Do not reward those who make grave mistakes unless sound empirical evidence demonstrates that doing so is the best option.

    8. Thou shalt not conflate correlation with causation.

    9. Thou shalt not commit violence or bodily injury against people except when directly threatened by violence.

    10. Remember that the fact someone tells you something never automatically makes it true.

  • arcseconds

    There’s some redundancy in the first commandment.

    Bayes’s theorem already contains the necessity for extraordinary claims (i.e. hypotheses with low prior probabilities) requiring extraordinary evidence (i.e. evidence which is extremely unlikely given just the priors, but very likely given the hypothesis under consideration).

    Which in a way is a good thing, otherwise you’d really be sneaking in two commandments under the first one.

    I’m not really sure why the ‘extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence’ is being called ‘Occam’s Razor’ here, nor why Hitchens is getting any credit.

    The ‘extraordinary claims’ statement is from Sagan, although similar statements have been around for hundreds of years. Bayes’s theorem is credited to Bayes, but was discovered independently by Laplace (who, as it turns out, also said “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”) who did most of the foundational work on it.

    William of Occam was obviously responsible for the original ‘razor’, but these days it’s usually taken to be a principle preferring simpler theories.

    They’re two quite different principles, so by conflating them, Hitchens is introducing confusion. Perhaps we should take 1 as blaming Hitchens, rather than crediting him…

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    That list was typed up by me late at night as a first draft without me doing the tiniest bit of research. I do not doubt I made some errors that I could have easily avoided had I typed it at an earlier hour and that I should probably edit my list. Thank you for pointing out some particularly embarrassing errors I made.

  • The_L1985

    I’d be interested in seeing another draft, if you don’t mind. I may disagree with a lot of things you say, but this list has promise.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I revised the 1st commandment.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I was trying to sneak two commandments under one.

    By my interpretation, Occam’s razor is the principle that one should prefer the simplest hypothesis if that simplest hypothesis makes the same predictions as a number of more complex competing ones. Thus, I see it as related to Carl Sagan’s statement (you’re right; it was Sagan, I should have checked my blog’s “Quotes” page).

  • arcseconds

    Well, sure, they’re related, at least in so far as they’re principles that science-types often say they use to determine what theory is correct.

    However, I don’t see them as being very closely related.

    They’re not even aimed at the same sorts of things:

    The “extraordinary evidence” principle is about supporting a single hypothesis. The more unlikely the hypothesis, the stronger the evidence needed to support it.

    The other is talking about which theory to prefer when you’ve got evidence that seems to equally support several (or at least, isn’t decisive amongst several).

    If you’ve already sorted out what evidence you have and how it relates to two different theories and done the whole Bayesian thing and updated your probabilities appropriately, and you’re left with one theory having a very high probability and the other a very low probability, Occam’s razor has no work to do. There’s no level of simplicity that would make us prefer a way-out, unlikely hypothesis over a well-supported, likely one, one would hope.

    Do you see them as being more closely related than this? If so, why?

  • http://vmthecoyote.tumblr.com/post/56439695124/names-on-the-internet VMtheCoyote

    But in another sense, this is frustrating, because in making both sides
    of the argument canon, neither side is granted the definitive final
    word. That leaves the argument unsettled — something many readers find
    unsettling.

    Heh – but that’s one of the coolest things about the Bible*! It’s this massively complicated thing that has conflicting answers, and the answer to “What does the Bible have to say about this?” is usually “It depends,” which means that we kinda have to depend on our consciences/the First Law(s), which puts the entire world into these fractally complicated series of questions that still all have the same generally guiding principle. It’s kind of like math, except also kind of the opposite of math.

    *and life in general! I recently started a blog about life and wound up going on about this trend a bit.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    The Bible makes a pretty good rorschach test.

  • AnonaMiss

    c.f. A Clockwork Orange

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    I still have yet to read that, after my parents said it was such an amazing book. That… admittedly disturbed me. They aren’t known for their taste.

  • AnonaMiss

    I was referring to the part where the point-of-view character (not protagonist) enjoys his time in the prison library because he gets to read the Bible. He loves all the violence in it, spends a lot of time reading Judges.

    However, the book itself also serves as a decent rorschach test. People tend to see their own politics in it. My dad thought it was about how terrible it was that bleeding-heart liberals took the side of horrible criminals being abused by the criminal justice system, and how if they got their way said horrible criminals would be set free and we’d all suffer for it. I thought it was about how the criminal justice system uses the abuse of its inmates as political capital, then throws them out into the street after their sentences with no help, and if they put any effort into care-after-prison, a lot of them could be rehabilitated.

    The latter only really makes sense if you’ve read the ending, though, and the Kubrick film (the source of its continued popularity) cut it out. Which makes sense for a Kubrick piece, but rather distorts the point of the story as a whole, especially in the general cultural memory.

    The author later said it was the worst book he’d ever written, but I enjoyed it, especially as a counterpoint to the movie (was an English class focused on books & their movie adaptations).

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Fun fact: Kubrick didn’t initially mean to leave out the last chapter; he just didn’t know it existed unitl late in the scriptwriting process. This is because the book’s American publishers insisted American audiences would prefer a darker ending and omitted the last chapter, and this was the version Kubrick was familiar with. The first full US edition was published in 1986.

  • arcseconds

    Given the (mathematically proven) failure of foundational programmes in mathematics to yield a single consistent mathematical theory (I’m thinking in particular here of things like the axiom of choice and the continuum hypothesis), there are genuine parallels here.

    It’s almost as if we’re supposed to depend on our own judgement, rather than blindly following a bunch of rules, or something!

  • http://vmthecoyote.tumblr.com/post/56439695124/names-on-the-internet VMtheCoyote

    That is really awesome, and appears to bear further looking into/reading obsessively about.

  • The_L1985

    Non-Euclidean geometry is a good place to start. Basically, Euclid’s 5th axiom works on a totally-flat plane of the kind we’re used to, but falls apart when you’re on various non-flat or non-linear surfaces.

  • swbarnes2

    You could throw any set of texts together, and get a supertext with contradictions. I don’t see what’s so special about that. And the question “What does the bible say” is interesting in an academic sense, but the issue is that we have a huge number of people in world for whom it is not an academic question, and many, many people whose hurt caused by people justifying their actions with the Bible isn’t hypothetical either.

    So if you are relying on your conscience anyway, why throw any text into the equation, let alone such a deeply problematic one? Why not just look at the world instead?

  • http://vmthecoyote.tumblr.com/post/56439695124/names-on-the-internet VMtheCoyote

    Well, if I thought the only value in the Bible was its contradictions, it would indeed be no better than any other book. But I think the reason its contradictions are so interesting is partly because they are all works by people trying to better understand God, or teach the understanding they have. As to people being hurt by actions “justified” by the Bible, I think that lies on the people who’re causing hurt – if it was not one text they were leaning on, it would be another. Mankind is fallible.

    Why read, rather than just look at the world – because there is worth in the Bible. The thing about it having multiple facets is that it gives us more angles to look at – they don’t cancel each other out, just provide more context, more ideas. Also because – this is where I disagree heartily with Jefferson – even the stories that aren’t taken literally are still useful. Also, being a Christian, I am sorta heavily invested in knowing what Jesus said, even if all his disciples had different angles and opinions on parts of his message.

  • swbarnes2

    We’re talking about the same Bible that describes God killing the son of the prisoner and the son of the slave girl, and all of Job’s wives and children? You truly believe those stories help you better understand God? I’m guessing you believe those are not accurate descriptions of God’s work, but saying that the Bible is in places absolutely wrong about the nature of God is a problematic assertion, not to mention hard to justify with evidence.

    Look, both you and the homophobic bigots are trying to use the Bible to understand God, right? You just think they are doing it not quite right. Looking at verses A, B, C, when they should be looking at verses X, Y and Z, but you agree that overall, figuring out God by reading this 4000 year old text is the right approach. I’m saying to look at the world and not look at ANY verses at all. You are already using your moral judgment in place of Exodus and Job, right? So why not just do that for that whole text, and all texts?

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    Heh. It’s kinda funny, when I wrote that comment I initially said “Even the stories that aren’t meant to be taken literally, like Jonah or Job (though Job still creeps me out) are useful,” but left it out as irrelevant.

    No, I have absolutely no way to justify the point in Job, even while believing it is allegorical/figurative. That book gave me nightmares as a kid, taken literally, and I am no more comfortable with it as an adult. Likewise with most or all of the stories that have God as a cruel, jealous dictator snarling down and stomping those who don’t toe the line.

    Looking at verses A, B, C, when they should be looking at verses X, Y and Z, but you agree that overall, figuring out God by reading this 4000 year old text is the right approach. I’m saying to look at the world and not look at ANY verses at all.
    I think we need to do both. I think we need to read verses X, Y, and Z, and then use our conscience and judgement to figure out what they are saying. Because there is truth there, and God is speaking through the text. Just… not always in the expected or obvious ways.

  • swbarnes2

    If there’s truth in X, Y and Z, don’t you have to admit that there might be truths in the homophobes’ A, B and C too? Don’t you have to admit that there might be truth in the descriptions of God’s behavior in Exodus and Job? Sometimes, true things are really, really unpleasant. How can you be sure that God isn’t saying things that you really, really, don’t want to think are true? Maybe Job is an accurate description of how God works.

    You have some other scale by which you measure the truth in X, Y and Z, right? Why not just apply that scale to the world, instead of applying to to a text, and then applying the text to the world? You’ve already set aside some of the text, right?

    How about this: It’s not that the world happens to match the true parts of the Bible. It’s that the Bible is only right which it matches the world. So why not just look at the world, rather than trying to make a 4000 year old text from a culture you don’t understand, written in language you don’t speak, fit the world?

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    This was a bad debate to get into while already doing the thrice-annual* Reason And Faith Inner Doubt Festival. I guess what it comes down to is that I do not think the homophobic bigots, or racial bigots, or generally the folks who see the Bible as a tool for oppression or hatred, can possibly be right about God, or about their interpretation of the Bible. Cherry-picking verses throughout most of the text can indeed lead down a weird and labyrinthine path. But the thing is, Jesus sorta told us what the whole thing was about in two basic commandments: love God, love each other. If there’s something in the Bible that contradicts that basic statement, it’s either being misinterpreted or, quite possibly, the author of that particular text was wrong. So – no. I don’t set aside any part of the text, I just take it in context – in the specific context of “This is a collection of things which, as a whole, are designed to point you towards light and love.”

    Yes, sometimes the truth is really unpleasant. But taken as a whole, the universe generally bends towards light and towards justice and towards good. I believe this of the Bible and, to a lesser degree, mankind in general**.

    *or bi-monthly. or occasionally, daily
    **…most of the time. some days it is easier than others.

  • swbarnes2

    Did you come to that conclusion through carefully taking into account verses A, B and C? And the stories of Exodus and Job? God speaks through the Bible, remember? And the Bible says “God killed innocent women and children”, doesn’t it? If your judgment tells you what God is like, why do you need a scripture?

    Whom is it you are saying is cherry-picking? Aren’t people who use verses X, and and Z, and not A, B and C, cherry picking just as much as people who use verses A, B and C, and not X,Y and Z?

    Jesus scourged the money-changers in the temple. Loving scourging, I assume? Doesn’t God beat one of his servants in the parable of the talents? And where does Jesus say that the events of Exodus did not happen as described in scripture?

    Jesus said a lot of things, and the Bible texts themselves say many, many more. Isn’t it cherry-picking to concentrate on that phrase alone, to the exclusion of all others? Maybe you are wildly over-applying that one statement to the rest of the text, instead of listening to what God is saying in ALL of the texts, including Exodus and Job.

    So no more “It’s a mishmash of texts that aren’t supposed to harmonize” , now it’s all one whole, and you know what God’s purpose was in writing it, better than the people who lived in the culture that created it, better than the people who spoke the language it was written in? That its purpose was to lead people to something very close to 21st century Western liberalism, even though for 4000 years, no one else reading it thought it means anything like that?

    Because people around here seem to think it’s awfully suspicious when rabid conservatives think the Bible agrees with them on every point, but at least the right-wingers have the benefit of arguing from a patriarchal, authoritarian viewpoint, which was not at all foreign to cultures 4000 years ago. So one has to think that it is even more suspicious to claim that a 4000 year old set of texts is really arguing in favor of 21st century Western liberalism. Yet no one here ever seems to find that weird.

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    I’m not sure what you want me to say here. Obviously, we disagree on the nature of the Bible. I agree with the point that it has many contradictions, because it was written by many authors from different backgrounds, for different reasons, in different time periods. I also believe that it holds important truths and values, but understand that not everyone agrees.

    Like I said somewhere up thread – if others have different belief systems, that’s fine. I’m not trying to say everyone needs to read the Bible and get the same things out of it. My boyfriend put it pretty well: what matters is whether or not your compass points north, not what brand it is.

    And I guess that’s where I have to look askance at what you seem to be saying here, that if one accepts the Bible to be in any manner true, one interpretation is as good as the next, and therefore a hateful one is just different from a loving one, and not necessarily wrong by the metric of “Biblical truth.” Because, quite simply, that doesn’t point north.

    So we’re going in circles, then, and have been for probably three or four comments now. You seem to be saying “If all that matters is your conscience, why bother with a Bible that contains icky/problematic/worrying thoughts about God at all? Why not just follow your conscience and forget the whole text?”

    I’m saying, “The Bible can be interpreted many ways, but the correct interpretation is the one that is not morally abhorrent.” It’s a series of texts that do not all harmonize with one another, because they cannot. They offer many views of God; I believe that some of the texts actually happened – the gospels, for example – and some are fables, or parables, or long dialogues or philosophies, like Ecclesiastes.

    But I do believe that going by what Christ actually said (yes, including throwing the moneychangers out of the temple – tell me, what part of “stop using religion as a way to make money” is icky or problematic?) (also, there is probably a servant beaten by his master in one of the parables or possibly more, but I disagree that they’re meant to be taken as a direct and perfect allegory), the compass points north. The correct interpretation is the one that does not tell you to hate and fear your neighbor.

    And no, I would disagree that it’s cherry-picking to take the two commandments that Christ explicitly said were the most important things, and use them as guidelines by which to read the rest of the text.

    If you are not willing to concede that, if you honestly believe that both a hateful and a loving interpretation are equal and valid, I’m not sure what more we have to discuss.

  • swbarnes2

    “I’m saying, “The Bible can be interpreted many ways, but the correct interpretation is the one that is not morally abhorrent.””

    What do you mean by “correct”? Aren’t you begging the question? If verses A, B and C of the text that God speaks through says that homosexuality is morally abhorrent, how do you get to conclude the opposite? I know how I do it, but I don’t start with the premise that God speaks through a 4000 year old text written by authoritarian patriarchs.

    The person who wrote Job thought that women and children were disposable and replaceable. You really think a correct interpretation will fix that? Isn’t it just easier to say that the author of Job was WRONG, and leave it at that? Shouldn’t a person have a point when they realize their reference sucks so badly, they should just stop using it? When section after section after section have to be laboriously ‘interpreted’ to match 21st century Western liberalism, why not just stick with 21st century liberalism?

    “But I do believe that going by what Christ actually said (yes, including throwing the moneychangers out of the temple – tell me, what part of “stop using religion as a way to make money” is icky or problematic?)”

    I find the violence problematic. Morally abhorrent, you might say. So I guess that means I’m interpreting the story wrong? I’m supposed to interpret it such that it bears virtually no resemblance to the event actually described? Do you really want to go down that road?

    If you insist on the compass metaphor, fine.

    You need to go towards magnetic north. You have paper maps, and a compass. You notice that your paper maps keep disagreeing on which way magnetic north is (they also get a lot of major and minor details of the terrain totally wrong), but your compass points consistently at the North Star (with in a couple of degrees). Now, it’s daytime, and once again, your maps and your compass disagree. Which do you follow? Will spending hours agonizing over how to interpret the maps so that they agree with the compass get you to your destination faster?

    “And no, I would disagree that it’s cherry-picking to take the two commandments that Christ explicitly said were the most important things, and use them as guidelines by which to read the rest of the text.”

    But Jesus’ loving actions included doing violence, remember? Are you interpreting those verses in the light of that pertinent example? Doesn’t that make interpreting those lines a little harder? And one is supposed to honor a god who demands praise for killing Egyptian children, remember? Don’t you have to admit it’s possible that you are greatly misinterpreting those verses? That maybe, maybe those millions of Christians throughout the centuries who interpreted those verses differently were not as wildly off the mark as you think?

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I find it very telling that when a misogynist reads the bible, they find misogyny, but not the misogyny you’d expect out of a bronze-age levant culture. And when a homophobe reads the bible, they find homophobia, but not the homophobia you’d expect out of a bronze-age levant culture. And when a slavery apologist reads the bible, they find it to defend slavery, but not the kind of slavery that was practiced in the bronze-age levant.

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    What do you mean by “correct”? … If verses A, B and C of the text that God speaks through says that homosexuality is morally abhorrent, how do you get to conclude the opposite?

    “Hmm, this verse says that (…okay, well actually there isn’t anywhere in the Bible that flat-out says homosexuality is morally abhorrent, as such, but let’s pretend there is) homosexuality is morally abhorrent. I guess I shouldn’t engage in it, then. …wait, but God is love. And mankind is made in God’s image, and this verse here says “What God hath made clean, call not thou unclean,” and that’s… really difficult to misinterpret. Welp, I’m in love with this person, and I’m gonna go ahead and say God hasn’t outlawed being in love. Fuck it, I’m proposing.”

    I find the violence problematic. Morally abhorrent, you might say. So I guess that means I’m interpreting the story wrong?

    But Jesus’ loving actions included doing violence, remember? Are you interpreting those verses in the light of that pertinent example?

    Maybe you and I just disagree on that. Because if Bank of America started setting up tables or kiosks in church, and the pastor/priest/minister drove them violently out of the church, I would give said person a standing ovation.

    Look, as I said, we disagree on this. I’m not sure what you’re going for. To find an example of a Christian using the Bible and having different interpretations of it, see also ~60% of everything Fred’s ever written.

    I suppose part of this is me being stubborn, because the fact is, there are authors in the Bible with whom I disagree, vehemently. This week’s scripture included a bit from Hebrews that I’m pretty sure had to do with those who died before Christ receiving a lesser reward. I side-eye that pretty hard. To me, it doesn’t make sense that Christ’s sacrifice covers all mankind born after the Crucifixion, but no one who was born beforehand – what about folks who died at the instant he was born? And you can find plenty of other authors out there who I’d argue with. Fred has an excellent point about Nehemiah, for example. I don’t think the entire Bible is full of beautiful truths that just need the right interpretation. I think the Bible is still worthwhile for the truths that it does have. And I’m sure there are folks who disagree with me about what those truths are, and where to find them.

    So yeah! You are absolutely right, there are texts in the Bible with which I disagree.

    I’m still not going to throw the whole thing out, because I think, for example, that I’d rather like to continue to have a book that tells me what the Son of God said. Or what people said about God 4000 years ago, because that’s still pretty useful. Sometimes disagreeing with people can be useful! Sometimes reading the texts of people you disagree with can be useful! I don’t need the Bible to be 100% literal fact, and I don’t need it to be 100% absolute moral bricks. That’s the way the fundamentalists use it. But it does not have to be the way I use it, or anyone else.

  • dpolicar

    I think we need to do both. I think we need to read verses X, Y, and Z, and then use our conscience and judgement to figure out what they are saying.

    So… hrm. Just to make sure I’m following you… today, I use my conscience and judgement to decide what I ought to do based on my observations of the world.

    If I’ve understood you correctly, you’re saying my current approach is inadequate… that I also need to read the Bible and use my conscience and judgement to decide what the Bible is saying, because God is speaking through the Bible in a way that He is not speaking other sources, and what God has to say through the Bible is important to making good decisions.

    I infer that, on your account, if I don’t do that my decisions about what to do will be inadequate in some measurable way.

    Have I understood that correctly?

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    I infer that, on your account, if I don’t do that my decisions about what to do will be inadequate in some measurable way.

    Eeeeek, no. I read the Bible because I believe there is value in it; I don’t believe that everyone must base their decisions on the same ideas or values or whatever that I do. As a Christian, I believe the Bible is one path towards God, because it illuminates certain things – but I understand that not everyone agrees, and that’s cool too. I’m not trying to say everyone should read the Bible and use that to weigh with their conscience. Just that some of us find value in it.

  • dpolicar

    Ah, OK. When you said we need to read those Bible verses, I understood you to mean “we” as in you and the people reading your comment. Apologies for the misunderstanding.

    So who is it who needs to read those verses?

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    I s’pose that was a bit arrogant of me, actually, and quite open to miscommunication. I guess I would say people who read the Bible should weigh it against their conscience, rather than “People need to read the Bible and weigh it against their conscience.”

  • dpolicar

    Ah, OK. Thanks for the clarification.

  • swbarnes2

    Let’s use a practical example.

    A woman tells you that she once invited a neighbor over for drinks…well, you know where this is going. She doesn’t scream during, and afterwards, she is so ashamed, she doesn’t tell anyone.

    So one person hearing this story uses their empathy, and realizes that having one’s consent violated is nasty.

    Someone else decides to check scripture. God speaks through it, after all, and humans are very fallible. The Bible says a lot of things, but the person uses their judgment in deciding that the verses explicitly dealing with this situation must override any more general verses that might possibly conflict, sincerely trying not to cherry-pick the verses that they wish were controlling in this scenario. So the person feels illuminated as to how to understand that particular story; it wasn’t rape.

    The second person used both their judgment, AND the Bible, and came to a different answer than the person using their judgment alone, isn’t the purpose of consulting scripture to fix errors that our judgment alone might lead us into?

  • http://talkingtocrows.tumblr.com/ VMtheCoyote

    I think I answered this above, but for some reason didn’t see this reply. If one’s conscience says “Wow, this is pretty awful,” and then one looks at the Bible and comes to the conclusion that no, it actually isn’t awful at all, something is very, very wrong. If one’s conscience says “Wow, this is pretty awful,” and then one looks at the Bible and goes “…oh look, it’s a book of laws that mostly revolved around keeping an agrarian society in line with the proper hierarchies, but this is still awful,” that’s a little better.

    I’m not saying that every time one looks at the world, one must consult the Bible to think for them. That’s misconstruing the point by a lot, honestly. And hey, as usual, someone else has said it more concisely and better than I:

    I’m not entirely sure that’s true [the Bible is very clear], but it is in some parts.

    The Bible is pretty clear, for instance, that if you think you’ve got some kind of monopoly on righteousness and spend all your time resentfully obsessing over the wickedness of the Ninevites, then taking to the high seas to escape your obligation to love those Ninevites just isn’t going to work.

    Yeah. It’s not a cure-all answer guide, and I’m not trying to say it is. And I’m not really sure what you’re hoping to get out of this conversation, at this point. I’m not a particularly wise or knowledgeable Christian, and I would not claim to be such; this argument, in which I think I’ve effectively tied my own tail in a knot at least twice, is proof of that. So don’t wait for me to come up with some resounding convincing argument why my religion is, in some kind of objective and unassailable way, The Right Path. I don’t know one.

    You believe differently than I do. I don’t think it’s necessary to convince you to start reading the Bible. I just feel like maybe telling people that it’s a tool of hate, and should therefore be ignored, is kinda incorrect.

  • Allan Popa

    I wouldn’t call Jonah “vicious devastating polemic” against anything. I’d say that it read more like ironical humour. Interestingly the same people whom Jonah saves turn around and plunder Israel only a century later.

    Also, I think that we can go too far with source criticism (taking it on board to begin with is too far IMO), Genesis is a complete text at the moment and for all intents and purposes Adam in Gen1 is Adam in Gen2. “Smushing” the texts together is exactly what the author(s)/redactor(s) did. Trying to find a pure original version of the stories is rather more like writing your own version.

    Also, I would object to the 66 books of the “abridged” edition of the bible(s). For all intents and purposes we don’t have a bible, we have bibles. There are (and have been) hundreds of orders, lists and canons that Christian communities have used throughout the last two millennia and we probably have no idea what most of them looked like.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Also, I would object to the 66 books of the “abridged” edition of the bible(s). For all intents and purposes we don’t have a bible, we have bibles. There are (and have been) hundreds of orders, lists and canons that Christian communities have used throughout the last two millennia and we probably have no idea what most of them looked like.

    Quoted for truth!

    I’d say most people in the US use the same Bible (there are undoubtedly people out there who have some of the others), but there are definitely other Bibles with other books considered canon in use elsewhere even at the present day. Wikipedia has some tables of canon comparisons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon

  • Guest

    Umm…there are a lot of Catholics, Episcopalians, and others who accept the Deuterocanonical books in the US.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Oops. The first “people” was supposed to be “protestants” and had a complete brain fart. Catholics I knew, Episcopalians I suspected. But there’s still some books that I think are unique to a few other denominations in the East?

  • Guest

    I figured you likely just misspoke (uh, typed?). As an Episcopalian, I just wanted to clarify. I believe you are right about other variations in the East, though the only Church with a different canon that I know of for sure is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which accepts the book of Enoch (and possibly some others? I’m not sure.).

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    That’s the one I was thinking of. (Can’t re-open Wikipedia right now, so I couldn’t recall off the top of my head.)

  • Guest

    Well, while there have always been variations, until the reformation the vast majority of Christians had the same list of books, what Christians call the Old and New Testaments and the Deuterocanonical books (or Apocrypha).

  • Allan Popa

    That’s incorrect, sorry. There were variations even within the Vulgate as well very many other Latin Bibles being used throughout the Medieval period. Standardisation was only ever possible with the invention of printing technology. I’ll give an example, Codex Complutensis I contains the epistle of St Paul to the Laodecians after the Epistle to the Hebrews and it contains 4 Esdras it dates back to 10th century Spain and is a Medieval version of the Vulgate. Another, the Codex Sangermanensis I, another Vulgate dated to the 9th century in France, contains the Shepherd of Hermas, it contains the Apocalypse before the Pauline epistles and has some quite interesting variations in the Gospel of St Matthew. Codex Gigas is another famous example, as well as containing the OT and NT (including the Deuterocanonical books), it contained between the two testaments the work of Josephus and the medical works of Hippocrates. This codex dates to the 13th century and contains non-Vulgate Latin. Canonical standardisation simply was not a reality in the Medieval world and we simply do not know how many variations there were, these texts however were part of the liturgies and contemplative lives of very many monastics so I would argue that it is rude to disregard their importance for framing the religious lives of Medieval people.

  • The_L1985

    Most Roman Catholic translations since the Vulgate have had the same set of 74 books, so I’d say that’s true of the first 5 centuries, and of historical Christianity outside of the Europe/Middle-East area that most histories of Christianity tend to focus on.

  • kittehonmylap

    Nope. The Orthodox Church has additional books which they adopt in their deuterocanonicals which the Vulgate does not include. And they’ve had those since…a long time. (In the first five centuries, most certainly.)

  • Guest

    Hmm…it seems likely I probably knew that at one point and should have remembered. It looks like it is even more complicated than your post would indicate and many different Orthodox Churches have different canons not only from the Western canon, but from each other. I guess I should retract my earlier statement, with apologies for my Western bias.

  • Allan Popa

    There were variations even within the Vulgate as well very many other Latin Bibles being used throughout the Medieval period. Standardisation was only ever possible with the invention of printing technology. I’ll give an example, Codex Complutensis I contains the epistle of St Paul to the Laodecians after the Epistle to the Hebrews and it contains 4 Esdras it dates back to 10th century Spain and is a Medieval version of the Vulgate. Another, the Codex Sangermanensis I, another Vulgate dated to the 9th century in France, contains the Shepherd of Hermas, it contains the Apocalypse before the Pauline epistles and has some quite interesting variations in the Gospel of St Matthew. Codex Gigas is another famous example, as well as containing the OT and NT (including the Deuterocanonical books), it contained between the two testaments the work of Josephus and the medical works of Hippocrates. This codex dates to the 13th century and contains non-Vulgate Latin. Canonical standardisation simply was not a reality in the Medieval world and we simply do not know how many variations there were, these texts however were part of the liturgies and contemplative lives of very many monastics so I would argue that it is rude to disregard their importance for framing the religious lives of Medieval people.

  • Jon Maki

    Maybe we need to do a Crisis on Infinite Earths-style reboot of the entire canon to achieve consistency.
    Then in 20 years we can have an Infinite Crisis, followed by a Final Crisis, and then a post-Flashpoint reboot that scraps just about everything and starts all over again, as with “The New 52.”
    That could work, just so long as we don’t let Jim Lee design the costumes. I don’t want to see a Jesus who dresses like Gambit…

  • Carstonio

    If the Smallville producers were writing the Gospels, Jesus would spend most of the chapters performing miracles in secret while wearing a Matrix jacket. The cross symbol would be heat-visioned on buildings all around Jerusalem. And for several chapters he would be all emo and angsty.

  • The_L1985

    I’d be curious as to where Lilith fits in. Does she count as fanon, or is she somewhere in that murky in-between place? She is, after all, pretty big in Judaic folklore.

  • LMM22

    Fanon, I believe, if an ancient version of it. (See also the Aenid as an ancient version of fanfiction.)

    Ironically, when Luther invented the tradition of sola scriptora, he invited in an era where the *entire* canon is read through the eyes of fanon. To be fair, it’s incredibly hard to do otherwise when all the average person has are translations.

  • Guest

    I’ve been thinking more and more lately that the entire concept of sola scriptura is self contradictory on at least two levels: 1. It is itself a religious doctrine that cannot reasonably be derived from the scriptures. 2. As demonstrated aptly in the above conversations on the canon, the scriptures themselves are tradition, that is it is tradition that Christians depend on to determine which books count as scripture. Personally I’m beginning to agree with Fred that that process should be ongoing.

  • LMM22

    Yeah. I get why Luther did it at the time — given the mindset at the time, it was the only way to undercut the weight of Catholic tradition — but it’s incoherent at best.

  • Jim Roberts

    Lilith – or, rather, lilitu or lamia, are mentioned in the Talmud, but as just sort of a, “Don’t go into the desert, there are monsters there,” kind of thing. A whole lot gets added on in the mythology, though.

  • Carstonio

    I was told years ago that Lilith was originally canon and that Eve was a retcon, with the allegedly original version of Genesis presenting a parable for what the culture viewed as desirable and undesirable traits in women.

  • Matticus

    Ooh, I love Fanon! It’s fascinating how one fan’s personal head-canon (another term I adore) can take on a life of its own and just be accepted as implicit fact by a community.

    Case in point: the adult fans of the most recent generation of My Little Pony (yes, we exist. What, it’s a good show!) have created personalities, back stories and relationships for pretty much every minor character–including those that are just background characters to fill crowd shots. A few such background ponies have even had their fan-nicknames made official by Hasbro!

  • themunck

    Lyra, Derpy/Ditzy, Bonbon, Vinyl Scratch, Octavia, the list goes on. And I think at this point the entire internet knows that bronies exists.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Yeah. Brony wank is – well, see here:

    http://fanlore.org/wiki/My_Little_Pony:_Friendship_is_Magic

    http://www.journalfen.net/tools/memories.bml?user=fandom_wank&keyword=My+Little+Pony&filter=all

    So yeah, even I, who do not watch much network TV, know about bronies, heh.

  • fencerman

    And here I thought this was going to be about “The Wretched of the Earth”

  • http://godofevolution.com/ Tyler Francke

    Great article! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. You inspired me.

  • Bad Horse

    The idea that Christianity forbids polygamy (or slavery) are both pure fanon.

  • Moustache De Plume

    I frequently need to refer to stories and imagery from William Blake and Dante’s Inferno as “fanon” when trying to discuss the bible with Christians. It is…frustrating.


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