Having Your Bible and Criticizing it Too

So not only is Thomas McDonald accusing us of being less sophisticated than a fifth-century theologian, now Fred Clark and James McGrath are both comparing us to Ken Ham. These last two are like a Progressive Evangelical tag-team, hitting us from both sides as McDonald distracts the referee. I was just shaking off Clark’s gorilla slam when they both hit me with their “Bultmann Bomb” and left me flat on the canvas, demythologized.

First off, let me just say that I agree with Clark about Ham. The man argues for the inerrancy of pre-modern ideas that are not even part of the bible, like Bishop Usher’s particular system of dating. Meanwhile, he argues that certain pre-modern ideas that are actual in the Bible aren’t really there, such as the flat earth and the firmament. Honestly, with all that and his chimp-beard I’d almost assume that he’s a parody. But I can’t believe there’s that much irony in the universe.

And I completely understand how frustrating it must be to have atheist trolls popping up to argue that Bishop Usher’s interpretations are actually in the Bible when they clearly are not. I’d apologize, but if we start apologizing for internet trolls we’ll never get anything else done.

But … well, let me just throw out this challenge. This comes from James L. Kugel, professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard:

It is certainly not my purpose here to take sides in Protestantism’s liberal/conservative debate, but one basic irony underlying the above observations deserves to be spelled out. To liberals, fundamentalists and evangelicals often seem like naive Bible thumpers. Haven’t they heard about modern science or biblical scholarship? Don’t they care about the truth? Yet, in broad perspective, the fundamentalist stance—occasional anti-intellectualism and all—has succeeded in preserving much of what is most basic about the Bible, the ancient approach to reading it. By contrast, what now seems naive is precisely the liberal faith that, despite their abandonment of a good bit of that approach, the Bible can somehow still go on being the Bible.(How to Read the Bible, p. 674)

Yes, haha, Ken Ham believes in a world-wide flood, in talking snakes and plagues of frogs. But you know who else believed in those things? The people who wrote the stories that are now in the Bible.

These things are now an embarrassment, because we no longer believe in these things. Also an embarrassment is what the authors did with these things: raw myth, etiological tales and propaganda. These were already obsolete by the time of the Second Temple period, and Jewish sages started a tradition of reinterpretation that continues until this day. Kugel’s point is that many of the assumptions that these sages used are still with us, and many of those are still held by the Fundamentalists.

In contrast, the Liberal approach is to try and save Scripture from itself. No longer believing in the cryptic interpretations of the sages or the wild allegorical readings of the early and medieval Christians, Liberals attempt to use historical interpretation while still finding meanings that are relevant to the modern world.

The result is what Kugel calls “apologetics light,” and it is frequently very silly. Take the story of Noah as an example. We now know that the flood story was taken from a Mesopotamian legend. Even some of the original wording is still retained (God “smelled the pleasing odor”). Modest changes were made so that the story would appeal to its new audience, and apparently these changes are enough to make Liberal Christians go into raptures.

Should we be surprised by the fact that the editors replaced Gods with God? No, it would be amazing if they hadn’t. The cause of the flood has been changed from human overcrowding and noise to human wickedness, but is that thin reed really enough to support all the theology that has been placed on it?

The more historical you are in your approach to the Bible, the less relevant it seems. It’s possible that you can’t have your Bible and criticise it too.

Ken Ham is a buffoon, but there are many Fundamentalists who are more sober. By arguing for the reality of the miracles and wonders in the Bible, I think the Fundamentalists are actually closer to the original understanding of the ancients who wrote the Biblical stories. They are also preserving many of the assumptions about the Bible that have been with us for 2,500 years. (The one they discard is that the Bible contains hidden meanings. Ironically, that’s the keystone that holds it all together.)

Can you abandon all this and still make the bible relevant?

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  • Mogg

    I could go with a certain amount of Old Testament legend being treated as useful legend as part of a broader Christianity only if there was some credence to the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. Even then, it’s rather problematical given how much the NT writers assume about the literal truth of the OT. That’s the problem with the more liberal forms of Christianity – how much is legend? Why treat the NT any differently to the OT in terms of its stories of miracles and resurrections? If the OT tales of talking snakes and prophets raising widows’ sons from the dead are legendary, why is Jesus’ resurrection true? If it isn’t literally true, what’s the point? If there’s a god who wants to communicate via the non-literal Bible, how on earth do we figure out what, if anything, he/her/it’s trying to say? John Shelby Spong seems to get something from a Christianity without a literal resurrection, but I can’t for the life of me see what – or at least not what he gets from it that someone else couldn’t get from dedicating themselves to the order of the Jedi.

  • UrsaMinor

    “Chimp beard”? It’s called a fringe beard, vorjack.

    Which is still marvelously à propos, now that I think about it.

  • http://examined-life.tumblr.com Iosue

    I posted on this topic elsewhere:

    Being an atheist based primarily on philosophical issues, I can partly understand where Fred Clark is coming from. However, especially in the U.S., where a certain strand of Christianity is grabbing for political power, and has a direct effect on U.S. politics and culture, where roughly half of U.S. Americans believe in creationism, the primary target of atheists today in the U.S. SHOULD be those Christians of a fundamentalist variety.

    Why bother with a smaller, less vocal (and less dangerous) set of Christians who espouse the theology of Tillich, Bultmann or Spong? Yes, fundamentalism may be “low-lying fruit”–but there is much more of it around and it is having a much more direct, adverse effect on society.

    And to add:

    Christians on the so-called more liberal end of the spectrum need to get a grip: most Christians, if they even knew who Tillich, Bultmann, Spong, et al were, and knew what their ideas were about Christianity, they would reject them outright as ‘false’ believers or worse. Whether their version of Christianity has a stronger historical precedent than fundamentalists is debateable, but ultimately that is THEIR problem. For those who are not Christians at all, OUR problem is fundamentalists causing great harm to society. Bultmann can take a back seat for the moment–there are more important things at stake than theological sophistry right now.

    • Kathie Wilson

      I so agree. But frankly, I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that ‘Christians’ still have the unmitigated gall to call themselves that – their ‘faith’ may be popular, but their actions and attitudes are anything but Christ-like. Today’s Christianity in action is the biggest diaper-full of hypocrisy I’ve ever seen.

      • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

        To be fair, Jesus himself was pretty hypocritical. What we commonly hold to be ‘Christ-like’ behaviour is only half the story, it omits the occasions where Jesus is far more traditional and promises violent vengeance from his father. I don’t see Christians who love their gay neighbours and don’t tell them they will go to hell at every opportunity as less hypocritical than Christians who would try to stop those neighbours getting married – they are just a heck of a lot nicer. The trouble is, they are nicer because of their own conscience; they’re not getting that niceness out of Christianity, other than perhaps their construction of Jesus being a nice model to keep them on the course they already desire to be on.

  • http://examined-life.tumblr.com Iosue Elegus

    Jesus asked his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist, and others, Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” And they replied, “Lord, you are the incarnate Logos, the earthly manifestation of the divine Sophia, our ground of being and the kerygmatic expression of the Prime Mover and the teleological foundation of our very ontology.” And Jesus replied to them, “what?”

    • Elemenope


    • http://scotteriology.wordpress.com Scott Bailey

      Well played, sir. Well played…

    • http://www.brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker


  • 100meters

    Our beards are NOT descended from chimps !

    • UrsaMinor

      If you check, you’ll find that well over 90% of the DNA in your beard follicles is shared with Pan troglodytes. Coincidence? I think not…

  • David Evans

    “And I completely understand how frustrating it must be to have atheist trolls popping up to argue that Bishop Usher’s interpretations are actually in the Bible when they clearly are not”

    I would like to put in a good word for these particular atheist trolls. Ussher’s calculated age is not in the Bible, but most of his data certainly is. I would find it hard, taking that data literally, to make the Earth any older than 8,000 years, which is just as bad as his 6,000 years if one wants to be consistent with science. Quoting Ussher is simply shorthand for that statement.

  • Robster

    I often have fun with JW’s and their silly bible. They argue that what they believe is true ‘coz it’s in the bible. Reminding them that it was written (talked of) by bronze age tribal goat herders gets responses like “some of it written by (insert strange name here) and he was a qualified Lawyer so it must be true. They get a wee bit flabbergasted when its asked where the lawyers qualification came from. It’s like building on quicksand.

  • http://www.brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

    These things are now an embarrassment, because we no longer believe in these things.

    I’m not sure why this must be the case, for believers or nonbelievers. That ancient people believed in things we know not to be true simply is. What sense does it make to hold ancient people accountable for scientific knowledge that didn’t exist yet?

    The more historical you are in your approach to the Bible, the less relevant it seems.

    I’m not sure why this should be the case, either. Take, for example, one of your recent posts that suggested that much of the Deuternomistic history was propoganda, designed to foster political fervor for a specific dynasty.

    Shouldn’t the lessons that can be drawn from that be incredibly relevant, given that this very same thing happens to this day?

    I’m suggesting a different sort of “relevant” than Evanglical hipsters might do, but relevant is relevant.

    Can you abandon all this and still make the bible relevant?

    I wouldn’t ever try to make the bible relevant. Clearly, there are big chunks that are completely irrelevant. Some parts are or are not for any individual. You either find something meaningful there, or you do not. For me, it is, but that’s not because I tried to make it so for me or you.

    Should we be surprised by the fact that the editors replaced Gods with God? No, it would be amazing if they hadn’t.

    There’s a way to approach this that is less cynical, and McGrath has blogged about it many times using Paul as an example. Paul took the tradition of his religion and modified it based on new information (Jesus), which led to radical shifts like the inclusion of Gentiles.

    We may not be the majority, but there are those of us who are attempting to model Paul. That may not be relevant to a nonbeliever, but it is relevant to those of us who do believe.