Christians’ Damning Refuge in “Difficult Verses”

Christians’ Damning Refuge in “Difficult Verses” February 13, 2016

Let the Bible clarify the Bible

Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation has a new book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, that builds off Richard Dawkins’ famous quote:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.  — Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

In his book, Barker’s theological expertise shows that Dawkins’ eloquent summary is actually understated.

What’s curious, though, is that Christians seem to cite the Dawkins Quote more than atheists. On the Unbelievable radio show for 12/7/13, Christian Chris Sinkinson gives his critique:

[The Dawkins Quote] is clearly a very slanted view of how to read the text of the Old Testament. Most of us would take the clearer passages to interpret the harder passages. We would be talking about Leviticus 19 “Love your neighbor as yourself” before we look at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We would have an approach to scripture that would weight things in such a way that that description of God just does not sound like the god who I believe in or the god who I worship. (@ 36:23)

For starters, “Love your neighbor as yourself” means, “Love your fellow Jewish neighbor as yourself,” so let’s not imagine a big worldwide hug from Yahweh.

But set that aside. I can see that Christians prefer “love your neighbor” to death and destruction, but they make a mistake when they call the former a “clearer” passage when it’s actually just a more pleasing passage.

You can see that in the last sentence: “We would have an approach to scripture that would weight things in such a way that that description of God just does not sound like the god who I believe in or the god who I worship.” It’s clumsily worded, as live radio often is, but he’s saying that he adjusts how he interprets the Bible to preserve his preconceived god belief. That is, he hammers the copper of the Bible on the anvil of his belief, not the other way around.

I see this approach frequently, though it’s unusual to see it so plainly stated.

Thought experiment

My study of the Bible has been haphazard, and I jump around based on whatever I’m researching at the moment. But suppose I wanted to improve my understanding by reading the Bible cover to cover. I find an experienced Christian friend who will mentor me and give me their interpretation as needed.

At any point, I might have a question about social customs at the time, or I might complain about the miracles. But things get interesting when we get to the morally questionable activities—God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to prevent him from giving Moses what he wants, demanding genocide, supporting slavery and polygamy, insisting on a human sacrifice to satisfy his divine wrath, and so on.

When we hit one of these, my mentor will say, “Okay, now let’s take things slowly to unpack this one.” But what’s to unpack? Seen from the standpoint of modern Western morality, God is obviously a savage monster—what’s confusing or difficult? It’s just that my mentor doesn’t like that.

He can respond by saying that God is unjudgeable or that God’s ways are not our ways so it shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t understand. He can say that that reading of the passage is displeasing. What he can’t say is that it’s unclear. He can say that acceptance of chattel slavery (Leviticus 25:44–6) is unpleasant or disturbing and “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16) is happy or satisfying, but only an agenda would cause him to say that those verses are unclear and clear, respectively.

Continue: I critique five online guidelines for biblical interpretation that are variations on this biased approach to the Bible here.

One of the saddest lessons of history is this:
if we’ve been bamboozled long enough,
we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle.
We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth.
The bamboozle has captured us.
It is simply too painful to acknowledge—
even to ourselves—that we’ve been so credulous.
(So the old bamboozles tend to persist
as the new bamboozles rise.)
— Carl Sagan, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”

Image credit: Marcin Chady, flickr, CC

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