Seriously Dangerous Religion (RJS)

Seriously Dangerous Religion (RJS) September 9, 2014

100_4054 dsThere are a number of stories people tell to shape their life and purpose. These range from stories of secular materialism, socialism, capitalism, stories of Western superiority, American superiority, Chinese superiority, humanism and progress, patriarchy, feminism, Christian stories including creation, fall, redemption and new creation and more. The way that these stories are told, mixed, and embraced helps to shape who and what we are.

Over the last several years I have heard a number of different pastors and Christian leaders emphasize the importance of story in the preaching of the gospel. This carries over into all aspects of Christian life including the view the church takes toward the questions of science and Christian faith – be it the age of the earth, evolution, or the reality of global warming. Facts alone are not enough, we need to be able to tell the story. And of course we want our story – whatever it is – to be framed by the biblical story including both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But if we as Christians are seriously focused on being the people of God it has to take the Old Testament seriously on its own terms, not restructured into the story we expect it to tell.

Seriously_Dangerous_ReligionThis leads me to Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters. Iain Provan is the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver British Columbia. He is an Old Testament scholar who has written commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, 1 and 2 Kings, and Lamentations. He is also the author of A Biblical History of Israel with V. Philips Long and Tremper Longman III.

Provan begins his book with a discussion of mice, men and Hobbits – an intriguing chapter title. Douglas Adams’ series The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy provides an overarching story line of mice and men with no ultimate sense. This is an entertaining but rather bizarre series of books I enjoyed as a graduate student. In these books both the answer and the question to life, the universe and everything cannot be known simultaneously.

This means (among other things) that there exists in this “world” no coherent basis for moral action – no foundation upon which to build a moral vision. The novel’s characters are lost in space. (p. 2)

This can be contrast with the overarching storyline in The Lord of the Rings, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and other classic (and not so classic) tales. In these stories there is the conviction of a larger story that provides coherence and purpose, whether known at the time or not. Dante and Tolkien reflect deep Christian convictions and this plays out in how they shape their stories. Other stories are possibly from non-Christian perspectives, not all of them as unpredictable and ultimately meaningless as the fiction of Douglas Adams.  These larger stories are important and we seek them, consciously or unconsciously.

The larger stories shape our lives. Provan points to four stories – metanarratives – that compete for attention in our Western world today. More could be described, of course, but these play significant roles.  Three of these are modern stories and one – the biblical story – is much older. Provan became so interested in these metanarratives as he wrote Seriously Dangerous Religion that he wrote a second book Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World that Never Was to dig into the questions more deeply.

So what are these modern metanarratives?

The first story is the story of the axial age. There was a critical turning point in the continuing emergence of human civilization ca. 800-200 BC. All of today’s major religions emerged out of this axial age. This age produced the basic categories for modern thought and it is to this common past that we should return – and from theis common past we should move forward into a new age of world peace. Provan points to Karl Jaspers who originated the ideas and to Karen Armstrong the author of A History of God as examples of those who see this as the overarching story for humankind. I think The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox, a book I posted on several years ago, may also come out of this overarching story.

The second story is the story of the dark green golden age.  Civilization has broken the human connection with the earth and has broken down human community.  Ancient hunter-gatherer societies lived much happier lives, in more genuinely structured societies, in authentic communion with the earth. It is to this dark green golden age that we must return.

To recover ourselves we must now reject civilization. We must get back behind the axial age, in order to recover a more authentic way of being. We must get back to the Paleolithic Age and reconnect with our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the state of nature. Central to our recovery will be the renewed embrace of preaxial spirituality. (p. 7)

In the story of the dark green golden age it is the salvation of the planet that it at stake.  Writers in this vein include Thomas Berry, David Suzuki, and Derrick Jensen.

The third story is that of the scientific new age. Reason and science should govern our approach to life. Religion is a natural product of biological evolution, and may have served a valuable purpose at one time. However, religion and faith are superstitions which we as a species have outgrown, or at least something we are now outgrowing. Empirical science is the basis for true knowledge of the world. In fact, it is the only reliable basis for knowledge of any sort.

Popular writers championing the  new scientific age include including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.

Each of these three narratives provide a coherent vision of the world.  They are being told by well-intentioned people. They resonate with many. “These are stories that sell.” (p. 9)

Although I have experience with all three of these narratives, the first and third seem to have penetrated most deeply into the warp and woof of modern American life.   These are the stories that provide many of the underlying assumptions in the secular university. The naturalism of the age of science is the base assumption, an assumption that is tempered, on occasion, by the spiritual hope of the future faith and age of peace.  By and large people are spiritual, if they are spiritual, without being religious.

The Old Story. The fourth metanarrative Provan considers is the biblical story.  This is the story that he champions, and the story that he wants people to reconsider. This is also a story that is under attack from many quarters, especially by those who buy into one or more of the three modern stories.  In these quarters …

The best thing one can say about the Old Testament is that it is a poor rendition of the timeless truths of authentic spirituality, the common beliefs at the core of the world’s major religions and philosophies. The worst thing one can say about the Old Testament is that it is not only quite untrue but also bad for us—and bad even for its original recipients. It alienated them from each other, from other peoples, and especially from their fellow creatures and our common home, the earth. The telling of its story has continued to dodamage down through the ages, precipitating violence, war, and ecological disaster. Religion in itself may not be dangerous—our various modern storytellers disagree on that point—but monotheistic religion is certainly dangerous, and biblical monotheism is seriously dangerous. (p. 10)

Iain Provan doesn’t buy this of course. He suggests that the critics don’t understand the biblical story very well and their readers understand it less, getting much of their “knowledge” from the critics.  This lack of understanding isn’t confined to skeptics and outsiders. Even committed white evangelical Protestant Christians have limited knowledge of the bible, especially the Old Testament, although they do know somewhat more than other Christians and the unaffiliated (Provan cites a Pew survey here).  All too often people just “know” that the Old Testament story is a troubling, and even dangerous myth without actually knowing much of the story at all. And even Christians often “know” it is true while knowing very little of the story itself.

Provan’s aim in the rest of the book is to look at what the Old Testament really says. He also thinks it important to read the Old Testament for its own sake rather than through the lens of the New Testament. Thus most of the book (chapters 2-11) will set aside the New Testament. The focus will be on the story told in the Old Testament in its own right and the questions that it addresses, or can be addressed to it. Questions such as (p. 11): What is the world? Who is God? Who are we? How are we to relate to God, others, and the world? Why do evil and suffering mark the world? What are we to hope for?

Of course, it wouldn’t do to neglect the newer part of the Story completely. The last several chapters will bring the New Testament back into the picture.  The Old Story deserves to be taken seriously, both the older and the newer parts of the Story.  This is the theme of Provan’s book.

I shall argue that, contrary to popular belief, the biblical story does deserve to be taken seriously as a series of truth claims about the world and our place and destiny within it. I shall also argue that biblical religion is seriously dangerous—but not in the way that most people think. Overall, the Old Story can still be regarded as a true and helpful account of “life, the universe, and everything.” In fact, when properly understood, it provides a solid point of departure for precisely the path out of trouble and into a better future for which its detractors are often looking. (p. 17)

So to start the ball rolling, a few questions:

Is the old testament narrative both untrue and dangerous?

Is such a view common in your experience?

What is the essence of the Old Testament story?   How much should we care about it today?

Is the Old Testament a (disposable) front end to the real story – the New Testament?

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