Having Your Bible and Criticizing it Too

Having Your Bible and Criticizing it Too August 20, 2012

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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