Sympathy for Zebras, Skeptics and Reprobates as a Clue to Understanding Scripture

Zebras in their natural habitat.

Zebras in their natural habitat.

Almost every year, just as our culture turns its thoughts, however fleeting, to an event that occurred some 2000 years ago that many (myself included) believe to be one of the more important moments in all of human history, the formerly dominant weekly news magazines publish cover stories that attempt to undermine the faith of those who believe the birth, life, death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus are True facts. That’s True with a capital “T.”

This year, right on schedule, comes an article in Newsweek by Kurt Eichenwald, entitled “The Bible, So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Please feel free to read it. Without it, much of what follows will make no sense. Though I make no guarantees that what follows makes that much sense even if you do read the Newsweek article.

 

As is often the case, the article lumps together all believers as homophobic, illiterate, bible-thumping, totalitarian, hate-filled hypocrites. It makes very little distinction between the members of Westboro Baptist Church with their pre-literate scrawls of “God Hates Fags” on protest signs and those educated and committed physicians who willingly risk their own lives to go to western Africa to treat people suffering from Ebola—simply because they believe they were called to do so. Despite his disclaimer, “This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity,” the article could just as well have been entitled, Conspiracy of Fools, to borrow the name from one of Mr. Eichenwald’s more successful books.

 

After reading his advice and becoming thoroughly enlightened, hypocritical fool that I am, I have decided to repent. Here are nine things, yea ten, I will have to add to my New Year’s Resolutions.

 

1. I will no longer retain my long-held belief in dragons and unicorns and will immediately excise the entire Book of Revelation, Isaiah 27, Nehemiah 2, Psalm 92, Job 39, Numbers 23 and Numbers 24 from my Bible because of their mention of clearly fantastical creatures. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of Numbers altogether. It was clearly written by a census-taker, some short-term bureaucrat with a clipboard and a clip-on tie who, after waking you up with his earnest knocking, feels duty bound to inquire as to the number of people, rooms, bathrooms, unicorns and dragons in your residence. (The kids are asking if that includes the unicorns and dragons in their video games that are, naturally, quite real to them.)

 

2. I will no longer read the book of 2 Peter, even though I find it odd that Mr. Eichenwald would simultaneously laud the supposed “almost universally shared” condemnation of the book as a forgery while he would clearly agree with its description of the importance of ferreting out false teachers—something he is trying to do here. I also have an uneasy feeling he would not be disappointed if God chose to mete out the same punishment mentioned in 2 Peter—floods, earthquakes, fire and brimstone— for modern false teachers, i.e. believing Evangelicals. In fact, 2 Peter 3:17, “Be on guard so that you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people…” sounds like it could have been written by Mr. Eichenwald himself.

 

3. I am going to stop using the Internet because all of the URLs are written in the modern equivalent of the scriptio continua of common Greek. For example, http://www.blindsonsale.com could be a site that is promoting window blinds at cheap rates. Or it could be the Web home of a micro-brewery founded by a group of blind guys who have suffered tragic accidents or, worse, self-inflicted blindness as a pagan initiation rite. Or it could be a site related to child trafficking, in this case specializing in blind sons. Obviously URLs are notoriously unclear and therefore should never be used as a guide to anything.

 

4. I am henceforth going to cease the recitation of either the Nicene, Apostle’s or the interminable Athanasian Creed since, according to “reliable” history they were all written by … politicians. (Visible shudder.)

 

5. I will no longer trust anything that is handwritten even though that could cause me some serious confusion at the grocery store.

 

6. I will no longer believe that Joseph and Mary invested the non-existent Magi’s gold in a nice little split-level on the outskirts of Bethlehem with a detached carpenter’s studio while putting the rest of the money in a 529 and an IRA that Jesus could have used, respectively, to finance his rabbinical studies and as a source of retirement income for himself, Mary Magdalen and their descendants all the way to Dan Brown. Instead I will have to conclude that Joe and the purportedly perpetually pristine Missus probably lost it all at the floating casinos in Memphis—Memphis, Egypt, that it is. Given their irresponsibility it is obvious why Jesus had to have been brought up in abject poverty subsequently leading to his well-documented homelessness later in life during which time the only work he could find was as an itinerant preacher and we all know how governments look at those guys. So they crucified him. End of story.

 

7. I will burn my autographed copies of books by Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. I will also burn my copy of “Going Rogue” by Sarah Palin, though not without some regret. It turns out she writes pretty well, with little trace of the syntactical travesties that sometimes occur when she speaks. I say that with no animus toward the former governor as I am equally prone to syntactical misadventure in both speech and prose. I imagine there is no need to burn my copy Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.

 

8. Since “there is only one verse in Romans about homosexuality and eight verses condemning those who criticize the government” (apparently a statistically significant threshold) I will immediately start a petition calling for a constitutional convention to repeal the Bill of Rights for everyone except homosexuals.

 

9. I will only read the Bible in Aramaic because that is the language Jesus spoke. The fact that I don’t know Aramaic shouldn’t matter; an awful lot of Catholics didn’t really understand the language of the Mass until after Vatican II.

 

10. Instead of simply picking and choosing those parts I am comfortable with, I’m going to throw out all of my Bibles since I don’t have the time or the training to sort out the truth from the pseudepigrapha—that’s the word Bart Ehrman suggests is the believing community’s euphemism for lies, redactions, forgeries and mistakes. Now that may put me at some disadvantage in understanding God’s will for my life, but perhaps I shouldn’t be concerned with that anyway. It is extraordinarily difficult to believe in a deity who would entrust his instructions and messages to so many arrogant, scheming, adulterous, murderous, thieving and lying reprobates. Then again, that might not be all that different from my current Bible study group, the members of which I regularly depend on to help me hear, interpret and understand the words of God.

 

I don’t really believe in unicorns, or that Joseph and Mary squandered the Magis’ gift in the casinos—although I am withholding judgement on the possible existence of dragons. And the guys in my Bible study group have mostly repented of their reprobate ways. (Did I say mostly?) But it frustrates me that Mr. Eichenwald seems to think believers are all just that foolish.

 

He doesn’t get everything wrong. It is a good thing, as he puts it, find[ing] out which parts of the Bible were not in the earliest Greek manuscripts, which are the bad translations, and what one book says in comparison to another.” And as he says, loving one’s neighbor is a good place to start, although he did kind of jump right over the first part of that verse. You know, the part about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

 

Mr. Eichenwald might have a more balanced view of these issues if he did not rely almost exclusively on the work—useful as it is— of Bart Ehrman, himself the author of one of Newsweek’s Christmas-time “hit pieces” on Christianity (Dec. 17, 2012).  Perhaps he could have consulted with scholars who are not, like Ehrman, self-professed agnostics. I have little doubt that William Lane Craig would have given him a few minutes of his time. (If you have a few minutes you might want to look at Craig’s rebuttal of Ehrman’s approach in general. Or maybe Mr. Eichenwald could have contacted N.T. Wright, who while refusing to call himself an inerrantist (for plenty of good reasons) still manages to take the Bible “utterly seriously” while avoiding the problem of “throwing out the baby Jesus with the bath water.” (Apologies to Ricky Bobby, the Official Theologian of NASCAR.) Try Wright’s book, Scripture and the Authority of God.  Seriously, with a name like N.T. Wright, how could he ever be wrong about anything, at least in the New Testament?

 

God did, in fact, entrust his words to sinful, fallen and prone-to-error human beings. He still does, because he doesn’t have much choice. If it were necessary that only totally trustworthy, error-free humans should write Scripture, Jesus, as the only person in history qualified for the job, would have spent his entire life writing stuff down in order to correct the record of the Old Testament authors and to give us a trustworthy and authoritative version the rest of us could use after his ascension. Yet we have no record (trustworthy or otherwise) that Jesus ever wrote anything. Drawing a line in the sand as he confronted the Pharisees over the woman caught in adultery doesn’t count as writing, drawing perhaps, but not writing. And besides, if we are to believe Eichenwald and Ehrman, that episode never happened.

 

So why didn’t Jesus write down what he wanted us to retain as Holy Writ? Surely he could have saved a lot of bickering, heated arguments with your favorite college sophomore around the holiday dinner table, and even—as the article properly notes—bloodshed over “correct” doctrine. Instead, just as with the words of God in the Old Testament, he left it to humans to record—imperfect humans who, at best, may be deeply committed to veracity and truth-telling but can still make or perpetuate inadvertent mistakes. At worst, they may intentionally change the record to accommodate ideological, political or doctrinal agendas. I suspect all of that is possible. In fact, I expect all of that is probable.

 

I am not a scholar, certainly not a Biblical scholar. My perspective is merely that of someone who would like to understand Scripture and the one who is revealed in it. As a lay person, I, rudely perhaps, can still claim to be as entitled as Bart Ehrman or N.T. Wright to study and have an opinion on Scripture. I will never be as informed as either of them, but if that level of education and knowledge is necessary for understanding and, thereby, admittance into the sweet bye-and-bye, the population of Heaven will be disappointingly small.

 

Since this is the New Year’s season, a time when we celebrate another of America’s favorite religions—football—consider the following illustration, which I intend to be helpful but maybe I’ve just been watching too much ESPN. A wide receiver catches a well-thrown pass from his quarterback at the one-yard line and is immediately hit by the cornerback and falls. On his way down, the receiver extends his arm in an attempt to have the ball “break the plane” of the goal line before he lands completely out of bounds. Every player, coach, cheerleader, equipment manager, visiting country music star, undeclared presidential candidate, hot dog vendor and ESPN commentator on the sidelines has an opinion about whether it’s a touchdown. Each of the 100,000 rabidly partisan fans in the stadium has an opinion and are likely unaware to what extent partisanship can affect perception. Social psychologists call this the illusion of asymmetric insight and it can be quite an ugly phenomenon.

 

Add in another 50 million television viewers of various partisan stripes at home, in sports bars and on American military bases around the world and you will find more opinions than you can count, all with a slightly different perspective on “the truth.” In the days before instant replay we had to depend on the presumably “expert” opinion of one or two officials on the field to either lift or choose not to lift their arms toward heaven signifying that the ball, at least, had reached the promised land.
Regardless of whether the official makes the right call, there will always be a significant number of spectators who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the zebras blew it and thereby deserve punishment of Biblical proportions—stoning, smiting, crucifixion, banishment to the desert outside Scottsdale, or something similar up to and including being cast into the outer darkness where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Given the intensity of emotion associated with football (American or otherwise) it is a real miracle that wars are so seldom started in the modern world based on the officiating—good or bad.

 

In other words, everyone has an opinion. It is a function of the unique perspective from which each individual views the world. That perspective is based on many things including team affiliation (read: denomination?)  but mostly on the accumulation of experience and knowledge—right or wrong—throughout life right up to the moment the opinion is conceived. That is how we roll—all of us. Roger Scruton, in his book The Face of God, argues, “The self is not a thing, it is a perspective.” Our interactions with the world are always from a given perspective. Our interactions with other people are interactions between and among perspectives. It is said (in polite company) that opinions are like belly buttons, everybody has one. But when it comes to perspectives, everybody is one.

 

And that is where the problems begin. Whose perspective is correct; whose is the right one; whose is the truth? Let’s go back to the football illustration. It would be absurd to argue (though many have tried) that the truth lies entirely in the mind of the observer. My observation of something does not make it reality. Yes, Virginia, a goal post can fall in the stadium and make a noise even when it isn’t on gameday and no one is around to witness it. It seems reasonable to assume that there is an objective reality at play. Either the football does or does not break the imaginary plane and it happens (or not) regardless of whether my or your individual perspective confirmed it.

 

Fortunately for the much-maligned officials on the field, we now have instant replay that slows things down to the about the speed of Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in The MatrixUsually that settles the question, but often it just reinforces the problem of perspectives. Typically, technology seems to help, but it is no guarantee. The replay cameras have to be placed at exactly the right spot at the right time. Sometimes they’re in the right place, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the cameraman is preoccupied with a cheerleader instead of the play on the field. Sometimes there is something in the way of the camera that obscures even its non-blinking perspective.

 

As a result football officials must resort to the near-parliamentary niceties of legal language saying, “The ruling on the field stands” when there is insufficient video evidence to overturn the call, or, “The ruling on the field is confirmed (or overturned)” when there is (or is not) enough video evidence to make a definitive call. In every case, someone comes away unsatisfied, convinced that they saw something different and equally convinced that their personal perspective is the one that should obtain.

 

But when it comes to the Word of God we don’t have instant replay. While theologians and historians can make a persuasive case that their perspectives should carry equal, or even greater, weight than that of football officials, the rest of us are not so sure. Especially when the historians and theologians—throw in a few pastors, teachers, evangelists, street preachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses on your front porch and freshly-scrubbed Mormon boys on their bicycles—are so often in conflict with one another. Even when those guys speak the same language, they don’t speak the same language—a result, I believe, of God’s judgement on humanity for the Tower of Babel.

 

It appears that skeptic Bart Ehrman’s perspective on Scripture might be as valid as committed believer N.T. Wright’s. Perhaps the notorious, late Fred W. Phelps, Sr., might have as valid an opinion as the Pope. You know what? I’m not afraid of that. Because that means that my perspective is also valid. My unique, individual view on Scripture is as valid as that of some of the world’s most famous (and infamous) theologians. Then again, I have to remember that valid does not necessarily mean true. Not for me, Bart, Tom Wright, Fred and—unless he plays that infallibility card he carries in the brim of his brim-less mitre—not for the Pope. Ouch. A little humility can be a humbling thing, as Yogi Berra might have put it. (Although if memory serves, his actual quote was more along the lines of, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”)

 

How do we sort this out? Are we just stuck with the heat of billions of opinions about the meaning of Scripture? Isn’t that one of the causes of wars, Crusades, Inquisitions, divorces and church-splits? Isn’t that the definition of relativism? Isn’t that what we see throughout the Old Testament, when, just to set the stage, the writer will throw in a verse like, “… every man did what was right in his own eyes.”? (Deuteronomy 12:8; Judges 21:25; Judges 17:7; Proverbs 21:2; Proverbs 12:15. We could go on.) But that is what the verse means, right? “Eyes” is a metaphor for individual perspective. Each person lives by their own perspective and the Bible is not suggesting that it’s a good thing for everyone to do what is right in their own eyes.

 

In fact, the Bible tells us something far different. “Come, let us reason together.” (Isaiah 1:18) “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Deuteronomy 19:15 and 2:Corinthians 13:1) “Victory lies in an abundance of advisors.” (Proverbs 24:6) In an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14) Even Paul and Peter had to have a confab in Jerusalem to make sure they were on the same page about the true nature of the Gospel.

 

The responsibility for the clarity of God’s revelation is his, not mine. I believe I have a duty to diligent and serious-minded examination of Scripture—at least to the extent that I am capable of being dutiful, diligent or serious, for that matter. It was his choice to deliver his word through sinful human beings and I think there is a reason for that.

 

I’ve always been intrigued by a verse in 2 Peter. Apologies to Mr. Eichenwald for bringing up that purported forgery. 2 Peter 1:18 says,”Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of one’s own interpretation.” No less a qualified Biblical commentator than Albert Barnes wrote in 1834, The expression here used [The Greek for private interpretation is ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως idias epiluseōs, in case you’re interested. I just like seeing the Greek letterforms.] has given rise to as great a diversity of interpretation, and to as much discussion, as perhaps any phrase in the New Testament; and at the present time there is no general agreement among expositors as to its meaning.” To be fair, this is about a particular class of prophecy and not necessarily about how we ought to read Scripture as a whole, but I still find it wonderfully ironic that a verse that argues against private interpretation is among the most privately interpreted verses in the entire Canon.

 

So what’s so bad about private interpretation? Not that much maybe, except—in my humble, individual, and certainly not binding on anyone else, opinion—I don’t think that is where God intends for us to learn the full meaning of his words.

 

Instead, God wants us in community. Scruton suggests that “we regard the experience of community as a preparation for the experience of God, and the experience of God as revelation granted in response to it.” (Face of God. p.157) Certainly there are those of us, perhaps all of us, who have had an experience of God while alone. Sometimes he breaks through and touches our heart and mind with his presence when there is no one else around. Just you and Jesus. But the Apostle Paul, no stranger to the supernatural himself, cautions us not to be fooled by those who go on an on about their visions as they may not be “connected to Christ, the head of the body.” (Colossians 2:19) Connection to the body, and thereby Christ really matters.

 

Our real knowledge of the word of God is only partially built on what we discern alone. What we learn on our own must be confirmed by others, which is why I go to church, read a lot and have met once a week for almost twenty years with the merry little band of sinners I may have insulted in resolution #10 above. They, as part of the Body of Christ, have the words of life. Those words must be verified as we “compare notes”. We read. We study. We share and take the Scriptures apart together and pray for the grace to receive from it the true Word of God. We pray for wisdom and discernment and we do so with humility. Yogi was right. It ain’t the heat. We recognize the limitations of our individual perspectives. We welcome each other’s insights. We welcome the commentators, Twitter theologians, popular writers and the scholarly researchers, including those who call themselves agnostic or even atheist. We are not afraid of those with whom we disagree. We disagree with each other. Often. We know that in that process which takes place in community, our little group’s study of the Bible is breaking bread together. And we recall who is called both the Living Word and the Bread of Life; the one who calls us to do everything in “remembrance of Him”. And we remember 1 Corinthians 13:2 “…if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.”

 

Just like the question of whether the football breaks the invisible plane of the goal line, there is an objective reality to the Word of God. But it’s not the book, it’s the person we encounter through it. I am not denying plenary inspiration; inerrancy; form, textual, source or redaction criticism; Marxist or feminist hermeneutics; God’s breath or any of those other valuable schema we use and abuse to convince ourselves we’re right and someone else is wrong and ought, at the very least, to be denied admittance to our church—if not heaven itself. And I am not denying the value of the writings of Mr. Eichenwald and the research of Dr. Ehrman. Both would be wholeheartedly welcome in our Wednesday morning Bible study group. But the bottom line for me is that without the person of Christ, the Bible is little more than an artifact of history, interesting in the way that Homer, or Plato, or Shakespeare might be, but little more.

 

Then again, if someone can convincingly argue that Jesus did, in fact, speak King James English instead of Aramaic, when he walked the earth, perhaps I’ll have to rethink a few things. I could be wrong.

 

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