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Friday, January 30, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Your Bible Is An Anachronism

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Juan Cole at Alternet.org has bucketloads of fun in an article entitled “If the Christian Right Wants to Get Worked Up About Sexual Controversy, They Should Read These 5 Bible Passages”. He goes to town on Solomon’s 300 concubines, Abraham and Hagar, etc.

In a forlorn attempt at evenhandedness, Mr. Cole tosses in this disclaimer: “Ancient scripture can be a source of higher values and spiritual strength, but any time you in a literal-minded way impose specific legal behavior because of it, you’re committing anachronism”.

Tom: Immanuel Can, one of things I love most about Mr. Cole is the unquestioned assumption that each scripture he cites is a “gotcha” moment to the religious right. Like none of us have seen these passages until his article came along …

Immanuel Can: Quite. I always notice with these sorts of critics that they also take for granted that their own first reading of them is really clever and has given them a solid grip on the meaning. They never have any doubts about context or applications, and far less about the whole tenor of scripture on the subject. For them it’s just this simple: “I found a verse that seems to me to contradict you, so it must contradict you; and all Christians are now found to be hypocrites on the basis of it.”

I should add “Aha!”

Gay Marriage and Old Testament Sexuality

Tom: Yes. The logic of this particular piece goes something like:

“Some Christians object to gay marriage”
“But the Bible is full of sexual controversy”
“Therefore Christians should be fine with sexual controversy”

with a smattering of “The Bible’s archaic perspective on human sexuality makes it outdated and useless” and a dash of “I told you so”.

I’m not really concerned about Juan Cole. He needs a Saviour, but he ain’t reading this. I’m concerned that all these accusations of the Bible being anachronistic and therefore useless for the purpose of modern decision-making can be wearing on young believers.

IC: That’s a justifiable worry, in one sense. Modern literary scholarship is much impressed with how texts can be used and abused. It’s not just that mankind is unregenerate and hence twists words; it’s that words themselves have a certain level of “play” in them. Human words are slippery little devils, we might say. And ancient texts — well, even if we want to apply them literally, we have additional problems of social context, authorial intention and authorial authority ...

Who Really Wrote that Nasty Old Testament?

But is that what we have in the Bible? Are we merely trying to parse the sentences of ancient humans?

Tom: Well, the text itself claims to be “breathed out” by God, to such an extent that some its writers did not completely grasp the meaning of what they wrote. People have to decide for themselves whether they believe that, but that is its own claim. I believe it, you believe it and many of our readers do. Mr. Cole obviously doesn’t.

But since we’re not the Huffington Post, let’s assume the claim is true. If it is, shouldn’t the sorts of anachronisms and apparent absurdities to which Mr. Cole makes reference have some kind of plausible explanation? I find that a fair reading of scripture shows it to be very sensible indeed.

IC: Please go on.

Tom: By “fair reading”, I mean a natural reading, in which you give the writer both the benefit of the doubt when he says something you don’t understand, and in which you examine the context of any statement for clues as to his meaning if it remains opaque to you, rather than leaping to grotesque assumptions without reason.

Making Grotesque Assumptions

I’ll give you a “for instance”: Mr. Cole gets all clever-clever and characterizes Mark 12:19 this way: “Guys, if your brother kicks the bucket, you have to marry your sister-in-law and knock her up,” and goes on to crow, “If you think in-laws are hard to get along with now, try being married to them. A simple gay household would have much less drama”.

The person who understands that passage both in its cultural context and in the context of the dealings of God with man throughout the course of history grasps a whole bunch of stuff Mr. Cole cannot see: (i) God never commanded polygamy, he simply gave instructions as to how an existing polygamous society ought to behave so as not to violate each other’s rights (and further, Jesus rejected both polygamy and divorce as inconsistent with God’s original intention); (ii) there was no social safety net in place to provide for the brother’s wife back then, so it’s a lot less oppressive than it looks; (iii) the absence of an heir meant loss of property that belonged to the family; and, most importantly (iv) this is all Jewish law and has no application to the Christian whatsoever.

IC: Now, in my experience, the comeback to what you are saying is usually something like this: “Yeah, yeah, yeah ... well, it’s perfectly obvious to me that it means what I said it means, and you’re just avoiding it through elaborate explaining.”

Tom: Well, that is certainly the Juan Cole comeback. But if you’re speaking to someone like the writer of this article who has pre-decided that God doesn’t exist, that the Bible is silly and anachronistic and that faith is for wimps who can’t hack the truth that we’re all just products of randomness and time, then you really have nothing to say and no argument to make that will convince.

Faith and the Fair Reading

If, on the other hand, your audience already suspects that there really might be something to this old book, and if they are disposed to give scripture an honest reading — that is to say, if you’re talking to someone who has exercised genuine faith — the sorts of answers I’m giving that involve putting things in their historical and cultural context — not to mention accounting for the fact that God both exists and remains utterly consistent in his character across the millennia — might well be both satisfying and exciting.

It really depends on the audience, doesn’t it.

IC: You rightly point to two inconsistencies in the critic’s position. Firstly, if we are, as you say, “products of randomness and time”, then there is no reason why such creatures would be “wrong” to prefer a comforting delusion to some harsh reality. Nothing is “wrong” — and hence there are no longer any grounds for the critic to be so morally outraged. And then secondly, for such people to say that they do not practice “faith” is simply untrue. They don’t have any absolute verification of their own worldview; they just assume it’s true because they want it to be. So they are in an extremely poor position to criticize faith.

However, I think we have more. The Lord promised us a Helper, the Spirit of Truth, to lead us into truth. So when we read our Bibles, we’re not reading like unbelievers read. They might even be quite right to say that all their texts are treacherous, and that all human texts are; but that would not be a problem for the Supreme Being, should He decide to make His will known — and surely, even as merely a supposition, a rational unbeliever would have to accept that IF God exists, He could do such a thing.

The Cultural Context of the Law of Moses

But back to this text: regarding commandments about brothers’ wives and things like that, how important is context?

Tom: Well, it’s huge. It completely demolishes Mr. Cole’s point, which is “Guys, if your brother kicks the bucket, you have to marry your sister-in-law”. No, really, we don’t. Not since AD30-something. That instruction comes in the context of a Law that is completely fulfilled and has been irrelevant to the Christian for almost two millennia.

Furthermore, when the instruction was in play, it was completely in harmony with the society to which it was directed. Completely. It was an act of kindness that cared for a widow and maintained her land, property and lifestyle and gave her one or more heirs in a society where, outside of these things, her life would have been utter misery. What seems anachronistic to us was an exceptional social arrangement in its day.

Mr. Cole is trying to presuppose a widow with 21st century values transplanted to the first century, or much earlier, who feels put upon by such a hardship. But it wasn’t the guy who married his relative’s wife who was the bad guy back then, it was the guy who refused to do it who became a stench in the nostrils of the community. Go look at the story of Ruth and Boaz.

The Law of Moses: Done and Dusted

IC: Well, okay. But then I suppose the next question is, “What makes you think there’s some sort of cut-off point for obeying this commandment?” Can you justify that?

Tom: Sure. Surprisingly, John Piper (of all people) has a great piece on how completely Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses, for those who have never grappled with the concept. But we don’t need Mr. Piper to tell us. Here is how the Jewish apostles themselves in the book of Acts regarded any alleged Gentile obligation to obey the Law of Moses:
“But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
Other than these four comparatively minor stipulations, the Jewish Law is kaput, done and dusted, including that rather controversial commandment to bring into the world children to support a relative’s wife in her old age.

IC: That’s a good answer.

Wrestling with a Pig

Tom: With small variations, the same sort of logic applies to every one of Mr. Cole’s examples of sexual controversy, with perhaps the exception of his crack about the apostle Paul, where Paul is clearly expressing his own personal preference, not the command or will of God with respect to marriage.

IC: I really can’t think of a reason that shouldn’t be good enough for people like Mr. Cole. Except that for them and for people like them, no answer is good enough; for the whole point was to discredit Christianity at all costs. So now that you’ve deprived them of one chance, they’ll just shift ground again — perhaps to something like “Where did Cain get his wife?” or “Can God make a rock so big even He cannot lift it?” But what they won’t do is say, “That’s a good answer”.

Speaking truth to people like that is like trying to drill a hole in water. Or as another saying goes, “Arguing with a fool is like wrestling with a pig; you both get up dirty, but the pig enjoys it”.

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