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"'Aha' Moments: Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories"
July 19, 2014 5:24 PM   Subscribe

On his blog, biblical scholar Peter Enns is hosting a series of guest posts by other scholars about their "Aha!" moments--the "moments that convinced them they needed to find different ways of handling the Bible than how they had been taught." He has ten posts in the series so far, with more on the way.

The Highlights:

1) Peter Enns himself. "Let me put a finer point on that: no rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did [I Corinthians 10:4]. Paul says something about the Old Testament that Old Testament doesn’t say."

2) John Byron. "The instructor was discussing Mark 2:23-27, which narrates the challenge of the Pharisees to Jesus over his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus responds to their question by referring to the story in 1 Samuel 21:1-9 of David and his men eating the consecrated bread from the tabernacle. The problem, however, as I pointed out to my teacher, is that Jesus got it wrong. The story in 1 Samuel 21 relates how David fled from Saul alone."

3) Daniel Kirk. "So one day I decided that the logical way to spend my time would be to create a chart of what each Gospel says about the last week of Jesus’ life."

4) Michal Pahl. "For the first time I also read the pieces of the Bible alongside each other: two creation stories in Genesis, two renditions of the Ten Commandments, two accounts of Israel’s kingdoms, four Gospel stories of Jesus. This raised all sorts of questions for me that I wasn’t yet prepared to answer, but there was no doubt in my mind that these parallel pieces were different from each other."

5) Charles Halton. "What I found out, when I paid attention to the details, is that there is no one, singular teaching on creation in Scripture. There are several creation narratives and they conflict with one another. And they conflict on the most superficial level—the order of creation."

6) Christopher W. Skinner. "Since I had always been taught about the Bible’s coherence and internal consistency, I thought, “Surely the New Testament gives us reliable information about Jesus’ origins?” This meant that despite my misgivings, there had to be a way to reconcile the conflicting genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3."

7) Christopher M. Hayes. "Some manuscripts of 2 Peter 2:15 called him “Balaam son of Beor” (which is what Numbers 22:5 calls him); other manuscripts of 2 Peter 2:15 call him “Balaam of Bosor,” which, as we’ll see in a moment, makes no sense at all. “Beor” is a person’s name; it was the name of Balaam’s dad (his patronymic). Bosor is the name of a city (a.k.a. Bosorra). The problem is: the older, better manuscripts called him “Balaam of Bosor,” but Balaam wasn’t from anywhere near Bosor, which is in the land of Gilead."

8) Michael Ruffin.
The conversation went like this:
Me: “Do you know what Dr. Giddens and my textbook say about the Pentateuch?”
Dad: “About the what?”
Me: “The Pentateuch. The Torah. The first five books of the Old Testament.”
Dad: “Oh. No, what do they say?”
Me: “That Moses didn’t write everything in those books.”
Dad: “Really?”
Me: “Yes, really.”
Dad: “Huh. Well, I always wondered how Moses managed to write about his own death.”
9) Anthony Le Donne. I turned to the Bible often with fear and trembling. Jesus told me that if I looked upon Daisy Duke with lust in my heart, I was guilty of adultery. I kept reading. Jesus told me that if my right eye continued to sin, I should pluck it out. And here I was looking upon Linda Carter with both eyes!

10) Chris Tilling. "I read John Goldingay’s excellent book, Models for Scripture, in which he argued that the circular logic noted above is simply not biblical! The Bible itself undermines it because God seemed happy to allow discrepancies to remain in the Bible (all of which were easy to look up and read without the need to accept the claims of “liberal biblical scholarship”)."

The entire series was prompted, in part, by a much discussed HuffPo post by Greg Carey entitled, "Where do 'Liberal' Bible Scholars Come From?," particularly his line "The best way for conservative churches to produce "liberal" biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible."

More posts from other scholars and pastors are on the way.
posted by Pater Aletheias (82 comments total) 107 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yeah, it just seems impossible to me that Biblical literalists don't have an explanation for the internal contradictions in the Bible. It can't be that previous Bible scholars just didn't notice them.

I'm curious about all the scholars being men. Is that because most Biblical scholars from Evangelical backgrounds are men, or are women's aha moments less likely to come from reading the Bible?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:09 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


Moses describing his own death is an obvious challenge to the traditional authorship, but I'm so fond of the explanation that God dictated Moses' s death to him to write while Moses wrote it and wept that I kind of wish I believed in that. Such a great story.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:11 PM on July 19 [13 favorites]


"There are several creation narratives and they conflict with one another. And they conflict on the most superficial level—the order of creation."

When I was a 'soft-Presbyterian' attending a Catholic High School and its required Religion classes, maybe the one thing that kept me from going Full Atheist was one Brother reconciling the Creation story with Science as so:
(1) the 'six days' were not in Human time, they were in 'God days'
(2) the Bible didn't have to explain HOW humans came into existence, just that we came last, and the Biblical creation narrative is the only religion's to be consistent with Science in the order.
So, maybe that Jesuit Brother was talking out of his ass after all?
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:17 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Thank you for putting together this comprehensive post, Pater Aletheias. I am hoping that later commenters will take the time to RTFA and comment intelligently.

While I am not a Christian, I appreciate seeing how the scholars moved away from an inerrant, fundamentalist approach to more directly examining the actual, often inconsistent Bible that we have, not the Bible we want to have (to quote the Daniel Kirk link above). It seems to me that many of the aha! moments described in the links have to do with internal inconsistencies in the Bible, which in turn implies multiple authors relaying what they heard, rather than that of one single inerrant Author (capital "A" intended). Yet it seems to me that because of the inconsistencies, whenever a church wants to put their own spin on a particular message, they have to pretend the Bible is unanimous on that topic. When people actually read the Bible and find the incongruities, it's not so much that their faith in God is necessarily challenged, but rather their faith in the particular doctrine their church teaches. One could simultaneously believe in God and still know that the Bible was written by a number of mortal, imperfect people who were trying to interpret the ineffable in their own many ways.
posted by Atrahasis at 6:26 PM on July 19 [8 favorites]


[Can we please attempt to engage with the actual links instead of a cursory reading of the topic, please? Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 6:34 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm not so sure about that Jesuit's brother's contention that the Biblical creation narrative is the only narrative that has nonhuman animals existing before humans. For example, off the top of my head, I believe the Norse myths have a cow coming before humans. And I don't know, but I'd actually be kind of surprised if the majority of creation myths that mention a relative order between humans and nonhumans didn't have nonhumans coming first.
posted by Flunkie at 6:37 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


One thing I learned in my fundamentalist years was that the intellectual backflips necessary to render the Bible logically consistent are a lot of fun. Eventually I realized I was doing violence to the text.

Romeo describes Juliet as a jeweled earring in one place and as the sun in another. One could say that R&J is logically inconsistent OMG there is no Shakespeare, or one could acknowledge that propositional logic is not the right tool for analyzing poetry.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:41 PM on July 19 [13 favorites]


I'm curious about all the scholars being men. Is that because most Biblical scholars from Evangelical backgrounds are men, or are women's aha moments less likely to come from reading the Bible?

I wondered that too. Hopefully they will expand the selection. I haven't google image searched everyone, but I hope there's more than white dudes in this conversation too.

When I was in 2 different evangelical bible colleges, women took early childhood education and men (and I) took theology. My papers were complimented thus: "Wow, this is great! You write like a man!" None of the readings were written by women. None of the professors were women. Feminist theology was a radical heretical offshoot. One day in the library I discovered Womanism in a footnote to something. Whoa!

One of my a-ha moments was that the bible wasn't addressed to me. I wasn't being instructed not to covet my neighbour's wife. I wasn't even considered, unless it was on the same level as his ox. And if I did covet my neighbour's wife, well that was certainly not addressed anywhere.

Now, I read the bible every day for most of my life. And I do not think that is the way to make a liberal Christian out of an evangelical. Most of my youth group friends have also lost their faiths, and we are atheists. Now that it's been 10 years, I am beginning to see the value of liberal religious thought. But I was raised to go big or go home ("spit out the lukewarm"), so it was a long time before it made any sense at all to me as a faith.
posted by heatherann at 6:45 PM on July 19 [30 favorites]


Is there the name for the logical fallacy where an argument is provided that purports to prove X and Y; an error is found and the proof of Y is erroneous; therefore, the proof of X must be erroneous too?

When presented with "you told me the bible is inerrant, but now I see that it is not inerrant", you could do one of two things: throw the baby out with the bathwater--or, as heatherann just put it, "spit out the lukewarm"--or you could do as these liberal theologans have done and retain some core of Christian faith (as Hays puts his view: "just because you can’t guarantee the historicity of every genealogical detail doesn’t mean that Jesus’ body is moldering in a tomb somewhere.")

While for me, the inerrantist position was so strongly drummed into me as the sole reason that accounts of miracles could be true (The resurrection, of course, being the single most important miracle), I ended up (and remain) firmly in the atheist camp.

So that is why it is interesting for me to read these accounts and get some manner of glimpse into the process that leads you to the different position that these authors have arrived at. I've read a couple, and will probably read a couple more.
posted by jepler at 6:58 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


(The wikipedia article heatherann linked, womanism, presently says it was last edited by "optimale". epony-oppressive?)
posted by jepler at 6:59 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


I don't know the name of the fallacy, but when I was growing out of the conservative fundamentalism of my own youth, I noticed that the foundationalist understanding of morality was a logical house of cards because it only disagreed on a single point from a thorough-going nihilism. I started to wonder why foundationalists were so eager to do the work of nihilists for them.
posted by gauche at 7:03 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


This is so exciting! Thanks for posting it!
posted by Greg Nog at 7:06 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


I guess it would be a form of denying the antecedent: If A, then B; not A; therefore, not B. but as I paraphrased it above, the inerrantist argument as I construed it was more of the form "iff A, then B", making it not a fallacy at all.
posted by jepler at 7:12 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure it was more an oversight on the part of an overworked widowed mother than a deliberate choice, but I'm very grateful to my mother for (utterly) neglecting my religious instruction during my childhood. The quest to understand our place in the universe, to cling to the good and avoid doing evil, to comprehend the awesome breadth of existence, is difficult enough starting from square one as I've had to do. As these pieces make clear, it's so much more overwhelming to have to do that within the huge, ornamented, suffocating framework of two millennia of organized Christianity. That requires you to grapple with all those questions through the lens of a text created by a middle eastern tribal sheep herding culture from 2000 years ago, one that hadn't quite teased apart the distinctions between science, philosophy, and law and so stirs them all together into one toxic brew.

These are very smart, very dedicated people - professors for God's sake! - and they're getting totally caught up by questions like what to do when one gospel said Jesus did something on Monday and another says he did it on Tuesday. And if he didn't do both, your religion keeps insisting, then there can be no good or evil, and the universe has nothing to offer you but death.

I don't know how they do it. I honestly don't.
posted by Naberius at 7:15 PM on July 19 [9 favorites]


Peter Enns himself. "Let me put a finer point on that: no rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did [I Corinthians 10:4]. Paul says something about the Old Testament that Old Testament doesn’t say."

Here is what follows that quotation:
He wasn’t following the evangelical rule of ”grammatical-historical” contextual interpretation. He was doing something else–something weird, ancient, and Jewish.
The discovery of the essential Jewishness of the New Testament is the crucial element here.
posted by No Robots at 7:28 PM on July 19 [7 favorites]


"Marge, have you ever sat down and read this thing? Technically, we're not allowed to go to the bathroom."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:29 PM on July 19 [11 favorites]


"For somebody that thinks the four gospels are like four witnesses in a court trying to tell exactly how the accident happened, as it were, this is extremely troubling. It is not at all troubling to me because they told me, quite honestly, that they were gospels. And a "gospel" is "good news", updated interpretations. So, I did not expect journalism.

"Let me compare Mark with John to explain how two gospels do it differently. In...We call it the Agony in the Garden...Now, there is no agony in John and there is no garden in Mark, but we call it the Agony in the Garden because we put them together...Mark tells a story in which Jesus, the night before he dies, is prostate on the ground begging God if this all could pass, but "I will do what you want." And the disciples all flee. Now, that's an awful picture. That makes sense to me because Mark is writing to a persecuted community who know what it's like to die-- and that's how you die, feeling abandoned by God. Over to John. Jesus is not on the ground in John. The whole cohort of the Jerusalem forces come out (600 troops come out) to capture Jesus and they end up with their faces on the ground. And Jesus says Of course I will do what the Father wants and Jesus tells them to let my disciples go. He's in command of the whole operation. You have a Jesus out of control almost in Mark and Jesus totally in control in John. Both gospel. Neither of them are historical. I don't think either of them know exactly what happened."

"The major issue for me is whether the people who told us the stories in the ancient world took them all literally, and now we're so smart that we know to take them symbolically, or they all intended them symbolically and we're so dumb that we've been taking them literally. And I really am with the second option. I think we have been misinterpreting these stories because the people who write them don't seem the least bit worried about their diversity. We see the problem and then want to insist they're literal. I think we have misread the scriptures, not that have miswritten them."

--Professor John Dominic Crossan, The First Christians, PBS (Frontline), 1998
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:33 PM on July 19 [19 favorites]


TheWhiteSkull, that line was Rev. Lovejoy talking to Ned Flanders. I hope I haven't shaken your faith in The Simpsons too much.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:36 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Huh, I wonder if we could get Dr. Robert M. Price to do one of these?
posted by JHarris at 7:37 PM on July 19


The trouble with chalking up all the inconsistencies in the Bible to the reader's mistake of either taking the text too literally or not literally enough is that even on the metaphorical/symbolic level, there are conflicting messages in there!
posted by saulgoodman at 7:40 PM on July 19 [5 favorites]


I've only read through #7 so far, but it's really interesting to note that all of these "Aha moments" described were written about in detail in "God: A Biography", by Jack Miles in 1996.

Now, I don't know how old any of these guys were in '96. I was in high school. I grew up in an evangelical home, and had bumped up against some of the same issues mentioned here, plus a lot of others that had more to do with geology and physics than strict biblical interpretation issues. What I do know is that I went to our pastor with honest questions (How does the flood make sense if we don't see evidence of catastrophism like the Missoula floods in the Pacific Northwest? How do we reconcile young-earth beliefs with Potassium-Argonne dating?), and was effectively invited to leave the congregation. It wasn't until I found Miles' book several years later that a lot of the biblical questions I had started making sense.

It's nice that the people Michael Pahl interacts with give him space to ask the hard questions. It would be even better if conservative christians were more receptive to hard questions from their own ranks.
posted by KGMoney at 7:42 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


you could do one of two things: throw the baby out with the bathwater--or, as heatherann just put it, "spit out the lukewarm"--or you could do as these liberal theologans have done and retain some core of Christian faith

The faith I was raised in had inerrancy at its core, so liberal Christianity is light years away from my former faith. It isn't even trying to accomplish the same goal. I still have very little concept of how or why people keep Jesus without an inerrant bible. Who decides what he said and did if not the bible? If the bible isn't to be relied on for such details... Well I'm quite lost. (Insert salvation puns here.)

The difference between getting the details completely right and getting them sorta wrong was the difference between eternal life and death, so I ran out of baby when the bathwater dried up.

I did 2 years of private Christian college education in a desperate attempt to find a baby in that tub. Most of my now-atheist friends fought like crazy to keep the faith but were unsuccessful. I'm enjoying these posts and I hope they talk more about why and how they hung on.
posted by heatherann at 7:45 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


I wasn't very far through an Oxford Study Bible before I saw what Kirk and Pahl's saw. Source code management and revision control has always been a challenge.
posted by klarck at 7:47 PM on July 19 [10 favorites]


Romeo describes Juliet as a jeweled earring in one place and as the sun in another. One could say that R&J is logically inconsistent OMG there is no Shakespeare, or one could acknowledge that propositional logic is not the right tool for analyzing poetry.

Exactly. Imputing great religious importance to the text strengthens it in a way, but at the cost of making it brittle.

If you're smart and thoughtful about it when you read it, you become a better reader, and you might discard Christianity all together, or, you might see it as a more flexible thing, not dogmatic at all bu more a series of guiding principles written by people for a vastly different context than yours, and develop an ultimately stronger faith for yourself.

If you're not, then you either flee from basic reason and choose not to think about it; or resort to an increasingly complex yet dogmatic series of explanations to account for inconsistencies; or your religion, and with it possibly your whole worldview, shatters like glass.
posted by JHarris at 7:50 PM on July 19 [6 favorites]




Had a huge thing about my history of "a ha!" moments, but figure to focus on a couple, instead...

The comment above about nihilism was hits home... I never saw morality as something outside of me. There was never a sense of "I do this because God tells me to do so in this big program manual called The Bible". However, when I started to shift away from Christianity, when I "came out" as an unbeliever to a friend of mine, her first reaction was shock, and she questioned me about what was to keep me from just going on a killing spree. I asked her if that was how she really thought, and she said yes. And it occurred to me that perhaps many Christians are really murderous evil people who only feel the threat of hellfire is what keeps them from acting on those murderous impulses, not any innate sense of morality within (we can argue whether my "innate" sense of morality is really innate and not cultural bound, of which the tradition is partially based upon the Bible, of course, but you dig what I mean... It's an indirect effect, not a direct programming of my psyche). Obviously I don't think most Christians are that way, but it certainly changed my understanding of how each person has their own self-perception that isn't necessarily the same as mine.

The second is more recent. I don't recall what started it, but I went down a wiki-hole the other night, and started with Islam and following that back lineage-wise and back to the family tree of Abraham and realized that it was a big ol' inbred circus, and that all these little cousins sorta had their own territory and would allow other cousins to pass through or not as their whim allied with the given big empires nearby or not... Things of that nature. Realizing that the Moabites were not some strange bizarre weird set of foreigners but that they literally were relatives of Abraham's and thus the Jews. That it was a big incesty sorta thing, and this clanship rivalry and how...

It occurred to me that it was as if the Hatfield/McCoy feud had proliferated through the ages via myth and tribal identity that in the year, I dunno, 5000(?) we would have people killing each other in the name of whatever Jebediah McCoy's Deity was (well I'm assuming if there was a Jeb and he had a deity and pretending it wasn't a Christian deity, but an offshoot - maybe, say, like Mormonism is an offshoot - the same way Abraham sorta was an offshoot of the pagans in the day)... Well anyways, point being... This realization that a small tribe of people in the desert so long ago, though oppressed, but also oppressors, have had such a long lineage and a long narrative of being a People, and then the offshoots of that, mythologically, via Christianity and Islam (and whatever other cults, say, Baha'i or Mandaeism, or Mormonism, etc etc etc) it's fairly astounding, really.

Whatever it is, it's pretty damn awesome, in both the original sense of the word, that is to saw terrifying that people cling to such ancient beliefs and kill each other because of it, but also awesome amazing in the sense of this continuation and *thing* happened way back when, and it just... it did something... Of course, nobody believes they're all connected, because Jews don't think Christians are Jews, and Christians think Jews are Chosen People (well some Christians, the fundies I grew up with - there's others that hate Jews, of course), then there's the Muslims who see a continuation, but the Jews and Christians don't see that, and then the later iterations get looked down upon, like the Baha'i, by the Muslims, but there's this big narrative arc, and it's all just from one dude who decided to move his family to another area...

I can certainly see a connection in the Schizophrenia/Julian Jaynes thread in the sense of what cultural perceptions and allowances for certain forms of "madness" as it exists at a given time and space seed future movements along that trajectory of madness, all along the way taking on empires, infiltratining and being used by the empires, abused, crushed, genocided, martyred, and yet, somehow, still being on top many times, so that billions and billions of people claim descent in spiritual/theological/philosophical and sometimes even geneological form all the way back to this small tiny group.

It makes me sad, frankly, to see such a narrative of family and connectedness be splintered asunder by all the demands for being the "One True Way" and hating heretics and unbelievers and wrong believers and other faiths...

Oh humanity, what have you wrought.
posted by symbioid at 9:27 PM on July 19 [8 favorites]


From the "Where do 'Liberal' Bible Scholars Come From?" article:
Did Jesus say that whoever is not with him is against him (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23), or did he say that whoever is not against him is for him (Mark 9:40)?
I have a story about that one. I think I was at the end of high school at the time. The older teens at my church had our own sunday school group, but occasionally we sat in with the adult class. This particular day was being lead by an older guy who attended our church, was a retired minister, and one of our most outspokenly liberal members (we had a *very* wide range of views). He talked about some of the bible's inconsistencies and highlighted that pair of verses in particular, since it's a pretty clear contradiction.

One woman said that she didn't think there was a contradiction there at all. As a know-it-all teenager, I challenged her on that, and she mostly just repeated herself. I think I tried to push more because, you know, these literally say opposite things and if there's no contradiction you need something to explain that more than just the assertion, but the guy leading the group regained control and we moved on. This is, of course, how you peacefully maintain that wide range of views, I realize now, but at the time I took the experience pretty negatively, and I don't think I ever attended another adult bible study session. I was off to college shortly after and then an atheist a few years later, which didn't leave much opportunity for it anyway.

Still bothers me to let that kind of muddy thinking stand.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:46 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


Reading about the rock in exodus, it occurs to me how absurd it is that they said it took 40 years of travelling in the desert to 'find' jerusalem.

One, it would probably take no more than a couple of weeks to walk from, say, Cairo, to Jerusalem. And two, there was already plenty of contact between Canaanites (or Phoenicians) well before the Exodus is supposed to have happened, so they didn't discover anything -- they had to have already known it was there.

Another thing that's interesting about Exodus is that it happened during recorded history and as far as I know, nobody else records anything similar to the miracles that occur with some regularity during the exodus narrative in their historical records.

I wonder if there are any roughly contemporaneous accounts of travel between Egypt and Palestine where it's like a 2-3 week journey.
posted by empath at 9:47 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


The people who first compiled the New Testament were not illiterate. They could see as plainly as we do the differences in how the the four Gospel writers describe the last week of Jesus life. So it has always been ridiculous to imagine that genuine Christianity requires reading the Bible in a way that either ignores or is threatened by those differences.

American fundamentalism is largely a panicked, defensive reaction to skeptical critics asking things like, "So what exactly went down the night before Jesus was killed? Give me a timeline of everything that happened."

It seems to me the correct answer should have been, "We don't know, and Christians (including the original Gospel writers) mostly seem to have never thought it was necessary to know all of those details." That instead of doubling down (and tripling and quadrupling ) on all the verbal plenary infallible inerrancy nonsense.
posted by straight at 10:00 PM on July 19 [5 favorites]


I really liked the rock in the desert thing; I hadn't realised that Paul was into midrash. Or perhaps he wasn't, especially; this was basically the popular literature of the time. It's as if the only TV shows were ones produced by Josh Whedon, so everybody not only knew every episode of Buffy, but speakers could drop references to popular works of fan-fiction and expect that the audience would understand them.

Incidentally, Empath, the forty years in the desert thing had nothing to do with being lost; it was supposed to be a punishment and IIRC they spent years at some locations.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:13 PM on July 19 [4 favorites]


I never saw morality as something outside of me. There was never a sense of "I do this because God tells me to do so

When I say that I think morality comes from God, I don't mean that I think it is external to me (or extrinsically motivated) but that I think morality is bigger than me, bigger even than all of humanity.

The whole "what would prevent you from being a serial killer" thing seems silly and overwrought to me, but I am pretty skeptical about the idea of just trusting my own personal moral compass. Human beings seem to have an almost limitless capacity to rationalize and convince ourselves that what we want to do is same as what we ought to do. Christianity is obviously no sure way to prevent that, but it still seems better than what I can do on my own.
posted by straight at 10:25 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


These were interesting.

What struck me is that most of them are about inconsistencies, but they don't seem to come about, that is the writers don't notice the inconsistency, until the writers start studying the bible or theology in some serious, scholarly way. That seems unimaginable to me.

I went to Catholic school and pretty much week one in the "Path through Scripture" grade 9 religion class (the whole bible in one semester) was "these are the two creation stories. As you can see, they contradict each other. That's because they're allegorical and they each make slightly different points."

Now I can sort of see that evangelicals wouldn't be given the "they're allegorical" explanation, but since my understanding of evangelicals is that they're always reading the bible, I can't understand how there could be more than one or two who don't know that here are two creation stories and they contradict each other. I mean I can see missing that the Gospels get the name of an OT priest wrong, or an adjective describing an old testament rock might go unchallenged (especially by someone unfamiliar with Jewish second-temple era biblical interpretation), but how do you miss the creation stories, or the differing accounts of Jesus' birth, or the many other two-pretty-different-versions of the same story?

I don't find these contradictions terribly troubling, myself. Asking the gospels if Jesus went to the temple on this day or that day is like asking two of my friends, years after the fact, if I went to the beach on this day of my vacation or that day of my vacation. I mean sure I told them I went on vacation and they might both remember I went to the beach, but it seems very unlikely they'd have identical memories of what I said about my vacation. And surely they would both remember different bits and the bits they remembered, and the way their memories are framed, would depend partly on their own life histories and associations. Not to say that I'm religious, just that insofar as I am not, these contradictions are not the reason.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:18 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


American fundamentalism is largely a panicked, defensive reaction to life.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:46 PM on July 19 [5 favorites]


The trouble with chalking up all the inconsistencies in the Bible to the reader's mistake of either taking the text too literally or not literally enough is that even on the metaphorical/symbolic level, there are conflicting messages in there!

Yes, good point. But Anthony Le Donne's issues are somewhat different, I think; less about say, the minutiae of Balaam's surname and more about a broad and material conflict of voices on real moral issues.
posted by Segundus at 12:09 AM on July 20


The faith I was raised in had inerrancy at its core, so liberal Christianity is light years away from my former faith. It isn't even trying to accomplish the same goal. I still have very little concept of how or why people keep Jesus without an inerrant bible. Who decides what he said and did if not the bible?

It has always been a blind spot of mine that I have difficulty understanding this mentality. This belief in the inerrancy and literal truth of the Bible is driving a lot of things in my country's culture, so it seems that I should at least keep it in mind, and try to understand it. Recently, it occurred to me that it helps explain opposition to evolution. Imagine that you are a fundamentalist. They want you to revise your beliefs about creation, based on the development of science. Many Christians do not have a big problem here, but to you, this is saying that the Bible is not the true and inerrant Word of God. If the Genesis story can be revised by standards of human rationality, why can't all of it? If you agree to doubt that, what stops you from doubting that Jesus rose after 3 days and ascended to Heaven? Or that He died to save our souls? So the high school biology textbook seems to lead straight to Hell, to this person.

This is a collision between an idea of truth as absolute, revealed to us but outside of time, and an idea of truth as provisional, evidence-based, subject to criticism by norms of rationality, incomplete, embedded in practice, and subject to revision. It is fascinating to see how this difference affects the rhetoric in these disputes. For example, anti-evolution writers show a tendency to think that, if they can find a problem in one part of evolutionary theory, then the whole thing must logically be thrown out. That is not how they do science! But that writer sees the Bible this way, and it seems to him that science works the same way.
posted by thelonius at 12:25 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


One thing I learned in my fundamentalist years was that the intellectual backflips necessary to render the Bible logically consistent are a lot of fun.

Clearly what the strict literalist traditions of Christianity need is the no-prize.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:53 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


but since my understanding of evangelicals is that they're always reading the bible, I can't understand how there could be more than one or two who don't know that here are two creation stories and they contradict each other.

The point I think is that your understanding is wrong. The dirty little secret of many fundamentalist/evangelist/biblical literalist strains of Christianity is that the bible is rarely read and certainly not by the lay members of the community: you're told what the bible says, not supposed to read it yourself.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:06 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


When I was a kid growing up in London I went to a CofE primary school, where we were crocodile marched up the road several time a year for whatever - think of Blake's Holy Thursday. Age 11 and started secondary school. Teacher walks in and hands out bibles. Ok kids lets start with Moses and the plagues of Egypt, you've all heard of them, yes? Exodus chapters 7-11. Lets assume that this describes real events and that there was an interval between each event. Now start with the first and given the geology of the area explain, without the use of the supernatural or magic, what might turn the river Nile red and also cause the fish to die. At the end of the year I want an essay explaining all 10 of these events entirely by way of natural causes. You can use any thing that you learn in history, geography, chemistry and biology.
posted by lilburne at 1:48 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


I wonder if The Simpsons' writers had a real Biblical passage in mind when they had Rev. Lovejoy say, "Technically we're not allowed to go to the bathroom"? If so, could someone here identify it? Thanks.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:18 AM on July 20


Metafilter: all the verbal plenary infallible inerrancy nonsense.
posted by marienbad at 2:21 AM on July 20


The dirty little secret of many fundamentalist/evangelist/biblical literalist strains of Christianity is that the bible is rarely read and certainly not by the lay members of the community: you're told what the bible says, not supposed to read it yourself.

I heartily disagree. While there may be isolated groups of fundamentalists which do actively discourage any lay reading of the Bible, in my experience the vast majority of conservative Christians (the sort of people that will have Christianity Today on their coffee table and a Jesus Fish on their bumper) will be deeply engaged in a close reading of a part of the Biblical text at least on Sunday morning at church and Wednesday evening at a small group Bible study, and probably in daily morning devotions (or, if they're like I was as a teenager, will at least feel guilty that they fall back to sleep over a less-than-scintillating passage of Obadiah at 7:45 each morning).

The difficulty is more subtle and it is has sobering implications for how our wider society, not just Christians, reads texts. It is not about anti-intellectualism but about the construction of ideology and the refusal to be searching and honest about how we interpret narratives, assess the authoritative value of texts and integrate new texts, insights and experiences into our existing assumptions about how the world works.

One only needs to look at the competing narratives coming from Russia, Ukraine, and the NATO countries, or from the Israel/Palestine conflict, or from the ongoing crisis of climate change and environmental exploitation, to see the importance of this kind of work. We desperately need to be able to build these skills if we are to survive as a global community.

And it is that, precisely, for me which that binds the stories in the FPP together: the turn to community. In close readings of these texts, each of the FPP authors came to the realization that the discrepancies in the texts, far from being blemishes on an otherwise sound body that could be buffed away or repositioned, actually pointed to a deeper way-to-get-at-truth which relies on juxtaposition and paradox. I think this is how any longstanding tradition renews itself.

For instance, consider 18th- and 19th-century North American theology. Until quite recently, we could have talked about Jonathan Edwards, frontier revivals, the sectarianism and diversity of religious practice in a republic with no established religion and immigrants from lots of places, etc. But when we expand the boundaries of the community -- when new or previously silenced voices are heard -- we can talk about how African-American Christians read the Exodus narrative in juxtaposition to how White Christians read the same texts, we have an insight not only into theology but also into how the ideology of racial superiority, slavery and segregation was constructed, enforced -- and resisted.

The same can be done, and is being done, for any historically oppressed group you care to mention. We can see this not only in the body of writings which have interpreted and reinterpreted the texts throughout two thousand years, but in the texts themselves: who is speaking in Matthew's gospel, and why is his story so different from John's gospel? To whom is Revelation written, and what theological tools are they being given to integrate their experience of oppression at the hands of Rome?

Of course, this isn't a purely Christian endeavor by any means but I think that secular academics often fail to recognize that much of this sort of inquiry is initiated by people like Kierkegaard, Paul Ricoeur and Terry Eagleton who have all deeply engaged with religion in their intellectual work and who were/are (as far as I understand) devoutly Christian. The experience of reading a text in community shapes our responses to all texts.

And only now, I realize I haven't even touched on the idea of a 'holy' or 'inspired' text, and how such a text's authority could be understood or applied....
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:24 AM on July 20 [22 favorites]


Paul Slade: I can't think of anything off hand. There's a bunch of stuff about how to stay away from women when they have their icky bleeding time, and a bunch of stuff about when you are not allowed to have sex but I think that Scripture comes down pretty firmly on the "when you gotta go, you gotta go" side of the debate. Not that there is a debate, I hope.

If there is a debate, I want it to happen in this thread and I volunteer as the proud defender of a libertarian toileting ethic
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:35 AM on July 20


Paul Slade: I suppose it must be Deuteronomy 23:12&13
12 You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. 13 With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:46 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


I've only read the first two links so far, but I'm not seeing the big deal.

In the first link, Enns draws attention to the fact that Paul drew on non-OT tradition regarding the rock. That kind of thing isn't unusual in the NT. Other places in the NT (e.g. Acts 17:28 and Jude 14) draw on non-OT sources; this is no big surprise to anyone familiar with the Bible.

In the second link, Byron finds two inconsistencies that are really not inconsistencies at all. In Mark 2, Jesus never says that the priest David encountered was Abiathar - he says that the episode occurred while Abiathar was high priest. And when Jesus says that David gave the bread to those who were with him - is it so hard for the reader of the 1 Samuel 21 account to see that David, though alone when he asked for the bread, was asking for it both for himself and for his men who were waiting for him - to whom it is implied that he returned immediately with the bread?

These logic fails don't encourage me to read further.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 2:46 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


vibratory manner of working: "One woman said that she didn't think there was a contradiction there at all. As a know-it-all teenager, I challenged her on that, and she mostly just repeated herself. I think I tried to push more because, you know, these literally say opposite things..."

Not to be weird, but, uh - they aren't strictly contradictory, are they? I appreciate that they sound counter-intuitive, but on a rational level they really aren't contradictory. He says "whoever is not for me is against me" and "whoever is not against me is for me."

In the same way, I could say "all my shirts that are not black are green" and "all my shirts that are not green are black;" this just means that I only have black and green shirts. In addition, "all my shirts that are not black are green" implies that my shirt colors are binary - that there are only two colors of shirt, black and green - so either one of these statements implies the other anyhow.

When someone says "whoever is not for me is against me," she or he is saying that there is a binary division - those against me, and those for me - and that there is no in between. This necessarily and directly implies that "whoever is not against me is for me." They're not just not contradictory; they're both dependent on each other.

I guess that when you say they're contradictory, you mean that "whoever is not for me is against me" makes it sound like we should treat anybody who seems slightly irreligious as an enemy, whereas "whoever is not against me is for me" makes it sound like anything other than explicit opposition to religion is to be welcomed. But those things are not in the passages; they are not what either verse is saying.

I really don't see a contradiction here. Or - if there is one, I am missing it, and I'd like to hear what it is.
posted by koeselitz at 3:22 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


Realizing that the Moabites were not some strange bizarre weird set of foreigners but that they literally were relatives of Abraham's and thus the Jews. That it was a big incesty sorta thing, and this clanship rivalry and how...


symboid- This is actually what a lot of the archaeological evidence is now telling us: that there were various competing groups within the region, with some common gods, some similar but different gods, and some unique gods, one of which eventually became Yahweh. It now appears that a lot of the monotheism bits in the Pentateuch were likely put in retroactively during the early state period, as a means of asserting the legitimacy of the united kingdom (in whatever form it might have actually existed- still a topic of debate), or even later, as a way of establishing a historical lineage distinct from a more general Canaanite one.


empath- funny you should mention, but the Egyptians kept rather extensive records during the period in which the Exodus was presumed to have occurred (there's a reason why Thoth was an important god for them). Things like a receipt for the transfer of two slaves from one border fort to another. At this time, we know of no account of anything like all the Jews moving across the Sinai.


Paul Slade- I always read that Lovejoy quote as an oblique reference to some of the more esoteric purification practices of the Essenes detailed in the Dead Sea Scrolls.



BTW, that Lovejoy quote was actually directed at Marge (Simpsons 5:22). My favorite Reverend Lovejoy quote with regards to Ned is his response when Ned asks if he is being punished by God: "Oooh...short answer, yes with an if...long answer no, with a but..."

That or, "Ned, have you ever thought about one of the other major religions? They're all pretty much the same."

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:35 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


A university theologist discusses Reverend Lovejoy's particular beliefs here.

His conclusion? "All in all we might say that the designation 'Reform Presbylutheranism' is not too farfetched when we consider Reverend Lovejoy’s wide-ranged theological basis. However, might he in fact be more influenced by the German tradition than has been acknowledged? At least that would account for his strong anti-Catholic sentiments. When asked to perform the last rites on a dying man, he just scoffs: 'That’s Catholic; you might as well ask me to do a voodoo dance'.”
posted by Paul Slade at 7:31 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Am I missing something here, or is Bart Erhman conspicuous in his absence?
posted by sneebler at 7:54 AM on July 20


A university theologist discusses Reverend Lovejoy's particular beliefs here.

Wow, that's a tone deaf article. The "technically we’re not allowed to go to the bathroom” joke makes no sense as a riff on Lutheran " all have sinned" theology. It's clearly a joke about the specificity of the Mosaic code (and possibly the perceived arbitratiness of which parts Christians observe).

The "everything is about Jesus" is a joke about Sunday School in which a child is always safe answering any question with 'Jesus'.
posted by straight at 8:02 AM on July 20


this is no big surprise to anyone familiar with the Bible.

XKCD
posted by empath at 9:41 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Wow, that's a tone deaf article. The "technically we’re not allowed to go to the bathroom” joke makes no sense as a riff on Lutheran " all have sinned" theology. It's clearly a joke about the specificity of the Mosaic code (and possibly the perceived arbitratiness of which parts Christians observe).

Yes, it's a joke about the mosaic law, but it's mostly a statement that since sins are impossible to avoid, feel free to commit them.

The article was mostly a tongue and cheek attempt by a German theologian to interpret Lovejoy as a German theologian.
posted by empath at 9:48 AM on July 20


12 You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. 13 With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.


Every poop is sacred,
Every poop is great.

When a poop's not buried,
God gets quite irate...
posted by Naberius at 10:26 AM on July 20


I really don't see a contradiction here. Or - if there is one, I am missing it, and I'd like to hear what it is.

I think people would usually divide up others into THREE groups, not 2. The for, the against and the don't-cares. The 2 different quotes allocate the don't-cares in opposite groups. So if there's a trinary division, then it's contradictory.

If the don't-care group is empty, then it's binary, and there's no contradiction.

I think it's clear that at some point there MUST have been neutral people - such as the people who'd never heard of christianity at all. These days perhaps the don't-care group would be pretty small.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:02 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


> BTW, that Lovejoy quote was actually directed at Marge...

My bad. I thought it was part of Ned and Lovejoy's 2 a.m. phone call. I guess I need to start attending my Simpson's Study group more, uh, religiously.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:18 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


My biblical scholarship is slapdash at best, but my Simpsons scholarship is impeccable.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:23 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


I think people would usually divide up others into THREE groups, not 2.

So many conflicts come from that embedded either/or way of looking at the world. Protestant or Catholic? Christian or Muslim? Hutu or Tutsi? Gay or straight? Man or woman? Black or white? Jock or nerd? Sad that people see such limited options and define themselves by opposition to an imagined enemy.
posted by binturong at 11:25 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


Is it rain on your wedding day ironic or the other kind just how much "fundamentalism" and evangelicalism are products of modernity?
posted by PMdixon at 11:38 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: yeah, the contradiction is in the implied trinary division which accompanies the usual meaning of those phrases. I've never heard them used without that implication, so I never realized that that's not literally in the words until just now. I appreciate that. Exactly the explanation that would have made me a lot happier back then.

I'll remain neutral on whether it's plausible to use those phrases without that implication, or how being in translation affects the matter.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:24 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


It has always been a blind spot of mine that I have difficulty understanding this mentality. This belief in the inerrancy and literal truth of the Bible is driving a lot of things in my country's culture, so it seems that I should at least keep it in mind, and try to understand it. Recently, it occurred to me that it helps explain opposition to evolution. Imagine that you are a fundamentalist. They want you to revise your beliefs about creation, based on the development of science. Many Christians do not have a big problem here, but to you, this is saying that the Bible is not the true and inerrant Word of God. If the Genesis story can be revised by standards of human rationality, why can't all of it? If you agree to doubt that, what stops you from doubting that Jesus rose after 3 days and ascended to Heaven? Or that He died to save our souls? So the high school biology textbook seems to lead straight to Hell, to this person.

This is precisely why I didn't take high school biology. Because they would teach evolution and if they convinced me on that then Jesus didn't save me.

Learning about evolution for the first time at age 23 after losing my faith was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
posted by heatherann at 1:06 PM on July 20 [4 favorites]




Who decides what he said and did if not the bible? If the bible isn't to be relied on for such details... Well I'm quite lost. (Insert salvation puns here.)

I don't personally believe this, but it's not absurd to believe that the bible was written by human beings in a flawed attempt at capturing a real truth. Christianity as formulated by the church fathers (By that I mean from Paul to Augustine, etc) was a relatively coherent philosophy and metaphysics whether or not anything beyond the crucifixion and resurrection was literally true.

I think people have to remember that Christianity wasn't formed in a vacuum and a lot of what's in the New Testament was the result of interaction with decades of vocal and eloquent detractors who picked apart flaws in their stories and philosophy relentlessly.

The fact that it all holds together as well as it does is more likely to be a reflection of that process than any relationship with real history.
posted by empath at 1:09 PM on July 20


if there is one, I am missing it, and I'd like to hear what it is.

The most interesting possible contradiction, to me, is in the implications of the two statements.

If you're not with me, then you're against me -- Implication being that only the converted (i.e. the people who have made a conscious choice to be Christian) are with Jesus and therefore only the converted get the rewards at the end.

If you're not against me, then you're with me -- Implying the opposite. Even if you haven't explicitly chosen to follow Christ, you can still be counted as one of his if you don't act or behave in a way which is counter to Christ's teachings or goals. This would hint at salvation being possible, or maybe even almost inevitable, for non-Christians.
posted by honestcoyote at 1:26 PM on July 20


I don't personally believe this, but it's not absurd to believe that the bible was written by human beings in a flawed attempt at capturing a real truth. Christianity as formulated by the church fathers (By that I mean from Paul to Augustine, etc) was a relatively coherent philosophy and metaphysics whether or not anything beyond the crucifixion and resurrection was literally true.

I agree now, but I didn't agree when I was evangelical Christian. That faith wasn't formulated, it was True. We often talked about how if it all wasn't true, the scripture writers were asking for martyrdom. They wrote it down because we had an emergency on our hands: unsaved people were dying and going to hell and these details would save them. So it must all be exactly true, right? My approach to the bible had more in common with JRR Tolkien than Gabriel García Márquez, if that makes any sense.

The idea that they were talking not about actual details but grander philosophical ideas doesn't fit with this approach to religion. While I couldn't continue with my faith when it broke, I also didn't find myself able to transition to a more nuanced/liberal version. I wasn't ready for that.

Plus I was in a school where I would have gotten expelled for that type of theology. The authors in these links had more support.
posted by heatherann at 1:36 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


Plus I was in a school where I would have gotten expelled for that type of theology. The authors in these links had more support.
Thinking about it, it really does seem like it was a two-step process for a lot of them. Step one was realizing there were conflicts in the Bible that they couldn't easily reconcile. Step two was going to grad school and being introduced to new ways of reading the Bible, which made a lot more sense to them. It's possible that without step two, they either would have ignored their misgivings or fallen away from Christianity altogether.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:57 PM on July 20


I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned Ecclesiastes yet. They never talked about it in Sunday School, so I didn't read it until I stumbled on it while flipping through the Bible, bored during a sermon. The New International Version is what we had in the back of the pews, and the first lines of that translation - in the context of Evangelical Christianity - came as a shock:
"Meaningless! Meaningless!"
says the Teacher.
"Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless."
It didn't get any more optimistic after that, for someone who had been taught that it's all about getting to heaven via God's grace and Christ's sacrifice:
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other.

All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.

Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
The solution to this existential dilemma had a certain comfort, but wasn't at all orthodox, and I knew better than to ask how it fit in the standard theology:
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.
posted by clawsoon at 3:14 PM on July 20 [7 favorites]


or are women's aha moments less likely to come from reading the Bible?

Just as a data point, I am a woman and my aha moment came from reading the Bible. Specifically Paul. I then proceeded to read James Kugel and Bart Ehrman and others referenced above. Not sure why most of these writers are men except that women are usually discouraged from taking on too much leadership (i.e. becoming Biblical scholars) in a lot of conservative/evangelical congregations.

Many literalists teach the Bible line-by-line in their sermons. They do have explanations, they're just... stretchy.

One thing I learned in my fundamentalist years was that the intellectual backflips necessary to render the Bible logically consistent are a lot of fun.

Exactly!
posted by stoneandstar at 6:10 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


stoneandstar: Just as a data point, I am a woman and my aha moment came from reading the Bible. Specifically Paul.

I'd be curious to know exactly what it was in Paul that took you off the path o' truth. I dug deeply into Paul for a year or so, and I remember realizing that he had painted himself into a corner on the question of why you shouldn't just keep on sinning whenever you want since they'll all be forgiven. He tried to argue his way out of the corner, but not very effectively. I learned later that more than one heresy arose as a direct result.
posted by clawsoon at 6:46 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Luther said that what made him hesitate the longest before launching a new faith was the argument that he, as one man, was pitting his wisdom against the wisdom of centuries of Biblical scholars.

You can see the danger (to Christianity) of doing so in all these links: If you think for yourself as you study the Bible, you may end up a heretic like Luther or Menno Simons.

Or, worse - much worse - like Calvin, whose strict rationality put only a thin sheet of Saran wrap between himself and atheism.
posted by clawsoon at 7:07 PM on July 20


These logic fails don't encourage me to read further.

They aren't logic fails. The essays represent "aha" moments, not "gotcha" moments. They aren't meant to express when the writers saw a single critical irreconcilable inconsistency and decided the whole Bible was a pack of lies.

Both Enn and Byron explain that their "aha" moment was a culmination of a LOT of similar questions that they'd had while reading/studying the Bible. The moment of realization is not "Whoa, it appears the Bible is not true" (though it could result in that), but rather, "The Bible is a different sort of text(s) from what I'd believed it was."

Byron's example is a good one I think because it's typical of many discrepancies that could be reconciled, using some mental contortion, but the simpler solution is that both accounts were written by humans and one or both of them are not factually accurate. Reading the 1 Samuel story in the most straightforward way suggests that David was indeed alone according to that account (his family and friends joined him some time later, days at least). Abiathar was evidently not high priest until much later but was the son of the high priest Ahimelech. (There is confusion even within the histories about whether Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech, though, or vice versa.)

Jesus's account adds David's friends to the story (perhaps to strengthen the parallel between that situation and the one with him and his disciples). Or maybe Mark added that, or maybe Jesus or Mark was drawing from a different history than the one we have in 1 Samuel. But the two stories in the Christian Bible we have today, the one that fundamentalists and evangelicals believe is inspired and inerrant and literally true, don't match up.

Again the point isn't that the "aha" moment necessarily undermines the "truth" of the Bible; it's just the recognition that these writings each come from a perspective and context, and that those involve human error. Which does entail a shift in what kind of truth you look for in the Bible.

When I was young, I used to tie myself in knots trying to reconcile these inconsistencies, along with contorting common sense to read Paul as an egalitarian and much more. When I gave up, it was an immense relief to stop trying to give God the benefit of the doubt on so MANY niggling little problems. I think that's what these guys mean when they say it wasn't just one thing, though they can point to the "hook" that got them started thinking this way, or the crack that broke the dam in the end, or whatever.

Pater Aletheias, thanks for the links. Very interesting!
posted by torticat at 8:35 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Chris Tilling's entry sounds like the story of someone who grows up to join the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984, where the Ministry is the "safe wall" against error:
Best to stay behind a safe wall of Christian academics more intelligent and learned than I. Let them deal with the difficult questions about two creation accounts, Gospel contradictions, the archaeopteryx, Adam’s missing bellybutton etc....

But it was not until I decided to begin postgraduate work that things really started to shift for me. In the process I realised that I was beginning to join the “safe wall,” those Evangelical scholars who knew the answers to the tough questions. And slowly but surely, and to my great consternation, I realised that the "safe wall" of believing scholarship was not at all what I had expected.
posted by clawsoon at 11:00 PM on July 20


I spent a good long time neck-deep in Christian apologetics, making the case for a kind of faith that was bigger, and richer, and -- frankly, more humane -- than the Calvinist-tinged fundamentalism I'd known when I was growing up. The "Aha" moment for me was when I read -- and understood -- Numbers 31:18-20. It's one of the innumerable verses where the Israelites are about to lay the smack down on another tribe, and God (via his chosen mouthpiece Moses) is giving them orders on exactly how to handle the aftermath of battle.
17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. 18 But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately.
I was able to make sense of a lot of grim shit in the Old Testament, but that -- for me, at least -- was the last straw. The "Literal Proscriptive Truth" view of Scripture died for me that day, and I came to the conclusion that anyone who advocated it was either ignorant or monstrous.
posted by verb at 2:23 PM on July 21 [5 favorites]


Unrelated to that personal realization, the book The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor was probably one of the most important books in my life at a time when I was struggling with a case of the "Ahas." I grew up as an earnest, passionate kid in a fundamentalist religious community. When I eventually questioned the unyielding principles I’d learned, the most difficult part was feeling trapped between unacceptable extremes. I could ignore my doubts to please fellow believers, or abandon everything to fit in with skeptics who acknowledged my questions. Taylor's book described a third way, one that was less comfortable but more honest, and helped shape my understanding of doubt, faith, and empathy.

Eventually -- on my own terms -- I left the church and now consider myself an agnostic. Were it not for his book, I think I would've simply snapped.
posted by verb at 2:30 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


I'd be curious to know exactly what it was in Paul that took you off the path o' truth

clawsoon, it was actually a similar issue for me! My church at the time taught the doctrine of "eternal security" (once you're saved, you're good forever, but not Calvinist) and I just couldn't square it with the uncertainty I saw in Paul. Various other inconsistencies as well, but this was my starting point.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:56 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


I was able to make sense of a lot of grim shit in the Old Testament, but that -- for me, at least -- was the last straw. The "Literal Proscriptive Truth" view of Scripture died for me that day, and I came to the conclusion that anyone who advocated it was either ignorant or monstrous.

Oh yes very much. That and (for me) the concept of hell. The idea that we abhor torture, even of the worst humans, even to the best ends, but are okay with eternal torment of the vast majority of humanity based on their (largely benign) beliefs during a brief stay on earth.

But with regard to your example specifically--yeah. A transcendent God who orders that virgins (and virgins ONLY) be kept alive for the benefit of the conquerors? Sorry, not a good God. Really no way to explain that one away.
posted by torticat at 3:11 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


stoneandstar: My church at the time taught the doctrine of "eternal security" (once you're saved, you're good forever, but not Calvinist) and I just couldn't square it with the uncertainty I saw in Paul.

Interesting. I had "eternal security" so deeply ingrained that I never noticed any uncertainty about it in Paul. It flew right by me.
posted by clawsoon at 5:54 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


verb: "Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately."

Sometimes I think I must've been a moral monster as a child, because this stuff never bothered me. What did bother me - the only thing that bothered me in the Bible as a child (many years before I lost my faith) - was God getting angry at Balaam for going to see Balak right after God said it was okay.

That seemed more unfair to young me than anything else God ever did. Destroy most of humanity in a flood? Ehn. Create a legion of sex slaves, as in the passage you quoted? Didn't strike me one way or the other.

But get mad at someone who did something you said was okay? That was an injustice I could relate to, and it was an outrage.
posted by clawsoon at 6:09 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Jesus certainly was not a “Bible believer,” as we use that term in the post Billy Graham era of American fundamentalist religiosity that’s used as a trade-marked product to sell religion. Jesus didn’t take the Jewish scriptures at face value. In fundamentalist terms, Jesus was a rule-breaking relativist who wasn’t even “saved,” according to evangelical standards. Evangelicals insist that you have to believe very specific interpretations of the Bible to be saved. Jesus didn’t. He undercut the scriptures.--"Jesus Was Not a 'Bible Believer' let alone an Evangelical"/ Frank Schaeffer. Excerpt from Why I am an atheist who believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace
posted by No Robots at 8:58 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


No Robots: "Jesus ... wasn’t even 'saved,' according to evangelical standards."

That's... wait... what? That's such a fundamental misunderstanding of fundamentalism that I'm not even sure where to start.

Not necessarily a misunderstanding of Jesus himself, mind you - I haven't read far enough to have an opinion on that - but definitely a misunderstanding of evangelical fundamentalism. Strange, coming from someone (Frank Schaeffer) who was so immersed in it in his youth.
posted by clawsoon at 2:45 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


I don't think the comparison is to contemporary evangelical interpretations of the cleanliness laws in particular so much as a hermeneutic of "literal interpretation".
posted by PMdixon at 2:32 PM on July 23


Sometimes I think I must've been a moral monster as a child, because this stuff never bothered me. What did bother me - the only thing that bothered me in the Bible as a child (many years before I lost my faith) - was God getting angry at Balaam for going to see Balak right after God said it was okay.

I don't think there's anything particularly monstrous about having the "aha" moment due to one thing rather than another. A lot of fundamentalist/literalist/textualist faith is about maintaining a shell game of explanations and justifications for the horrifying stuff.

Different people spot the trick in different places.
posted by verb at 7:34 AM on July 26 [1 favorite]


I've always been fond of the gnostic/neo-Platonist idea that the creator god was actually a different being that The One, and was kind of a jerk.
posted by empath at 5:08 PM on July 26


The idea that we abhor torture, even of the worst humans, even to the best ends, but are okay with eternal torment of the vast majority of humanity based on their (largely benign) beliefs during a brief stay on earth.

When I read this, I was unavoidably reminded of those people who think it is okay to torture someone, when that someone has been branded a terrorist.

It's not impossible to draw a line from the first to the second. From the belief in a literal hell to the acceptance of torture as a means to an end. Not that those involved think this consciously, but after all, if God's allowed to do it, that's a stamp of approval on some level.

I believe strongly that unquestioned and unquestionable beliefs always have a way of, eventually, getting twisted around for ill purpose. Someone will always find a way of hiding behind dogma and profiting from it, to our collective detriment, somehow.
posted by JHarris at 11:50 AM on July 27


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