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Blogging the Bible
May 17, 2006 12:20 PM   Subscribe

What happens when an ignoramus reads the Good Book? Slate's David Plotz reads the Bible for the first time as an adult. "My goal is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based." The first two installments.
posted by kirkaracha (48 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting idea, tedious execution.
posted by empath at 12:25 PM on May 17, 2006


From This American Life:
Julia Sweeney, a Catholic, tells the story of how her faith began to crack after reading a most alarming book ... called the Bible. Her story is excerpted from her play, "Letting Go of God," which ran in Los Angeles. (29 minutes)
posted by squalor at 12:27 PM on May 17, 2006


The story he first read was rather intresting. Heh. I remember when my sister was in 'joseph and the technicolor dream coat', my mom decided to read us the actual story in the bible.

It read like a hallucinatory dream, and my mom figured we were no longer 'in' that story when we got to a scene where someone pulled out to prevent a girl from getting pregnant, and was then struck down by god.

It's definitely got some wacky stuff.
posted by delmoi at 12:41 PM on May 17, 2006


Well, surprise, the bible is a concoction of inconsistent and contradictory fairy tales, written by some not very nice people and edited and rewritten countless times by other people with particular agendas. None of this will deter or change the minds of people who believe that the Bible is the word of god. Because they're not operating on a rational level. Plotz is preaching to the choir.
posted by slatternus at 12:45 PM on May 17, 2006


Does the Lord love insects best?

Ask Haldane.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:47 PM on May 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


This piece - yeah, a little tedious, indeed.

Julia Sweeney's piece? Fantastic. Saw it live - not a Sweeney fan - but am now.
posted by OhPuhLeez at 12:47 PM on May 17, 2006


This is going to get really dry when he hits the book of Numbers.
posted by leapfrog at 1:18 PM on May 17, 2006


The greatest defense that fundamentalists have is that the Bible is so fucking boring that no one who shares their faith could ever hope to wade through it unaided.
This is also why I wholeheartedly support Bible Lit classes in highschool. That the Bible can't go three chapters without contradicting itself or positing something so archaic and morally moronic as to be repugnant to any modern reader is helpful too.
posted by klangklangston at 1:18 PM on May 17, 2006


17:9-15 The covenant requires only one duty of Abraham and his heirs (oh, and their slaves): circumcision. That's it. That is God's lone requirement. It's an inspired choice. Circumcision is painful enough that no one will undertake it lightly. It's visible, and so it obviously demarcates you from others. And, at least until the arrival of fanatical and aggrieved anti-circumcision weirdos a few years ago, it was irreversible.

Hahaha, there's some flaimbait if I've ever seen it.
posted by delmoi at 1:21 PM on May 17, 2006


when we got to a scene where someone pulled out to prevent a girl from getting pregnant, and was then struck down by god.

Learn something new every day. Just googled that story and discovered that that was in fact Onan, and his sin was not therefore wanking (as the term "onanism" would lead one to believe), but the withdrawal method.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:21 PM on May 17, 2006


The not-so-pleasant story of King David and Bathsheba happilly told in a children's illustrated Bible

Adult summary (as in 2 Samuel 11)

King David peeped on a married woman, Bathsheba, while she was taking a bath. Her husband, Uriah, is one of King David's general off at war, so King David orders Bathsheba up to his palace for some nookie, and he knocks her up. King David tries to cover his ass and has Uriah brought home hopefully to fornicate with Bathsheba and think the kid is his. Uriah comes home and sleeps on the couch instead. King David then has Uriah ordered into the front lines where Uriah is killed, and David marries Bathsheba. This displeased God.

Children's Bible story summary:

King David saw Bathseba taking a bath. He thought she was beautiful and he wanted to marry her. So David did something awful. He made sure her husband was killed in battle. God was angry. But when David was sorry for he had done, God forgave him.

Moral of the story:

Kings get a free pass when breaking Commandments. It all in who you know.
posted by StarForce5 at 1:27 PM on May 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


Technically, the sin of onanism isn't even withdrawl method. It's the refusal to have kids with your dead brother's wife, and raise them as if they were his children instead of yours.

This is why strict literalism gets silly very, very fast.
posted by verb at 1:28 PM on May 17, 2006


I thought of Julia Sweeney's piece when I saw this, too. Like OhPuhLeez, it made me a fan.
posted by amro at 1:33 PM on May 17, 2006


I think what pisses me off a little about Plotz's narrative (thus far) is that he doesn't take into account that a few other people throughout the past 2000 years have read this same text and responded to it. Theologians and comedians alike.

Also, can't he just quote the passages he's commenting on? It's the Bible, for Christ's sake. There shouldn't be any copyright issues. Stick the text in there. (If space is a concern, use a few lines of JavaScript to make it optionally visible.) No reason to make me look it up.
posted by staggernation at 1:33 PM on May 17, 2006


OK, I see that he has links to each chapter. But I'd much prefer a <shudder> "fisking" approach—more properly called MiSTing—where we can see the text he's writing about on the same page as the commentary.
posted by staggernation at 1:37 PM on May 17, 2006


what is the right time to mention the invisible wizard in the sky?
posted by jouke at 1:43 PM on May 17, 2006


This is why strict literalism gets silly very, very fast.

Also why even people who claim to be strict literalists do in fact "pick and choose the parts they like" (their words.)
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:45 PM on May 17, 2006


I think I prefer to get my Bible channelled to me through The Hold Steady.
posted by Flashman at 1:54 PM on May 17, 2006


he doesn't take into account that a few other people throughout the past 2000 years have read this same text and responded to it

Yes he does.
My goal is not to find contradictions, mock impossible events, or scoff at hypocrisy. Nor am I quite stupid enough to pretend that Judaism (or Christianity) is just the Bible. Jews are not only the People of the Book but the People of Many Books. There is the rest of the Hebrew Bible--the Prophets and Writings, the vast commentary of the Talmud, the stories of the midrashim, and thousands and thousands of years of other law and story and commentary. This 4,000 years' worth of delving and discussion is totally unfamiliar to me--I can't hope to compete with its wisdom.
The whole point of the series is to see "what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents."
posted by kirkaracha at 1:54 PM on May 17, 2006


Meh. The problem is, he's being so half-assed about it. He wants to point out the problems AND be respectful, which is causing him all sorts of headaches. (which, I suspect, he will resolve as he gets deeper into the Torah by giving up on the respectful part)
posted by InnocentBystander at 2:00 PM on May 17, 2006


it's a lame experiment -- his own unwillingness to read Tanakh without the help of a good commentary makes the whole experiment pretty hollow. he'll just find out that there's a lot of wacky stuff going on -- big deal. wacky stuff happens in science fiction movies from the 50's, too. but nobody would sit through a Ed Wood marathon and then report in Slate on how silly the cardboard aliens look.

it's just no way to approach an incredibly complex text -- that's why you're supposed to actually go to shul on a regular basis, Plotz.
this "Tanakh-for-the-couch-potato" thing is already stillborn.

what I'd like to read, because that would be interesting, is a series of articles where a reasonably good secular writer who had a strict religious education (Jewish or Christian) starts re-reading critically the books he used to think were the actual word of God.

that writer would find out lots of amazing things -- how a couple centuries of textual criticism have really given a new way to understand scripture. how the Torah was actually put together from different, detectable literary sources (the documentary hypothesis), how the short story told by Mark (the oldest Gospel) in the 70s of the First century CE was in the following decades edited by Matthew and Luke, who added long speeches and narratives taken from a common sayings source ("Q"). how John changed many details of that narrative and added a massive dose of his own community's theology (and a heavy sprinkling of savage antisemitism)

discovering textual criticism can deeply affect the way people used to think about religion. reading Scripture like you'd read the newspaper or -- yes -- the Da Vinci Code, or Slate does not really do much. what
posted by matteo at 2:03 PM on May 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


... what Plotz -- and his editors -- don't understand is that he needs a good commentary to the Torah, and a good Introduction to the New Testament. only then he'll start learning interesting stuff he could share with his readers
posted by matteo at 2:06 PM on May 17, 2006


Flashman, I was thinking the same thing, I'm in Separation Sunday-school right now. It's like if Bruce Springsteen developed a bad drug and poetry habit after being molested by a fundamentalist preacher...
posted by ubi at 2:25 PM on May 17, 2006


/derail
posted by ubi at 2:26 PM on May 17, 2006


... what Plotz -- and his editors -- don't understand is that he needs a good commentary to the Torah, and a good Introduction to the New Testament. only then he'll start learning interesting stuff he could share with his readers

Ok, sure, but his stated intention (stated again and again, ad naseum) is to read the Bible naively and to blog his response/reactions/etc to it. He's not trying to write a theological treatise (nor summarize millenia of textual criticism & commentary)!

Regarding the ethical "lapses" of the God of the Old Testament, see Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling on the "teleological suspension of the ethical." To grossly paraphrase, the point of such lapses or suspensions is precisely that the realm of the religious transcends the realm of the ethical. To condemn God for behaving unethically is to hold God (the creator) to merely human (the created) standards. I'm not saying I hold this position myself, but it is, I think, key to understanding why a dedicated believer might remain utterly unmoved by what in the Old Testament (or other religious texts, for that matter) offends ethical sensibility. On the other hand, it might be argued that those of us of a secular bent have, in a sense, applied this notion to our understanding the universe or nature; we don't, for instance, accuse nature of abusing its power when it doesn't act humanely.
posted by treepour at 2:45 PM on May 17, 2006


I wonder if Plotz is familiar, even just from vague cultural noise, with the documentary hypothesis about how the Torah was compiled from multiple sources, or if he noticed the two different creation stories without any outside influence. Especially curious since the English versions I've read obfuscate the fact that the two chapters each employ a different name for the creator. Thinking about blogging the Bible myself, and dispensing with Plotz's muddled attempt at being respectful ...
posted by bcveen at 2:50 PM on May 17, 2006


I definitely think there's value in his intentionally avoiding commentaries (at first pass through). If the Bible can't be read and understood at all without piles of additional explanatory works, it's not much of a book. Especially if it's a book written for a very specific audience, viz. God's chosen people, and you're part of that audience. Why not just skip the Bible and go read the book that tells you what the Bible says but you're too ignorant to understand?
posted by Nahum Tate at 3:01 PM on May 17, 2006


we don't, for instance, accuse nature of abusing its power when it doesn't act humanely.

Nobody tries to convince me that nature loves me and looks out for me either.
posted by InfidelZombie at 3:17 PM on May 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


Nobody tries to convince me that nature loves me and looks out for me either.

You're just not hanging out with the right hippies.
posted by JekPorkins at 3:48 PM on May 17, 2006


... what Plotz -- and his editors -- don't understand is that he needs a good commentary to the Torah, and a good Introduction to the New Testament. only then he'll start learning interesting stuff he could share with his readers

No, then he'll be someone writing a book report about other people's scholarship.

What he's doing is something quite different. He's asking "is it possible to read this book on its own and without using other people's interpretations and rationalizations and make sense of it?"

From that point of view, the "how did this book come into being" question (the documentary hypothesis etc.) is quite irrelevant. Similarly, the "what has a long tradition of exegesis made of this book" is also irrelevant (again from this point of view--they're both fascinating questions in and of themselves).

What kind of sense, if any, does the Bible make considered simply as a book that one reads from cover to cover. It's an interesting question, and one which I think gives answers that aren't quite what you at first expect. The Bible is an extremely odd book. If you read it without the preconception that it will offer you a particular doctrinal view of God and give you certain kinds of moral and ethical guidance it just seems bafflingly strange.

My prediction: he gives up on the project halfway through the barren wastelands of Numbers or Deuteronomy, skips to Job and abandons the project forthwith.
posted by yoink at 4:08 PM on May 17, 2006


Ken's Guide To The Bible does something similar.
posted by martinrebas at 4:57 PM on May 17, 2006


What kind of sense, if any, does the Bible make considered simply as a book that one reads from cover to cover.

I've often wondered about this exact topic. Say you find some guy in the forest. A pygmy or someone, who has never had any contact with western thought, has never heard the words "Christan" or "Jesus" or "Church" before (but somehow speaks and reads English perfectly otherwise).

You give him fresh copy of the NIV bible, tell him this is the truth, and let him read away.

Do you think what he would come out the other side believing would look like any modern strain of Christianity? Fundamentalists tell us to rely on the bible, the bible is the literal truth, but actually basing your religion on it would be almost impossible. In order to shape the bible into Christianity, you need to be influenced by interpretation. You need to have it explained to you by your priest / minister / cable TV evangelist. At which point, we have to leave behind any concept of the bible being the word of God, because (even ignoring evidence of how the bible was constructed to begin with) it has quite clearly turned into the word of man.
posted by Jimbob at 5:01 PM on May 17, 2006


StarForce5, you're reminding me of one of my many Brick Testament favourites, this one from Judges 19, lovingly entitled "gang rape and dismemberment".
posted by wilful at 5:15 PM on May 17, 2006



My prediction: he gives up on the project halfway through the barren wastelands of Numbers or Deuteronomy, skips to Job and abandons the project forthwith.


Seconded... Although, I usually make it at least to Chronicles.
posted by subaruwrx at 5:26 PM on May 17, 2006


Evelyn Waugh writes the classic story of an adult reading the Bible for the first time, in his case, Randolph Churchill, son of Winston. From a November 1944 letter to Nancy Mitford:

In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible "bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave'" or merely slapping his side & chortling `God, isn't God a shit!'

As you can see, there was a reason the church wanted to keep out the translators....
posted by IndigoJones at 5:44 PM on May 17, 2006


JimBob, that's really well put. One of the oddest things in the Bible for me is that it's not at all clear that the book insists in any serious way on monotheism. The insistence that you shall not have any other Gods "before me" seems--in context--much more a matter of primacy, or tribal loyalty, than any strong theological claim about uniqueness. Indeed, there are stories that seem to be based on the idea that "my God can beat up your God."

One could easily imagine your imaginary pygmy thinking "O.K., I have to swear allegiance to just this god" but not for a second imagining that other gods don't exist.

But we can at least be confident that he'd be aware of the appalling spiritual dangers posed by shrimp, poly-cotton fabrics, and menstrual blood.
posted by yoink at 6:01 PM on May 17, 2006


The bible has surprisingly little tp do with christianity.
posted by I Foody at 7:07 PM on May 17, 2006


matteo, I think the book you're looking for is Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman (who also wrote a couple of other interesting books on the topic: The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, and Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament). He's got decades of textual criticism under his belt and writes very well.
posted by twiki at 7:20 PM on May 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


There's a nerve.com article (unfortunately locked behind a premium gate these days) about sex in Da Bibble, especially in the "porno" book, Song of Solomon.

I'd say I'd like to know how the fundies will sugarcoat THAT one, except I already know how: by either taking it very figuratively, or so literally as to make it meaningless,
posted by JHarris at 7:23 PM on May 17, 2006


Why's everyone picking on Numbers? It's Leviticus that's the boring one out of the five. All that priestly code and sacrifices and whatnot.
posted by greatgefilte at 9:24 PM on May 17, 2006


Man makes effort to learn more about roots... news at 11:00.

Ok - so far we're predicting confusion, boredom, and sexual arousal.

I'll add: insight, interesting watercooler discussion, an appreciation that real people with real problems just like today populate the text. And possibly, an acceptance that previous generations (a whole lot of 'em) have taken the trouble to preserve all that culture for good and positive functional reasons, not because they were all nuts, hateful, deluded, or just wanted to give teenagers a hard time.

Guess we'll see.
posted by scheptech at 9:55 PM on May 17, 2006


The article could have been worse. He could have been reading the Book of Mormon.
posted by QuietDesperation at 10:34 PM on May 17, 2006


Why should I read this "bible" book? Does it offer any advantages over other "holy" books like th "quran" or "rig veda"? Volume discount? Cupons?
posted by spazzm at 6:42 AM on May 18, 2006


I was once a very faithful Catholic.

Then I read the Bible.

I'm better now.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:31 AM on May 18, 2006


It's going to be awesome when he gets to Kings and the she-bears.
posted by schroedinger at 9:59 AM on May 18, 2006


Part three
posted by kirkaracha at 1:25 PM on May 18, 2006


It can't be too many more years before Christians get themselves a decent copy editor and start publishing the Bible with a quick paragraph about the Garden of Eden and Noah before seguing right to Jesus, thus bypassing a thousand pages of dense insanity completely. Until then, enjoy this candid look at the Bible's backlog.
posted by robot at 2:33 PM on May 18, 2006


The article could have been worse. He could have been reading the Book of Mormon.

Well, at least then it wouldn't take him so long.
posted by JekPorkins at 7:47 PM on May 18, 2006


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