Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Bible: A New, Approved History

When I was fourteen, I saw a man named Richard put his own tightie-whities on his head, stand up in front of several hundred Christian missionaries, and make jokes. Richard was a serious academic and philologist who had translated the Bible into an entirely different language than English, but he knew that some of those missionaries would think his underwear hat was scandalous and wanted them to learn how to relax. That is the environment of my childhood: a bunch of people who were very serious about the Bible, but who also sometimes put underwear on their heads.

As I've said before, I think the Bible is a Work of Art, with all that this entails. If I were to completely unpack my understanding of what Art is and what this means for my understanding of the Bible, my explanation would undoubtedly put me at odds with a number of people in my faith community. Rather than do that, however, I think I will instead offer a short history in "Bibleolatry," a term someone coined not all that long ago to explain the practice of worshiping the printed collection of 66 books (called a canon) that comprise the contemporary Protestant Evangelical Bible, as distinguished from the variously differing collection of books found in the Jewish, Roman Catholic, Eastern or Asian Orthodox churches.

Those who follow canons that differ from the one I was raised with probably need underwear on their heads as well; but as I am not familiar with their versions of reality, I'm going to stick to my own Bibliolatrous upbringing. I am not a Bible scholar (thank God), so all I can do is offer a generalized view of what the Bible is, as I've had it explained to me by the North American Protestant Evangelical tradition. If it seems, as I go through this, that my explanation is a little, er, strange, I have to assure you that this is merely how it has been presented to me (with, perhaps, a tiny sprig of sarcasm thrown on as garnish). Don't get me wrong, I love and respect the Bible and the Chap to whom its stories and poetry seem to point. I'm just a little leery of a mode of interpretation that, in many ways, just doesn't feel right.

History of The Bible: A Primer

In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. God was not a male, but God made male humans first. That, and the fact that men are naturally better leaders and more rational creatures than women (who, lets face it, screwed things up for everybody by eating some fruit they shouldn't have), means that when the Bible says that people were created in God's image, it mostly meant that God was more male than female. We tell you this to explain why we refer to God as a "Him."

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

First, let's make a few a priori statements about God. We won't worry about why these things are true - that's the sort of thing "philosophers" (God love 'em) pull their hair out over - just trust us when we say that that they are. Why? Because we say so.

First: God exists. Second: God is all-powerful. Third: because of His boundless power, if God wants to communicate with people, He can. Fourth: God wants to communicate with people, so He does.

Those are our historical assumptions. Now, to our history.

For a long time, God communicated with just two people, Adam and Eve. But then they broke the rules and got kicked out of paradise. For a long time after that, God only communicated with a few, chosen people. He did it by talking to them, burning things, or making marks on their foreheads. Then, a long time ago - say, like, four thousand years ago - God burned a bush to get the attention of a stuttering guy named Moses. Although Moses was born into the race of chosen people, he had been educated by the one of the most powerful families in the most advanced culture in the history of the world (the Egyptians). So God got him to write down everything He had done up to that point, as well as a bunch of rules for His chosen people to follow forever after.

These included things like not eating shellfish, and killing an animal every time you accidentally touched a menstruating woman. That was the first time God communicated with anybody in writing. For the first time ever, if folks wanted to know how God wanted them to behave, they just had to look at the words written down in black and off-white.

They didn't listen to these rules (which were there for their own good), so God sent a bunch of other people called prophets, who likewise transcribed His thoughts verbatim onto scrolls, recording with mathematical precision a sort of textbook for living. Their writings had stories and adventures and warnings and even some erotic poetry, but this was all sort of a skin over top of what it was really about, which was to show how rotten humans are and how they can't follow a few simple instructions from a Guy who could fry them anytime He wanted to. It was also supposed to show how wonderful it was that He loved and didn't fry His chosen few. Because if there's one thing that's crystal-clear in all these stories, it's that these people weren't anything special. They deserved to fry.

Eventually, in God's perfect timing, God incarnated, breaking off a piece of Himself in common human form and giving Him the common Hebrew name of Joshua. This Joshua (who was called Jesus, in Greek) told people He was there to fulfill all the rules and promises and stories in all the previous words that God had compelled people to write down. He also told them that those words were inspired by God, and were useful for a lot of different things... by which He meant to say that they were the sorts of things that had darn well better be understood as completely literal and followed, down to the last tittle. He told them He was there to save all the people who lived on the planet from how rotten they were, and from all the horrible things they were born with a propensity to do because of what two people (but mostly the chick) had done several thousand years before. These rule-breaking things they did were called "sins," and even the smallest one demanded that the perpetrator be fried to a crisp, over and over, forever.

Then Joshua told them He was God, and that He was going to save the world by letting them kill Him. He told them this would once and for all satisfy His requirement that blood be shed for sin, so that after it was over they'd be able to touch menstruating women without killing anything. They did not like this claim, so they killed Him.

But Joshua came back to life, showing that He had power over death. He told them He would use this power to make anyone who acknowledged His Divinity be able to live forever in a different place entirely, a massive castle/city thingy with solid gold streets and doors made out of giant pearls. All they had to do was cognitively accept Four New Rules, repeat them after a religious leader, and really, really mean them. If they didn't accept, repeat, and mean those rules, they would not get into the shiny city. Instead, He would torture them forever and ever and ever, and wouldn't stop no matter how hard they cried.

Before Joshua was killed, He'd had maybe seventy men and women who had followed Him around everywhere. They were called disciples. From those, He picked twelve men (of course). One of them was a traitor who committed suicide in remorse after Joshua was taken to be killed, so he was out of the equation. Nonetheless, after He came back to life, Joshua gave amazing, miracle-working superpowers to the remaining eleven.

You know what's even more impressive, though? Remember how He'd said that all the previous writings had been inspired by God? Well, in addition to those superpowers, He told the eleven they had all Authority to tell people His Four New Rules, which also obviously meant that anything they wrote down was now also to be understood as having proceeded directly from God's mind and through their fingers. Cool, eh? Then He rose up into the sky where the shiny city is, leaving the eleven to tell everyone exactly what the things He had said and done meant.

A while later, a hyper-educated, super-religious guy named Saul of Tarsus came along. Saul had previously thought Joshua was a raging heretic, and had been spending all his energy rounding up Joshua's followers and their converts and killing them. But Saul saw Joshua in a vision, which ended up converting him into the most effective preacher of Joshua's story the world has ever seen. He got a new name (Paul), and wrote a lot of letters that codified the meaning of Jesus' teachings into a very complex list of instructions which would likewise have to be followed - not to earn entry into the shiny city, of course - but to prove that you had really, really meant it when you'd rationally accepted and verbally repeated the Four New Rules (because if you had meant it, you'd be doing those things anyways, without being asked).

Because Paul had seen a vision of Jesus, the previous eleven flung some dice-things and determined that he would replace the twelfth man (the traitor) and that Paul's words, too, were to be seen as proceeding directly from the mind of God. Even though they didn't always get along with Paul or agree with the things he said (they didn't), Paul was such a perfect conduit of God's mind that eventually he came to eclipse the others... even the four (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) who actually wrote down Joshua's actual words and actions for the first time.

By three hundred years later, many of the most important followers of Joshua were in general agreement(ish) about which of the writings by then attributed to the eleven-plus-one's disciple's were actually written by them, and ought to be included in the canon.

Fast forward a millennium and a half later, and Joshua's followers had grown into an organization that spanned the globe, and was intimately involved with the governments of some of the most powerful nations in the world. They had formed something called a "Church," and because they knew that someone had to show less educated people which were the real books of the Bible, the most important and best-educated among them got together, looked things over, and made an Official List, that they called a canon. Everybody else had to accept this canon, because they said so.

The leaders in this Church did not, of course, have very good understandings of what the Bible's writings meant. That was something that would require the efforts of a vast network of American Bible Colleges and Protestant Evangelical Christian radio stations and publishing companies, which wouldn't really come to full force until around five hundred years later, riding the crest of the most gargantuan accumulation of wealth and power the world has ever seen (God Bless America).

Much has happened in the two thousand-plus years that have passed since those 66 books were originally written. The language that a lot of them were originally written in died out for a while, and then came back to life! From the two languages they were written in (Hebrew and Greek), they have been translated thousands of times into all sorts of other languages. But don't worry: every single translation that has happened has always been a completely and utterly accurate representation of the original meaning and intent, and you can still trust that every single word in your version of the North American Protestant Evangelical Bible is exactly the same as when God first wrote them down through people... even if the translator happened to be a guy who liked to wear his underwear on his head.


  1. The Rise and Fall of the Bible by David Dark... a great read along these same lines....

  2. I've been dialling in on the same sentiment, but my impassioned, disorderly attempts to verbalize any of it seem to result in pity or concern for my (eternal) well-being.

  3. Approved by whom, and for what political and cultural purposes?

    One wonders which century you are living in when you write stuff like this?
    Perhaps the 19th - it is as though all of the necessary 20th Century critical scholarship re the origins of the Bible never happened.

    And why in a time and place when the entire Great Tradition of humankind is freely available to anyone with and internet connection, does everything have to turn out to be Christian? Especially of the naive version that you subscribe too.

    For instance please check out this radical Understanding of the significance of Adam & Eve

    On the origins and political purposes of the Bible

    Critical essays on mommy-daddy religiosity

    On the Great Tradition (on the transcending of religious provincialism)

  4. Thanks, Kelly. I'll try to remember to check that one out.

    Jay (BrainDamageDiaries), I'm glad I could be of service. On facebook my friend Jens suggested that I would most likely be offering my alternative, but I responded that good art starts with a question and ends with a bigger question. So perhaps you'd have better results in articulating an alternate version. For a variety of reasons, I'm not thinking I'll be offering my own, but I'd love to hear your take.

    Anonymous... WOW! By your response, I think it's fair to assume you missed a few words in that piece. Here are a couple more: "irony," and "satire." Please re-read with those in mind.

  5. Nice one, Josh - but you messed one thing up - it was Matthias who was chosen Apostle by casting lots, not Paul. Paul got to be one through his own aggressive PR

  6. Thanks, Oriscus. It just shows to go you, you can't trust Sunday School to teach you a dad-blamed thing about the Bible.


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