In my house we have something called The Children’s Bible which we got for the children when they were young. I flipped through it when preparing the earlier series of posts on the historicity of the Bible and compared it with a real Bible and noticed some interesting features.
As might be expected from a book aimed at children, it skips over the gruesome details of murder, genocide, sex, incest, and so on. It also understandably omits things that are not graphic but are still truly disturbing, such as the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his own child Isaac at god’s command. One can see how the thought that your own parent might decide to kill you on god’s command might give a child nightmares. Hardly a suitable bedtime story.
The Children’s Bible is essentially a CliffsNotes of the Bible, giving just the main outlines of the Biblical stories. What I found interesting is that what it talks about corresponds pretty much to what most adults vaguely know about the Bible. In other words, adults never seem to have outgrown the understanding of the Bible they acquire as children.
This limitation of knowledge of the Bible has advantages and it becomes clearer why the religious establishments do not seem to make great efforts to have their members read the Bible closely and analyze it in the light of scientific and historical evidence. The main benefit of letting people be content with a superficial and big-picture sweep through the Biblical narrative and history is that by omitting all the telling details, it enables the faithful to believe practically anything, by allowing them to fill in details as they see fit. This makes Christianity an enormously flexible religious doctrine, capable of adapting itself to almost any person’s preferences.
If, as is the case with many people, your idea of god is of a loving, forgiving, laid-back, deity who is merciful, you can fill in the details to meet the need. If your taste runs to a stern but just god, that too can be accommodated. If you prefer a ruthless and vindictive god, who wreaks vengeance on anyone who dislikes the things that you dislike, that can be believed too. If your idea of god is someone who wants his believers to be rich and successful, then presto, the CliffsNotes Bible allows for that too.
As a result of this looseness, the mainstream religions can operate as a big tent, enabling people who have widely divergent and even contradictory ideas about the nature of god to consider themselves to be part of the same religion. See this Russell’s Teapot cartoon (you need to scroll down) as an example of what I mean.
It is helpful to think of this superficial version of the Bible as the initial sketches of a novel that just outlines some of the key characters and their relationships. If all you have are the bare outlines of a story, you can fill in details about character and motivation to suit your tastes. But the more details of the story that are known, the harder it becomes to impose your own preferences on it.
And that is precisely the problem that arises if people really look at the Bible closely. It becomes increasingly hard to continue to believe in the loving, forgiving god or even a just god. What emerges is a fairly unambiguous portrait of a god who is stern, strict, vengeful, murderous, genocidal, and, oddly enough, obsessed with the most petty details.
The interest that god has with petty details is interesting because of its dramatic contrast with the early image of god portrayed as the grand creator of the universe in six days. So after starting out as a big picture kind of guy, we quickly arrive at a god who condemns people to death for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), sets rules by which a man can sell his daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), who forbids people from wearing clothes made of a mixture of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19), and who, amusingly, warns people not to climb steps since people might sneak a peak up your clothes (Exodus 20:26).
Most modern people simply ignore these passages but it is a hard to understand the basis for doing so. Why should these things be taken less seriously than, say, the ten commandments? These seemingly trivial prohibitions cannot be dismissed as metaphors, the way you can dismiss the creation story, or the story of Adam and Eve or their ‘fall’ and banishment from Eden, or the resurrection. So why are they there?
These baffling things become easy to understand if we accept that the Bible was the creation of a clique of priests who were the products of their times and were trying to make their own pet obsessions into the rules by which everyone was governed. They were the Christianists of their time.
If a committee of Christianists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were given the task of assembling some texts that they believed reflected god’s will, they would probably have come up with a book that was similar in spirit to what is in the Bible, long on harsh rules, and short on kindness and forgiveness.
POST SCRIPT: Celebrity coverage
I have always been a little bemused at the fascination people have with the lives (even to the minutest details) and deaths of celebrities. The Daily Show looks at the way the death of Anna Nicole Smith was covered.
“What I found interesting is that what it talks about corresponds pretty much to what most adults vaguely know about the Bible. In other words, adults never seem to have outgrown the understanding of the Bible they acquire as children.”
That’s a pretty big jump.
Also, it doesn’t follow what you said earlier. Most adults know about the story of Abraham. If they only know what is in the Children’s Bible where did this knowledge come from?
Greg L. says
No, I think Mano’s got a bit of a point here, but it might be better articulated thus: “adults know the kind of stuff that’s in the Children’s Bible, plus the juicy stuff.” That is, all the sex and violence so prevalent in the Old Testament is attention-getting, so people remember it much better than they remember the stuff in, oh, Zephaniah. People rarely sit down and actually just read the Bible in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of the nature of God, the underpinnings of Christianity, etc. Instead they know mainly individual stories of the sort you can find in the Children’s Bible.
What if you regard the bible as a book written by people…a book which reflects those people’s understanding of God at any particular time (in addition to the political and other ends you’ve described)? Also, if you’re Christian, the New Testament is primary, and its depiction of God is much more consistently loving and merciful. Many Christians with more punitive views are always (selectively) quoting the Hebrew bible and seem (to me) to ignore Jesus’ teachings. You don’t often hear Pat Robertson, for example, quoting the Sermon on the Mount.
Mano Singham says
That is true but it seems to confirm my point, that you have to kind of tiptoe through the Bible to find the image of god you want. And then how do you counter those who select a different path through the Bible to get a different image? Which image is the valid one?
Even the New Testament has problems, especially with some of Paul’s letters. The Gospels are definitely better but not without issues. I have always been a little baffled as to to why Jesus cursed and destroyed a fig tree just because it had no figs at a time when he was hungry. (Matthew 21:18-19)
If you are going down that road, then you need to create a new canon, something like what Thomas Jefferson did with his The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, where he stripped the Gospels of the things he thought were unnecessary.
But if you regard the bible as literature…you don’t have to decide which image is the valid one, except the one that speaks to you. I.e., of course different readers will disagree, just as they disagree about Moby Dick. But Moby Dick is still a very great book — containing great truths — that speaks to different people differently.
Mano Singham says
I too view the Bible as literature so I think we agree on that. That puts it in the same category as Moby Dick or Tolstoy.
But what I take from that is that the Bible just provides insight into the human condition and nothing more. For anyone to claim, for example, that something is sanctioned or prohibited or that some belief is true just because the Bible says so makes as much sense as to look to Shakespeare for justification for the same things.
Re: “Most modern people simply ignore these passages but it is a hard to understand the basis for doing so. Why should these things be taken less seriously than, say, the ten commandments? These seemingly trivial prohibitions cannot be dismissed as metaphors, the way you can dismiss the creation story, or the story of Adam and Eve or their ‘fall’ and banishment from Eden, or the resurrection. So why are they there?”
I think that if people are intelligent enough and moral enough to determine which parts of the bible are acceptable or reasonable or worthy of being adhered to, then those people have no need of biblical lessons or a guide god. This would render the bible as superfluous and god unnecessary.
Okay, hope I’m not being a pest…but..this story came to mind as I’ve thought about this issue. Robert Coles used to take his students to visit Dorothy Day in her retirement. Once, a student asked her what she wanted to be remembered for. So, what answers would we expect? Catholic Worker houses? Peace activism?Going to jail for her beliefs? Her own books?
No, Dorothy Day answered something like this: “I hope people say, ‘She sure did love those books.'” She cited her favorites --Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy — and pointed out that their ideas and beliefs derived from Scripture. She wanted to be remembered as someone who read, absorbed, and tried to follow the wisdom of great books.
So, even though I wouldn’t say “that something is sanctioned or prohibited or that some belief is true just because the Bible says so,” I would find guidance and wisdom in the Bible and other books --in combination with my reason, intuition, and life experience. Just as I find in the life and works of Dorothy Day.
The story, by the way, is in a fine book called The Life You Save Might Be Your Own by Paul Elie.
Mano Singham says
Actually, I think we are in agreement on almost everything, which proves to me that when people agree on certain basic principles, then their starting points seem to hardy matter.
And I definitely do not think that you are a pest!