Cherry-Picking the Bible

What I Heard on the #704 Bus

Today, I went by bus to the Original Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax. On the return trip, I took he MTA #704 from Fairfax and Santa Monica back to my apartment in West L.A. I was treated to an interesting conversation between two Christian women sitting in front of me. They had each read certain fashionable sections of the Bible—but not the entire Bible—and were talking at cross-purposes during the entire 40-minute ride. They used a lot of five dollar words like “tribulation” and freely speculated what was in the Mind of the Creator. They had slightly conflicting views of hell, and went into great detail on how worms devoured buried corpses.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, I never regarded the Bible as the only authoritative source of God’s word. To do that would be to admit that God perhaps existed two thousand years ago, but has not had anything to say to man during the intervening two millenia. (Catholics believe that God also has spoken  through the Saints.)

The two women were passing a Bible back and forth so that they could score points off each other. I noticed that theirs was a Protestant Bible, minus the books and selected chapters that Martin Luther had pulled—although they were set in concrete by the 5th century A.D.— well before the Christian/Orthodox and Catholic/Protestant splits. These books included:

  • 1 and 2 Esdras
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Wisdom (one of my favorite books)
  • Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach)
  • 1 and 2 Maccabees

Was Martin Luther inspired by God to cut these books? Or did they go against his own religious beliefs?

That’s a big problem with the Bible. Which version does one thump? I prefer the Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, because it doesn’t reflect any one person’s views. Also, if I were a part of that argument between the two women, I would have made the following points:

  • The Bible is not the only authoritative Word of God: There is also The Cloud of Unknowing, The Imitation of Christ, and many great works by the Saints
  • There are many great passages in the Bible (especially Psalms and Ecclesiastes), but there’s also a lot of dreck that virtually no one believes, such as are found in the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and a few other places
  • I believe in God (or The Gods), but I do not presume to look into the Mind of God

Of course, if I had opened my mouth, I am sure I would have been damned to Heck by both women, who were not about to listen to a vile heretic like me.


Dribbling the Bibble

No, Not the Bible Again!

Oh No, Not the Bible Again!

I cannot help but think that people in our society are altogether too quick to accept the Bible as the ultimate authority for, well, just about everything. At the same time, people are not really reading the scriptures with any degree of intelligence. If they were, they would feel someone let down that, in the Book of Job, Jehovah is hanging out with Satan and makes a bet with him that, regardless what He does to the prayerful man, Job will still be in His ball court. So He proceeds to impoverish Job, kill his wife and children, make off with his livestock, and saddle him with three “friends”—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zofar—who accuse the poor man of deserving whatever befalls him.

Then, too, there is the Books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers, where God is laying down a law to which no one outside a small number of ultra Orthodox Jews pay any attention. Here are just some of the high points from the Book of Leviticus alone:

  • If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13) Oh, well, there goes gay marriage. Are you listening, Justice Scalia?
  • Don’t have a variety of crops in the same field, irrespective of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture urges. (Leviticus 19:19)
  • Neither cut your hair nor shave—ever! (Leviticus 19:27)
  • People with flat noses, or who are blind or lame, cannot approach the altar of God. (Leviticus 21:17-18)

And there are also a few prohibitions regarding heterosexual fornication that are incredibly strict. Most violations seem to call for the death penalty.

So I ask you, why do people accept the Bible as the ultimate authority? Parts of it are several thousand years old. And the most recent part, the Book of Revelation, is so flat-out loony that it might as well be.

People who come to my door attempting to convert me to their oddball evangelical sect are totally flabbergasted when I tell them I do not accept the authority of the Bible. That means they can’t use it to quote at me to substantiate their every argument. It effectively shuts them up and makes them go down the stairs muttering.

Withal, I can still believe in God, but without accepting all this extraneous claptrap. Oh, and I have no intention of seeing the new movie version of Noah, from which the above still is taken.

Text: Still a Good Book


The Bible

Textual problems have led some modern scholars to question the credibility of the Gospels and even to doubt the historical existence of Christ. These studies have provoked an intriguing reaction from an unlikely source: Julien Gracq—an old and prestigious novelist, who was close to the Surrealist movement—made a comment which is all the more arresting for coming from an agnostic. In a recent volume of essays, Gracq first acknowledged the impressive learning of one of these scholars (whose lectures he had attended in his youth), as well as the devastating logic of his reasoning; but he confessed that, in the end, he still found himself left with one fundamental objection: for all his formidable erudition, the scholar in question had simply no ear—he could not hear what should be so obvious to any sensitive reader—that, underlying the text of the Gospels, there is a masterly and powerful unity of style, which derives from one unique and inimitable voice; there is the presence of one singular and exceptional personality whose expression is so original, so bold that one could positively call it impudent. Now, if you deny the existence of Jesus, you must transfer all these attributes to some obscure, anonymous writer, who should have had the improbable genius of inventing such a character—or, even more implausibly, you must transfer this prodigious capacity for invention to an entire committee of writers. And Gracq concluded: in the end, if modern scholars, progressive-minded clerics and the docile public all surrender to this critical erosion of the Scriptures, the last group of defenders who will obstinately maintain that there is a living Jesus at the central core of the Gospels will be made of artists and creative writers, for whom the psychological evidence of style carries much more weight than mere philological arguments.—Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays

Job, God, and the Devil

Something About This Old Testament Book ...

Something About This Old Testament Book …

When I first read the Book of Job from the Old Testament, I didn’t think much of it. I still don’t. There was God getting together with Satan to play poker or dominoes or whatever, and making a bet that affected the happiness of one of his most devoted followers. Then, too, there were those “friends” of Job who were zero consolation to the poor man.

I don’t like the idea of a God who is, instead of being the God of Love, some sort of Parimutuel Deity. He “makes it up to” Job in the end, but not before killing off his wife and children and sending him into what for anyone else would have been the pit of despair. We can speculate that the original Mrs. Job was a hag and a shrew; and the first set of children, all strung out on meth; and the replacement wife, a blonde hottie. But we have no grounds for thinking that.

When I was a student at Dartmouth College some time before the Pleistocene Era, I saw a play by Archibald Macleish that brought together the Book of Job with Death of a Salesman. It was called J.B. I would love to have seen the stage version directed by Elia Kazan and starring Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer, and Pat Hingle (as the Job character). In 1959 it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

I know that Job was held up to be the model worshiper, a man who trusted in God through the most incredible adversities. But the God he worshiped was way too snarky for me.

Incidentally, the above illustration is from William Blake’s illustrations of the Book of Job.


Time and Chance …

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.—Ecclesiastes 9:11, King James Version

Jesus Is Not Your Good Buddy

Whenever I think about it, I get disturbed by my country, which I love, being destroyed by people who really think that Jesus cares for their sorry asses. Generally, these are “Left Behind” people—not in the sense of the Left Behind novels of evangelical wordhacks Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, but people who are isolated by the winds of demographic and economic change and need something to hug.

If your children have moved out because they can’t stand your old-fashioned ways, and if the job you’ve held since the end of WW2 has moved to Asia or Mexico, you’ll want to pray to someone who really cares for you. That is the story in large swaths of the rural South and Midwest. It just happens to be breaking our country apart because these Glorioso Jesusites all vote: They have nothing else to do.

No, I am not an atheist. (In fact, I don’t think very much of people who profess to be atheists.) I just don’t think that we know anything about God. When He has spoken in various sacred works, they pretty much contradict each other or urge followers to do things which now look pretty loony. To be used at all, one has to cherry pick what look like universal truths and omit all the crazy stuff, like for instance various parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. (Check out Deuteronomy 13:12-15 for a divine command that I’ll bet you haven’t followed lately.) That carries over into Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. So while many Americans rant against Sharia law, they are blissfully unaware that Christianity has its own equivalent in the Mosaic books of the Old Testament.

You can probably guess (and guess rightly) that I’m not a churchgoer. Although I have a certain nostalgia for the Roman Catholic Church, and a leaning toward some of the more enlightened teachings of the Asian religions, there isn’t any “comprehensive package” that I endorse from soup to nuts. My belief is that God wants us to keep asking questions, not necessarily expecting any answers from on high. We need to recognize that we know nothing. Perhaps, if God is watching us at all, He wants to see how we behave in a moral vacuum.

People who pretend to have all the answers are just trying to control you. If Jesus is the answer, you are probably not asking the right questions.