Monday, October 13, 2008

The Bible

Part One: Historical Disclaimer

Just as the question "Do you believe in God?" leads to the question "Which God?," the question "Do you believe in the Bible?" leads to the question "Which Bible?" There is no such thing as The Bible.

There's the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Prophets (Joshua, Judges, etc.), and the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the other more poetic stuff) which gets lumped into the somewhat offensively-named "Old Testament" (which I admit to offensively calling it). Then there's the "New Testament" which contains the Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation. The Catholic Church recognizes nine books that the Protestants don't. There are a dozen or so recognized by other Christian churches. These are the "canonical" works, but only depending on who you ask (which calls the word canon into question in this context).

Then of course are the books you don't get to read in Sunday School. There's a great collection called The Other Bible (edited by Willis Barnstone) that contains Gnostic Gospels, Dead Sea Scrolls, and more: other versions of the creation of the world, the further adventures of Adam and Eve, additional psalms (including a few by Solomon), a "secret" gospel of Mark, the acts of Pilate, and tons more goodies.

There's another great book called Lost Scriptures (edited by Bart D. Ehrman) that focuses on additional New Testament era works, including the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Mary (a woman!), the acts of Paul, additional epistles, and more than one apocalypse. Lately, they've even discovered the gospel of Judas.

So there's quite a bit to work with and no one collection of all of these together. Even the word bible translates to something like "little books," so it's these individual little books from different writers over different periods of time we should be talking about, not some arbitrary collection of these books put together by people who want to trick us into thinking it's a unified vision.

Some will argue otherwise: that the Gnostics and the rest are non-canonical for a reason, a reason stemming from God himself, that they weren't inspired, that they are "fakes." Only the "real" Bible is the Word of God. Anyone can write scripture, but what gives it power? Good question! And it's a question that actually has an answer, and the answer has little to do with God and more to do with human power struggles, but that's beyond the scope of what I'm wanting to talk about here (and I've already gone too far).

I can tell you one thing, however, that gives the current version(s) of the Bible power: laziness. The one we grew up with in Sunday School is the "real" one and everything else can go lay an egg. Lots of us haven't actually gotten around to reading the real one yet, so we certainly can't be bothered with these imposters. (Forget the fact that our real Bible actually refers to these "other" books from time to time.)

Don't get me started on translations. Perhaps you've met someone who truly believes that Jesus spoke in Victorian English.

Part Two: I'm a Fan

Okay, fine. You can learn those things from Wikipedia. What are my actual thoughts on the Bible, in whatever form I know it?

I love it.

I love it so much that I'm making a comic strip out of it. (I'll try to post some of those here from time to time for a bonus.) I grew up with it, I've got lots of it permanently embedded into my brain, and I can talk about it even longer than I can talk about The Brothers Karamazov. It's a magical, twisted, offensive, beautiful, profound, gory, confusing work. I have read the whole thing (my narrow, Protestant version of it anyway, plus several books of the "other" Bible), though I am more familiar with some books than with others.

Genesis is probably my favorite because I love origin stories. (I hope to teach a class on nothing but creation and genesis stories one of these days, collected from different cultures.) I also like the Exodus (mostly because of the plagues). The laws I either love or hate, depending on what mood I'm in. Job is weird and good. The Psalms and Proverbs are good. The Song of Solomon is sexy, and I'm surprised (and happy) that someone hasn't thrown it out yet. Isaiah is awesome, but I need to read it again more carefully. (Maybe I will once I get ready for my William Blake post. Same goes for the Revelation.)

The Gospels are surprising when you finally read the Jesus story for yourself. You don't hear a lot about how smart (and crabby) Jesus was, but you get it here. Luke's is probably my favorite version. I like the epistles (especially Paul's); these are where to begin if you want to see (a) a crystallization of the Christian doctrine and (b) the beginning of the end of what Jesus was actually saying. (Perhaps more on this in a later post.)

Part Three: What the Bible Is and Isn't, Says Me

I still haven't said anything about what I personally think about the books. Here are a few things.

I think the Bible is not a rulebook. If you're looking for rules to live your life by, you're reading the wrong book. Whenever I hear someone say something like "The Bible says that homosexuality is wrong," I have the same answer each time: "The Bible says a lot of things."

Leviticus (where you can find the "God hates fags" law--20:13) also says that you can't wear 60% cotton (19:19), you can't trim your sideburns or beard (19:27), you can't eat shrimp (11:10), that handicapped people can't fully worship God (21:17-23), you can't have sex during your period (20:18), and that anything you touch during your period (such as your chair) is unclean (15:19-30).

Deuteronomy is another book that says a lot of things: If your wife accidentally touches another man's penis (if she's trying to help you while you're fighting), you have to cut her hand off (25:11-12). If your kid just won't behave (like if he eats too much or gets drunk), you should get the townsfolk to kill him (21:18-21). If your testicles are wounded or your penis is cut off, you can't be among God's people (23:1). If a man rapes a virgin and is caught, he will have to pay the father 50 bucks and marry her (22:28-29). If your buddy believes in another God, kill him (13:6-10). And, finally, that when you need to take a dump, you should dig a hole, do your business, and then cover it back up with a paddle (23:13-14). (This is how the book got the name Doo-Doo-Ronomy.)

So if you take dumps in toilets, eat shrimp, or go to church with no penises while ranting about how dudes shouldn't kiss, you're either ignorant of these other laws or you're just hate-filled. If it's the latter, admit that you are. I'd rather you say "I have a problem with homosexuals" than "God hates homosexuals." As long as you don't act on your private hate, everyone should be okay.

By the way, if you aren't in the wilderness with Moses, none of these laws (including the one about homosexuals) applies to you anyway. Leviticus, etc. is a document about a time long gone, nothing to do with us as far as rules are concerned.

My real question to those who want to use the Bible as a rulebook is this: Do you really need these rules? You can't figure some of these things out yourself? Do you need God to tell you not to sleep with an animal or to not commit incest? I believe that you should treat others like you want to be treated, not because Jesus said so, but because it's common sense (though sometimes difficult to put into practice).

So do I believe that you can actually learn something from the Bible, or do I simply admire it as a piece of literature or as an interesting artifact of an ancient culture? Well, learn is a strong word, but I certainly get something out of it. Also, I think admiring it as a piece of literature is enough, since I get plenty from literature. One does not degrade the Bible by calling it "literature."

In fact, when we don't treat it as literature is when we get into trouble. For example, the fundamentalist idea of taking the Bible "literally." Anyone who reads the Bible should know better. Jesus himself taught using parables. If the disciples had taken these parables "literally," they would have missed his points.

One of the beautiful things about certain books of the Bible is its imagery. Listen to this passage from the Revelation: "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born."

And this from Isaiah: "Their roaring shall be like a lion, they shall roar like young lions: yea, they shall roar, and lay hold of the prey, and shall carry it away safe, and none shall deliver it. And in that day they shall roar against them like the roaring of the sea: and if one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof."

I'm not sure how you would even begin to take that literally, but you can certainly get a lot out of it if you read it as literature. One thing a lot of us don't know how to do is read. Reading the Bible and ignoring its literary elements (taking it only "literally," whatever that means here) is like reading satire or irony and taking it at face value. America, especially, has little room for poetry, and it often thinks of myth as something "untrue" rather than a deeper form of truth that can't be explained with abstractions or the literal. As Werner Herzog says, we don't have enough "adequate images."

Lots of us have lost the ability to read myth and to feel its power. Myth is one of the languages of God. There is a powerful story told in the story of creation and Adam and Eve, but the power isn't in trying to figure out how old the earth is, if we evolved from apes or not, or if the apple really "stood for" sexual intercourse. Myth (and the Bible) isn't a puzzle to be solved. It's a spiritual book. So is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. So is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. So is James Barrie's Peter Pan. And the Bible isn't often as difficult as most of those.


On one hand, I assume that most people reading this would agree with me and wonder why I'm protesting so much. On the other hand, I know so many people (good people) who are using the Bible to hunt down scriptures that match their (sometimes hate-filled) worldview while missing its true beauties and pleasures, who would certainly assume that I'm not a godly person at all based on some of the things I've written. (See previous post.)

I feel like I've only just begun talking about the Bible as a subject, but I'll have to save anything else I have to say for a later post. (I hope they will be shorter in the future.) In the meantime, check the text box to the right and request any of the subjects you'd like me to talk about next (or ask a new question). Also, enjoy the very first "Bible Story" comic below. (Click on the image to see more.)

1 comment:

Ted and Lori said...

Keep posting about Bible stories. I was just sitting here telling Ted that for a guy who grew up in the South going to church, you see the Bible with extremely fresh eyes. I read more blogs than I do the Bible these days, and what you're writing here makes me want to read the Bible more. Does that make you an Evangelist?