Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Morally Repugnant Bible

As any one of intellectual integrity would tell you, it is better to be accused of being wrong than vague.

A wrong philosophy will collapse and its place will emerge a stronger one. A vague philosophy will collapse and redefine itself, collapse and redefine itself... for as long as those who have adopted it are willing to suffer for it. Over the last fifty years biblical scholars have slowly reached the conclusion that the Bible, as a philosophy, is vague. This satisfies the secularists and leaves ample room for the religious.

But according to Bart D. Ehrman, the Bible is not merely vague, it is wrong.

"Wrong" not in the sense of its failure to reconcile what we know about the world with what we don't, but wrong in the ethical sense. Ehrman finds the Bible morally repugnant.

In his book God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer (due out February 2008) Ehrman reveals that after years of devotion to the Bible as both a scholar and a minister, the Bible's varied attempts to reconcile a benevolent, omnipotent God with our random suffering is inadequate and repulsive. Stanley Fish summarized Ehrman's summary of the Bible's various explanations eloquently:
God is angry at a sinful, disobedient people; suffering is redemptive, as Christ demonstrated on the cross; evil and suffering exist so that God can make good out of them; suffering induces humility and is an antidote to pride; suffering is a test of faith – but he finds them unpersuasive and as horrible in their way as the events they fail to explain: “If God tortures, maims and murders people just to see how they will react – to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame – then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.”
I have not read Ehrman's new book but if the description of it is accurate then it presents a challenge to the many theologians and biblical scholars who either try to fix the problem or do not see it at all. In the former category are scholars like Marilyn McCord Adams who attempts to resolve "the problem of evil" with her many books including Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology. In the later category are scholars like Robert Alter, the famous literary critic, who wrote in The Art of Biblical Narrative, "the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man and the perilously momentous realm of history." The paradoxical truth might actually be that when we look at the stories we rely on to make sense of a chaotic world we find only more chaos.

Ehrman's book will likely get brief nods from those who have already concluded the Bible does not answer the problem of evil and receive a "you missed a spot" reaction from those clinging to the Bible's vagueness. But in a perfect world what would come out of Ehrman's book is a lasting acknowledgment that not only does the Bible fail to justify suffering, but our attempts to do so (even by merely describing suffering as "biblical") reveal a startling ignorance of the world around us.

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