Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Bending the Bible towards justice

After one year in publication, theologians are at odds (or disturbed, depending on whose report you read) over The Bible in a More Just Language, more commonly dubbed the "PC Bible."

This version, compiled in German by 50 theologians, is the product of an effort to do "justice to women, Jews, and those who are disregarded," says Pastor Hanne Koehler, who led the team of translators. The result is a Bible that uses inclusive language: instead of "Son" there is "Child," instead of "Our Father" there is "Our Father and Mother," and instead of just male rabbis, there are female rabbis as well (interestingly, Satan is still only male).

Despite the obvious problems with historicity (there were no female rabbis until the 1970s, for instance) and theology (a Mother and a Father God?), I question the efficacy and motives of these efforts.

The Bibel in gerechter Sprache, as it is known in German, is not unique. There are "hip hop" versions (Psalm 23: "The Lord is all that"), the People's Bible (where Jesus multiplies hamburgers instead of loaves and fishes), and the Street Bible ("[Jesus'] supernatural sessions and radical views have made him No. 1 celeb from Judaea in the south to Syria in the north") and the same issues of historicity and theology could be raised. This is Bible bending at its most extreme: actually getting in there and modifying the offensive or arcane bits.

Earlier I wondered if Bible bending may be a step in the right direction; maybe changing the language to be more accepting of women, homosexuals, and other cultures was just a means to a better ends. But when looking at these Bibles, it strikes me as incredibly condescending. Are people so mindlessly dependent on the written words of the Bible that if someone does not spell it out for them differently that they will indulge in bigotry and sexism? Yes, yes, I am pro- challenging every one to think differently but through critical thinking not publishing another version of the Bible. I am not ready to accept that the bending the Bible is the only way to bring about a more just world.

UPDATE: According to a New York Times article published today, Muslims in the US struggle to do the same thing with the Quran as Christians do with the Bible--find space to reinterpret scripture in a more just way.

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.

Can the Bible help "Love Win Out" when it comes to the anti-gay movement?

Can Bible-bending be a force for good? Should we use the Bible to change the way the Bible is used--finding other passages in the Bible to cool down the heated ones?

Take homosexuality, for instance. According to a Barna survey, "While six in 10 young Americans said the homosexual lifestyle is a problem facing America, just 1 percent said they pray for those who identify as homosexual." Citizen Link and I disagree which portion of the survey is the most disturbing but it is a good sign to see Christians being more introspected on this issue.

"It's appropriate to be anti-homosexuality," David Kinnaman, President of Barna group and co-author of unChristian, told Family News in Focus. "It's not appropriate, for us as Christian believers, to be anti-homosexual, to be anti-sinner, to be against these people. And that really is the perception, that Christians have lost the ability to love and to deal with and to have meaningful friendships with these individuals." So Family News in Focus has encouraged anti-homosexuality Christians to listen.

This positive note came after the Love Won Out conference held in Indianapolis this weekend. "We are proponents of loving men and women who are gay-identified," said Melissa Fryrear, director of the gender issues department at Focus on the Family and former lesbian, "with the hope that we can witness Jesus Christ, and that those persons will come to know Christ personally, and then be open one day, ideally, to God radically transforming their lives and helping them to overcome homosexuality.

"Our message is twofold: It is standing for biblical truth, and also complementing that truth with much love, with much grace and compassion."

Sad? Yes. According to a recent study, Exodus can describe 38 percent of its programs' participants as successes: changing to either a "meaningful but complicated" heterosexuality (15 percent) or a stable chastity (23 percent). (Results that Christianity Today says are the fruits of a 30-year-old program!)
Self-righteous? Definitely.
Better than the approach of that these sorry-excuses for human beings are taking? Absolutely.

While "forgiveness" is on the surface a positive application of the Bible (and feels like being attacked by a pack of puppies when set to music and images), the question "what is there to forgive?" becomes more divisive than Hilary Clinton. This past year the film Because the Bible Tells Me So has tackled the issue of negotiating a bellicose memorandum on homosexuality and the message of love and acceptance. While fighting Bible with Bible is only destined to repeat itself ad infinitum, I cannot fault efforts like those of Kinnaman to nudge what it means to be Christian in a more open minded direction. Perhaps it will also encourage the secularist among us to re-think the sense of superiority.

New biblically-based TV pilot in the works

NBC has given Michael Green (creator of "Heroes") the nod to create a pilot for a new television drama called "Kings;" a modern take on the biblical story of King David. Green told the Hollywood Reporter that it has been a long-time dream "To retell these sort of sex- and war-crazed Bible stories for a world that's convinced the Bible is all about virtue." To which the Bible bending watchdog can say, "Amen."

More "biblical" floods

...I thought he said he wasn't going to do that anymore.

The Sunday Times Online (UK) chose to lede an article about the floods in Mexico with: "'Biblical' flood leaves Mexico battling to cope."

Sure it gives the horror of the Tabasco state an extra kick, but how helpful is it to relate a natural disaster to the Bible? If the writers were going for rhetorical flair, there is no short supply of flood stories; the Bible is a calculated choice and not an innocuous one.

The flood in Tabasco is not the only flood to be proclaimed "biblical" (e.g. Katrina, the 2004 Tsunami, and the Midwest floods of 1996) nor is it the only disaster to align itself with biblical themes (famines in Sudan or the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth in the UK). It lends a reassuring "tale-as-old-as-time" feel to an otherwise horrifying story, it relieves the rest of us mere mortals of blame and it leaves room for redemption; after all, the flood story ended happily for at least one family who went on to populate the earth.

But how cruel is it to compare a modern day disaster with a story about God wiping out all the wicked from the face of the earth? Chalking it all up to divine providence is one way we can fall asleep without feeling obliged to buy the first available plane ticket to Mexico and head out with a box full of canned goods, some rope, and waist-high Wellies. But at a time when fundamentalists are plotting our course along the road to Rapture, do journalists really need be handing anyone push pins?