Sunday, January 4, 2009

Five Tips For Bible Bashers

No matter which side of an issue I'm on, I don't like to see bad arguments getting used. On a daily basis I see and hear people attacking Christianity, often using very weak arguments.

Today's article is for those people. If you're a Bible basher, following this advice will help you make a better case against it. More to the point, ignoring this advice will make you look foolish to educated Christians (even though they may be too nice to say so). These tips are things that opponents of Christianity don't quite seem to understand.

I'll list the points first, then go into some detail on each one. I'll try to be relatively brief, but any returning readers will know that's not my strong suit. Each one of these points could probably have been a lengthy article of its own. I won't be linking to sources on everything, including many of the Biblical citations, but I'll provide them upon request - just ask in the comments. Each of these tips and examples is based on something I've actually heard or read used in argument, usually by an opponent of Biblical Christianity.

5 Tips For Bible Bashers

1. The Bible is divided into two major sections, called Testaments. There are important differences between them.

2. Nobody takes the entire Bible literally.

3. The Bible often doesn't say what you think it does.

4. Jesus Christ's main message for us was not "be nice."

5. The Bible explicitly says that you don't get it.

Now let's look at these in more detail.

1. The Bible is divided into two major sections, called Testaments. There are important differences between them.

In attempts to show contradictions in Scripture, or nowadays often in attempts to draw parallels between Biblical Christianity and Islam, people often pull passages randomly from both the Old and New Testaments (sometimes abbreviated OT and NT herein, when it doesn't do too much damage to the "feel" of the sentence). If you do that, here's something you should understand.

Although God does not change, how He interacts with humanity has. In phase one, recorded in what we now call the Old Testament, God took more of a tough-love approach to mankind. We were under the Law, and you either followed it or paid a price. God was not averse to bringing down the thwackhammer as needed. This was a violent period in history, as the nation of Israel was sometimes ordered to eliminate idolatry by eliminating the idolaters.

Everything changed when God took on human form, taking the name Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, the easy way to tell the two Testaments apart is that the OT is pre-Jesus, while the NT tells about Him and what happened in the wake of His life, death, and resurrection.

The OT Law was greatly modified by the NT, to put it gently. The physical (and often immediate) death sentence for most idolatry was rescinded. We went from being under Law to being recipients of grace. The mandated method of dealing with nonbelievers changed from execution to persuasion. So, yes, if you dig through the Old Testament, you can find passages where behaviour that appalls modern sensibilities is commended or even ordered by God.

However, what needs to be understood is that with the new Convenant between God and Man ("covenant" and "testament" mean pretty much the same thing, by the way), many aspects of the Old Testament Law were explicitly overturned. If you read the New Testament, you'll find many phrases like "You have heard it said that... but I say to you." These are passages where the Old Testament Law is explicitly being updated, almost always to a kinder, gentler philosophy.

Other aspects of the OT Law remain intact. In fact, the general rule is that if an OT doctrine isn't explicitly overturned in the New, then it remains in force. This is why it's silly to say, "If you're opposed to homosexual behaviour because the Bible says it's wrong, then you should be opposed to eating shellfish too! They're both forbidden in Leviticus!" Food laws were explicitly overturned in the NT. However, homosexual behaviour is specifically cited in the NT as still being prohibited (among many other sins).

Trying to demonstrate that the Bible contradicts itself by comparing an OT passage with one from the NT is a lot like saying that Star Wars contradicts itself because in one part Luke is a farmboy and in another he's a Jedi. All you're demonstrating is that you weren't paying attention when things changed.

2. Nobody takes the entire Bible literally.

Before my fellow Evangelicals get too upset, let me clarify that by saying this I am not denying the literal historicity of the Creation account, the global Flood, the Tower of Babel, Methuselah's 969 birthday cakes, Jonah's ordeal, the Virgin Birth, or any other event, person or place attested to in Scripture as history. I believe all of it.

However, that doesn't mean that every word in the entire Bible is to be taken literally. The Bible contains a variety of literary forms, including poetry, symbolism, and metaphor. Revelation and large swaths of the major prophetic books consist of descriptions of "visions". I don't claim to understand exactly what that means, but I'm quite confident in saying that the events described in those visions did not necessarily actually happen in the real world. Parables are fictional constructs, a close cousin to what we now call fables.

This may not seem like a major point, but it goes to demonstrate the ignorance (which I use here strictly in its non-pejorative sense, meaning "not knowing") of the many who claim that conservative Christians, Fundamentalists, etc., "take the whole Bible literally". I've heard claims that The Bible teaches that the Earth is flat (it doesn't, but we'll come back to that) based on the use of the phrase "four corners of the Earth". Nonsense. That's a common figure of speech meaning "all over the world", and it's somewhere between disingenuous and contemptible to insinuate otherwise.

The same is true for all the poetic language found in Scripture. Claiming that the entire Bible is to be taken literally is to say that somebody's kid sister may in fact be a wall (or door), and that intangible attributes sometimes walk around town hollering. Even Christians know better than that.

Nobody takes the whole Bible literally, but there are lots of people who take it all seriously. In fact, taking it seriously precludes taking it all literally. The historical narrative is true, but the poetry is poetry, the visions are visions, the metaphors are metaphors, and the parables are parables.

I probably should stop here to point out the folly of speaking in absolutes - "nobody takes the entire Bible literally". This is, of course, dangerous. No matter what position or practice is being described, using words like "nobody" or "everybody" may be technically too strong. It's a big strange world, and there's somebody out there to espouse every belief and carry on every obscure practice. If I say, "Nobody shoves jellybeans up their nose then swings lemurs around by the tail while whistling the theme song from Hill Street Blues", I can probably be proven wrong with a Google search (or a trip to News of the Weird). Do me a favour: if you know for a fact that I'm wrong about that example, don't tell me how you know.

So, when I say "nobody", feel free to mentally insert an "almost". All I can ever really say is that I've never met, or heard of, anybody who does it.

3. The Bible often doesn't say what you think it does.
"The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn't so." - Ronald Reagan
The Bible does not say that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. It doesn't say that money is the root of all evil. It doesn't say that Adam and Eve bit into an apple. It doesn't say that Jesus was born in a stable, or that three wise men came to visit Him. It doesn't say that divorce is always forbidden. It doesn't say what ever happened to Joseph, or whether Jesus was single, married, or widowed. It doesn't say that Mary remained a virgin or physically ascended into Heaven. It doesn't say what Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was. It doesn't say that the Earth is flat. It doesn't call for persecution of the Jews. The "Footprints" poem and the Serenity Prayer aren't in there. It certainly doesn't say "cleanliness is next to Godliness".

These are matters that have somehow drifted into popular consciousness, when a little research would have shown that they're baseless.

Some other Biblical passages are present, but without context don't mean what critics (or people hoping to justify themselves) often assume. When Jesus said, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," He followed it by admonishing the reprieved sinner to "go and sin no more." "In my Father's house there are many rooms" cannot be an endorsement of religious pluralism, since it's closely followed by "I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me." "Taking the Lord's name in vain" doesn't only (or primarily) mean using God's name(s) as a swear word (although it encompasses that); it means claiming to speak on God's behalf or with God's authority when you don't know Him or His will. "Judge not" doesn't mean that we can't distinguish between good and evil; it means that we aren't in a position to decide who is going to Hell.

Still other passages seem straightforward on the surface, but deeper study into the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic in different books) reveal meanings that may not be expressed correctly in modern English translations. The commandment usually rendered "thou shalt not kill" would be better translated "thou shalt not commit murder for personal gain." One of the favourite passages of pro-abortionists is Exodus 21: 22-23, which says in the King James Version (KJV)(emphasis added):

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life...

Many modern critics think that this passage means that the Bible doesn't hold the death of a preborn baby as equivalent to that of an adult. They rely on an interpretation (sadly supported by some weaker Bible translations) whereby "so that her fruit depart" means a miscarriage, and "yet no mischief follow" means, "as long as no further harm is done to the mother." By this interpretation, only the mother's death would count as a murder. The problem is, this interpretation is entirely unsupported by the original Hebrew. The phrase that the KJV renders "so that her fruit depart" means "goes into premature labour", with no connotation of miscarriage, and "yet no mischief follows" means, "if no lasting harm befalls the mother or the baby."

This passage, once you know what it actually says, is probably the single strongest anti-abortion passage in the Bible. It means that the baby is considered equal in moral stature to the mother, and that the baby's death is to be avenged, "life for life".

I'm not saying that discussion of the Bible should be left to the experts. I'm saying that if you really want to argue about it, make an effort to educate yourself.

4. Jesus Christ's main message for us was not "be nice."

I can't explain this any better than Ann Coulter already has (please note that this is not an endorsement of every theological statement that she's ever made, or of the other swipes she takes in here while making her theological point):

According to liberals, the message of Jesus, which somehow (Mel) Gibson missed, is something along the lines of "be nice to people" (which to them means "raise taxes on the productive").

You don't need a religion like Christianity, which is a rather large and complex endeavor, in order to flag that message. All you need is a moron driving around in a Volvo with a bumper sticker that says "be nice to people." Being nice to people is, in fact, one of the incidental tenets of Christianity (as opposed to other religions whose tenets are more along the lines of "kill everyone who doesn't smell bad and doesn't answer to the name Mohammed"). But to call it the "message" of Jesus requires ... well, the brain of Maureen Dowd.

In fact, Jesus' distinctive message was: People are sinful and need to be redeemed, and this is your lucky day because I'm here to redeem you even though you don't deserve it, and I have to get the crap kicked out of me to do it. That is the reason He is called "Christ the Redeemer" rather than "Christ the Moron Driving Around in a Volvo With a 'Be Nice to People' Bumper Sticker on It."

5. The Bible explicitly says that you don't get it. To the extent that you understand it, you fight against it and resent those who proclaim it. By "you", I mean those who attack, deny, distort, or simply ignore Scripture. I'll let the Bible speak for itself on this one. All quotations are from the New International Version (NIV):
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. - Proverbs 1:7
For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. - II Cor. 2:15-16
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. - I Cor. 1:17-27
The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish." - Isaiah 29:13-14
The LORD has brought over you a deep sleep: He has sealed your eyes (the prophets), he has covered your heads (the seers). - Isaiah 29:10
(Jesus) said, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, "though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand." - Luke 8:10
(The LORD) said, "Go and tell this people: "Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." - Isaiah 6:9-10
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. - Romans 1:21
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. - Luke 10:21
"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'" - Luke 16:31
If a liar and deceiver comes and says, 'I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,' he would be just the prophet for this people! - Micah 2:11
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. - II Timothy 4:3
Jesus replied, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?" - Mark 12:24
(Paul) writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. - II Peter 3:16

If you've read all the way through this, hopefully you've realized that I'm not really interested in helping opponents of Biblical Christianity improve their attacks on Scripture. This article is being written for two audiences.

First, as I said at the outset, the "Bible bashers". If any of you have read this far, I hope you are starting to understand that many of those reasons you have for rejecting the Bible and opposing Christianity may not be as compelling as you thought. The fact that your opposition was foretold - that your arguments are as predictable as the output of a programmed computer - may shake your resolve, even if just a bit, and get you to start thinking.

I deliberately ratcheted my snark level down several notches from its usual height, in hopes of getting you to keep reading. Insulting and alienating you at the outset wouldn't have served any purpose, and it isn't what I want to do now.

I used to be on your side. I thought the Bible was full of contradictions and fairy tales, and thought myself quite clever, enlightened, and independent-minded for rejecting it.

Then I tried actually reading it.

Second, I wrote this for those on my current side of the fence: Christians who believe the Bible to be the Word of God and struggle to follow it. Some Bible-bashing arguments may ring true to you. Satan may sow seeds of doubt in you by putting clever words in someone's mouth (or keyboard) when you're in a vulnerable place. Don't let him shake you.

I promote what I call "spiritual self-defense". I'm a great believer in knowing the enemy's arguments and strategies, to defend against them. When I teach Sunday School classes, one of my main goals is to show how anti-Christian arguments can be answered. Not because I expect or even want every Christian to become confrontational, loudly countering every attack, but because I don't want those attacks to shake them. I want to help Christians put on the Armor of God. Hopefully this article gives some small amount of encouragement to somebody, somewhere.

I hold some hope that this will be the first article in a series. I had four more "tips" in my notes, but pared it down to the five I thought strongest, or at least the five that I most wanted to write up. If I can come up with some more, I may do a sequel. Suggestions, examples (including more for these five), and, yes, counterarguments, are welcome as always in the comments.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of our 2008 Christmas tree.

1 comment:

RebelAngel said...

Fabulous article, Z. My husband and I very much enjoyed it.

My own bible knowledge is not where it should be. (Which I plan to begin remedying.) That Micah quote got a snicker.

Keep it going. I would love to read more.