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Is the Bible Mein Kampf?
Robert M. Price
What would your reaction be? You would, number one, be astonished that twenty-first century men and women with any degree of education could take these myths, and their attendant worldview, literally. Second, you would recoil from their invitation to join them. And third, you might think it worthwhile, especially if this sect were gaining ground among the young and naive, to mount a counter-attack, showing the untenability of the whole thing. And as part of this Freethought crusade, you would probably delve into the historical and other inaccuracies in the Homeric epics. You would apply the canons of historical and literary criticism to show we are dealing with ancient fiction, and that it is neither inerrant history nor divine revelation. And you would easily be able to enlist in this effort the aid of classicists who are most familiar with the ancient Greek writings.
What would you expect them to say? Well, I am pretty sure you would hear none of them condemning the Iliad and the Odyssey as the bane of mankind, something better never written in the first place, containing nothing edifying, but only the most perverse nonsense, worthy of the attention of none but fools and knaves. Not one of them would say any such thing, and for the simple reason that they approach the olden texts as ancient human artifacts, warts and all, the products of a civilization still barbaric but glowing with frequent flashes of dramatic and poetic genius. Classicists would oppose this thankfully-imaginary Olympian fundamentalism not because they hate the sources of the movement but rather because they love them and bristle to see fools and knaves appropriating them for a perverse purpose.
Outrageous as the whole scenario seems, you knew paragraphs ago that I am drawing an analogy with biblical fundamentalism, which is regrettably all too real. My point is not so much to invite you to marvel at the gross silliness of fundamentalism (though I won't much mind if you do), but rather to suggest a second look at the type of response we offer to it. Here is a cameo of what I mean. Once I heard of a Pro-Choice rally where the sponsors held a public Bible-burning. Why would they do this? Simply because their Pro-Life opponents claimed the Bible was on their side, that it forbade abortion. And the Pro-Choice people took them up on it. Damn that Bible! But in fact, the issue of abortion never once comes up in the Bible! We do know early Christians vehemently condemned abortion in non-canonical writings like the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter, but none of these is in the Bible. Pro-Lifers simply infer a ban on abortion from "Thou shalt do no murder." And that is an understandable, though not an inevitable, inference. But the Bible does not just say, "Thou shalt not abort." The Pro-Choicers made the error of accepting the fundamentalist caricature of the Bible, and then vilifying it. And too many in the Freethought movement do the same. Thus they are in an ironic position: accepting the fundamentalist reading the Bible, albeit not liking it. Not believing the Bible is the Word of God, they seem to believe it is the Word of Satan, even though they do not believe in Satan. Well, maybe some do: I have met atheists who do seem to have a shadow-belief in God as the Satan of Atheism! They pursue him with stake and garlic like Van Helsing after Dracula! This is no surprise, since many in the Freethought movement, obviously and properly, are here because of a bitter disillusion with fundamentalism. Me too. But this sort of pendulum-swinging runs out of steam after a while (though new recruits keep it swinging high), and it will be interesting to see if our movement ever collectively outgrows it. What will we achieve? What will we try to achieve?
But back to the Bible. I began to study the Bible avidly as a teen-age fundamentalist because I believed that it was God's inspired Word. It was largely the study of the Bible that led me to reject this view of the Bible. I could see that the actual texts simply did not match the dogmatic definition of the Bible. As Evangelical theologian Clark H. Pinnock (who wouldn't mind being quoted in pages like these) once quipped: "The fundamentalists don't like the Bible they've got!" But by that time I was hooked! I found the Bible fascinating, and still do! In fact, more and more all the time! As I have learned new methods of biblical "criticism" (analysis), the Bible has come to make sense in new ways. The very contradictions and errors that so threatened the dogmatic view of the Bible are in fact clues to a proper understanding of the book, a book which, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, has much to say. It is as a lover of the Bible, not a hater of the Bible, that I take exception to fundamentalists and their apologetics. Why one would hate the Bible, as many do, I cannot understand, except that I understand their error in blaming the Bible for what fools have made of it. We should not become fools, repeating their error in reverse.
No, the Bible is not Mein Kampf. It is not a compendium of evil spewed up from Hell's bowels. Sorry. If you want to condemn such a book, you might try something by the Marquis de Sade, I don't know. Or, of course, Hitler. But it would be as absurd to put the Bible on the shelf alongside such books as it would be to place Homer there. Do you recoil with loathing to read that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to gain victory over the Ammonites? I understand. But do you feel the same way when you read of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia for victory over Troy? Both are ironic tragedies of the same type. We do not get on our high horse to protest the "gross immorality" of the ancient epics because no one is surprised to read of barbarity in a book from a barbarous age. Why should the Bible be any more blameworthy in this respect than other ancient books?
Nor is there any use in pretending there is not plenty of ethically and socially profound teaching in the Bible: verses, psalms, oracles, maxims which shine like torches in the darkness of the ancient world. Dr. King didn't seem to have any trouble finding material there! The fundamentalists, like a stopped clock, are occasionally right, if only by accident: they dimly recognize what I am saying whenever they point to this or that biblical verse and claim it is so advanced for its time that it must be a piece of divine revelation. No, but such texts are flashes of human genius (the only kind there is), and it is against the barbaric background of the rest of the text and its implied world that these insights shine. When we pretend the noble ethics of Jesus or Isaiah are not sterling, we are just as disingenuous (or ignorant) as the fundamentalists are when they claim there is nothing reprehensible in the Bible! We are, again, fundies in reverse!
And in terms of our practical approach or response to fundamentalists: we can never expect to be taken seriously by zealots for the Bible as long as we pretend the Bible is what they know it is not: a book of evil. We need, if possible, if it is true, to tell them that precisely as people who care about the same book, we do not wish to stand by and see it misinterpreted, misrepresented. It is we who are the true friends and champions of the Bible, not those who invite ridicule for the scriptures by inflating them into a garish idol. (Maybe you're not a lover of the Bible. I'm not saying you should be. I'm just saying that I'm the sort of person you want to call on for a debate or to recommend books by!)
fundamentalist, as I tell my students, has no right to pontificate about the
Bible until he or she has studied the Bible in great detail and from many
perspectives. And even then one will not be able to pontificate! One will have
come to realize pontificating is a sport forever denied the intellectually
honest individual. And the same is true for Freethinkers: we dare not make the
Bible into another Mein Kampf before we study it seriously. If there are
religious fundamentalists who blithely accept dogmatic claims of behalf of the
Bible to save them the trouble of thinking for themselves, there are plenty of
sophomoric atheists who, one suspects, too readily accept sweeping polemics
against the Bible in order to give their immature consciences license to do
what, under the fundamentalist yoke, they dared not. What we need is a group of
Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers, whatever, who will have rejected the right
thing from fundamentalism: the mythicizing of the Bible as an excuse to make
things easier for ourselves, when in truth we need to rethink all the issues
Robert M Price
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