Monday, December 29, 2014

BREAKING: The Bible is not on display at the Louvre

I just started Kurt Eichenwald's endless Newsweek cover piece on "The Bible." (witty subtitle: "So Misunderstood It's a Sin.") In the very first sentence Eichenwald rather amusingly lumps together screaming street-corner preachers with the Religious Right more generally. That sort of category confusion* or overgeneralization is not a promising start, nor does his calling them all "God's frauds" particularly help.

But I don't necessarily have a problem with that kind of polemical style--David Bentley Hart employs it regularly, though with opposite ends in mind. Nor am I writing, this time, to tackle his use of statistics in the fourth paragraph, though incidentally I do have strong doubts that the polls to which he refers really say what he thinks they say.**

No, I'm writing because I find his seventh paragraph flat-out amazing. Don't get lost here, because this point will blow your mind:
No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.
Woah, I imagine Eichenwald thinking his reader is thinking, you mean The Original Bible is not, like, chilling out at the National Archives next to the Constitution or something?

Follow me here: Eichenwald's first big reveal--the place where he starts setting all those fundie ignoramuses straight--is that there's no original copy of THE BIBLE tucked away in some archive.

This "revelation" will no doubt surprise anyone who believes that, at some point in time, there was a single authoritative copy of (capital-t) The (capital-b) Bible. This theoretical fundie would have to be so ignorant as to think the whole Bible was written down at one time in one language--or, perhaps, that the originally composed versions of the books was preserved over the many centuries of their composition and then all gathered into one place. And that this single manuscript would be the one true "The Bible," and that only word-for-word untranslated copies could be called "The Bible."

There's a religion that believes this of their holy book, but it ain't Christianity.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am quite certain there are Christians who believe such things. There was probably a point where my childhood self had those kinds of assumptions in my head. But aside from young children and the deeply uneducated, does anyone else? Who could he possibly be educating here? Are there any major churches or denominations that believe this? Even the strictest interpretation of Biblical inerrancy would not say anything close to that.

So at the very outset of this voluminous essay, the author reveals that he has no clue what just about every branch of Christianity that has ever existed thinks that the Bible actually is. And that he starts his highly pedantic ambitious project from this fundamental misunderstanding does not lead me to expect much by way of enlightenment from the thousands of words that follow.


*[Story I'm reminded of: my wife used to work in a place that was fairly hostile to religion. Once when a colleague was going to visit a Christian school, another coworker joked that he should try to avoid getting splashed with holy water. It was a Baptist school.]

**[As in my afore-linked post, I'm not suggesting that Eichenwald is lying about data, but I am skeptical that the polls say what he thinks they say. Quick example: the pollsters determined that evangelicals "accepted he attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees... more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus." How did they determine this? Did they offer straight-up quotations of particular Pharisees and compare them with ones from Jesus? If so, did they include sufficient context to avoid misunderstandings? That's doubtful, since such context would almost certainly include identification of those Pharisee speakers and probably Jesus too. So, chances are, they summarized. Were those summaries valid and accurate? Have the pollsters kept up with recent scholarship on Second Temple Judaism? Or would their rendering of the Pharisees look more like the still-widespread Reformation-era reading? In other words: can we really use a poll to measure one's familiarity with the teachings of Christ? Doesn't that seem likely to be--at best--reductive? Perhaps even to the point of unrecognizability?... But I digress...]