I received a special request in the Greenbean Inbox. Someone asked me to blog about the recent Newsweek article titled The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin (click here to read it) by Kurt Eichenwald. I am always happy to take requests. This post is much longer than usual. Warning: Theology ahead.
As with reading the Bible, context is everything. For a long time Newsweek magazine has been marginalized and culturally irrelevant. This article, and its cover-story status is nothing less than the sad effort of a forgotten titan trying to once again be important. Nothing does that like articles on faith. That is why Jesus is always on the cover of magazines in April and December. He sells.
Having said that, let me begin by affirming that I think some of what Eichenwald writes is valid. He argues that Evangelicals (Eichenwald seems to incorrectly use the terms Evangelicals and Fundamentalists as synonyms) do not know the content of the Bible. On that he is absolutely correct. It’s true. Many people who follow Christ are biblically illiterate. I can’t imagine a single pastor, priest, rabbi, scholar, or theologian who would argue the point, which makes Eichenwald seem a little, well, redundant. I mean, literally, that part of his article will preach.
He is also correct when he points out the grave error of uniting political agendas with spiritual endeavors. I think this is his own major point. If I were to try to summarize his piece it would be, “People don’t understand the Bible, yet they invoke it to set public policy.” In that overarching theme, I think he is right. Far too many Christ-followers assume that Jesus is a Republican. The problem with Eichenwald, however, is that he only paints one side of the story because many Christ-followers likewise assume Jesus is a Democrat.
The most troubling part of his article is not any of the specific biblical issues he raises. I am most worried by his tone. This is a mean-spirited, angry, agenda laden piece of prose. It is apparent that he has been hurt, personally offended, or angered by fundamentalist Christians are some point in his life and this article is part of his retribution. Consider his opening:
They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.
They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.
Wow. There is some high wattage vitriol there, and it drips off every paragraph. Eichenwald’s elitist disposition is not thinly veiled, it is on display, strutting around the page telling every reader, “I am so much smarter than you are with your silly ways. If only you were as enlightened as I am then you too would be free, like me and Jesus are.” I don’t even think most people who agree with his perspective would be as hateful as he is. For a good analysis of his bile consider Rachel Held Evans’ rebuttal (click here) over at CNN.com.
It must also be noted that nothing in this piece is new or innovative. It has the feel that Eichenwald picked up a pop-theology book at Barnes and Noble and thinks he has stumbled upon something fresh. In fact, in one way or another, almost everything he mentions I have a sermon about–pointing out the same issues he does. His article shows that he lacks the insight to put disparate issues into their proper place or perspective. He’s like that one person you know who took one semester of sociology at the community college and now suddenly thinks he or she knows so much more about the way things REALLY are than you or anyone else.
In fact, the article reminds me of the Ancient Aliens people on the History Channel. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that show or not. What they do, basically, is take true statements about archaeological sites and artifacts and then twist them just a bit to make broad sweeping speculation based on trivial details that have simple explanations, or at least explanations based in scholarship rather than in starships. In fact, the more I think about it, I believe his article would be excellent for first year seminary students in hermeneutics and biblical background classes, because that is all the expertise one would need to quickly, gently, and pastorally refute his claims.
Curiously, though, I think I might like Eichenwald in person. We might enjoy discussing these things in person over a cinnamon dolce latte. He has many facts right, but he comes to the wrong conclusions about significance. He makes much of small things, and I don’t think he has much experience with Christ-followers who are not politically motivated or guilty of triumphalism. Better yet, I’d like to lock him in a room with Tim Keller for three or four hours.
Now, let’s look at some of the specifics he raises.
Eichenwald calls it playing telephone with the Word of God. Scholars call it textual criticism. That is the work of determining what exactly is the correct text of the scriptures. It’s close kin is canonical criticism, which is briefly, and confusingly, touched on by Eichenwald. Eichenwald points to the famous, and by famous I mean really famous, text in John from 7:53-8:11 of the woman taken in adultery. Eichenwald writes as if no one knows that this was not in John’s original gospel, like he’s Indiana Jones uncovering hidden secrets buried beneath the sands of rotting churches.
Surprise! Everyone knows about it, and the latter and shorter ending of Mark, and the troubles with 1 John 5 as well as the Gadarene/Gerasene problem and all the others. These are small, statistically insignificant, and expected. Hand copied texts will have mistakes. These mistakes do not change the meaning of the Bible nor do they a flaw in the purposes of the text.
Take for instance the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the reasons this was such a big find is the 2000 plus year old copies of the Hebrew Bible. What we learned is that the biblical text we have is, according to my research, a 95-99% match with the King James Version of the Bible, which was taken from the textus receptus.
What I really object to is the characterization that Eichenwald makes of the issue. Textual criticism creates more faith and trust in the text, not less, because through scholarship it corrects the ancient scribal errors. But that is not how Eichenwald tells the story. Here is how he frames it:
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.
I have worked with the Hebrew, Aramaic, and the Greek of the Bible. It is not easy. Translation, distance, culture and time sometimes makes comprehension difficult. But I know for certain that I am reading the Bible–not always exactly, but close to what Isaiah, John, or Paul intended. I can be confident that I am not missing anything that I need. I do not have a ‘bad translation.’
His characterization makes me wonder if Eichenwald has ever heard of a Study Bible with notes? Just about every edition of the Bible printed today will have a footnote explaining exactly what is going down with these texts. The better of the editions will have articles and explanations.
I was trying to think of a good analogy, and I think I got it. Eichenwald’s criticism is like trying to argue that you don’t really know the story of The Lord of The Rings because you haven’t watched the directors cut, seen the deleted scenes, and listened to the commentary voice overs. One simply doesn’t need all of that to get the story. Sure, some will enjoy, comprehend, and grasp it better than others and it is available, but it is not necessary.
Okay, I got a little carried away with the textual criticism. I’ll work to keep this section concise. Eichenwald attacks the King James Version as being beautiful literature but a poor representation of the biblical text. Again, I completely agree. Actually, the KJV is a great translation of the Hebrew Bible because of the similarities of culture. Ancient Israel was a monarchy, had a priestly class, was mainly agricultural and rural. England in the 17th century was a monarchy, had a priestly class, was agricultural and mostly rural. However, the KJV New Testament is, at times, so far afield it is hard to stomach.
The good news it that almost no one uses the KJV anymore. He builds a huge refutation of Jesus divinity based around the rendering of the Greek word proskuneo–to worship, to bow–in the gospels. The problem is that there are several words that mean worship in the New Testament, and they often communicate different aspects of the idea of worship. If you really have a taste for these words and their meaning, you should read my doctoral project.
There are many texts in the New Testament which teach us of Jesus’ divinity, either directly or indirectly. I understand that people might say that they don’t believe Jesus is divine, that’s fine, but to argue that the Gospels, and the New Testament as a whole doesn’t teach it and to base that on translation issues is, well, silly.
Eichenwald tells us that the Christianity of the 2nd and 3rd centuries was chaotic, messy, and anything but uniform. That is probably the truest statement he makes in the whole piece. But, like our Ancient Alien friends, he takes that true statement and then makes outlandish claims. Eichenwald argues that out of this blessed chaos Constantine, the brutal Emperor of Rome forced Trinitarian order at the Council of Nicea. There is, again, some truth here. Constantine was, if anything, barely Christianized. Historians are quite aware that his faith was nominal and really was only a pale reflection of his mother’s spiritual zeal. Constantine was a politician, and for him the Jesus-vote was big business. Sound familiar?
This is what makes Eichenwald so sloppy. He confuses Christ-followers with those power-players who wrap themselves in the cloak of faith. It has been that way, always, across all cultures and all religions. ISIS is doing it right now, using faith and faith language to get power and control. Hitler did it too.
As to the issue of the Trinity, Eichenwald would have his readers believe it is not a biblical doctrine, that it was invented by Constantine. Ridiculous. Consider one of my favorite benedictions: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (Messiah), the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” That is just one of many Trinitarian texts in the New Testament. Again, I am not saying that I expect everyone to be Trinitarian in their faith but for someone to argue that it is not base on Scripture but instead on a “sociopath” is sloppy.
You knew it wouldn’t take long before Eichenwald got to Christmas. Let’s just cover this quickly. As with the biblical literacy issue earlier, every pastor in America knows that people confuse the details of Christmas. I would be interested to know how many confuse the Gettysburg Address and the Preamble to the Constitution?
He also makes much of the differences in Matthew and Luke. Not much there, really other than each witness is dealing with the same story from different angles, with different sources. Surely a journalist knows how different sources can color the way a story gets written without changing the veracity of the details. The problem is again that Eichenwald is arrogant, acting as if Christ-followers don’t know these juicy little details and he and his kind have the truth.
He doesn’t call it that, but Eichenwald finishes his piece with a strong dose of hermeneutics. I agree with him that there are huge inconsistencies in the way people treat the significance of scriptural teaching. People do tend to make the Bible say what they want to, politicians always play to the crowds, and Jesus somehow always looks just like us in our artwork. I also agree with him when he critiques people for using Leviticus as a justification for public policy on homosexuality. Most of Leviticus has a complicated, and disjointed connection to life in Christ. People who reference it do so at the peril of being asked to let their pastor come inspect their home for mold.
What he misses, though, is the nuance involved in hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is all about determining what was meant when the text was written–the language and syntax, then adding the culture and context of he ancient world. Once that work is done, then we have to find the equivalent significance in our daily lives. That is why he makes a critical error with the issue of women with the issue of homosexuality. I agree with him in part on the issue, but in the end think he misunderstands the nature of the biblical material and its impact on Christ-followers. You will find no bigger supporter of women in ministry and leadership than me. Through careful research, study, and prayer I have adopted an egalitarian view of these things. My view, however, is from the study of Scriptures, not the dismissal of it as a “flawed document” or its questionable deconstruction. He fails to understand that there is a difference between what we as Christ-followers expect from one another and what we expect from the world around us. Eichenwald doesn’t know the nature of biblical authority. He also minimizes one of the major aspects of the community of faith–to gather around the Bible and learn from it, weekly and continually.
In the end, Eichenwald is guilty of doing the same thing he accuses Fundamentalists of doing. He twists the biblical data to support a pro-homosexual public policy. He seeks to exegete Christian prayer into a private closet with no public voice. He wants to push all expressions of faith out of the public sphere. The means to this end was to attack the authority of Scripture and mock those who take it seriously.