AN ANALYSIS OF NEWSWEEK’S ARTICLE “THE BIBLE: SO MISUNDERSTOOD IT’S A SIN”

20141226cover600-x-800I 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.

Overview

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.

Textual Criticism

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.

Click Here For the Greenbean Guide to Study Bibles

Translations

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.

Click here for the Greenbean Guide to Bible Translations

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.

The Trinity/Constantine

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.

Christmas

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.

Hermeneutics

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.

Summary

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.

A MOCK ZIMBIO BIBLE CHARACTER QUIZ

The Facebooks and Interwebs are being invaded by the Zimbio and Buzzfeed quiz armies.  I wrote about these on Monday and hypothesized that there should be a Zimbio Bible character quiz.  More than one person suggested that I should write some of the questions for this much needed quiz.  Okay, challenge accepted.

I’m only doing 5, though, because it is a lot of work coming up with 12 useless, apparently unrelated-to-anything questions with both obscure and obvious references.  However, I already did one just off the cuff in reply to an earlier comment on Monday’s blog so, 20% was done.  Feel free to add questions of your own in the comments, but just make sure that every question needs at least 9 possible answers to from which to choose.

Question One:  Which Johnny Cash Song are you?

Johnny Cash Holding a Kitty Cat
Johnny Cash Holding a Kitty Cat
  • Folsom Prison Blues
  • Ring of Fire
  • I Walk the Line
  • I’ve Been Everywhere
  • God’s Gonna Cut you Down
  • A Boy Named Sue
  • Riders in the Sky
  • Peace in the Valley
  • One (Yeah, he did a cover of that)

Question Two:  Your preferred Bible translation is . . .

  • King James
  • New King James
  • NIV
  • NASB
  • Dead Sea Scrolls, of course
  • The Message
  • Codex Sinaiticus
  • NRSV
  • NET Bible

Question Three:  Which classic literary character do you most identify with?

  • David Copperfield
  • Dr. Frankenstein
  • Achilles
  • Hamlet
  • Juliet
  • Janey Eyre
  • I don’t understand the question
  • The Wife of Bath
  • Nick Adams

Question Four:  You love which of these groups the most?

  • Mumford & Sons
  • Lady Antebellum
  • The Rolling Stones
  • INXS
  • The Gaitlin Brothers
  • U2
  • Imagine Dragons
  • Booker T. & the M. G.’s
  • Alabama

Question Five:  You see a bush that is burning, but it is not consumed.  What do you do?

  • Run
  • Find a waterhose
  • Write a memoir about what it means
  • Approach it
  • Find a cave to hide in
  • Take a picture
  • Attempt to take measurements–temperature, size, color
  • Blow on it
  • Set yourself on fire

Okay, so those are my five questions.  Let’s see what you guys come up with.

picture of Johnny cash from reddit.com

ADVICE ON READING THE BIBLE

Reading the Bible is fun!  Anyone who doesn’t get that has never really read it, or read it correctly.  Bible abuse and neglect is a sad state of affairs which afflicts far too many people.

I write all in my Bible
I write all in my Bible

Here are six concepts that will help increase your pleasure and joy in reading the Bible.

1.  It’s a story, so treat it like one.  Yes, it is a sacred story filled with truth, but it is still a story.  Each Bible author is inviting you into the world of the story.  The writer of Genesis wants you to marvel at God’s power and creativity, the writer of Judges wants you to weep at the heartache of Israel’s idiocracy while the writer of Mark wants to terrify you with the power of God in Jesus Christ.

2.  Identify with one of the characters in the story.  I am working through Philippians right now in a very rigorous way, and as I read it I always think about how I would understand these words if I were a leader in the church at Philippi hearing these things from Paul for the first time.  If I am reading David and Goliath, I work at trying to identify with David–his fear, his courage, his relationship with his brothers and so forth.  Then I try to think of myself as Goliath–his privileges, his burden, arrogance and then demise.  This helps me identify both aspects in my life because in some situations I’m David, but in other situations I’m the Goliath.

3.  The Bible is actually a library, and each book, and indeed sections within some books, are different genres.  Some of the different genres are narrative, law, gospel, apocalypse, prophecy, and history.  One does not read 1 Samuel the same way one reads Ezekiel.  You may need a helper book or do some research to help identify these different genres.

4.  Pick a translation that speaks to you!  If you’ve never read the Bible before, I suggest using the New Living Translation (NLT).  The NLT uses clear English without trying to be too slangy.  For study I like the ESV and NRSV.  In fact, the older I get the more I like the NRSV.  The NIV is good, but I find it to be a tad bit dated.  Click here for a complete Greenbean breakdown of Bible translations.  The most important thing is making certain you find one you can understand.

5.  Read the Bible in two ways.  In one way you should read the Bible simply as an act of devotion.  Then, at other times, we read the Bible for study and knowledge.  The way we read the Bible in these two settings is entirely different.  Psalm 23 devotionally read speaks to me about peace and comfort.  Psalm 23 read critically in study teaches me about the shepherds rod and staff (2 different tools) and then leads me to think of God as my pastor and how the pastoral role starts with protection and guidance which then leads to security and safety.  Both ways of reading the Bible are important, and I need to practice both.

6.  Sometimes you should read the Bible alone, and sometimes you should read it with others.  By others I mean study groups and in worship services, but I also mean your family.  Families should read the Bible together because it draws us into the bonds of togetherness.

Bonus: A note on memorizing Bible verses

I would argue that one does not need to memorize a lot.  Familiarity with the Bible–themes and general content of books and sections–is more important than trying to memorize a great deal.  However, everyone could memorize, say, 5-10 verses or sections that speak to your life or that are meaningful.  If you’ve never memorized any of these and think it is impossible, relax.  You know the words to your favorite song, so you can learn a few verses.  The ones I suggest are Proverbs 3:5-6, Romans 12:1-2, Micah 6:8, Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Corinthians 13:14, John 14:6, and probably Hebrews 4:12 for good measure.  If you take one verse and review every day for a couple of minutes, you will learn it within a month.

Double Bonus:  Don’t ruin the Bible’s intent

Okay, one more bit of pastoral counsel on this one.  The Bible was written by adults, to adults, about things that for the most part are very adult such as sin, sex, murder and war. (side note–most Christian publishes would not publish the content of the Bible today because it would offend their target demographic)  Many many many well meaning Christ-followers have the ‘sweet little Jesus’ instinct, though, that wants to turn everything into something suitable for children and clean it all up.  Resist that urge.  David was an adulterous womanizer, Paul was a murderer who never got over his guilt, and Jesus seemed to always be spoiling for a fight with the religious establishment.  Resist the urge to sanitize the Bible.

THE GREENBEAN SUMMARY OF BIBLE TRANSLATIONS

Yesterday I preached about the Bible–how it differs from other religious sacred books, why we can trust it, how it was assembled, and how we should use it.  Part of the sermon was a discussion about translations.

One of the most common questions I have asked of me is, “What translation of Scripture should I use?”  The answer is yes.  Unless you know Greek, Hebrew and Amamaic you need a translation.  Which one you use depends on you.

ESV—the English Standard Version—this is the one I preach from and the one we use in worship services.  I like it because it has good solid theological words in it and translates things closer to the way I would and it reads easily.

KJV—the King James Version is a very poor translation of the New Testament and a very good translation of the Old Testament.  The problem is, that KJV English is almost another language itself, thus rendering it practically useless.  The KJV is written in pirate.

NASB—New American Standard is becoming more dated than it used to be, its kind of old now, but it is still good.  It is a literal (The most literal, actually), word for word rendering but it is terribly boring to read.  It unfortunately shares a name with the maker of toilets (American Standard).

NIV—This is the most common and popular translation.  It is easy to read, I think written at a 6th grade reading level.  The problem I have with the NIV is that sometimes they make really stupid and unfortunate decision when translating.  In seminary we used to call this the “Nearly Infallible Version.”

NRSV—The New Revised Standard Version—I like this one and it is the one I am currently reading in my morning devotional work.  This version is written at a higher reading level and is preferred by academics because it is technically thorough.  It also has the benefit of being inclusive in its language, whereas most other translations bend toward sexism (i.e. translation “sons” where the right rendering is “children” or “men” where the right translation is “people”).

NLT—the New Living Translation.  It is written  in common vernacular and avoids almost all theological language.  I like it for newer Christ-followers or younger Christ-followers.  It conveys the idea and the story without losing the reader in bogged down wordiness.

Which one is right?  Depends on you and what your needs are.  I do argue that when you are doing serious Bible study it is best to have three or four of these in front of you and compare them.  With tablets like Kindle, iPad and Nook and such this is much easier and affordable.  Most all of these have Bible apps that are free in all of these versions.

It has never been easier to do serious Bible study.