Whenever Americans of the fundamentalist Christian flavor get caught saying something that is bigoted, judgmental, or ill-informed, they usually offer the standard defense that God made them do it. “I’m just following scripture”, they say, and then quite often quote the Bible to prove it. Or do they? Actually, this defense falls flat because it ignores three very important facts about the Bible.
Fact # 1: It’s often impossible to know exactly what the Bible says or intends.
If it were always possible, then there wouldn’t be much variation in Christian dogma. Instead, there are as many as 41,000 denominations and sects. Some believe they’ll be whisked up somewhere past Deep Space 9 at the end of time. Others believe that paradise will be established here on earth. Some handle snakes, speak in tongues, sprinkle water on each other or dunk each other in it. Others think that any or all of these things are a bit wackadoo. All believe that their own doctrines are right and all the others are wrong. And all believe they get their authority straight from God — as funneled through the Holy Bible.
Trouble is, the book known as the Bible isn’t just a book. It’s an entire library of books, written by many authors in many genres over many centuries. Some of it is very poetic. Some of it is anchored in obsolete or even unknown cultural references. (How many Christians believe that “spare the rod and spoil the child” — which isn’t even a biblical quotation — means to spank children? Or that “take God’s name in vain” means to swear?) Some of it is obscure and even deliberately cryptic. All of it is written in a dead language — at least three of them altogether. And all of it has been heavily filtered through many centuries of translation, translation of translation, conjecture, textual corruption, copyist’s error, and editorial tampering.
The end result is that we have an approximation of an approximation of the original, but we really have no idea how approximate. The exact interpretation of the text is questionable at almost every turn. Need an illustration? Well okay, let’s look at, er, um… how about the very first sentence? Traditionally quoted as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, the original text is probably more accurately rendered as “When God began creating the heavens and the earth…” What seems at first blush to be a slight grammatical/ syntactical variation actually could have a tremendous impact on whether believers subscribe to the anti-science mindset known as creationism.
Many versions of the Bible — including many editions of the notoriously staid King James Version — run a sidebar column of alternate interpretations like this in fine print throughout. How many “alternate” readings are really the true ones? How many times do alternate and accepted interpretations both miss the mark? We have no way of knowing. Anyone who claims to know exactly what the Bible says is practicing self-delusion.
Fact # 2: The Bible is full of apparent contradictions.
There are many lists of such contradictions, sometimes numbering several hundred. Some of them can be resolved by context, but many can not. There is definitely a textual inconsistency, for instance, about the content of the so-called Ten Commandments, and even about their exact number.
Some Christian apologists have attempted to address these discrepancies, and sometimes their explanations sound logical. But a great many other times, their arguments are nothing more than speculation, presumption and interpolation. Sometimes they can’t even offer that, and instead have to resort to declaring the problem an obvious copyist’s error.
They don’t seem to realize that if they admit of even one such error, they are opening the door to the possibility of many others. And when they open that door, out flies the notion of the Bible’s supposed infallibility. Moreover, the average Christian does not have the kind of erudite background that would enable him or her to untangle such problems in like manner; so naturally, you can expect Christians to entertain many contradictory beliefs. Which brings us to the big enchilada…
Fact # 3: It’s possible to find something in the Bible to support anything you choose to believe.
Absolutely anything. Wanna believe the center of the earth is a creme-filled chocolate coated cherry? There must be something somewhere in the deliberately vague and ambiguous Book Of Revelation to back you up.
Some Christians believe that musical instruments should not be used in religious services. Others wouldn’t dream of conducting services without them. Some believe alcohol and/ or caffeine are wrong. Others serve them at church functions. Some believe that gays are evil; others are themselves gay. Growing up in a Southern fundamentalist sect, I heard preachers quote “scripture” to support their own convictions that it was a “sin” to play checkers, go bowling, listen to pop music, wear makeup or jewelry (even a wedding ring) and even — I kid you not — wear glasses. While quoting passages to support segregation, patriarchy, and other things that seemed to serve their own interests at the time.
In the words of Susan B. Anthony:
I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
So in light of these three facts, and particularly this third one, we have to ask…
The Million Dollar Question…
Why do Christians so often zero in on biblical passages that seem to condemn entire groups of people — most of whom they know nothing about?
Aren’t there also passages about loving your neighbor and judging not and doing unto others? Why not focus on those instead? Why are so many Christians obsessed with biblical injunctions against homosexuality, but totally willing to ignore biblical injunctions against shellfish and pork? Or the endorsement of slavery, or the death penalty for homosexuality, “blasphemy”, adultery, rebellious kids, or working on Saturday? The only explanation they can offer is that some parts of the Bible have become obsolete. Fair enough. So why not the rest of it? Who gets (self-) appointed to make that determination?
The logical conclusion is that instead of believing what they find in the Bible, fundamentalists first believe, and then find it in the Bible. As you’ve surely noticed, when you challenge the beliefs of dogmatic individuals (of which there are quite a few), you’re likely to be met with defensiveness, hostility, and abject loathing. That’s because their beliefs aren’t just things they’ve adopted after examining the evidence; they’re things that have grown into their bones over a lifetime. When fundamentalists thump the Bible, they’re not probing for truth; they’re sounding out an echo chamber.
So sorry, thumpers, but you don’t get to hide forever behind God or questionable quotations lifted from an Iron Age literary artifact. You ultimately are responsible for your own beliefs. If you hate gays or Muslims or gays or atheists or gays or “liberals” or gays or homosexuals or gays, it’s not because God told you to. It’s because you’ve decided to hate gays or Muslims or atheists or gays or “liberals” or gays or homosexuals or gays. (And if there’s a God as vengeful as you maintain, you’re probably really pissing Him off.) And no, it’s really no less arrogant or judgmental to offer the popular defense that you “hate the sin but not the sinner”. It’s no easy task to separate (in the words of Yeats) “the dancer from the dance”. And besides you’re still the one deciding that someone else’s life is “sinful”, no matter how many Bible verses you stack up behind you. Or in front of you.