Kurt Eichenwald, Pulitzer Prize nominee and Vanity Fair writer, created a bit of a shitstorm in fundamentalist and evangelical Christian circles last week with his Newsweek cover story “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” For anyone who has had more than one Bible class at a legitimate private or public university, what Eichenwald says is not new, even for those who disagree with Eichenwald’s conclusions. I read the whole piece and recognized material I learned as an undergrad. For grad school, our professors would have simply assumed we were familiar with the material. It is that underwhelming and not newsworthy. Except that it is.
The majority of the criticism was for Eichenwald’s portrayal of fundamentalists and some evangelicals as biblical illiterates (He is correct about that, except that it’s most Christians, period.) who treat the Bible like a cafeteria serving line where certain verses can be cherry-picked to support specific ideological positions, especially LGBT issues. Reading through his piece, it is difficult to find where what he writes misses the mark. He opens with this:
“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.”
Bearing in mind that he never describes all Christians thus, where is the false note? Most of us have met the people he describes, especially those of us in Oklahoma. Until Satan inspired a motorist to smash into our Ten Commandments monument, we too had an idol on the capitol grounds. Ever driven by the “preachers” near Windsor Hills Baptist Church? Young men on street corners screaming condemnation for a “perverse and adulterous generation” were likely not what St. Francis of Assisi had in mind when he said to preach with words only when necessary. How long ago was it that Governor Perry of the great state of Texas spoke at a prayer rally in front of thousands? These people exist, numbering in the millions, and one need not tune into Fox News or Trinity Broadcasting to find them. They are in our stores, schools, little league teams, social clubs, and neighborhood associations.
Given that he fairly describes a subset of modern American Christendom—and that is without contradiction—what about his take on the Bible? His critique is very simple and widely accepted in most non-conservative Christian universities. The text that we see today is nothing like what the Bible, if it existed in an ideal form, would actually read like. There have been omissions, emendations, intentional additions, politicized interpretations, and all manner of shenanigans that ensure that the biblical text is anything but what it is believed to be by evangelicals and conservatives who fetishize it even as they don’t read it. It is a totem more than a sacred text for that demographic.
Albert Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken., and he regularly comments on social and political issues; the Eichenwald piece was no exception. Mohler’s primary complaint about the piece—other than it being a “hit piece”—is that Eichenwald does not interview Christians with a “traditional understanding of the Bible.” I assume that Mohler means Protestants in his own conservative Baptist tradition rather than Catholics, whose Bible is considerably longer with the addition of the Apocrypha, or even Jews—you know, the people from which the Old Testament (Tanakh) actually emerged. (Mohler seems to have no trouble treating the Jewish text as if it’s a Christian document, so apparently his critique of Eichenwald is a bit self-serving and possessed of a massive blind spot.)
The issue here is that Mohler sincerely believes that his tribe ought to be able to rightly interpret the Bible over against all other claimants, especially those he deems to be from the “far, far left” of biblical studies, which is to say, men and women who don’t typically hold to a supernatural understanding of the text. In other words, the great lengths that Eichenwald goes to in order to demonstrate that it is clearly not a supernatural text are lost on Mohler and other evangelicals and fundamentalists of his tribe because they have already decided that the text is supernatural, and so no amount of evidence can be mustered to undermine that position because all evidence must support, not refute, the position else it is false. This is the grandest case of theological confirmation bias and cherry-picking imaginable.
This is the same sort of thinking that led to the famous Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978. A bunch of really smart people got together to declare the Bible inerrant and infallible in the “original autographs,” a fancy phrase for the original documents. The problem with that? There is no such thing as an original Tanakh. Much of it was oral tradition. When it was finally written down, the manuscripts were copied when they became worn, and the old copies were destroyed so as to avoid corruption of the text.
As for the New Testament, the original letters of Paul probably are real things, but we don’t have them, and the Gospels were cobbled together decades after the death of Jesus from oral tradition and alleged eyewitness accounts. So, because the group in Chicago believed the Bible was inerrant, they agreed that it was, but they can clearly see it is not in its present form, and so they created a document—original autographs—that none of them had seen because it doesn’t exist. This is called theological conservatism, I suppose. Professors would call it dishonest at best, but it passes for critical thinking in certain evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Again, what did Eichenwald get wrong?
Finally, the obsession with some liberals over redeeming the biblical text leads to a quixotic task. They are attempting to demonstrate to true believers that the warrant for their true belief is not something upon which the biblical “literalists” should base their belief, at least not in an absolutist sense. (Incidentally, they are correct. In theology, the proper object of faith is God, not the Bible, but bibliolatry is fashionable among the tribe Eichenwald targets.) The liberals expect people who believe that the text is supernaturally given to apply the lessons of literary criticism and anthropology and other utterly useful tools to a task—Bible interpretation—that is far easier when practiced as repeating what they have been told rather than doing the hard work of reading critically. They believe the Bible to be the “Word of God,” because they have been taught that it is and, quite frankly, they prefer to believe it, but they believe without bothering to parse what “Word of God” means.
This comes down to an issue of authority in the sense of “does the Bible possess any authority in my life, and more importantly, should it?” Can I or should I trust that the Bible explains or commands authoritatively, which is to say, is it worth listening to (Is it accurate?), and does it contain commands from God? I understand the desire among liberals to shore up their theology with reference to the Bible, but do we really expect to find solid sexual ethics, political ideologies, or social conventions in a text that dates to the Bronze and Iron Ages? Better to stop looking for signs of God’s blessing on gay marriage in a book not written by God. Better to stop arguing with people who fetishize the Bible without reading or understanding it about what percentage of an ancient text is trustworthy or authoritative. It serves to buttress their faith and their politics, not shape their practices; that much is clear. Old books are awesome when treated like old books. After all, nobody is killing anybody over Marcus Aurelius or Herodotus. Take what is good; reject what is bad. There is wisdom in that.