Thursday, July 28, 2011

Airbrushing the Bible

In a post entitled Reinterpreting Deuteronomy with Sophisticated Theology, Russell Blackford critiques some theologians' attempts to airbrush out the rather clear instruction to go and massacre the Hittites.

I think the problem here is actually the attempt (whether by Christians or atheists) to interpret the Bible as a unified text.

Actually the Bible is a collection of different books compiled over several centuries from books written by authors with very different political and social agendas. Some books have been shown to have been rewritten versions of earlier texts, as the accounts in them are clearly conflicting.

Karen Armstrong has pointed out in her book about the writing of the Bible that the author known as the Deuteronomist was very interested in smiting and genocide, whereas other authors (such as Amos) are much more liberal. In addition, some Tanakh authors anthropomorphise God, and some make him/her/it much more abstract.

Add to that the many layers of Jewish editing and rewriting, and the attempts by Christian theologians to create some sort of unified theology out of all this, and to retrospectively try to make Tanakh texts predict the coming of Christ, and you have a huge mess.

I think it's a complete waste of time trying to rehabilitate texts like this. It's a much better idea to disentangle the bits of the Bible from each other and view them as separate pieces of writing produced by people with very different ideas of God. Biblical criticism has been doing this very successfully using increasingly sophisticated methods of textual analysis since the late nineteenth century.

It's also a complete waste of time trying to deduce anything about God (who doesn't exist anyway) from these texts. Though you can deduce a lot about the author of Deuteronomy.

I do think that the allegorical method of interpretation favoured by many theologians has some uses though - not in the way that Russell Blackford is critiquing, but in order to prevent people from thinking that it's alright to massacre people you don't like.

However, the historical deconstruction of the text is probably more useful. Perhaps the two approaches can be used alongside each other.

I like the comments of MH on Russell Blackford's post; MH also advocates historical exegesis of the texts.

Monday, July 25, 2011

God Collar

I am currently reading God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke. It's brilliant, hilarious, witty and heartfelt. I laughed out loud at several bits, especially the one about the turgidity of school assemblies, and the bit about the desire to fart in church and mix up the shoes in the foyer of mosques. I also agreed wholeheartedly with his views on The God Delusion.

The main premise of God Collar is that the author experiences a "God-shaped hole" but can't manage to actually believe in God (especially not the smitey "Old Testament" God), which is quite understandable - I can't manage to believe in a supernatural creator deity, especially not the smitey variety. I can manage a sort of mystical energy (but not a person) or maybe it's just an experience, like love - in which case, should we even call it God?

I was quite surprised at the degree to which the book focusses on the vengeful deity depicted in the early books of the "Old Testament", especially as the author acknowledges Karen Armstrong in the introduction, and Karen Armstrong has done much to bring biblical criticism to the non-specialist, and to point out how you get a different picture of God from different authors of the Bible.

The author wishes that there was a religion where his atheism would be respected, and that the religion was just about being nice to people. He quite likes Jesus but cannot see why Jesus' death is supposed to save anyone. He would like to have a religion that is compatible with reason and science, where the wonder of the universe as discovered by science is appreciated. He would also like a religion that does not consider all the other religions to be doing it wrong. And he would like a religion that doesn't persecute women and gays.

Well several such religions exist. There's Unitarianism (welcoming towards atheists and humanists since at least the 1920s, ordaining women since 1904, respecting other religions since it began in the 16th century, and welcoming LGBT people since 1970).

Alternatively, if you don't like Christian symbolism served with your religious smörgåsbord, try Paganism (LGBT-friendly, has priestesses and goddesses; respects other religions; though Pagans are less inclusive towards atheism).

And if you don't like singing, try the Quakers.

Or if you like meditation, try Buddhism (most Buddhists are non-theist).

None of these religions mind if you're an atheist, and they won't try to change your mind about it. They also acknowledge the validity of other religions, are welcoming towards women and gay people, politically left-leaning and environmentally friendly.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


I have just been watching the film Creation on BBC iPlayer, and found the portrayal of Emma Darwin a bit too orthodox, considering that she was a Unitarian (though of course Unitarianism was different then to what it's like now), so I decided to Google for background information. Although the family attended the local Anglican church, Emma made them turn around when the Nicene Creed was recited, because it is Trinitarian. She also enjoyed discussing evolution with her husband, although she believed in creation.

It seems really bizarre now that millions of ordinary people actually literally believed in God creating the Earth in 7 days and all that.

The film also seems to me to have made Darwin's inner struggles a bit too anguished and laudanum-fuelled. It's true that he feared the impact that publication of the theory of evolution would have on the world, but it did not abolish trust, hope, love and altruism, as he is portrayed in the film as fearing.

And why wasn't the film called Evolution? (I suppose because less Americans would have gone to see it...)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A trailer for a 1984 documentary about Harvey Milk. 

Hat tip to the Camp Crusader.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Biblical phrases in common usage

The Phrase Finder has a list of 122 phrases and sayings that have their origins in the Bible. I knew some of them came from the Bible, but many of them I had no idea about, like a "broken heart" or "set your teeth on edge". Fascinating.

William Tyndale

There was an excellent article by Cliff Reed in the latest Inquirer about the King James Bible, and the earlier translations by William Tyndale and others. He points out that Tyndale's translations were much truer to the original texts than subsequent translations, which were manipulated politically.

William Tyndale is not forgotten in Bristol, as there is a statue of him in Millennium Square (sadly it was vandalised in 2008, and I do not know if it has been restored). There is also the Tyndale Monument on the Cotswold scarp, and the small Gloucestershire church of St Adeline's in Little Sodbury, near where Tyndale was chaplain to a local family of Protestant aristocracy has a folder of detailed information about him. (Sadly the family's chapel does not survive, though the church was built from its remains.)

I was also pleased to see both Tyndale and John Wyclif (a fourteenth-century Lollard translator upon whose work later translations were based) receive due honour in Melvyn Bragg's fascinating book, The Adventure of English: the biography of a language which demonstrates that Wyclif was responsible for the rhythmic language of the English translation of the Beatitudes.

The Bible was an important spiritual resource for centuries, and still is for some people, and I think people should be able to read it in their own language (as long as they don't go taking it literally).  I have recently bought the Jewish Study Bible (Tanakh), which is the Torah (Law), Nevi'im (Prophets) and Kethuvim (Writings) translated by and for Jews. If you're going to read a translation, it makes sense to me to read a translation by people who are really immersed in the language and culture of the original work, and who can explain all the symbolism and cultural references. Also, I don't hold with Christian attempts to manipulate the Tanakh to make it look as if it is prophesying the coming of Jesus. The Tanakh is a Jewish work and should primarily be seen as such. And of course Jewish translations are blessedly free of such attempts.

Nevertheless the Wycliffe and Tyndale translations are classic works that have deeply influenced the subsequent development of English language and culture, and given us many proverbs and sayings, and so, as Isaiah puts it, "Look to the rock whence ye are hewn, and the pit whence ye are digged."

UPDATE: The William Tyndale statue is back - I was in millennium square it was there.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Ex-gay "therapy" exposed

Truth Wins Out went undercover to find out whether Marcus Bachmann, husband of presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, conducts ex-gay "therapy" at his "clinic". They found incontrovertible evidence that this is what happens (and filmed it covertly).

Truth Wins Out Undercover Operation Finds That Marcus Bachmann’s Clinic Works to ‘Cure’ Gay People
July 8th, 2011

I Received ‘Ex-Gay’ Therapy at Marcus Bachmann’s Clinic
July 8th, 2011

The articles above expose ex-gay "therapy" as a pathetic travesty of real therapy - with the "therapist" making suggestions and conclusions that were not justified by what the client said, and all sorts of other unethical practices (including not offering an informed consent form with details of other possible therapies, such as gay-affirmative therapy). The "therapist" also said that the client's gay friends would not get to heaven unless they stopped being gay.

The ex-gay movement is sick and twisted and should be stopped - and it should certainly not be funded by government money.

I wonder if this sort of thing goes on in the UK, and whether LGBT organisations here are actively combating it?