Category Archives: Bibliolatry

Posts that consider an unusual amount of devotion to the Bible

Learning to Evolve

Not to beat a dead hadrosaurus, but creationism is in danger of driving us extinct. On a visit to the Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, I picked up a copy of Warren D. Allmon’s Evolution and Creationism: A Very Short Guide. Although I’ve read plenty of books on the subject, a refresher is never a bad idea. When it came to statistics, though, it grew scary. The majority of Americans do not accept evolution, despite all the evidence for it. What’s even scarier is that a large percentage of physicians—particularly Protestant ones—do not accept it either. Allmon is writing for a local readership, but these issues are quite large. World-wide, in fact. One thing most scientists don’t understand is that “religion” isn’t to blame. Literally reading of texts is.

Were it not for the creation myth in Genesis 1 there would be no conflict over evolution in Christianity or Islam. The question comes down to how one understands a sacred text. Many religious believers can’t get beyond the basic issue of if it took more than six days to create the world then that house of cards called biblical truth collapses. There’s a panic involved here. A very real and visceral fear that heaven itself is on the falling end of the balance. No amount of scientific reasoning will help with that. Hell is just too scary. And reason tells us that reason can’t solve this dilemma. Those raised religious by caring parents can’t believe that Mom and Dad would teach them wrong. Emotion plays a stronger role here than reason. More Kirk, less Spock. When even a majority of high school science teachers feel that “teaching the controversy” is okay, we’re in trouble.

Allmon’s book is well-intentioned. Of course, it was written before the post-fact world evolved. The stakes for not accepting reason (think Trump) are extraordinarily high. Having a figurehead that doesn’t accept rational explanations for what the educated can see plainly encourages widespread copycat ignorance. In the rational world there is no doubt about evolution. Most mainstream biblical scholars and clergy accept it. Don’t try to convince others with an argument, however. This is a matter of belief. Allmon does point out that science can’t speak to non-physical processes. It can say nothing about God. But a certain book can and does. Had it been written in modern times none of this might have become an issue. Until we realize the power of that book, we’re going to continue to struggle to come to grips with simple facts.

Bible Belts

The Bible’s been back in the news. Specifically the Bible and politics. Like twins separated at birth. Jeff Mateer, Trump’s nominee for a federal judgeship, has gone on record saying Satan’s plan is working. Perhaps even more stridently, Roy Moore down in the Sweet Home state has been quite vocal that the Christian God is the one who makes America’s laws. Standing on “biblical principles” that have nothing to do with the actual Bible, politicians have found a biblically illiterate population a field of white-headed grain ready for the reaping. As sure as the sparks fly upward. The response in the educated class is predictable. Cut any funding for departments studying religion. Haven’t you heard? It’s dead!

Having grown up in a conservative, religious family, and working my way through a doctorate in a closely related field, I’ve been watching in dismay as the past quarter-century has been marked by decreasing positions in religious studies. If you can pull your eyes from the headlines surely you’ll agree that religion is something we just can’t afford to study. Wasting resources, it is, since if you teach economics you have an actual shot at the White House. Yee-haw! Pull out your six-shooter and celebrate! And no, “yee-haw” is not etymologically related to the name of the deity of ancient Israel. It’s only a matter of time before discovery of who’s been uncovering whom’s nakedness becomes public. Then you just need to say the Bible says nothing about divorce. It’s okay, nobody will bother to look it up. Intellectuals will scratch their heads—why didn’t somebody tell us religion actually motivated people?

Universities (consider the name!) used to be places where the value of all subjects was acknowledged. Of course, where there’s knowledge there’s money to be made. Once you’ve gone to the dark side, there’s no coming back. Departments that don’t earn mammon must go the way of the mammoth. Times have become so hard it’a almost like schools want to open Religion Departments just so they have something to shut down. We’ve got to keep those fields that are actually important going. Never mind if your funding depends on a government increasingly elected on the basis of perceived religious faith. Since the Prosperity Gospel is now in vogue, economic departments are always a safe investment. Slap a copy of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn and follow the crowds to DC. Good thing none of this matters, otherwise me might be in real trouble.

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

Noah’s Parable

I write a lot about Noah. For those who didn’t know me before this blog, I was once invited to write a book on Noah for a series ironically published by Oxford University Press. I had been researching Noah for years, and I intended to write the book. Then, as the kids are saying these days, life happened. My interest in Noah has never waned, however. And part of the reason is that it is perhaps the most influential story in the entire Bible. I realize I’ll need to explain that, but stop and think about it—Evangelicals seldom talk about Jesus any more. Their concerns are with unborn babies, people making babies outside wedlock, and destroying our environment in the name of capitalism. It is the last of these that brings us back to Noah.

A friend recently sent me a story on Splinter by Brendan O’Connor titled “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.” O’Connor is looking at the history of how a pro-environmentalism-inclined evangelical movement decided to shift its base to align with climate-change deniers. Behind the scenes are fundamentalist clergy. Oh, we like to laugh at them and their ways, but they are the power behind the throne and we should really not let them out of our sight. You see, as O’Connor points out, they believe that the God of Noah can protect the world from the worst that we can throw at it. It’s perfectly okay to try to destroy the planet because the magic man upstairs can fix everything right back up if he needs to before sending his son back to town on the final business meeting. Laugh if you will. These people are dead serious and many who hold power in Washington believe every lie they utter.

As a nation—perhaps as an entire western culture—we’ve laughed off religion. Secure that there’s no God up there to rain down, well, rain, we laugh and jeer at Noah. It’s a children’s story, after all, isn’t it? Okay, forget about the part where everyone in the entire world drowns, except eight people. And when he gets drunk and lays naked in his tent after it’s all over. Other than that, it’s a kid’s story, right? The story of the flood is one of the oldest myths in the world. It has been part of human story-telling for millennia. We now have very powerful people with smart phones in their pockets and access to vast hordes of money who believe it literally happened. And since God took care of his own once, he can do it again. The educated smirk. The smart start building arks.

Power in the Blood

Converts, they say, are often the worst. It matters less what the conversion is to or from, since the zeal of the newly enlightened is impossible to match. The textbook example with religion, especially in America, is Evangelicalism. Those who’ve “found Jesus” are eager and too willing to tell others about it. You don’t often hear, however, of those who grew up Evangelical, but then had second thoughts. Often they disappear quietly. Evangelicalism is a potent force in American life. Intellectuals, embarrassed by it, tend to pretend it doesn’t exist. Or it’s on its way out. No need to approach, with nervous laughter, those who actually believe this stuff. Evangelicals, however, can get presidents elected and their zeal can take away any number of freedoms deemed “godless” by those who may have no more education than the local bartender. Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism is masterful. Although not comprehensive (the movement is too large for that) this book does not shy from the unifying fact behind radical evangelicalism—the belief that the end is nigh.

Oh, I know. Those of us who are educated have no need to take such nonsense seriously, right? Sutton may change your mind on that. When you realize just how close to disaster after disaster this thinking has led (and continues to lead, under the current administration) us, you might want to take the Fundamentalists a bit more seriously. They constitute the largest religious bloc in the nation. One of the baffling things about them is their protean nature. What’s the difference between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist? And what’s with the obvious differences between a Timothy LaHaye and a Billy Graham? And where do these people get all their money? (Fundamentalists have always been close to nearly endless, well, funding.) Republican presidents from far before Nixon realized that big business and conservative theology, although strange bedfellows, are remarkably compatible. (Each thinks the other side doesn’t realize it’s being used.)

American Apocalypse is an important book. Written before perhaps the strangest turn in US history last November, it might have helped to show that Trump was a serious threat from the beginning. If only the educated took it seriously. Evangelical antipathy to women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, and socialized medicine run very deep. It’s the Old Boys’ Club with a vengeance. Recent events have shown yet again how important it is to understand these ways of thinking. And those of us with insider knowledge have never been welcome in the academy. That’s okay, though. If I go back to my roots I’ll realize the world’s about to end any day now. Those who’re smart might think about taking equestrian training because I’m sure there will be white horses involved. If only I could get myself converted back.

Fall of the Titanosaurs

If I had it all to do over again, I might well have gone into paleontology. Like most kids, I grew up fascinated with dinosaurs. Then “real life” got in the way and you need to get a job since you can’t spend your time playing with your cheap plastic toys and dreaming Triassic dreams. There’s no future in the past. So I decided to study dead languages instead. Still, the recent discovery of Patagotitan mayorum is exciting. Titanosaurs—the really big dinosaurs—were not even known when I was a child. What we used to call “brontosaurus” was about as big as they got, but we did know that diplodocus was out there somewhere, even a bit longer. We didn’t have to worry about ark space in those days because we knew that extinction happens.

The current evangelical flavor of the day takes a hard line on evolution. Since it absolutely can’t happen and since there’s no denying dinosaurs, they must’ve crowded onto old Noah’s floating hotel along with everybody else. The problem is we keep discovering more and more large dinosaurs. Patagotitan was 122 feet long, without skin. It weighed more than ten elephants, making me wonder about water displacement ratios. Depending on your definition of that fuzzy measure of the cubit, the ark was only 450 feet long. And Patagotitan is only one of the titanosaurs that dwarf the already huge apatosaurus (the correct form of brontosaurus) and brachiosaurus. Even if they hibernated the sheer mass of reptilian tonnage wouldn’t leave much room for the latter ascendant mammals. That is, if mammals had come later and ascended.

Noah, despite being a traveler, never made it to Patagonia. In fact, the ark pretty much stayed still during the flood, coming to rest in Turkey after having been constructed somewhere just east of Eden. And since the Bible doesn’t mention continental drift we can’t even rely on Pangea to have gotten all the beasties to ark central on time. I’m guessing that Patagotitan was probably a slow walker. Since the continents were just like they are today, it must’ve been a fair swimmer as well. And it didn’t mind quarters just a touch claustrophobic for such a massive monster. What with all the home improvement shows these days, Noah might have considered an addition to the ark. But the Bible says God gave him the plan and one thing we know about the Almighty is that what he says he means literally. Dinosaurs or no.

Prophecy of Hezekiah

Maybe my recollection of the Gospel’s a bit hazy. I seem to remember one of the main characters of the New Testament saying something about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And turning the other cheek. I may be recalling incorrectly, since Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s “evangelical advisors” (and since when do Presidents need evangelical advisors?) has said the Bible gives you permission to take out your enemies. Granted, it takes a twisted exegesis of Romans, and twisted exegesis works best in twisted minds, but this runs full frontal in the gospel ideal of love just two books earlier in the Good Book. Forcing the Bible to say what you want it to say is a tactic as old as preaching itself, but still, those of us with training in Scripture shudder.

Pulling verses out of context like the Bible’s a magic book is called “prooftexting.” Not related to the current plague of texting, prooftexting means you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to. The classic example is that the Bible says “there is no God.” Check it out. I’ll even give you the reference: Psalm 14:1. What’s that? I’ve left out the most important part? “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’”? You see what I mean. The danger here is that a feeble-minded, biblically illiterate world leader could easily be swayed. Nukes, after all, are great for your ego. Who wouldn’t want the Bible to say that it’s fine to take out all your enemies, and horde all the money you possibly can (not it’s not the root of all evil—Paul is dead, after all.) Except Paul wrote Romans. How are we ever to decide?

The Washington Post story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey may not suggest that we should pay attention to Bible scholars—hey let’s not get too radical here!—but the world would be a very different place if we did. The Bible is a complex and difficult holy book. (As most holy books are.) The idea used to be that you had to spend a lifetime in a monastery, or at least a few years in a seminary, to say something intelligent about it. And that training wasn’t reinforcement of literalism. But we live in a brave new world. A world that re-envisions Jesus as the loving God with his finger firmly on the button. And sycophant preachers saying, “Go ahead, make my day.” It’s all there in the book of Hezekiah.