Category Archives: Bibliolatry

Posts that consider an unusual amount of devotion to the Bible

Good Newsists

In the interest of avoiding conflict thereof, I cannot yet give a review of Randall Balmer’s Evangelicalism in America. Since I’m writing a review of it for Reading Religion, I’ll use it as a springboard into a topic that should concern all who believe in religious freedom. One of the resounding themes of Balmer’s treatment is that Evangelicalism, after it wedded to the Religious Right, lost its soul. Those are my words, not his, but the sentiment’s about right. For anyone who wasn’t politically aware in the 1980s, it may seem a surprise that religion didn’t enter into politics before that decade. With the exception of the fear of the Catholic in the case of John F. Kennedy, religion wasn’t used as a political wedge until the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Religious Right, unhappy with the born again Southern Baptist in the White House, moved to solidify the Evangelical bloc.

Evangelicals had been an underground movement for half a century. Many had no idea what being “born again” meant when Carter first claimed the sobriquet. Balmer points out that it was the threat of the withdrawal of tax-exempt status to discriminating Christian schools that led to political action. Bob Jones University, fearful of racial intermarriage, didn’t admit African American students. Leaders of the Religious Right saw the loss of tax-exempt status as a move against their sacred segregated culture and a push that required a shove. Coopting the abortion issue (historically Evangelicals had supported women’s rights, including the right to abortion in many cases), they nailed together a platform for political activism which put women “back in their place,” kept racial “purity,” and romanced a total aberration in Christianity—the “prosperity gospel.” All of this is well documented. And well hidden.

Looking at Evangelical politics today, abortion—the control of women—has become THE issue. It’s hard to believe, as Balmer amply illustrates, that Evangelicalism used to be allied with the Social Gospel. It was a religious view with a conscience and it supported issues that are now polarized as “liberal” and leftist. This shift came about gradually, but not accidentally. There were political players—Balmer names names—who had one goal in mind, and that goal wasn’t Jesus or what he’d do. It was the sweet prize of political power. Evangelicals, you see, are born followers. A leader with a strong voice can lead them just about anywhere. Many Evangelicals today would deny their more liberal history, but it is right there for anyone who’s willing to learn something about who they once were.

Trusting Truth

How do we know what’s true? For many the answer is what your experience reveals. If that experience involves being raised as a Bible-believer, that complicates things. A friend recently sent me a New York Times piece entitled “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” by Molly Worthen. For those of us raised in Fundamentalist conditions, this isn’t news. Then again, those raised Fundamentalist assume that everyone knows the truth but others have blatantly decided to reject it. It’s a strange idea, inerrancy. It’s clearly a form of idolatry and its roots can be traced if anyone wishes to take the time to do it. Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is correct, tout court. It’s right about everything. If it contains one error, so the thinking goes, it topples like a house of cards. (Cards are sinful by the way, so get your hands off that deck!) If that’s your starting point, then the rest of the facts have to fall into place.

As much as I wish I could say that this simplistic outlook may be corrected by education, that’s not always the case. Many children of inerrantists are raised to question what they learn in school. Worse, many are home schooled so that they never have to be exposed to the sinful machinations of others until they try to enter the job market and are utterly perplexed by the fact that they don’t even speak a common language with the rest of society. Key code words don’t mean the same things outside that safe, withdrawn community where everyone knows the Bible and understands that to know it is to love it. Science doesn’t love the Bible, they’re taught. So science is wrong. It’s quite simple really. You already have all the information you need in one book. If science disagrees, then, well, you already have all the information you need.

There’s an internal logic to all of this, and dismissing the heartfelt beliefs of Fundamentalists only gets their backs up. It’s not about logic, but the emotion of belief. Some neuroscientists have been suggesting that we reason not only by logic but also with emotion. That complicates things, for sure, but it also explains a lot. For example, in a world where religion drives nearly all the major issues facing society, logic would dictate that universities would build up religion departments to try to understand this very real danger. Instead we find the exact opposite. Withdrawing into your own little world occurs on both ends of the spectrum. Dr. Worthen is to be applauded for bringing this out into the light. If society wants to benefit from this knowledge, it will need to stop and think about what it really means to be human. Fundamentalists, for all their foibles, illustrate that nicely.

The Scofield Connection

While reading about Cyrus Scofield recently—and that book has stayed on and played with my mind for some reason—I ran across the conferences that he held in preparing his famous reference Bible. Although he claimed the sobriquet “Doctor,” placing D.D. after his name, like many a self-puffer Scofield has no university that will support the claim. (It’s amazing how many high-level CEOs and “important” businessmen pad their résumés with false degrees. Even some government wannabes do it, and then they want to defund education after they get into office.) Perhaps because he had no seminary training, and likely didn’t even graduate from college, Scofield might’ve felt a sense of insecurity when it came to a very large book originally written in languages he couldn’t read. There’s a reason “King James Only” Christians exist. In any case, he set up meetings in a couple of conspicuous places to go over his work. One of those places was Grove City College.

Now, like many small, Christian colleges, Grove City isn’t widely known. Most of the student population—at least when I was there—was fairly local. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, for the most part. Still on the (admittedly rare) occasion when someone asks me where I went for my undergraduate work, they generally haven’t heard of Grove City at all. Even though I spent four years of my life there, I had no idea about the Scofield connection until I read Joseph Canfield’s book. That’s because not all Fundamentalists grow up with Scofield. I’m sure I heard about the Scofield Reference Bible but I didn’t own one and I wondered what the big fuss was all about. After all, the annotations were the work of a man, and I was interested in the words of God. Far more popular was the revision of Scofield known as the Ryrie Study Bible, but I never read that either.

The end result is that many people think that Scofield’s words are “the Bible.” As I used to tell my students, binding pages together within a book makes a statement. If you’re saying “this is the word of God” and part of “this” is Scofield’s annotations, most people can’t distinguish between text and commentary. I eventually acquired a Scofield Bible, not for valid information, but simply for information. I was amazed at how poorly executed it was. Nevertheless, a true believer reading through the first chapters of 1 Chronicles is ready to accept even minimal narrative as divine. So it is that many Americans have come to believe in a Bible that’s not biblical. Religion is full of paradoxes and in this case I’d shared sleeping quarters with one in my more formative years although the connection was unknown at the time.

Direct Address

For a man as amazingly influential as he was, Cyrus I. Scofield hasn’t been the object of much curiosity. In the venerable academic tradition of ignoring those you disagree with, serious scholars dismiss Scofield as some kind of evangelical aberration, a theological leper, if you will. It’s difficult to locate book-length treatments of the man, although he may claim considerable credit for the elections of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the current incumbent. Somewhat skeptical of the obviously polemical The Incredible Scofield and His Book by Joseph M. Canfield, curiosity drove me to read it as an accessible and thoroughly researched account. Now, one evangelical going after another isn’t a pretty sight, but if you can get past the “this is what the Bible really means” oneupmanship, there is clear evidence of a sharp mind with legitimate historical accuracy as its priority in Canfield. This is especially clear where he demonstrates that scholars shown the evidence will choose to ignore it to preserve the sanctity of a man hardly a saint.

The strange religion that has developed from the Scofield Reference Bible has had an astoundingly long reach. If you know what “the Rapture” is, it’s probably because those who took their cues from Scofield’s Bible ensured that it became a standard American trope. It generally doesn’t have to be explained, even though the idea doesn’t occur in the Bible. It’s based on a set of “dispensations” developed among the Plymouth Brethren, a fairly small British and Irish sect that influenced the world through its prophet Scofield. (Scofield himself was not a member of the Brethren, but he learned his system of “history” from them.) Although the Scofield Reference Bible wasn’t technically the first study Bible, it was the first widely influential one. It is, in a sense, America’s Bible.

Scofield himself was hardly clergy material. Canfield documents this clearly and doggedly. Among the evangelicals, however, an admission of guilt—no matter how insincere—has to be taken at face value. If you’re caught “backsliding” after that, all you have to do is admit that too. They’re obligated to forgive you 490 times, if they’re truly literalists. We can see this at work in the bizarre evangelical backing of Trump, a Christian only by the loosest possible definition. If you say you’ve accepted Jesus they have to believe you. It’s the ultimate scam. Scofield himself seems to have been aware of this. Particularly wrenching was the account of how, after he was making a respectable income from his Bible, he refused to give money to one of his daughters from his first marriage when she wanted to buy a house. His will left no money to any charitable organization at all. You can take it with you, apparently. And so, we’re left with a world devised by such a man with no theological training. Since he’s so obviously low brow, however, we lack scholarly biographies that take the care of Canfield in exposing information readily available to those with open eyes.

An Apple a Day

Have you ever bitten into a piece of rotten fruit? I suspect most of us have had the unpleasant experience. From the outside the apple looks fine but that first bite sinks into a brown and corrupt interior that turns your stomach. There’s no rehabilitating it—once fruit’s gone bad it’s bad. Jesus is once said to have said “by their fruits you will know them,” them being the righteous. Over the last several days we’ve watched, not exactly surprised, as the news revealed Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied under oath—what used to be a very serious crime—about consorting with the Russians. The difference between that and the apple I described is that this one didn’t look so good from the outside either. Eve, I think, would’ve chosen a different piece.

The strange thing about this is that evangelical Christians of the sort that voted for Trump should know about the fruits passage. Not the Eve one, the other one. Growing up in a Fundamentalist context I frequently heard about knowing others by their fruits. People are capable of deception, even under oath. That’s why we have a name for it. Thing is, we expect better from those who hold the highest offices in the land. And we’d expect honesty on the part of the evangelical crowd. Once you’ve bitten into that apple there’s no turning back. Ideology trumps theology, it seems. Even the Bible. That’s one of the great mysteries of our time—those who loudly proclaim they live their lives by the Bible count on others not having read it. Kind of embarrassing to be caught with your bias showing. Those whose sins you’re willing to overlook in the name of principle.

As the rogue’s gallery that we now recognize as the presidential cabinet was being nominated, many in this nation suffered shock wave after shock wave of incredulity. Steve Bannon later admitted that their role was to dismantle the agencies they’d inherited—so much for the meek inheriting the earth bit—while power-blinded Republican leaders followed like, well, sheep. The evangelical crowd, ignoring that troublesome leather-bound book they love, refuse to criticize. Who hasn’t forgotten meeting with the Russian Ambassador from time to time? I’m old fashioned enough to believe there’s a difference between biting into an apple that to all appearances is fine and one that’s obviously rotten from the start. In one case you end up disappointed. In the other you get what you deserve.

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Beating around the Bush

You know things are bad when another president who couldn’t win the popular vote criticizes you. Don’t get me wrong—criticism is good. In my academic existence (on life-support for over a decade now) I’ve received plenty. The point is you can’t improve if you’re not willing to take a few blows. Defensive academics don’t survive long. The problem seems to be, if I may speculate from my knowledge of biblical studies, the word “criticism.” Growing up, one of the last things I wanted to have was criticism. Already overly self-conscious of my sins, criticism only felt like making an already bad situation even worse. Then I was introduced to biblical criticism.

Biblical criticism sounds like the worst kind, but in reality it’s absolutely necessary. The idea is to study the Good Book rationally. I knew, and still know, many people who believe biblical criticism to be evil. If you trust any history—either secular or divine doesn’t matter—you quickly learn that nothing is simply one-sided. The Bible itself offers examples of this: did God or the Devil tempt David to take a census? Just how many angels were in that tomb on Easter morning and who arrived there first? Only one answer can be right. Criticism is, typical of academics too long out of the sun, a poor word choice. Nobody’s picking on the Bible. All the biblical critic is trying to do is to find out what it really says by asking questions of the text.

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That’s the heart of the matter. Autocrats don’t like questions. The assumption that the inherent authority of a position should be unquestioned undermines any attempt at democracy. As I was often told in church—Christianity isn’t a democracy. Our political system, we’re told, is. That why checks and balances were built into it. Either extreme and the applecart is upset. No matter what believers believe the same applies to biblical studies. Some rampant Harvard toadyism remains, but for the most part we recognize that a scholar with—shall we call them “critical skills”? may emerge from even a school shorn of ivy. We understand that’s how learning works. No one’s above criticism. Only those with something to hide can’t take their lumps like the populace that allow them to claim the name populist. Nobody likes it, but we all have to take criticism from time to time. Even the Good Book.

Celestial Politics

Two things about my childhood: I grew up religious, and I grew up learning you didn’t talk about religion or politics. Now I see that that combination leads to tremendous potential for abuse. Many conservative Christians believe that their faith only ever endorses a Republican candidate, no matter how bad. This is a strange idea and it goes back to some strange people. If I can talk about it.

We live in a cult of celebrity. This is nothing new. People have always admired the individual who could get him or herself noticed. As early as the epic of Gilgamesh, the guy willing to show his bad self managed to capture the public imagination. We’re still reading his story some five millennia later. Of all places this tendency to treat a human being as authoritative should be considered strange is evangelical Christianity. This religion grew out of a largely Calvinistic backdrop where no individual could be assumed to be good. Indeed, total depravity was part of the theological environment. Mix in this stern outlook with the revivalism of the two “great awakenings” and an uncanny alchemy takes place. People, who used to be bad, now found enthusiasm in religion. The first real superstar in the United States was George Whitefield, a preacher. He had a massive following and was, in every sense of the word, a celebrity. This culture became the social substrata of the new nation. Open to all religions, yes, but mostly belonging to this one.

Once American religion became based on popularity, singular figures emerged as defenders of this faith. “Trusted” leaders and authors. Not all of them home-grown either. Names like C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Francis Schaeffer—not to mention Billy Graham—grew to a status they never had in their lifetimes. Well, Schaeffer and Graham came to be evangelical gurus in their own rights and Graham remains among the living, but Lewis and Bonhoeffer were really adopted by conservatives only after their deaths. The interesting point here is that Lewis and Bonhoeffer often wrote things that directly challenge the easy evangelicalism that accepts them as celebrities. The problem is, we don’t talk about religion any more. We use it for voting, and for feeling good about ourselves. Superior, even. It seems strange to think that Calvinism had some safeguards built in that have been knocked down for the sake of the polls. I can’t imagine John Calvin casting a vote for Donald Trump. But then again, Calvin became a celebrity in his own lifetime, so I might be wrong about that.

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