Not so New

I remember it clearly.  The ubiquity of technology robs me of the memory of how I knew about it, but there was plenty of pre-internet buzz.  A new Bible translation was being published and people were very excited.  Including me.  By the time the New International Version (NIV) was set to appear, I had read every translation of the Good Book I knew, cover-to-cover.  Being a good evangelical, I started with the King James.  I’d read it a time or two, then moved on to the Revised Standard Version.  As you might guess, with my interests I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I do recall people complaining that it wasn’t literal enough.  I’d read the Living Bible, and the Good News Bible.  My favorite was probably the New American Standard Bible, though, because it was as close to languages I then didn’t know as I could get.

We didn’t have much money in my family, and since my summer jobs covered the cost of my school clothes, disposable income was fairly rare.  But then a miracle.  Christmas morning I opened my “big gift”—a brand new NIV.  In a way that is somehow difficult to recapture these days, I was absurdly happy getting a new Bible.  I started reading it right away.  Little did I know it would become the best-selling modern English translation of all time.  And that’s saying something—Bibles are big business.  The reason for the NIV’s appeal was that it was Evangelical-friendly.  No awkward issues like inclusive language, and, to be honest, a nicely rendered English.

Being in the Bibles business I decided to read about who was behind the NIV and found an unexpected connection with Rutgers University, where I used to teach.  The owner of the NIV translation is Biblica.  Biblica is the name of the International Bible Society, initially founded in 1809 as the New York Bible Society.  In a way that’s hard to imagine in today’s New York City, that’s where the group formed.  One of its founders?  Henry Rutgers.  Eventually the New York Bible Society became international, and like many good evangelicals, moved to Colorado Springs.  The money from continuing sales of the NIV must contribute to their somewhat posh-looking campus.  Meanwhile, Rutgers University has moved in quite a different direction.

Connections like this have always fascinated me.  Although much detritus has flowed under the bridge with all that water, I can still feel that brief, sharp release of endorphins when I pick up my well-used NIV.  I think of days of naive faith and all that has come after.  Yes, Bibles are big business, and yet somehow so very small.

Forgotten Bible Verses

Bible believers are basking in the headlines these days.  What with Mr. “Meet My Genitals” gunning for the Supreme Court and displacing them for a few days, they must be getting anxious for more sonburn in the limelight.  If only they didn’t have the Good Book standing in the way.  As I was reading my Bible the other day, I was reminded of this little gem, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  Now, liberals like myself know that Paul of Tarsus didn’t write 1 Timothy, but Bible-believers know he did.  So much the worse for them.  They elected a president who stands for nothing so much as the love of money, and the swamp has become quite a root of evil.  Senate Republicans, after hearing a second credible sexual assault allegation against their boy for the black bench responded by trying to rush through a vote before the news got out.  And this reminded me of the forgotten prophets.

“What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”  Well, you see, Mr. Micah, we know we’re heading to defeat in the midterms, so we’ve got to railroad through as many of our personal agendas as we can.  Don’t you know, o Lord, that this is a lifetime appointment?  And really, what does justice have to do with it?  Sure, he gropes and demeans women, but you’re a dude, right?  I bet you did the same when you were in high school and college.  And the money thing?  We’re only trying to help the economy because, well, wealth trickles down.  Who said anything like it’s the root of all evil?  “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate.”  Now, don’t go quoting Mr. Amos to me.  Next thing I know you’ll be telling me to let justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Forgotten Bible verses, in the new Evangelicalism, seem to be cropping up on the black market.  You might think we should turn back to the start of the Good Book and read from the beginning.  There the GOP will find its solace until they come to the 27th verse, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”  That semicolon says a lot; they will claim.  Man is the image of God, and he had a son.  Just don’t listen too closely to what that son says, particularly when he makes remarks like “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”  Young men like to drink and grope.  When they grow old they then like to be Supreme Court justices.  What’s that?  One more short verse?  “Jesus wept.”

Look Both Ways

One of the things I miss the most about my teaching career is learning from the young.  While some professors in my experience believed the learning only went one way, I always found a kind of reciprocity in it.  I passed on what I learned from taking classes and having my face in a book all the time, and they taught me about popular culture.  Academics don’t get out much, you see.  It’s a basic issue of time—we all have a limited amount of it and research, if done right, takes an incredible chunk.  In fact, when hot on the trail of an idea, it’s difficult to think of anything else.  Pop culture, on the other hand, is what the majority of people share.  Now it’s largely mediated by the internet, a place that some academics get bored.

Speaking to a young person recently, I was initially surprised when he said that his generation was more interested in the Devil than in God.  Parents have always been concerned that their children not go astray, but this was, it seemed to me, more of an intellectual curiosity than any kind of devotion.  God, he averred, was thought of as aloof, pious, self-righteous; in a word, Evangelical.  The internet can be downright ecclesiastical in its affirmation that our inclinations can be what used to be called “sinful.”  Not that these things are always bad, but they are the kinds of things we’re taught to feel guilty about.  The divine response?  Anger.  Displeasure.  Shaming.  Young people, my interlocutor thought, found the Devil more understanding.

Perhaps this is the ultimate result of Evangelical thinking.  We’re watching in real time as the party of Jesus is becoming the party of intolerance for anyone different than ourselves.  Rather than turning the other cheek, it’s fire when ready.  Eager to retain the “brand” of “Christianity,” they slap the secular label on any outlook different than their own, although their own faith is without form and void.  It used to be that this was the realm of the Devil.  This sheds a different perspective on what my young colleague was saying.  Instead of bringing people to God, the Evangelical movement is driving them away.  Traditionally, the Devil was after the destruction of human souls.  That seems to be one of the new values of the right wing of the church.  There’s quite a bit to think about in this observation by this young one.  I’m glad to know that traffic still moves both directions on this street.

Redefinition

The striking thing about Evangelicalism is its protean nature. The earliest forms of this conversion-based “Christianity” began with the Reformation among Pietist Protestants. They sincerely believed in two things: the Bible and Jesus. Today Evangelicals deny both. They believe in Donald Trump. Racism and subordination of women are their two main foci. And yet, they wish to keep the brand. Daily we see the standards of traditional “Christianity” tumble: turn the other cheek, love your neighbor as thyself, if a man asks your cloak give him your coat also. All of this jettisoned like so much non-capitalist clap-trap. Thing is, it’s in the Bible. Thing is, it was said by Jesus. And also anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his heart is guilty of adultery, let alone those who pay them off so they can grab another on the way out the door. All of that’s now “Christianity.”

The funny thing is that those who object to such behavior are what Evangelicals scornfully call “liberals.” So much for the group that just three short years ago advocated the reinstitution of biblical law. Now that 45 would have committed a capital crime according to such laws, they have changed the Good Book rather than rebuke the pastor in chief. Ironically, some of the children of famous evangelists have drunk deeply from that Kool-Aid. It’s fine to sleep around as long as you lie the right way at the right time. Bear false witness? What does that even mean? You’d think liberals were suggesting that those God loves are chasteneth by him, for goodness sake!

Many of us feel as though we woke up to an alternate reality in November of 2016. We supposed the Republican Party would show some backbone, but when they didn’t we weren’t all that surprised. What shocked us most is that the leopard has changed its spots. Those of us brought up with the Bible were led to believe this impossible. After all, who can change a hair from black to white (although some of us would rather have it go the opposite direction)? We thought that Holy Writ would guide the Evangelical heart. We thought they would remember who Jesus was. All of this is negotiable now. The only solid rock on which they build their church—those to whom they give the keys to the kingdom—are those that fall into goose-step behind a “leader” for whom the truth changes daily. Opportunist be thy name. Were Jesus alive to see all this, surely he’d weep.

Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.

Freezes Over

A good metaphor gone bad can do a lot of damage. Like a loose cannon. Hell is a bad neighborhood for metaphors. Taken literally Hell can be hell. So it is that many evangelical Christians are abandoning the concept. Jumping ship on the Manichean outlook that has policed bad behavior for two millennia now. A recent article on National Geographic by Mark Strauss discusses why many leading conservatives are now casting Hell into the pit and looking for ways to make God look better. Like many metaphors, Hell best resides in a world of black and white. A dualistic world where there are no shades of gray (certainly less than fifty of them). A world where any behavior can be understood as good or bad, forward or retrograde, never neutral. You’re either for us or against us. There’s no Switzerland in this geography. That’s precisely why so many people want to keep Hell on a leash.

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Hell probably never would’ve become such a motivator for good had Jesus not mentioned it. Prior to its encounter with Zoroastrian beliefs, Judaism held that the dead quietly resided in Sheol, a dreary place, true, but hardly fiery real estate. You worked out justice here on earth because that was the only chance you had. The dead were sleepier than early morning commuters and they received neither rewards or punishments. It was a much more egalitarian view of things. The dualistic Zoroastrians saw paradise and torment as a great image to explain evil in the world. The sorting takes place after this life is over. Jesus used such language as well, and the image became canonical.

Evangelicals are now starting to think through the implications of all this. A God with the kinds of anger issues that condemn people literally forever might be problematic. Sure, we may get angry at our enemies, but only the most truly heartless person has no pity on their suffering. What does it say about God if his anger lasts for eternity? Some, therefore, are trying to put the metaphor back into Hell without losing the strict divisions for which the good news crowd is famous. Instead of full-time Hell, perhaps there’s part-time Hell with time for repentance. Or simple annihilation. Metaphors lose their power when they come to be taken literally. Hell is such a loose canon. Doctrine among the doctrinaire is often non-negotiable. Although some may try, as a whole, the fires of Hell can never be extinguished. At least to those who understand figures of speech as statements of fact.

The One That Got Away

While looking for reviewers for a book proposal on Jonah, I had a strange realization. Few mainstream biblical scholars are interested in the book. Or at least in publishing on it. The same goes for the Bible’s other great watery adventure, Noah’s story. Ironically, these are the stories we, as children, are weaned on. Kids love animals, right? And both Noah’s ark and Jonah’s great fish mastication involve animals, as well as lots of water. Both stories have more than a whiff of the fantastic about them—the kind of thing children can relate to. And yet, biblical scholars, collectively, wonder why few people are interested in their work as they take on the more heady work of unraveling Isaiah or Romans.

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Jonah used to be a test case for the Fundamentalist crowd. You were a “Bible believer” if you could, with steely gaze, claim that Jonah was swallowed by a fish—the Bible doesn’t say “whale”—and survived three days only to be vomited up on the Levantine shore to make his soggy way back to Assyria. Three days swimming in the gastric juices of just about any animal doesn’t do a great deal for a prophet’s credibility. Or physique. And since the story is fantastic, and populist, scholars avoid it like a giant fish. Meanwhile, John and Susie Q. Public want to know about this story—what does it mean? Did it really happen? Why is it in the Bible at all?

My generalization above is somewhat faulty. (What generalization isn’t?) Evangelical scholars still take an active interest in Jonah. Jonah is the stomach-acid test of faith. Since I never really outgrew my love of monster movies and outlandish plot lines (my brothers recently convinced me that I should see Sharknado) I’m fascinated by the tale of Jonah. It is one of the most carefully constructed stories in the Bible, and it clearly has a very counterintuitive message about who is acceptable in God’s eyes—here’s a hint: they live in Nineveh and even dress their animals in sackcloth when they realize they’ve been naughty. The book of Jonah, however, has been condemned for being a puerile tale of a guy who can hold his breath three days, amid chemicals that can dissolve most organic substances, and utter Psalm-like prayers all the while. Fish stories, after all, are something that many folks intuitively know how to interpret.