Biblical Script

The popular perception of the Bible generally does not match the actual contents very well. Like most books, the Bible has its highlights: Creation, Flood, David and Goliath, Jonah, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jesus, the Apocalypse. Between all the fascinating narrative, however, come the instructions. More instructions, in point of fact, than most people would care for. Nevertheless, over the centuries the Bible has acquired an aura in western civilization. It has become what some colleagues call an “iconic book.” It is this aspect of the Bible that stands out most clearly in the Fox series Sleepy Hollow. I wrote a post about Sleepy Hollow as I began to watch the first season on DVD. The headless horseman is an agent of the Apocalypse, and clergy and witches play a prominent role in the story. I wondered if the role of the Bible would diminish once the audience was drawn into the conceit of the four horsemen thundering out of Revelation into Sleepy Hollow. Just the opposite, in fact, occurred.

Sleepy_Hollow_-_Title_Card

As the series unfolds, the Bible is drawn more and more into the story. Demons and detectives both want to get their hands on it. Not to read the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but because the Bible contains esoteric information. Those “in the know” can unlock its secrets and thereby save society. Ironically, this is a subtextual version of the biblical metanarrative. It is all about (from the Christian perspective) salvation. The means, however, are quite different. Jesus is not really part of the Sleepy Hollow story. The Bible belongs to George Washington, cryptically bringing politics into the story. The text is not secure; there are extra verses in Washington’s Bible, just as there are many excised bits in Thomas Jefferson’s. Washington leaves instructions for saving his fledgling nation from the evils that roamed its shores during the Revolution. Or is that Revelation?

Right up to the cliff-hanger ending of season one, the Bible comes back time and again, focusing the viewer on its magical qualities. It is a book of secrets and mysteries. Meanwhile in the real world, biblical studies positions are being slashed from universities as if the horseman’s axe were anything but fictional. We don’t want to know about the real Bible. Politicians, real ones, use it as their own sword to force their personal faith agendas onto the electorate, but we generally do not even understand what the Bible really is. We’ll fund economics, that dismal science, and business, and maybe even actual science. The humanities, however, the stuff that makes us human, we will gladly call luxuries and deny them fiscal security. So the Bible grows in stature even as it diminishes in stature. Those who don’t know the factual Bible can easily be swayed by the fictional one. Are those hoofbeats I hear in the distance?

Jefferson’s Legacy

With the gears grinding in the political machine and candidates for the GOP nomination each trying to show they are more righteous than the others, the name of Thomas Jefferson gets used quite a bit. Jefferson’s famous Bible, literally cut-and-pasted together by one of our better presidents, removed miracles from the picture, and Jefferson’s writings leave open the question of whether Deist or Atheist is a more accurate description. I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia right now, home of that paean to Jefferson, the University of Virginia. For a state university, UVA has perhaps the largest religion department in the country. I noted with some irony, that the religion department is housed just above the political science department in Gibson Hall. While waiting for my first appointment, I sat in an alcove where two students began talking about politics. (This was in the religion department.) My chagrin grew as my grin faded with their lament about how poor the Republican candidates are, “but we have to get Obama out of the White House.” In order to do so, they’d elect a man whom they believe unqualified for the office.

Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying a person who doesn’t start out as a liberal has no heart, but who remains a liberal as an adult has no brain—or some such nonsense. The fact is, compassion never should go out of style. It seems to me that somebody changed the terms and what they mean. “Conservative” used to equate to a fiscal position that, while it favored the wealthy, still had sympathy—or even empathy—for those less well-off built in. Now it has come to define “selfish disregard of those different than me.” We see it all the time, not just in political speeches, but in acts passed in the name of Christianity. Jefferson’s Bible is being trampled underfoot. And we are told repeatedly that America was founded as a Christian nation. Of the students discussing politics here, the more conservative of the two was the woman.

Does she not realize that without the liberalizing tendencies of the suffragettes her own future would be limited? That does not excuse in any way the patriarchy that made suffrage necessary in the first place, but it does speak to how quickly we are taught to forget. Even in the land of Jefferson, there are those who would protect privilege and call it divinity. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The words of Thomas Jefferson. In our great universities those who actually do learn are sometimes taught that empathy is weakness and fiscal gain is god. Unless it’s an election year. With great wealth going into the carnival we call the nomination process, we might legitimately ask what’s to become of us if those with no empathy are elected. After all, what are we, apes?

One of the few presidents worth casting in bronze

In Our Own Image

Word is out that Andrew Schlafly, spawn of Phyllis, is working on a new Bible. In a stunning move that will amaze even many conservative Christians, Schlafly has decided that the Bible itself is too liberal. On his alternative to “liberal” Wikipedia, Conservapedia, he cites the ten principles for translating the Bible in a conservative-acceptable way. Unable to attain the lofty heights of rhetoric on Conservapedia’s Conservative Bible Project page, I need to quote verbatim the 10 Commandments of Schlafly’s ideal Bible:

1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms to capture better the original intent; Defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words that have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”; using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
8. Exclude Later-Inserted Inauthentic Passages: excluding the interpolated passages that liberals commonly put their own spin on, such as the adulteress story
9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”

Am I the only one to sniff a strong scent of Orwell here? Principle 1 stipulates that the translation, by converse logic (the kind apparently in favor) should be biased, as long as the bias is neo-con. In principle number 4 we are told that the word “word” has changed in meaning. Suddenly I’m reaching out for the railing – steady, steady! Principle 7: “free market parables”? Here is Jesus made-over in the image of Rush (I Can’t Have the Rams) Limbaugh; remove the kindness and compassion please. Jesus’ only goal is to be the CEO, or at least his only son. The translators reserve the right to remove objectionable material traditionally attributed to Jesus. Even Mr. Rogers could spell Revisionist!

Sure, Bible translators need to give the readership what they want. Thomas Jefferson removed the miracles and divinity claims for Jesus before publishing “the Jefferson Bible.” And he was a president! Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton led efforts to produce the Woman’s Bible, removing masculine bias from the text. Bible scholars, however, do not accept their efforts as original biblical manuscripts. Even the general public knows better. What Mr. Schlafly is proposing is giving a gullible readership a Bible that contains what God meant to say; i.e., if God were me. What is disturbing about this is not that one person is offering his or her own version of the Bible – that’s been done before – but that it is intended to lead the unwary to a vision of Christianity that is new but claiming to be apostolic.

I think I feel a podcast coming on.

Woman's Bible

Woman's Bible

Jefferson Bible

Jefferson Bible