By Tim Bulkeley
Carey Baptist College, Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School
The Bible's most vociferous cultured despisers, the so-called neo-atheists, argue that (read literally as some sort of instruction manual) the Bible supports all sorts of barbarity. Christopher Hitchens calls it “a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human animals.”1 Sam Harris points out that thankfully few Christians follow the advice of Dt 13:7-11 and stone to death any of our children who convert to other faiths.2 That's not strange, the challenge they pose is a reasonable and necessary one. What is strange is that their reading of Scripture is one that Jewish and Christian tradition across the millennia has NOT practiced. Religious reading of sacred texts has been more nuanced and careful.
In this article I am not addressing those new Atheists, nor the a-religious biblical scholars, my target is those, like myself who teach Bible with religious motives, and in particular my fellow Christian biblical scholars who teach in seminaries.
So how can this new wave of atheist argument get away with such misuse of Scripture? Only because vociferous groups of Christians also use and advocate just such blind simplistic readings. Put bluntly it is Christian (and Jewish) “fundamentalists” who provide the atheists with the excuse they need to misuse Scripture. Indeed (at least many of) the students the neo-atheists teach, and my students too, seem to use just such a literalistic fundamentalist approach. A whole industry has grown up claiming that “real” Christians believe that Genesis 1 and 2 both describe how the world was made, and so predetermine the results that science “ought” to find. Or equally bizarre and historically novel interpretations of the other end of time, with its thousand year Reich and its rapture, and any number of other frightening or exciting visions that historic Christianity failed to recognize.
If there was a battle for the Bible in the churches, then by and large the fundamentalists, the “creation scientists” and the televangelists have won it. But since the tradition of Scriptural interpretation for nearly two millennia was not literalist/fundamentalist the sudden victory in the last few decades is indeed strange.
How has this revolution in popular Bible reading come about?
Partly it is clever use of communications technologies, and the tidy profits to be made from the “long tail” (the sum of a very large number of small donations adds up to amounts that more than cover the costs of the flashy TV and print promotionals). But we in the biblical studies “guild” bear our share of the blame. The explosion of exciting, challenging, and intellectually satisfying results of the application of historical approaches to studying these ancient texts as ancient texts has carried us along on a wave of research and publication. Then, after a time, those thoroughly secular methods began to look stale.3 As some of their luster faded, a plethora of different, competing, but equally secular-materialist approaches emerged as alternatives.
It was not only the University departments and faculties that were captured by the materialistic practical atheism of this wave of non-religious scholarship. Seminaries too have increasingly bought into4 these modern and post-modern styles of Bible reading. Students in these seminaries across the wealthy Western world (and in privileged, and so prestigious, Western-supported institutions elsewhere) learned more about J, E, D, & P or M, L, & Q than about the religious meaning of the Torah or of the teaching of Jesus.
This creeping, but near total, takeover by humanistic practical atheism5 in the academies does not seem to students to suggest ways to preach the Bible texts they study. Their teachers are more concerned to get the history, or the methodology right than to reveal spiritual significance. So the students become schizophrenic in their approach to Scripture: Atheist in scholarship, Fundamentalist in preaching or personal faith. The result of this quasi-Fundamentalist preaching is Christians in the pews who can no longer even imagine the older, richer traditional ways to read their foundational texts. They are therefore unprotected and prey to every smart-suited televangelist who enters their living room, with a car-salesman-like smile beaming from the box in the corner. In short, by our educational practices, we have bred sheep ready and docile to head uncritically into the shearing pens of the fundamentalist religion industry.
The answer is not to offer more, and more entertainingly presented, instruction in neuro-reflexological readings of biblical texts. Nor is it a good dose of minimalist historiography. The effective response is simpler than that, and more radical. Offer religious readings of the sacred texts to religious students. Recognize and celebrate their (our?) faith, and explore the texts within that framework, with spiritual goals in view. Such a study would not focus almost exclusively on the last century or two of scholarship. Rather it would give students a sense of how our spiritual ancestors wrestled with the texts. Thus revealing that our predecessors read the Bible using a range of non-literal hermeneutics, and how they read parts in the light of the whole. Particularly it would show that Christian readers in the past understood everything in Scripture in the light of the story of Jesus. After such a course of study our seminary students will be able to withstand the wiles of the Fundamentalists, whether of the atheist or the creation scientist varieties.
If we continue as we have been, seeking to separate faith from biblical studies, then all we can expect to foster are sharper and wilder fights between the extremists, with the middle ground left as a muddied no-man's-land.
1 Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Hachette, 2007, 102.
2 Sam Harris, The End of Faith. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004, 18.
3 At least they are thoroughly secular when kept pure, for as Avalos, Davies and others have pointed out those studies were in fact often contaminated by the wishful thinking of religionist practitioners.
4 Quite literally purchased either by “buying in staff” or with research time and publication funding.
5 By this phrase, I intend to imply the teaching of the Bible (whatever the expressed or unexpressed religious stance of the teacher) which talks about and examines the Bible as if its texts were just ancient human texts, and in all class-related material avoids considering the possible religious implications of the text.