HTLG: Notes Toward a Caveat
I think I need to say, up front, that evangelicals misread the Bible--quite uniquely, in the case of the Rapture (which I realize isn't that big a deal to most evangelicals, but it's so weird and so exactly correlated to evangelical belief that it's worth looking closer at)--but that I don't think they're stupid for doing so. I just think that they're sort of in love with the Bible--with a kind of helpless love, if you believe that the Bible is the only source of moral truth--and that this leads them to miss the signs that they're projecting perfection onto an object that isn't nearly as wonderful as they think. Evangelicals, in a sense, love the Bible the way a real Star Trek geek loves the original series: so accustomed to the show's more obvious flaws that they long ago made peace with them and don't even see them now, and uninterested in uncovering reasons to not love the show more. Of course, this analogy breaks down in a few ways if you poke at it. (For one thing, Star Trek fans don't generally think that critics of the show are morally corrupt and deserving of eternal torment.) But this might be a way to at least introduce the idea.
It's bound to be offensive any way I say it, I guess. But I do try to make allowances for different kinds of knowledge. I say in another place, for example (pushing the evangelicalism = love affair meme again), that Brad Pitt "knows" Angelina Jolie in an entirely different way than, say, Angelina Jolie's biographer (i.e., the mainstream Bible scholar) does. And in many ways Brad Pitt's knowledge is "better"--more exciting, more sexy, more immediate and direct, more appealing overall. He knows what it's like to live with her, day in and day out. But this does not give him to right to believe things that are factually untrue, or to accuse the biographer of base motives if she (the biographer) simply tries to keep her report relatively unbiased. And it would be absolutely absurd for Brad Pitt to claim not only that something false is, in fact, true (like, that Angelina Jolie is really a human-angel hybrid, and shares no DNA with Jon Voigt), but that he actually knows what he's talking about better than an independent researcher, because his motives are pure and loving. You can, however, understand why he might want to believe this; any transfer to a cold and unbiased view of things is a lot less exciting, a lot less interesting, and enough disenchantment of this sort might even lead to a breakup.
So I guess what I'm saying (at long last) is that I kind of want evangelicals to admit that they're factually and scholastically "wrong" about many things the Bible says, but that they do this because they're more concerned with passionate devotion to God than they are about detached clinical scholarship. It irks me that evangelicals often claim (because they read the Bible constantly in their very specific manner) to not only be experts on the Bible at exactly the points where they are poorly informed, but to claim that anyone who points out obvious facts--like, that the Garden of Eden story doesn't make very good moral sense--is a traitor or is somehow evil...or is too stupid to read what the Bible "clearly" says. My suspicion, however, is that evangelicals can never be humble about their reading of the scriptures, and can never defer to mainstream scholarship, because they need the Bible to be as plain and essentially reliable as they read it to be. More than a few times, friends of mine have refused to take even simple steps--like taking Genesis 1-2 metaphorically, which would scarcely affect a single sermon that has ever been preached on the topic--not out of logic, but out of fear of undermining the entire structure of their belief system. (The common refrain I hear is, "If I doubt that, where do I stop?")
***[...and another excerpt from an earlier letter]***
It is...manifestly obvious that evangelicals consistently misread the Bible. (I’ll give you a few examples in a moment.) Since I know evangelicals aren’t idiots, I’m trying to show why a scholastically indefensible position might make more sense, and seem more plausible, if you’ve internalized an evangelical view of the world. (This is just humans being human, of course; psychologists have proven that most human beings think they’re more likely to win the lottery than their neighbors are. This is an illogical thing to believe, but you can understand why it would be appealing and widespread, and I don’t fault anybody for believing it, as long as they don’t think it’s provably true, and /or demand that everyone else agree with them.) I would say, in a sense, not that evangelicals are fools, but that many of their presuppositions cause them, understandably, to read the wrong things. (If you read the Bible primarily as a moral guide, you’re going to be less curious about whether it holds together as a historical document, e.g.) But from any other viewpoint, these are unmistakable errors, and it would behoove evangelicals to at least admit that their reading of the Bible has the bias all lovers have for their beloved.
I go into a few examples, further in the chapter, of actual misreadings, which I can summarize here: 1.) a tendency to harmonize two separate stories as if they’re the same story (as in the Nativity, where Matthew has kings and a star, and Luke has shepherds and angels, and we are taught that both happened, but Matthew just ignored the choirs of singing angels, and Luke chose not to mention the slaughter of thousands of children. If evangelicals read a similar disconnect in an Islamic religious text they wouldn’t let it stand for a second; the two genealogies don’t even match); 2.) a tendency to assume that every miracle, no matter how improbable or weird—like Balaam’s ass actually talking—happened exactly as the Bible said, even if (as with Balaam, or in Genesis 1-2) it displays obvious literary elements of myth; 3.) a tendency to believe, in the absence of any evidence at all, that Matthew wrote Matthew, Mark wrote Mark, Luke wrote Luke-Acts, etc. (the original manuscripts have no names attached at all), and that certain obvious late additions to the Bible (like John 8:1-11, which first appears CENTURIES after the canon is created) are nevertheless wholly credible—again, something no evangelical would permit a different religion to believe about their own text, and something no scholar could accept on the strength of the evidence alone; 4.) a widespread belief in The Rapture, which is so absurdly Frankensteined together from unrelated segments of scripture that no self-respecting theologian in all of Christian history taught the Rapture as evangelicals know it until 150 years ago—and then, only in America.
I could go on, but the examples are legion. They’re not convincing (most likely) from an evangelical perspective, but that’s my point: Bible scholars are the ones looking at things straight; it’s the evangelicals who are blinded by love, devotion, and (if you accept the belief in Hell) a little bit of fear to maintain their beliefs and their consistently skewed reading. Yet if you look at this sort of love affair from the outside, you can see the parts of the dynamic that aren’t working. It’s like with any unfortunate relationship: you can’t tell your friend to cut it out and have any hope that they’ll listen. But I hope I can at least explain why the relationship works for the people in it, and why smart, decent people—not idiots, not moral monsters—might find it hard to leave this love behind.