Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

My Photo
Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Monday, February 18, 2008

HTLG: Chapter 8--How Evangelicals Read the Bible (was Evolution), Part 2 of 3 or 4

I'm almost done with the book proposal! Hooray! But as I close in on its final shape, I've noticed that I really don't have room to include the section on Evolution and How Evangelicals Read the Bible. But it deserves to be seen, particularly by my poor friend Trazom, who felt I cut off the discussion just as it was getting good. So here's part two: an analysis of the two major rules evangelicals use to gauge any particular Bible passage. If things proceed as I imagine, part three will break down into various subrulings, and part four will show how evangelicals tend to apply all these principles, verse by verse, to Genesis 1-2.

The first part of this discussion is way back here. This is part 2.


First, and most obviously, “Bible-believing” Christians, by definition, do not read the Bible the same way they would read any other ancient work. Any sensible person who reads The Bhagavad-Gita knows that they’re not really getting it if they just read it cold. It makes more sense if you understand the history and culture of the time, and if you know which parts are real and which are made-up. The wisest course would be to consult the experts.

But the Bible is presumed to be readable by, and comprehensible to, everybody. The reason for this should be obvious: since human beings are terribly corrupt and self-deceiving, and since even mainstream churches are avoiding the real Gospel, the Bible must be God’s way of talking to us! If it was all that hard to understand, then we can have nothing to rely on, and God wouldn’t do that. So in most cases, the most naïve reading of scripture—its ‘plain sense,’ to use a common phrase—is considered the most correct. Because human beings are selfish, resentful of God’s authority, and seeking at all times to ignore his commands, the ‘plain sense’ is valuable precisely because it has had minimal human interpretation to interfere and mess things up.

“What about translation?” you may ask. “Isn’t translation a form of interpretation?” Yes it is. For that matter, so is editing, and Bible translation is as much a process of cobbling together the best of many variant readings as it is an exercise in transliteration. But evangelicals, like other Christians, don’t have to worry about this very much, because there are a host of evangelical-friendly translations available: most notably the New International Version and (less popular, but still in there swinging) the New American Standard. This is why most evangelicals choose one translation and stick to it monogamously: it’s the translation through which the voice of God has spoken, through which God’s word is meditated on, memorized, put into practice. And since it comes from a reliable source (non-denominational Bible-believers who can be trusted to smooth over the bumps and weirdness), many actual Bible problems that trouble scholars have, for the evangelical, been strangled in the crib by the good work of the International Bible Society.

The two major Bibles that are clearly non-evangelical are the New Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version. Both of these fail on one of Bible translations’ big shibboleths. Here’s the story: In Matthew 1:23, Jesus is described as being born of a virgin in order to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.” The problem is that this is a mistranslation. The actual Hebrew word in Isaiah is “almah,” which means “young woman,” and in the original context it’s clearly referring to the king's (Ahaz’s) naturally pregnant wife, not to a miraculous birth. But the author of Matthew seems to have been reading Isaiah, not in the original Hebrew, but using the Greek Septuagint, which uses the word “parthenos”—which is “virgin” for sure. So by translating the Hebrew correctly, The New Jerusalem and Revised Standard bibles are exposing Matthew’s error and betraying the evangelical cause of biblical unity.

If you go back and read Isaiah 7, you will note also that the prophecy in Isaiah was never intended to be a prophecy about the Messiah in the first place (it’s referring to a siege of Jerusalem that was going on at the time of the original book), and the only reason Jesus is ever referred to as Immanuel is in light of this alleged “prophecy,” which has therefore become self-fulfilling. So this is not a prophecy by any meaningful definition of the term, and only convinces as prophecy to people who read with the eyes of faith, scanning plain text for mysterious allusions that can be justified after the fact. But evangelicals read Matthew far, far more often than they read Isaiah, and they tend to trust that the Bible speaks with one voice and would never imagine that there would be a discrepancy. So the Christian who wanders across Isaiah 7:14 in the original and notices that there isn’t a Messiah in sight isn’t usually bothered for long. “That’s odd,” they will think, “but Matthew says it’s a prophecy, so it must be one in a way that seems strange to us today. We’re at fault for misreading Isaiah’s intention. After all, the Bible doesn’t make important mistakes.” (And of course, Matthew is one of the four gospels, so it’s far more relevant to the believer’s life than whatever event Isaiah is going on about.)

Obviously, however, by reading Isaiah 7:14 the way evangelicals do, the “Bible-believer” is believing one part of the Bible over against another. But for the most part, they haven’t even noticed that that’s what they’re doing. They’re so committed to accepting the reliability of scripture that they don’t even see hiccups, the same way that people in bad relationships can be blind to hundreds of red flags because they’re trying so hard to make it work. We see what we need to see: heads I win, tails don’t count.

This leads to the second important principle evangelicals use to interpret the Bible—and this one is mostly unconscious. That principle is The Bible must say whatever it is we are committed ahead of time to believing is important. This is not quite the same thing as being merely “relevant,” though as we’ll see, that’s part of it. What I’m talking about here are the issues that evangelicals tend to stake out as being self-evident articles of faith. Whatever modern social issue gets Bible-believing Christians the most exercised is often the very point at which they bend the Bible the most aggressively. A minor example, already noted, is the ways in which evangelicals line up behind the Bible and declare that it’s “pro-family”—and in the process ignore almost every dismissive thing Jesus ever said about families.

Back in the 1880s to the 1930s, one of the single biggest issues of Christianity—the greatest moral struggle of the day—was alcohol. Alcohol destroyed homes, corrupted youth, pickled livers, and in general was responsible for every kind of related crime in the world. The Bible, the evangelical reformers said, was obviously against this, and just as clearly advocated for Prohibition: not just abstinence for believers, but a wholesale ban for everyone.

The problem with this is that, although being anti-alcohol made a certain amount of sense as a moral crusade at the time—rapid industrialization had led to poverty, intolerable living conditions, and all the other stressors that lead people to take up the bad kind of drinking—it’s practically impossible to draft the Bible as a soldier in the alcohol wars. Jesus turned water into wine! Paul tells Timothy to “drink a little wine” for his stomach. Most of the Bible—huge, vast swaths of it—says nothing about drinking at all. In fact, in the entire 1000 + pages of the Bible, if you’re looking for official pronouncements on liquor, you really only have two verses to choose from—a proverb that says “Strong wine is a mocker” and the letter that says “your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit” (which in context is about sexual propriety, but the phrase is capable of being drafted into a number of different crusades).

There are also a handful of weird stories from the Old Testament where people get drunk. Noah gets drunk and embarrassingly naked after the ark lands safely, and Lot’s daughters get him drunk so they can have sex with him during a drought of nice Jewish men. But it seems pretty safe to say that none of these verses would ever have been dusted off if the people using the verses weren’t desperately seeking anti-wine talking points. [FOOTNOTE: Both of these stories are actually political-cultural myths: the story of Noah explains why Canaanites are evil and deserve to be enslaved, and the story of Lot’s daughters suggests that the Moabites and Ammonites, who came from this incest, are similarly icky. The stories are not answering, “Is drinking bad?;” they’re answering “Who are we Chosen People allowed to kill and conquer?” But if you need the Bible to say something about a very specific topic, there’s no end to the context you can ignore in the process.]

Today, the big issues are the ones that have been synonymous with the Religious Right since at least the 1980s: abortion, homosexuality, pornography…basically, the evangelical church has moved away from improving other people’s living conditions and towards managing their sex lives (and, in the process, undoing the damage they often say that the libertine 1960s did to our public morality). Where the Bible-believers will go in the future depends, presumably, on what part of society will seem out of kilter to them next.

At any event, the assumption that God’s main lesson is about sexual conservatism—and particularly about the wrongness of abortion and homosexuality—presents almost exactly the same kind of problem: evangelicals who want to criticize either on a biblical basis have a relatively small number of verses to choose among, relative to the overall Bible. But we’ll get to that more later. For now, the important thing to note is that the second interpretive policy evangelicals practice is to preserve anything perceived as essential moral teaching, which usually means emphasizing certain verses more than the Bible itself is inclined to.

Let’s put these first two in short, easy-to-read formats:

1. The Bible must be read as plainly and directly as possible, since scholarly analysis is out of keeping with the relationship to scripture that God intends;

2. The Bible must be read as if it emphasized moral and theological teachings that are in agreement with what evangelicals believe already; the presuppositions about morality that the evangelical assumes the Bible "must" teach for it to make moral sense.

(part 3 to follow ere long.) [Special thanks to That Atheist Guy, who corrected a confusion I had between the words betulah and almah. For a second there, I was no wiser than Matthew.]



Blogger that atheist guy said...

I think the actual Hebrew word in Isaiah was "almah". The word you mention is what would have meant virgin for sure. Wiki confirms it:

"Judaism affirms that [ha-almah] ("young woman") does not refer to a virgin and that had the Tanakh intended to refer to such, the specific Hebrew word for virgin [bethulah] would have been used. This view is often disputed by Christians (see below), and has been a point of contention between Jews and Christians since the formation of the modern Church. Jerome, in 383 CE, wrote in "Adversus Helvidium" that Helvidius misunderstood just this same point of confusion between the Greek and the Hebrew."

I heard the newer English Standard Version (ESV) has started to usurp the popularity of the NASB for hardcore literal translation.

What about The Message? It's approved by Bono himself! ;-)

2/18/2008 11:42 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Thanks so much! You helped me fix an error AND pointed me to a Bible (English Standard Version) I hadn't heard of. (The New English Bible is just as liberal/scholarly as the New Jerusalem Bible, so I guess you need to shop your titles carefully.) I was actually hoping to get some sense of whether evangelicals were turning away from the TNIV in droves ever since they took the regular NIV and made it gender-neutral. But I can't find confirmation anywhere. I need better research skills.

2/19/2008 12:00 AM  
Blogger SaltLakeBlues said...

It's important to get a good sense of what evangelicals are doing, their grazing patterns and such, I guess. If only Wikipedia would publish their own version of the Bible, then we would have one y'all wise liberals could really trust. Guess when it comes down to Jerome and Helvidius, we all know you gotta go with Jerome, right? Right?

I've actually been looking for a good justification of this and other Messiah prophecy's that are used to support Jesus filling that role. It's crazy when you try to use the internet to find out something about Jesus, you'll find very scholarly types, all of whom sound very plausible and sure that their version is all but proven by some collection of ancient scrolls, advancing theories ranging from "he was trying to set up an empire with Mary Magdaline as his queen" to "he was crucified for being a vegan [why he cleared the temple]" to "he just didn't exist". The only thing (most) of them agree upon is that Paul twisted the religion beyond all recognition for his own reasons.

As for this Matthew thing, you'd think in 2000 years the Church would come up with a good explanation but the best I can find is some sort of dual prophesy thing that I don't really understand. Absolutely no problem with the Immanuel thing , if it means "God with us" it seems like that's a pretty good thing to call God when he takes human form. That part would actually make a lot of sense to me.

2/26/2008 4:08 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

SaltLakeBlues, you said: "As for this Matthew thing, you'd think in 2000 years the Church would come up with a good explanation but the best I can find is some sort of dual prophesy thing that I don't really understand."

"Dual prophesy" has been the line of argument since the church fathers--and, as you can sense, it's pretty much an after-the-fact explanation rather than an actual strong argument. The fact is, pretty much all of Matthew's "prophecies" are yanked way out of context, because he apparently believed--as the guy who wrote The Bible Code does--that the Bible is full of secret messages visible only to the eyes of faith, so "context" wasn't even relevant.

This theory about Matthew, as I understand it, was confirmed in the Dead Sea Scrolls, because it turns out the Qumran community was using the Bible in exactly the same way, scanning the Prophets for out-of-context references to their own "teacher of righteousness."

I think it's pretty safe to say that no one who wanted to mount a convincing argument would claim what the Christian church has claimed--"It's two prohecies simultaneously, but only one makes sense in context at the time"--if Matthew hadn't painted them into a corner.

2/26/2008 8:34 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home