Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The "Who Wrote the Bible" Rant

Robert Beckford, an academic theologian from Oxford, England sums up his documentary for Channel 4 very neatly:

"...use your experience to work out what's in front of you. And if I apply that to this journey: "Who Wrote the Bible?" Well, I've learned that biblical authorship is messy, and it's messy because life is imperfect, and if we can find God in the imperfections of our lives - of my life - then maybe we can find God in the messiness of the text... and that tells me that to have faith in the world today is to ask questions and never have the wool pulled over your eyes."

This was the apt conclusion to a very informative, insightful, and I would even dare to say inspired documentary regarding the true authorship of the bible, tracing the story from the origins of the Torah to its present-day manifestation in English.

Anyone who knows me well is probably aware of my distaste for organized religion, with fundamental Christianity as the bane of the Western world. This would inherently suggest a bias, so I specifically made the effort to leave myself open to the opinions of the scholars and representatives of different religions and affiliations. I found Beckford himself to be very perceptive. He was able to interpret each expert's information for the audience in a way that was easy to understand yet still highly intelligent and insightful. Although I do recognize that the aim of the reportage was to cast a wholly skeptical eye on bible authorship, I found Beckford to tow that line a little too finely. The summary hammered out the dents rather well.

Without getting into the specifics of the history of authorship of the bible, I will go so far as to say that it is obvious that there is a real issue in contemporary society that is centered around belief in the bible or other holy texts as coming from the lips of God himself. What a little research and scholarship can show you is that this is not the case. In the case of the old testament, the gospels in their original languages and in translations all the way down to the King James bible, the story is the same. Every time it is the work of men, either individuals or groups, putting their own ideas down on paper, just as ever author has ever done in the history of literature. My real problem here is that by the time it became popular and widespread, and especially the solidification of the modern Christian cannon by Emperor Constantine, the bible went from being a collaborative reworking and re-interpretation of previous editions to one infallible, and specifically tailored book.

Having said this, I want to make it clear that I am neither discounting nor accepting the verity of any of the books that make up the bible. During the documentary I was surprised by the comments of a British bishop. He seemed very well versed in the history of the authorship of the bible, and made the point that regardless of questions of authenticity the case has always been that the writings in the bible were divinely inspired; even if the disciples didn't write their versions of the tale until years later, they believed they were working to serve their lord. He also makes the point that before the written word and mass media had become the main mode of communication, stories - especially ones with such magnitude - would have been told and retold countless times until they were a part of the public consciousness. I definitely do take these points into account when considering my position.

Some of the most poignant and telling points of the documentary are interviews with religious leaders from generally more fundamental groups. Two in particular were a rabbi from Hebron in Israel - a fervent Zionist, and the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Both were equally frightening in their own way, but share one unassailable similarity: they both believe that the bible (in the former case the Torah, in the latter the Holy Bible) is the unquestionable word of God, and that anybody who doesn't believe is pitiable. This is getting to the heart of my concern about the state of religion today. There is an inflexibility, a rigidness and a need for control in modern religious organizations that is, for the most part, frightening. I make this not as a blanket statement; not every organization, and definitely not many religious and spiritual people from every religion reflect these attributes. However, from observation, from experience and from research I would say that the more fundamentalist the organization, the more likely one is to find these traits. Even more frightening to consider is the scope of fundamentalism all over the world.

Which brings us back to the quote above, and my reason for writing this in the first place. Let's really dissect it. "... use your experience to work out what's in front of you." I couldn't express it any better. But a problem arises when one considers that many fundamentalists and devoted worshipers are never given the opportunity to study or experience a different perspective from the one into which they are born. (This is covered quite nicely in Richard Dawkins' documentary "The Root of All Evil".) Then later Beckford says: "... to have faith in the world today is to ask questions and never have the wool pulled over your eyes." Here we have reached the most important message. It is important because all over the world, especially in the Western world, people claim to have faith, and to display it in their devotion to their God, yet fail to behave in a manner that befits a spiritual person. I believe the direct cause is a lack of questioning of one's faith, values, system of belief, social relationships, worldview, existence. So what ends up happening is that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of millions of people, and it's being done with their permission because they have better reason NOT to ask questions and actually seek real answers.

Finally, let's consider the middle of the quote, and the notion that sparked my desire to write this in the first place. "Well, I've learned that biblical authorship is messy, and it's messy because life is imperfect, and if we can find God in the imperfections of our lives - of my life - then maybe we can find God in the messiness of the text." Here's what came to me when I heard that: "If it is given that life is imperfect and that God also exists in the imperfections of our lives, then doesn't that really make God quite inescapably imperfect?" And then I thought: "Well, that makes a lot of sense, because we're supposedly made in God's image." But then I countered with: "Actually, that doesn't much make sense because God is supposed to be omnipotent and omnipresent, and if He's not, if he's imperfect, (as we are surely proof,) then this whole damn setup was flawed from the get-go and that doesn't seem to me like the way things really are."


Anonymous Anonymous said...


and you can quote me on that

6:55 AM  

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