Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Let's Go Thump Some Bibles Together!!!

Written August 2014

I’m always interested in the viewpoints of the people in my life whom I love and respect, but who have completely turned away from religion in all its forms.  I like to engage in discussions with them about why they reject faith and spirituality so harshly, and why they think Christianity in particular is harmful.  I am curious as to why people stop going to church, and why they raise their children to be on guard against being lured into any kind of belief beyond science and reason.

The more I talk with the non-believers in my life, the more I find myself agreeing with them.  My faith is deep, and I embrace Christianity with all my heart, but I have to say - I completely understand why any reasonable human being would look at religion and think that it does more harm than good.   From the moment the idea of religion was actualized in our ancestors’  tiny, primitive brains it has been used to justify wars, torture, murder and every atrocity we can possibly imagine.  Oh yes, my atheist friends, I most certainly agree with you on that one.

As a believer, though, I see it this way:  The Bible, the source of a great deal of all this religious trouble, has been a twenty-thousand year game of telephone.  God gave a very clear message to a small group of Iron Age people, and ever since that message was conveyed it has been twisted, garbled and manipulated by humans into something that causes God to constantly proclaim “HOW CAN THEY POSSIBLY BE SO STUPID!?!?!”

I really don’t blame God for smiting and vaporizing us occasionally.  If I were him, I’d do the same thing.  We are incredibly stupid.

To all the atheists and agnostics of the world, though, I would like to suggest just one little thing: Read the Bible and study it a little bit.  No, I’m not trying to recruit you.  I respect your beliefs.  I’m just saying - read the thing that is the center of much of the world’s controversy and that is the foundation of much of the world’s modern thought so that you can understand it from within.  

Before you read it, I’d like to issue this disclaimer:  The Bible was not written as a historically accurate document that was thoroughly fact-checked and deemed truthful by scholarly authorities.  It was written by hundreds of ancient people and cobbled together from oral tradition, from myth and legend and, in the case of the oldest stories - from other ancient religions that preceded monotheism.  It wasn’t written the way things are written today. Throughout the Old and New Testaments there are sometimes three or four different versions of the same story and since those different versions contain different details and timelines, the reader is left asking “which one of these is the REAL version?”  There are extremely confusing passages that were never meant to be taken literally (sorry, fundamentalists) but were instead meant to be allegorical, and there are sometimes truly weird things like this:

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.” - Deuteronomy 25:11-12


Or what about this:

“When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water.” — John 21:7

Yo, Peter, why were you fishing naked?  What’s up with that?

And take a look at this verse, where everything seems normal until:

“At that, the Lord opened the donkey's mouth and it said to Balaam, "What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?"  Numbers 22:28

Seriously?  A talking donkey?  What was Balaam smoking?

And don’t even get me started on books like Daniel and Revelation.  Those books are chock full of some truly psychedelic weirdness.

The point I’m trying to make with all these weird Bible verses is - if you look at the Bible as the indisputable, literal word of God, then God comes off as a total nutcase.   If you’re trying to read the Bible and you come across something that seems odd, then try looking up a few different explanations of it and pick the one that feels right to you.  If you can’t find an explanation, then just dismiss it as having been lost in the course of too many different translations.    

There are some passages that can be understood through historical context, such as that cringe-worthy story about Lot’s daughters sleeping with him in order to have offspring and preserve their bloodline.  That one is seen by some scholars as an allegorical tale to explain how the tribes of the Moabites and the Ammonites came into being so that they could later brag that their bloodline was completely pure.  Other Biblical scholars say it can be seen as an example of a practice that was fairly common in ancient times.  I’m going to choose to go with the allegorical explanation.  That one feels less icky to me.

I spent many years trying to figure out why homosexuality seemed to be condemned by so many Bible verses, and then I came across an explanation that said the original word in all the anti-gay passages in the Bible was probably actually “pedophilia,” and later medieval translators switched it to “homosexuality” to coincide with the beliefs of the times.  I don’t know what the actual original word was.  I wasn’t there when God gave these ideas to the long-lost writers of the Bible, but that explanation feels extremely correct to me and so that’s what I choose to believe.

One ancient form of storytelling was to present several versions of a story with differing details so that the listener or reader could blend them together and form a conclusion.  Putting the stories in the Bible into context and then really considering which interpretation you feel right about is exactly what you’re supposed to do when you’re reading scripture.  It’s not a straightforward narrative or an airtight scholarly treatise, and that is the very thing that is so incredibly wonderful about it.  The Bible isn’t just a book. It’s bigger than that.  It is a messy, baffling, human-error-laden dodecahedron of a 5-dimensional puzzle and when you look past the details and the words and the lines, a message comes through.  If you read a story in the Bible and don’t get hung up on whether this REALLY happened or WHY somebody would do that, and you focus instead on the lesson it contains, then you’re doing it right.  Even non-believers can hear the message.  It is there between the cracks.  Why is it that we can completely suspend our disbelief to receive deep wisdom from Aesop’s Fables, but we can’t do that when reading the Bible?  It’s certainly not the same kind of document, but since some of it was written around the same era as Aesop’s Fables, we can safely assume that it attempts to deliver wisdom through the same off-kilter and sideways methods as Aesop’s Fables since these methods of storytelling were probably widely employed at that particular time.

There were thousands of other messy scrolls and oral traditions that could have been included in the official version of the Bible, but they weren’t.  The people who put together what we know as the Bible chose a particular collection of writings because overall, they felt that those writings best contained the message from God that put the whole saga into motion.

I’m not a theologian or a Biblical scholar but from my extremely uneducated point of view I can say that the message of God seems to be this: “Take care of yourselves, take care of your fellow humans, and take care of your earth, and here’s a Bible to show you how to do that - Oh, and please ignore all that stupid stuff that got lost in translation.”

My friends who do not believe in God are just as hungry as I am for wisdom.  We all want to know how to make our lives happier, healthier and more fulfilled.  Even if you just see the universe as positive energy versus negative energy, you always want to learn how to generate more positive energy.  Believe it or not, you can learn that from the Bible.  If you want to know where humans came from sociologically, and how we arrived at where we are today, you can learn that from the Bible.  You can find solid advice on how to avoid psychologically unhealthy situations (which in olden times were labeled SIN!!!) and how to simplify your existence to exist happily on a deeper, less superficial level.

You don’t have to get recruited and hold hands and sing Kumbayah with a bunch of Bible thumpers.  Just read it and see what you can get from it.  Take what you like and leave the rest.  There is something there for everyone.  I would suggest getting a modern English copy of the Bible like The Message so that you don’t get all tangled up in ye olde King James language, and that you Google anything that puzzles you.  Don’t read it from beginning to end.  I’d say start with Luke because it’s pretty straightforward, and then maybe read Isaiah because it’s quite beautiful.  Proverbs is a good one, too, and Job gives a theological explanation of why good things happen to bad people.  Leviticus and Deuteronomy are baffling enough to make even lifelong Bible-lovers like me run for the hills, so hold off on those until you’ve learned a little more about ancient cultures.  

Most humans know right from wrong.  When we read something, or hear something, our soul resonates on a certain frequency to tell us whether it coincides with what is written on our hearts.  If we can learn to feel that frequency - that “still, small voice” and act on it with integrity, no matter what the consequences, then we can discern the correct choices to make in our lives.  The Bible, with all its flaws, has somehow brought a message down to us through tens of thousands of years, and if we learn to drown out the noise and the distractions and really feel the message it can heal us, and we can heal the world.

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