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January 5, 2011

4-1-11 Myths pt. 1

4-1-11

We learned Bible stories at school, at Sunday School and from picture book Children’s Bibles at home as we learned Grimms and Anderson stories.

Even as a child I was disturbed by Isaac’s willing obedience to his Dad Abraham, bent on infanticide at the behest of God. My picture Bible showed a low-angle view of the bound child on a bed of kindling on top of a stone cairn, his Dad poised with a sacrificial dagger, ready to eviscerate his child. He wore a look of alarm, not at the prospect of murder but because it was the moment when God had spoken to him to say – aha! – it was just a test of faith. I was confused because right up to that moment you’d think that such vile instructions must have sounded like The Devil’s bidding. You’d expect Abraham to get more credit for telling The Serpent where to get off.

In the story of Job the trials became so relentless that a small blasphemous voice in me said ’oh come on… enough’. You knew that Job came out of all this very well and especially beloved for bearing with such adversity but it was as uncomfortable as watching a cat playing with a live mouse.

Samson was an all-action tale of heroic smiting and mayhem with thousands of Philistines dead by the end. There was no stopping Samson and the story ended with a spectacular suicide-demolition, hundreds dead.

Even in the children’s version, with Samson’s incidental amorous dalliances bowdlerised except for the devious Delilah, my Sunday School prize-winner’s brain ticked off 5/10 violated Commandments, but we knew he was the elect of God and we were on his side as we were with the heroes of Fleetway Commando Library comics or Captain Hurricane in The Valiant, laying waste to the sausage-eating squarehead Hun in his ‘ragin’ furies’.

Similarly we envied tales of the Crusaders in their chain-mail and St. George Cross shields and tabards, nobly defending the faithful against the godless heathen, and sang together The Song Of Liberty to an Elgar tune – ‘God is drawing His sword/ We are fighting for The Lord/ Sing then, brother sing, giving everything/ We shall never bow the knee!’.

We were that first post-war generation who knew that God was on our side because we’d won.

At 14 I stumbled – or was guided to? – a short popular History Of Philosophy in a second-hand book-shop. I had only a vague idea that philosophy was about dreaming up interesting thoughts and it sounded brainy. Looking through the Contents I at least recognised the Three Big Greek names Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the unknowns had interesting names – Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant.

I started reading it on the 14 bus from Broad Marsh to Wilford and took myself to bed early to read more in peace. By the end I probably couldn’t have passed a test on the various philosophical projects but it was the first time I’d thought about holding up ideas and turning them around to look at them from different angles. There were ways to present an idea, ways to assess its validity before you went on to make the case for its truth. I realised that I’d been taught what to believe but no-one had mentioned how to think about ideas.

There was a lot I didn’t understand about Bible stories but then I was a kid. I had faith that I’d grow to understand them better.

I liked to overhear adult conversations and was excited by wit; the way that an adult could create laughter around the table with a single well-chosen word or a deft turn of phrase. The jokes pinged off the top of my skull and I longed to be old enough to be part of those conversations.

Reading Children’s Encyclopaedias, I knew and recognised diagrams of The Atom and the school classroom model made from wire ellipses and coloured wooden beads. I had to wait until secondary school until we were told about the actual dimensions represented by the diagram: if you placed an orange on the centre-spot of Wembley Stadium to represent the nucleus, the electrons would be the size of peas zipping around the grandstands and the street beyond. Although my maths was never good enough to get me through Science A-levels I liked to hang out in the Science lab at lunchtime, where sixth-formers did experiments with chemicals and oscilloscopes and discussed the conditions in which an atom might be considered a wave more than a particle and might even flip-flop in and out of existence.

I had enough trouble trying to get my head around light waves?/ particles? taking eight minutes at 186000 miles per second to reach us from the sun, let alone what a single light year was like, and the idea that hundreds and tens of thousands of them separated stars and galaxies defeated my every attempt to imagine it. For the student mathematicians such imagination was an arty, poetic preoccupation; the calculations had been done on this basic unit of interstellar distance so you could just use it to make further calculations.

I’d anticipated that the scripture picture-book simplifications would similarly give way to a broader view at higher resolution. Instead I felt more like I was moving towards a billboard poster whose big bright picture broke down into coloured screen-dots the closer I approached it. The information in the faith-proposition generated multiple conflicting certainties among the faithful, theories about what The Bible meant and what it implied for our everyday conduct.

This is from the tract that made me think about it in those familiar terms again:-

‘I am sure that you have a few objections to the Christian faith. Everyone does until they begin to study about it in depth and read what it is really about in the Bible. Let me present a few excuses that people usually give for not becoming a follower of Jesus and I will also give a simple answer to each one which I personally discovered from investigating it myself. These are the excuses I made:

Myth #1 – The Bible is full of contradictions.

Reply: The simple question that I ask people who say this is, “Could you name  3 contradictions?  Actually, in the 19 years that I have lived in the UK, I have not had 1 person who ever could come up with some concrete contradiction. The fact of the matter is, hardly anyone has ever read the Bible let alone could think of any contradictions. Who would ever reject such an important book in history never having read it? I have always found this puzzling. If a person were to just take the time to read the short Gospel of John …I wonder if you have ever done that’

Excuses? Note the faith in the overwhelming power of the arguments. If you don’t get it, you’re just not doing the work.

We were taught that The Bible wasn’t really one book but a compendium of history, poetry, legend and guidance. There was no imperative that it should be read as one coherent text.

The quick response to ‘Myth #1’ is: Google ‘Bible contradictions’. A quick glance indicates that contradiction-spotting is a geeky nit-picky atheist’s hobby and even I could see that some of the contradictions were more semantic than substantive. However, there are enough puzzling instances apart from the overall difficulty of reconciling the litany of suffering and punishment with the will of a Loving Father.

Copernicus worked for years collating records of planetary movements to try to resolve the apparent oddities required to sustain the Earth-centred Ptolemaic model and found himself drawn to the shocking counterintuitive conclusion that the Sun was the fixed point in our sky. He kept his findings quiet because he knew he would be in trouble with The Vatican for challenging the Biblical endorsement of the geocentric universe and predictably he was warned to suppress this heresy. Scripture taken this literally contradicts observation, the practical application of God-given intelligence. You don’t have to jettison God on this account, just adjust your insistence on literal interpretation. Myth, it’s said, is truth told without fact. Powerful storytelling has its place.

This riposte to the ‘myth’ of inconsistency presents the Bible as the work of One Author by many hands. For an example of this view taken to an extreme, see http://www.skepdic.com/bibcode.html

What might one expect if the One Author theory held true? You could then dismiss the counter-argument that the truth of the work was compromised by its multiple translations because the clarity of the message would grow more refined at each editorial round by The Author. Is this so? Do we find growing consensus amongst His witnesses?

In a recent radio interview Alice Cooper (Vince Furnier) was asked if he believed in the literal truth of the Bible. Absolutely. That the universe was created in 7 days? Sure… though a day to God might be 5 billion years to us.

I think of this now as The Furnier Defence: the Bible is literally true so long as you don’t read it too literally. He also threw in the addendum:… and if God had wanted to do it all in an instant, He could’ve.

In philosophical terms this is unfalsifiable, the polar opposite of irrefutable: how could you possibly demonstrate the truth or otherwise of such a statement?

Note also the challenge at the end of this section to read and really absorb the meaning of this important book. I must assume that the author is fully conversant with the Qu’ran, the Talmud, the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching at least, or the challenge is self-disarming.

The conclusion to this section goes:-

‘ Interestingly enough, Europe is one of the few places in the world where Christianity is NOT growing….could the whole world be wrong and Europe be right? Do you want to take that chance by not investigating ALL the truth? By the way, did you know that there is more proof for the reliability of the Bible than any other ancient manuscript? Check it out……’

A very interesting question and open to a number of interpretations. This sounds like a marketing problem: some resistance in the European territory. European thought has historically shaped the Christian tradition. It’s impossible to disentangle the religion from the European cultural heritage. If faith has faltered here is there some evidence that Europeans as a group are any the less altruistic or more morally bankrupt overall than the population of any other continent? In the late 60’s there was a huge popular uptake of the affectations of Indian ‘blissful’ spirituality. The shorthand distinction between Western and Eastern thought became commonplace though the beliefs had been displaced and decontextualised. Christ in European tradition is Caucasian and blond with a well-groomed beard and representations in devotional art very frequently depicted Biblical incidents with characters dressed in conventional contemporary costume and domestic settings. I don’t know what Christanity offers in traditionally non-Christian cultures – maybe a chance to escape local orthodoxies.

The argument here seems to be ‘but everyone else is doing it’. I don’t go hunting for porn-sites on the internet but I gather that a significant persentage of web-traffic is devoted to it – certainly a lot of the spam that turns up in my In-box invites me to investigate Girls! Girls! Girls! Barenaked ladies! Free!

Am I missing something? Could all these subscribers be wrong? There are lots of  activities I don’t feel any pressure to investigate because they’re popular. I’m reminded of that graffito ‘Eat Shit – 50 billion flies can’t be wrong.’ Apologies to readers who’d prefer some asterisks in there: you’d have known what I meant.

I’m also intrigued by the phrase ‘there is more proof for the reliability of the Bible than any other ancient manuscript‘. Presumably this means objective, scholarly academic corroboration and I’m consistently struck by the tendency to take the results of careful and peer-reviewed research as conclusive proof when it fits the theology and to treat it as bogus arrogance when it presents difficulties, as if The Scientists are out to gang up on religion.

And ‘reliability’…? In what regard and in what capacity? The question doesn’t necessarily refute the statement but – see the Church’s historical insistence on the Earth-centerd universe – I’d like to know what constitutes ‘reliability’ in this sentence.

In conversation with this good guy whom I like – I have to reinforce this point – I’ve noticed that when I try to describe how I try to make sense of the historical, global God-impulse I get no answer but instead an ad hominem deflection of the question: ‘…so you’re just making it up’. I’m told that there are compelling reasons to believe but when I apply reason I’m told that if you had to reason your way to faith, how would simple folk attain grace? Tuh!… me and my excuses.

There are another six of these ‘Myths’ in the booklet, answered by one who is in daily dialogue with That The Greater Than Which There Is No Other. I’m consistent that especially in the matter of faith it would be pointless, possibly even sinful, to pretend to go along with the propositions translated from these divine conversations as The One Truth. I’ll aim to work my way through these ‘Myths’, since they’ve certainly provoked more attention to the questions in the past few months than I’d normally give them, though the exercise has been more depressing than enlightening.

  1. Raising one’s own version of ‘objections’, which one can then demolish, is a good way to avoid dealing with rather more searching or unexpected questions. ‘Name three contradictions…’ Hang on, isn’t the real question here whether the book is all literal and factual or partially stories and legends? (And if it is metaphorical about things like the beginning of the world, does it matter? Would knowing for certain that Genesis 1 wasn’t literal truth change the way you act or your notion of and faith in God? How? Why?)

    Along with steering the argument is the trick of getting your listener wrong-footed. Having to admit not being able to do something is naturally embarrasing. The writer isn’t anticipating ‘yes’ as an answer if he or she asks you if you’ve read the bible. ‘All the way through?’ ‘Er….’

    Arguing is counterproductive, so getting swiftly away from argument onto the main pitch is the aim here. Make your listener feel a little awkward and unsure and then come in with certainty and an apparent solution. The effective sales technique that sells everything from washing powder to politics. This booklet is aimed at the average potential convert, so don’t expect deep philosophical insights or well-reasoned argument. Analysing the method, however, may prove quite entertaining.

    Comment by Sue Jones — January 6, 2011 @ 7:55 pm
  2. Although interesting, it is neither the time nor place to answer all that you have documented here.
    However, regarding the narrative of Abraham and Isaac: Clearly the bible gives a sparse account, in which virtually all context is kept in the background or left outside of the narrative. This narrative strategy virtually compels readers to add their own interpretations to the text and in doing so I believe you have naïvely considered this in simplistic terms.
    Perhaps the story should be read in the context of ancient Near Eastern culture. In the time and era in which Abraham lived, he was surrounded by cultures where the sacrifice of animals to gods was the normal way of showing devotion and loyalty. Abraham lived among some cultures that sacrificed human beings to their gods – sometimes even their own children.
    One deeper understanding of the text is that God inspired Abraham in this episode in order to teach him a lesson, in order to stop human sacrifices from happening.
    Abraham was put by God into a dilemma with no clear solution.
    • If Abraham had said “No God, I cannot comply! Even for You I could never do such a thing”, then Abraham would be shown as disobedient to God, which is normally a bad thing. However, he also would have been shown to be a moral person; in this possibility, he could realize that if he couldn’t sacrifice his own child, then no one else should do so.
    • If Abraham had said “I don’t want to, but I trust you and will do so” then Abraham would be shown as being obedient to God, which is normally a good thing. In this case (which occurs in our text), God prevents Abraham from following the initial order. The reader may ask why God has done this, perhaps God in effect says “Ah-Ha! You assumed that this was what I wanted. But I now give you a revelation: This is not the way to serve me. Human sacrifice is not allowed”.
    Whatever the original intent (which may never be totally elucidated) of the text, the episode has quite an effect on Abraham and Isaac; it is clear to them both that human sacrifice is not acceptable.
    You are clearly more interested in persuading your readers to question what you cannot explain yourself.

    Comment by It is a question of faith — January 6, 2011 @ 8:37 pm
  3. Thanks for this considered reply. I particularly appreciate your articulation of the moral conundrum in what I take as a fable rather than a documentary account. I’m still puzzled about why God should take such a circuitous and morally dubious route to make such a clear-cut point.
    I take your final sentence as a compliment. I’ve tried for what amounts to months now to see how the arguments as presented might make sense outside their own narrow terms of reference and this series of entries is exactly as you say: questions, questions… plus some explanation of why they might arise; not out of a doctrinaire mission to fight a theological turf-war.

    Comment by admin — January 9, 2011 @ 1:27 am
  4. Truly, I believe that free thinking is one of the only ways you can be sure, without being ‘too’ sure.

    Comment by Deja Mayrose — February 1, 2011 @ 1:23 pm
  5. There’s a very lucid, entertaining article by Raymond Smullyan on the elusive nature of ‘free will’ in ‘The Mind’s I’ (ed. Dennett & Hofstadter; Penguin books) -Chapter 20: ‘Is God A Taoist?’.
    You might also enjoy Alan Watts’ ‘The Wisdom of Uncertainty’ if it’s still in print. My copy is a 1974 reprint – Rider books – first published 20 years earlier.

    Comment by admin — February 1, 2011 @ 10:16 pm
  6. I did hope for a bit more from ‘question of faith’ after s/he admonished me for questioning what I don’t understand. It didn’t escape me that the reply both acknowledges the puzzling nature of the mythical narrative and resorts to conjecture about what it might possible *mean*. Clearly, questioning the text isn’t the problem; the response is more to do with who has the rights to do the questioning, and in this case even the soi-disant authority ‘question of faith’ has to make his/her best guess about the God-character’s intentions.
    I have to say I’ve found that this is a pattern in these discussions. Where there is no clear answer, the argument is spun around to focus on my sheer arrogant nerve in presuming to ask questions.

    Comment by admin — June 10, 2011 @ 8:50 am

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