By: Richard Hooper

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Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 1:01am

Prisoners of The Book

Column: A Heretic in Babylon
Prisoners of The Book

Having grown up in the Lutheran church back in the nineteen-fifties, I was taught that the Bible was a sacred object, just like the American flag. To let it fall to the floor would be, if not a mortal sin, not good at all. I believed this because I was a kid and didn’t know any better. It was easy to believe because the Bible looked different from all other books. My personal Bible had a black (the color of authority—which is why black is worn by priests, police and judges) leatherette cover with gold embossed letters. What’s more the pages of my Bible were wafer thin, and Jesus’ words were highlighted in red type. Since my Bible was the King James Version, there was also all that holy language: The thees and thous, and such. So it was not so hard to believe that the Bible was the actual Word of God—written by men, perhaps, but at God’s direction.

But even as a kid, I thought there was something wrong with the Bible. There were inconsistencies and contradictions all through it. What bothered me the most, however, was the fact that a great deal of the Bible seemed to be arrogant, mean-spirited, intolerant and often violent. I wasn’t so sure those parts of the Bible were the word of God at all.

Today I’m quite sure of that. Today I also understand what’s behind all the inconsistencies and contradictions. There were not just sixty-six men who wrote the sixty-six books of the Bible, but many more. And they all lived at different times and had different religious points of view.

The first five books of the Bible, for instance, are referred to as the Pentateuch (literally, “five scrolls”). But while these five books were attributed to Moses, they were actually composed of three separate literary traditions: Judean, Ephraimite, and Priestly, or “J,” “E” and “P.” Those traditions represent different time periods and different traditions of Israel that were later woven together by editors as a single testament of the Hebrew people. This is why there are more than one creation story and more than one flood story.

I think I started to do my own editing of the Bible when I was a kid. I read the lofty and loving parts and pretty much ignored the rest, including the “pastoral” letters of the New Testament. It’s the same for me today, but my Bible has shrunk even further—to maybe no more than a hundred pages—because that’s all that I find there that is spiritually uplifting. I keep the creation stories because there are metaphors with a lot of hidden meaning. I like the first couple of chapters of Ecclesiastes because it is wisdom literature and makes some good points about life. I keep the words of the historical Jesus, and these I treasure. The rest of the Bible is spiritually and historically irrelevant to me—perhaps because I never was a Jew, and ceased being an orthodox Christian forty years ago.

I am inspired by many of the Gnostic Gospels, so I tack them on to my original hundred pages. The rest of my personal Bible includes Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist scriptures as well as Sufi texts and spiritually inspirational works I believe deserve Biblical status—such as The Prophet, by Kahil Gibran.

One might wonder, then, why I can’t just throw the rest of the Judeo-Christian Bible away. I cannot and do not for the same reasons Biblical scholars cannot, and do not—because the Bible is forensic evidence that hold clues to the evolution of Near Eastern religious thought, and also because it represents the religious tradition I grew up with. The Bible is like a favorite pair of shoes that are now worn out. I don’t wear them anymore, but I can’t bear to put them in the garage sale box.

For all of that, I moved on, spiritually, from the Bible a long time ago, which is why I wonder why “liberal” Biblical scholars have not done the same thing. Of course, they get paid for tearing the Bible apart and putting it back together again—so it’s a source of income. But beyond that, these “Christians” and former Christians are attached to the Good Book in way I no longer am. Perhaps this is because most scholars have never moved on to other spiritual tradition—to the (in my opinion) loftier insights of other world religions. Even though many of these individuals no longer find personal spiritual meaning in the Bible, and yet they can’t stop looking for it there.

I recently received my copy of the quarterly journal of the Westar Institute (aka Jesus Seminar) called The Fourth R (the fourth “r” stands for “religious literacy”), and two articles in it attracted my attention immediately. The first is titled, “Is the Existence of God Either/Or” by David Galston, and the second is “Science and the Bible in Dialogue” by Patricia A. Williams.

Galston’s article is a critique of, and answer to, the book, The God Delusion by biologist, Richard Dawkins. Galston takes Dawkins to task for arguing against a God that scholars, and many Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy no longer believe in themselves; that is, the idea of a “sky-god”—a personal Being who created, watches over, and manipulates the Universe. That is, the God of the Bible.

Galston points out that Dawkins is, basically, religiously illiterate because he doesn’t seem to understand that “God” means entirely different things to different people. All Dawkins is criticizing is the God of old-faith Judeo-Christians.

Dawkins could only make this mistake because he, like so many others “atheists” outside Biblical academia, is a scriptural literalist. Galston notes that Dawkins’ attacks are also directed at Biblical literalism. He seems not to recognize that the Bible is also metaphor.
In other words, Dawkins is not only way behind the theological times. There is more to the concept of “God” than is understood by the religious fundamentalist.

Williams’ article also argues for modern cosmology by reinterpreting Judeo-Christian scripture, reinterpreting it to make a square peg fit a new round hole. But why argue anything in modern times by taking the Bible into consideration? The ancient’ world was not our world. Their concerns, their mores, their viewpoints about life and religion and the meaning of God were all different than ours. Why not let these people rest in peace?
The Bible is just a book, like any other. And if you drop it on the floor, God will not strike you dead

If there is any justification at all for hanging on to this old Book, rather than sending it to the paper shredder, it may be this: lurking here and there amid all the dung, lies the occasional pearl of great price, a jewel within a lotus, the true word of God. If you take the time, you can find it there like you can find it everywhere else.