Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ken's Guide To The Bible

I got Ken’s Guide To The Bible the other day, a great book, and one I’ve read before, years ago. Here’s a bit from the intro:

Do people who pray to bleeding statues give you the willies? Do Darwin-bashing school boards and doctor-badgering right-to-lifers make your skin crawl?

Then perhaps you’ll understand what drove me to write Ken’s Guide To The Bible.

As I noted in a comment on The Carpetbagger Report the other day, I am going to be highlighting a few points from this book, if I have reactions to them, in short posts on this blog about every day or so. I think it’s important when religion plays such a role in our politics as it does today and, as Ken Smith’s book so deftly points out, that religion is so commonly misunderstood. But first, some criticism.

The author strikes me as an example of the numerous underachiever liberals who are very smart, so much so that they inevitably get around to the point of realizing they should do something with their lives (Why do so many liberals think something horrible will have happened if there is one more liberal lawyer, doctor, corporation executive, or professor in the world? Whatever it is, plenty of liberals end up as “[Liberal’s name], B.A.,” or worse-- “[Liberal’s name], no B.A.” for a terribly long time before they realize that reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Ayn Rand over and over again, and learning to paint, and dawdling with their meretricious, similarly-minded liberal girlfriend or boyfriend, or whatever it is they are doing, is really not the super-highway to attainment, achievement, and enlightenment). I think after he ended his journeys, and figured out he could write this book, and wrote this book, he may have been a little too impressed with himself for presenting to us a view of the Bible coming from someone with a lot of sense who is not trying to deceive us about anything. That’s not to knock the novelty or the value of the book, however.

Smith’s book is a really good effort, and maybe he was the best person to write a book like this at the time he wrote it, and maybe this was the best thing for him personally to be doing at the time he wrote it. But despite its accessibility, brevity, readability, and remarkably good attempt at comprehensiveness, the “B.A.” after his name on the cover of the book seemed to come back to haunt me as I read the book, like: “Maybe Ken shouldn’t have been so smart-alecky as to tout his B.A. on the cover of the book, because while he has the zeal and discipline to research and point out a bunch of funny, corny, and pointless stuff from the Bible, as well as exposing tons of misconceptions, he doesn’t seem to have the consideration to make it clear where his sincere, empirical expose takes a breather and his comedic talents assume center-stage for a moment, nor does he have the consideration or discipline to examine his own (implicit) arguments with the same scrutiny he applies to those of religious fundamentalists or to the text of the Bible, and indeed he brings the large amount of quality work in his book down a notch by making some unfair implicit arguments.” One quick example is Smith’s examination of St. Paul; Smith’s excerpts (on pp. 128-129, “The REALLY Weird Beliefs of Paul”), which to him are clear-as-day examples of lunacy and fanaticism, all seemed to me to be examples of poetic (as in metaphoric) or off-the-cuff (imprecise) language, and indeed would appear that way to many people. It would be easy to take to task a great many people by always interpreting them absolutely literally, even in contexts where it doesn’t at all make sense to. Another quick example of an imprecise stroke I found was early on in the book, in Smith’s list of things that aren’t in the Bible.


One example of an error I found in his book is an item in the neat list of “Things That Aren’t In The Bible.” Some of the items on the list are things that any reasonably well-educated person should be able to figure out on their own aren’t in the Bible (e.g., Moses breaking the heart of his Pharaoh dad, Black Jesus, Jesus and Mary Magdalene having an affair, or Saint Peter standing at the pearly gates of heaven), but, since most people nowadays stop to think critically about almost nothing they hear (unless it’s related to how their car is running, how their kids are behaving, how their week’s schedule is going to sort out, and so on), it’s probably good to point out the few things he does in his list. But, shortly after reading the list for the first time since getting my new copy of the book, I was checking out Revelations (this is the chapter that is sometimes called Apocalypse) in the Bible I have lying around to see if the kooky things Smith points out from that chapter were at all exaggerated by him (they weren’t). I am sorry to say that I happened to notice that in verse 1 of chapter 10 of Revelations, John relates a vision of “a mighty angel . . . with a halo around his head,” despite Smith’s listing halos as one of the things that aren’t in the Bible in a lengthy bullet-point on page 16 aimed at images and rituals from Catholicism. So, although Smith includes “[a]ny condemnation of abortion” on the list, and (later on in the book) refers us to a bunch of instances in the Bible where either women have their wombs ripped open, children are killed, or children are killed with God’s approval (including Israelite children), I think whenever some religious fundie claims to have or know of some verse from the Bible that supports abortion, you still have to ask him/her to actually provide the verse, and argue about how fair that interpretation of the verse is, instead of just confidently falling back on Smith’s list of things that aren’t in the Bible.


Another feature early on in the book that is helpful is the introduction, which includes the sections “Which Bible?” and “Ken’s Bible-Buying Guide”. Here Smith ostensibly is trying to prove his impartiality by showing you he used more than one Bible in preparing his book, and that he should do this because Bibles differ. But his real purpose is a sly joke, to show you how Bible aficionados finagle the translations to get the Bible to say what they’d like it to say. He also reinforces the main point of the book, that there is a lot of stuff in the Bible you wouldn’t expect is in there, based on the parochial and irrational morality many promoters of Christianity try to sell to us.

Smith compares a verse from Ezekial to show us how the translations differ among the four Bibles he used to prepare his work:

New International Bible: “There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were
like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.”

. . .

King James Bible: “She dotes upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.”

Good News Bible: “She was filled with lust for oversexed men who had all the lustfullness of donkeys or stallions.”

Which Bible should you read? Based on this, if you have to ask me, it’s the New International Bible. Doesn’t the Good News Bible sound like it was written by some prudish, self-deluded guy who was so disappointed that he found some XXX-stuff in the Bible, that he turned the verse into some kind of racist lash-out, instead of writing what the verse really said? Doesn’t it seem like a racist white guy who was in charge of translating that could have assumed that men with big genitals must be African men, and then (to make the passage less explicit) turned the men into “oversexed men who had all the lustfullness of donkeys or stallions”- another racist characterization? In an intellectual endeavor, especially in one the proponents claim to lay such moment upon, it’s sad to see such dishonesty, if that’s indeed what it is. It’s hard to fathom what else could explain such a discrepancy and creative license as compared to the three other Bibles Smith quotes for the passage.

Incidentally, later in the book, the racism of modern white Bible translators seems to be exposed again. Chasing down the apparently unsubstantiated belief that the queen of Sheba was black, Smith tells us of a passage in Song of Songs (sometimes denominated Canticle of Canticles) where the unnamed bride twice refers to herself as “black.” But other modern versions, writes Smith, “these references have been changed . . . to ‘dark,’ ‘very dark,’ ‘tanned,’ and ‘swarthy.’” While something other than racism could explain it, you never know- after all, black people are not really known as “tanned” or “swarthy,” they are known as black, and if you are disappointed that a Bible character is described as black, and/or you doubt that the character really is supposed to be ethnically African, one thing you might do to blunt that impression among people who read your version of the Bible is to use another word besides black.


In a sarcastic reference to secular or non-Christian-centric praise of Jesus, Smith describes him as “The first man in recorded history to preach selflessness as the key to spirituality (if you ignore Buddha).” This betrays a misunderstanding of the selflessness taught either by Jesus or by the Buddha, which in English may both be expressed by the same word, but in fact are quite different. Jesus’ “selflessness” was about virtuous, benevolent, and empathetic relation to members of one’s own community. The “selflessness” that Jesus taught was about loving your neighbor, and about putting compassion for your fellow man first. Jesus is innovative because while previous religions put a premium on pleasing a selfish or proud God with some material prize placed on an offering place or altar, Jesus made humanistic cooperation with one’s community the premium and tied to the utmost obedience to God. Buddha’s selflessness on the other hand, to put it blandly, has to do with using rationalizations to diminish the immediacy of physical pain or the desires of the ego. It’s coming to know your aspect as part of a total universe, as a grain of sand among grains of sand, instead of as a differentiated, individual personality with wants that only seem to you like the most important things in the world, but are in fact personal realities limited to some extent by the four corners of your own skin or own brain. That’s not to say that Buddhism doesn’t explicitly teach virtue (it does), but Buddhism is not at all about virtue and humanitarianism, it’s about not getting hung up on your psyche and the a priori illusions that were hardwired into the human brain/body by evolution to give us the will to survive, but that are, unfortunately, sometimes a major drag.

This kind of reactionary, immature sophistry reminds me of something that peeves me about when some liberals talk about religion or secular humanism, which I notice a lot. Smith’s line about Jesus and Buddha isn’t at all original, and it serves to minimize Jesus’ contribution on the western heritage. At the same time, liberals who minimize or discount Jesus get their own approach to morality from secular humanism (more immediately via thinkers like Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, or Corliss Lamont) or they at least tout secular humanism. But secular humanism actually comes from Christian humanism. If it wasn’t for Jesus’ humanitarianism, we wouldn’t have the Western liberal individualism of the 1700s’ British writers and philosophers, and you would have never had, for example, the Red Cross and the human rights movement we have today. So people who just discount Jesus followers or believers, and at best, treat them as people we have to patronize because religious tolerance is a value we unfortunately have to respect, just try my patience. If there’s a way for atheists to attack Jesus, I think it’s by suggesting that he and his followers may have been a bunch of clever con-men, creating the conditions for a bunch of people to support them as rabbis and backing up each other’s fake miraculous healings and other miracles. If you want to allege that, go ahead. But the essence of Christian morality includes some pretty noble teachings, and the idea that modern humanism comes not from this source but from other source- a fantasy that smart men just had to reject church or crown-begotten evil in order to come up with the golden jewel of humanism- is just historically wrong and a misunderstanding of the context, I think. The whole of Christian western civilization were not ethical vagabonds or ethical fools, and the Christian mercy and humanitarianism (that existed right alongside well-documented abuses and corruption) history has seen endless examples of can’t be erased just because some modern liberal would like to believe that no one has ever had an admirable sentiment except for them and their buddies. Modern liberals would be a lot ethically/philosophically stronger if they just acknowledged what is praiseworthy about Christianity and the influence it has rightly had on our intellectual tradition instead of trying to come up with a kind of ethics and history that defies it.