Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cherry-picking the Word of God

“You Christians point to the Bible as the Word of God. But then you engage in a bunch of hand-waving about allegories that allow you to pick and choose what you believe and what you don’t. Well, you can’t have it both ways. Either it’s all literally true or it’s all baloney. I say it’s all baloney.”

Really? Including the statement, “In those days there came a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled”? You mean there wasn’t a king of Persia named Artaxerxes? No Antiochus Epiphanes?

Of course, the position in the first paragraph is an extreme position, taken by someone who has never really read the Bible — just lists of apparent Scriptural contradictions and horrific commands God gave that get passed around the Internet like the Demotivational Images you see on Facebook — and who has not even a passing acquaintance with classical history. But even a non-Christian who is well-read in classical history and gives a passing grade to most of the Bible is liable to pick and choose what she wants to accept as true.

And why shouldn’t she? After all, she’s not bound to accept it as the Word of God. But it’s still a little hypocritical to chastise Christians for cherry-picking Scripture to fit their needs and then go and cherry-pick it to suit your own materialist biases, no?

But I didn’t get you this far merely to hit you with a tu quoque fallacy. The point of bringing non-Christian selectiveness up is to point out the “all true or all hogwash” argument is a false dilemma.

For instance, if the story of Jehoshaphat’s war with the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chr 20:1-30) were told as a war between the Romans and some invading Gallic tribes, with references to Latin gods, your typical non-religious historian would accept it as conditionally true, save for all the “Thus says Jupiter the Dayfather” stuff. (But then, Romans didn’t go in much for prophets, except for the Sybil of Cumae.) In absence of any other testimony, this is the best she would have.

And, anyway, she wasn’t there, so it might have happened just as it was recorded … save for all the “Thus says Jupiter” stuff.

But where the books of Kings and Chronicles are definitely meant to be taken as histories, first of Israel then of the split kingdoms of Judah and Samaria, the books of Job and Jonah are equally meant to be taken as religious fiction — book-length parables, if you prefer. Job and Jonah aren’t proposed as men who actually lived at any particular time, but as characters in stories in which religious truths could be told. That they are parables makes what they say about God's Nature no less true.

It should be obvious that when Christians say that Scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16), most of us aren’t saying that the individual writers were controlled by God like a person communicating with a spirit through an Ouija board, or that they were taking the words directly from His mouth like human Dictaphones (boy, there’s a reference that dates me!).

Because Scripture does quote God directly at many points, and because the individual books comprise His revelation, the entire collection becomes the “Word of God” in an extended sense. But calling it the Word of God doesn’t bind us to a literalism so ivory-skulled that we must imagine God being a rock (e.g. Ps 94:22) or having arms (e.g. Dt 11:22) … or that God is incapable of using parables and allegories to tell us what He wants us to know.

But then, what does it mean for Scripture to be “God-inspired”? On one level, it means precisely the same thing as if a fantasy writer were to say, “My book was inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien;” obviously he’s not saying that he was channeling the late professor’s spirit, but rather that he was using themes and devices from Tolkien’s life and work. On this level, the author is inspired to write a psalm or history or parable about God by God, just as contemplating Ulysses S. Grant might inspire me to write a screenplay about him … except more literally in the scriptural author’s case.

On another level, it means that God opened up the author to see a bit of His truth and His revelation, whether as a prophet or an historian or a storyteller or a musical composer. We Catholics hold that this still happens today, that you can especially see it in the writings of the mystic poets such as Ss. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila, or of such religious writers as St. John Henry Newman and Bl. John Paul II.

On a third level, the fact that Scripture is “God-breathed” (theopneustos) lends it God’s authority. Because it is about God, and because it reveals God’s truth, it has God’s authority … even the parables and allegories.

The fact of the matter is, we can have it both ways, just as our non-Christian historian has it both ways when she attributes historical weight to, say, the account of Jesus’ trial but denies it to the account of his resurrection. Even if you discount the influence of the Holy Spirit in the canonical selection process, it still makes sense that the Church would pick and choose what parts were to be taken literally and what should be taken allegorically. Why? Because the Church put the Bible together, of course, and would have the rationale for how each book of the Bible relates to the revelation of Christ and the economy of salvation.

Are the historian’s grounds for cherry-picking better? That’s another argument altogether.

I submit, then, that the reason the extreme atheist doesn’t understand “Word of God” the same way Christians understand it is because he’s under the fundamentalist presumption that Christianity is founded and based on the Bible. But while Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), it is neither the basis nor the foundation of our religion.

The book may be the “Word of God”, but it isn’t God Himself.