Conservapedia…

Ran across the so-called “Conservative Bible” in a post on Jim’s blog.  I went and had a quick look, and though it is clearly as ridiculous as Jim says I don’t think that Jim’s commentator Mark Begemann is correct when he suggests that the CB and its parent site Conservapedia are hoaxes.  I wish they were, but they sure look serious.  Not serious in the sense of something we should pay any attention to whatsoever, but serious in the sense that the site designers and maintainers clearly take themselves rather seriously.  My favorite find on Conservapedia thus far?  The following quote from the “How We Differ from Wikipedia” page (number 16):

We do not encourage anti-intellectual editor names that are attracted to Wikipedia. For example, the Wikipedia administrator who initially deleted the entry about Conservapedia uses the name “Nearly Headless Nick.” The Hartford Courant observed that another editor posted under the name “The Ostrich.” These names send an inappropriate anti-intellectual message for an encyclopedia.

Really?  I mean, really?  Anti-intellectual?  Really?!  Incredulity is the only response I can manage at the moment.

The Critique of Idolatry, Representing God…

Roland Boer offers some interesting thoughts on the critique of idolatry found in Isaiah 44:9-20.  He suggests that, after a fashion, the monotheistic critique of empty idols is hoisted on its own petard.  The monotheist, like the atheist, attacks the idol-making polytheist by suggesting that this bit of wood or stone that is being worshipped is nothing more than a bit of wood or stone.  It doesn’t walk or talk or act or speak, and it is consequently silly to worship it.  The monotheist therefore determines that the symbolic connection that the idol represents must be severed.

But what kind of symbolic connection are we talking about?  Boer suggests that “[the] idol worshipper does not think of this stature [sic] or that icon as the god itself; no, it is a finger pointing to the deity.”  I’ll grant the possibility that the idolater does not believe that the statue or icon is, in and of itself, the deity but a representation of that deity.  But what of this notion of the idol as “a finger,” or a kind of sign designed to point the deity?  Is this really what an idol does?  Or, to put the point differently, is this what is being forbidden in the first and second commandments?  Let me quote Boer again:

These two commandments are not discrete items, for they flow into one another: one should have neither other gods nor idols, for they are intimately connected. In other words, there is a signifying link between god and idol, deity and representation, and the one who shows reverence for the idol does so in order to honour his or her god the [sic] whom the idol directs one’s attention.

Boer then goes on to suggest that in order to be consistent the monotheist must be an iconoclast, forbidding or destroying any symbolic representation whatsoever that might point to God.  If signifying links are idolatrous then all signifying links must be severed.  Boer rightly points out that such a commandment is exceedingly difficult, nigh on impossible, to follow.  Jews and Christians have always had signifying links to God, from the Ark of the Covenant to the various trappings of the Temple (to say nothing of the Temple itself), to the menorahs and crucifixes and scriptures that Boer notes specifically.  Boer doesn’t quite drive the point home, but the consequence is fairly obvious.  Humans need signifiers to enable worship.  We need sign-posts to direct us, to enable us to engage with what a theist would call the Divine and an atheist would call the social/psychological experience we call the Divine.  And so the anti-idol monotheist is in a bind.  The first and second commandments, which Boer rightly notes are tightly linked, demand that there be no symbols to point one to the Divine, but symbols are needed in order to point one to the Divine.

But what if there is a difference in quality between idols as symbols and other kinds of symbols?  This is where Boer’s argument breaks down for me.  Though I do accept that idols are a kind of pointer, I don’t accept that they are the same kind of pointer as a cross or a menorah.  The idol is a representation of the deity.  It is meant to capture and depict the god him/herself.  But a cross or a menorah is meant to depict the act of a god.  The first and second commandments are not, I would contend, a demand that there be no symbols that point to the Divine, but a command that there be no symbols that represent or capture the Divine.  There must be symbols to point to the Divine.  Even if there are no symbols made by human hands the Theist will still suggest that there are symbols that point to the Divine (“The heavens declare…” says the psalmist).  But those symbols cannot represent the Divine.  They are signs, not models.  They suggest something about God’s character, but do not claim to offer an accurate representation of who God is.  No such representation can be given because God is beyond such representation…thus the prohibition against representational images.

So the author of Isaiah 44 is not suggesting that there can be no symbolic pointer to direct our attention to God.  He is suggesting, instead, that no symbol can capture and represent God.  And if it could what kind of god would that be?  A god of wood and stone, deaf, dumb, and blind.

The monotheist does not say to the idolater “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no god to whom it refers,” but “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no (worthy) god whom it could represent.”

The Bible isn’t a bible…

A while ago Julia O’Brien had a post where she noted that in our culture we use the word “Bible” to refer to instruction manuals of all kinds.  She suggested that as long as we keep labeling the Bible as such people will think of it as an instruction manual and avoid it as literature.  She’s right of course, but there’s an even bigger problem for those of us who are Christians.  The bigger problem is that people will think of the Bible as an instruction manual and ignore it as Scripture.  No, the two things are not the same.

The Bible is a collection of a wide variety of literature which was written over a very long period of history (hundreds of years).  The primary unifying qualities of the Bible are that it all has to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that over the course of time these books came to be thought of as revelatory literature by the broad community of faith.  That is to say, the Bible is about God and it was “chosen” (not in the sense of one time conscious decision, but in the sense of a long and organic progression) by the Church.  The consequence of this is that the Bible has many witnesses that often stand in deep tension with one another.  There is tension between the prophets and the Torah, between the prophets and the lament literature, between the Apocalyptic literature and the Gospels, and between the letters of Paul and the catholic letters.  There is tension all over.  The Bible does not have one, single, easily summarized, unitary message.  It is not an instruction book.  Your Bible is not a bible.

I have heard it said that all biblical passages fall into two categories.  They are all either 1) promises, or 2) instructions.  Wrong.  Are there promises in the Bible?  Sure.  Are there instructions in the Bible?  Sure.  But there is a whole lot more as well.  There is poetry that describes pain.  There are narratives that tell tales of conflict and confusion, and of triumph and joy.  There are longing love letters.  There are instances of purest hate.  In the Bible you will find a wide variety of literary genres, a wide variety of themes, a wide variety of people, a wide variety of really almost everything.  That shouldn’t be scary, but for some reason this scares evangelicals.  It scares us so much that we aren’t allowed to critique the Bible, we aren’t allowed to ask it difficult questions.  We accept it all dogmatically because we think it’s all dogmatic, but it isn’t.  There is room to question and challenge the Bible.  Do you know how I know this?  Because the Bible questions and challenges itself.  Ezekiel questions the Torah.  Lamentations questions Deuteronomy and the great deuteronomistic history.  Jesus questions the Law, even as he says that he does not set aside even one jot of it.

The great power and theological depth of the Scripture is found within these points of tension, and again within the tension between our lives today and the various parts of this ancient collection of books.  The Bible is like a stringed instrument in this respect.  It only works because of great tension.  Stop trying to take the tension out of the Bible.  If you take away the tension, smoothing over and dumbing down and making everyingthing instructions and promises, all you get is a poorly tuned instrument and really bad music.

Uh-Huh…

John Hobbins has a great post over on Ancient Hebrew Poetry about comparing and contrasting texts from different cultures (Genesis and Atrahasis are his examples).  Anybody interested in the relationship between the Bible and other surrounding cultures should read and think through what he says there, particularly the bit about contrastive approaches.  And the dialogue with Angie Erisman (whose excellent blog seems to have gone the way of all flesh) is also very valuable.  I like John’s description of intertextuality as a cultural web.  This serves as a corrective to those who use the term “intertextuality” to refer to any and every kind of allusion or reference and who constantly ascribe authorial intention to such connections.  Sometimes allusions are intentional, but a lot of the time they are just a consequence of cultural (or inter-cultural) meta-data, and discussions of intention and ascription and dependence are illegitimate.*

Also John’s notes regarding cultural divisions are very important.  “Culture” is a tough concept.  Where does one culture begin and another end?  How do we know?  Are these divisions simply arbitrary?  Just heuristic devices we use to keep our questions and answers straight?  I think they are probably more than arbitrary but it’s hard to know where to draw those lines.  One significant corollary for me is the question of the relationship between various levels of social interaction (family, community, culture, etc) and various sub-divisions of language (register, idiolect, dialect, language, etc).  One of the papers I’ll be writing in the near future will explore the possibility of using linguistic markers in concert with literary form in order to help identify and delimit passages in the Latter Prophets.  I still haven’t the faintest clue if it will work, but the problems inherent in inter-cultural relationships that John identifies in his post are the same problems that I’ll be facing as I try to eke out my methodology in that paper (albeit my questions will probably be more intra-cultural).

The moral of the story?  Whether inter or intra-cultural, these kinds of questions are difficult and lend themselves to tendentious arguments.  Great care is required.

*As a brief side-note, there are notable post-modern authors (e.g. Umberto Eco) who do make intentional use of intertextual irony, but even here I think such authors (Eco for certain) would admit that there are significant and important instances of intertextuality that are not a product of conscious authorial intention.  To extend John’s web metaphor, some strands are woven on purpose, and some strands are not.

Buyer Beware…

A discussion has been making the rounds regarding whether or to what degree amateur biblical scholarship is a legitimate enterprise.  You can see the relevant history (and trace the backlinks for the longer backstory) on Matthew’s page here, Jim’s here, and Doug’s here.  Though I find Jim’s position (leave the Bible to the experts alone) to be extreme, I certainly sympathize with his point.  There is an awful lot of nonsense out there that pases for “biblical scholarship.”  And it’s not just silliness like ex-firefighters chasing down the “treasure” of the Copper Scroll.  AKMA pointed to a new Bible software system the other day, and I must say that the list of “biblical scholars” who contribute to the expert videos was very worrying.  I mean, I’ve got nothing against Max Lucado, but he isn’t a Bible expert of any kind.  He’s a very good preacher, and I’m sure a good pastor, but his reflections on Scripture in his books tend to be rather shallow to be frank.  But people assume he’s an expert because he’s written and sold a lot of books.  I’ll let Jim and the others fight it out over whether Lucado is a bad guy because he hasn’t got a PhD (I tend to think not), because I want to make a slightly different point here.

As much as non-specialists can be dangerous when they spout off, the fact is that they are only dangerous if people listen to them.  The responsibility lies, in the end, with the reader to make good judgments about what is being read.  Credentials don’t equal correctness, but credentials do tell you one thing.  They tell you that the person who’s work you are reading has done his or her homework (literally).  I don’t care what anyone says, a PhD or ThD is not an easy get.  So, dear reader, if you want to know about the Bible and you want to avoid the dangers of being misled by people who may or may not know what they are talking about, let me recommend the following:

  1. Ask why the person you’re reading has the authority to say what he/she is saying.  Why are his/her ideas more valuable than your own?  Google the author, know who it is that you’re trusting.
  2. Ask where and to what degree the author is educated…and in what field for that matter (a PhD in Chemistry doesn’t make you an expert in Biblical Studies).
  3. Remember that the person who wrote the book you’re reading probably borrowed some of those ideas from other books.  Find out which ones and maybe read them too.
  4. Get to know an expert personally and ask that person for advice.  Most of the churches I’ve been a part of over the years have had at least one or two professors of theology or biblical studies hiding somewhere.  If there’s nobody in your congregation, then email a prof at your local denominational seminary.  I’m betting you’d get a very cordial reply.
  5. Instead of reading popular Christian literature about Jesus or the Bible, try reading a commentary along with your regular Bible reading.  I’d recommend a very accessible series like NIV Application or Interpretation, or the New International Biblical Commentary.  I talked my wife into doing this once and she said it was one of the richest devotional experiences she’s ever had.

The long and the short of it is this: buyer beware.  Getting a book about the Bible published is no harder than getting a self-help book published, and we all know what nonsense those things can be.  If you are a Christian you should take the Bible very seriously indeed, so consider your supplimentary reading carefully as well.  And by the by, all of this goes doubly and triply so for internet sources and blogs (including this one…I don’t consider myself an expert on anything yet).