Bible stories

>> Tuesday, October 06, 2009

It's no secret I'm an atheist. Have been most of my life now, since junior high school. I wouldn't be surprised if some people who know me think it's my interest in science that brought me here; it isn't, science speaks very little to religion at all. I'd even go so far as to say science speaks to religion not-at-all, but to the extent that specific creeds make specific factual claims, that isn't true: science can, for instance, speak to how old the Earth is or whether the sky is actually a firmament, to cite two classic examples from the Old Testament. Science simply can't say anything about a metaphysical claim--science can't prove or disprove the existence of some sort of animus motivating the universe, for example.

No, the reason I'm an atheist actually goes back to an interest in folklore and mythology that was triggered, I suppose, by fantasy literature (starting with C.S. Lewis, ironically, before graduating--less obviously ironically--to Tolkien) and, yes, Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, there was also that crude grounding in the classics you get around junior high--the Greek and Roman myths you'll later need to understand things like Dante and Shakespeare--mixed with the multicultural smorgasbord of mythologies that, sadly, contributed little to Western Literature for obvious geographical reasons but are taught to offset the heavy Dead-White-Men content that inevitably results from reading texts written in English or by Europeans. The scattershot exposure was, when I was in school, de-textualized to some extent by an explanation that these stories were allegedly more along the lines of folktales or fables; I think this was an effort to avoid presenting ancient myths as ancient religions in the Bible Belt. But at some point, of course, you realize that people don't drag tons of marble up a ginormous hill for a neato bedtime story--they do it because making the patron goddess Athena happy is vital to the well-being of the city-state of Athens and (conversely) pissing her off would bring down the divine wrath. And that's when you start thinking, "Whoa, people believed this horseshit?" And then you start maybe thinking that maybe it's only historical contingency that leads people to worship Jesus on Sunday instead of dropping a box of raisins or a banana or one's pocket change off at the shrine to Odin in the driveway every morning before work.

One of the other things you figure out is that the Bible is a historical book, by which I don't mean the Bible is a historical text, i.e. a "history book." What I mean is that the Bible is a product of its history: a collection of oral tales, scrolls, tablets and letters eventually selected and collected by committees and/or translated through various languages with varying degrees of reliability. This isn't meant to be a criticism of the Bible as religious text--whether the Gospel Of Judas belongs in there or not or whether "helpmeet" is the best choice of words in Genesis really doesn't have anything to do with whether there's a divinity and whether or not his friends call him Yahweh and he knocked up a virgin around 32 BCE because that's just how he rolls, etc. It is a point against those who argue for Biblical inerrancy , which is why there's not a respectable theologian in the world who subscribes to inerrancy (clearly, theologians who do subscribe to inerrancy aren't respectable, it should follow).

As if to prove the point, we have the inspiration for today's post, brought to my attention by Deus Ex Malcontent, who got the good word from HuffPo via Andrew Sullivan: it seems the fine, clinically insane folks at Conservipedia ("We're just like Wikipedia, only the trolls are actually in charge!") have decided that the Bible is too liberal, and are assembling ("Like Voltron, if Voltron also wanted to see the President's birth certificate!") to edit/translate their own version: The Conservative Bible Project.

From the CBP wiki page:

Here are possible approaches to creating a conservative Bible translation:

  • identify pro-liberal terms used in existing Bible translations, such as "government", and suggest more accurate substitutes

  • identify the omission of liberal terms for vices, such as "gambling", and identify where they should be used

  • identify conservative terms that are omitted from existing translations, and propose where they could improve the translation

  • identify terms that have lost their original meaning, such as "word" in the beginning of the Gospel of John, and suggest replacements, such as "truth"

  • An existing translation might license its version for improvement by the above approaches, much as several modern translations today are built on prior translations. Alternatively, a more ambitious approach would be to start anew from the best available ancient transcripts.

    In stage one, the translation could focus on word improvement and thereby be described as a "conservative word-for-word" translation. If greater freedom in interpretation is then desired, then a "conservative thought-for-thought" version could be generated as a second stage.

    The CBP also suggests that words like "comrade" be replaced by non-commie alternatives--no, seriously, not making this up--and that certain bleeding-heart Bible stories like the adulteress story (in which Jesus tells a crowd "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone") that aren't true be removed.

    Let me say right here that, aside from all of the previous stuff about being an atheist (and certainly not a Christian) and therefore not caring much about what book somebody prays over (so long as they're not hurting anyone else), let me add to that that editing the Bible to suit one's own agenda and preferences is a time-honored American activity. The deistically-inclined Thomas Jefferson famously assembled a "Jeffersonian Bible" consisting essentially of the Gospels with all the miracle stuff he didn't think plausible excised, leaving a collection of stories and sermons that he felt provided a good moral guide (I haven't read it myself, but presumably he left in the adulteress story as one offering a good example of charitable thought and forgiving deeds--no accounting for taste, I guess).

    But, you know, the people who get involved with Conservipedia and its allied modes of thought tend to be the ones who subscribe to that whole inerrancy thing, or so I thought. I mean, the very point of the CBP would appear to be that some of them have decided the Bible--the infallible text they've ordered their ideologies around--apparently isn't actually "Christian" enough when you start actually, you know, reading it. Apparently they find themselves a bit irritated, at long last, with the fact that "liberal Christians" (an oxymoron if there ever was one, so far as they're concerned) keep coming up with these disruptive quotations about love and sharing and forgiveness. Which I guess I understand, sort of: it must be hard to keep screaming "An eye for an eye" when some jackass keeps quoting Matthew right back at you. So, y'know, why not just get all Orwellian on the text and pluck out the eye that offends thee (along with the heys, hes, ohs, yous and odd whys)? Truly Orwellian: a hallmark of Oceanic texts and publications in Orwell's 1984 is that they're simultaneously inerrant and heavily revised ("We've always been at war with...")--just like the CBP's proposed Most-Holy-Book.

    I think it's funny as hell, is all.


    neurondoc Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 4:30:00 PM EDT  

    I have nothing to add to this except "WTF?" I mean, really, are these people serious?

    kimby Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 6:03:00 PM EDT  

    I so could have used this in my presentation on Newspeak and how the Orwellian concept of changing language is in full force today!

    Too bad that course is finished :(

    vince Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 6:22:00 PM EDT  

    Kimby, you hit the nail on the head. Orwellian newspeak is it.

    This is typical "I don't like what people think it says so I'm going to make my own version, because I have a priori decided what the truth is, and I want my Bible to conform to it."

    To quote Bill the Cat "Pbthhhhthp!"

    WendyB_09 Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 7:29:00 PM EDT  

    Interesting...very interesting. See, the current King James or Standard versions aren't all that accurate either. So, WTF??

    The Bible has been translated so many times since each book was written down it is impossible to know what the original writers meant. The overall context is there, but as for exact wording, we may never know unless we can either time-travel or learn to read it in the original tablet and scroll languages. Scholars have been arguing and updating the wording for generations.

    And who knows how many times the oral versions of Old Testement stories were shaded over time before they were even captured in writing for the early Bibles.

    Revisionist history at best.

    Random Michelle K Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 8:58:00 PM EDT  

    Well Wendy... kinda sorta, but not necessarily.

    The issues is not necessarily multiple translations (although I would accept that as a point against the KJV) because we have found scrolls containing portions of earlier texts, and copies of original texts should be relatively free of errors, since Judaism already had procedures for copying and checking the Torah when copies were made.

    I don't think that accuracy is an issue in going back to the Aramaic, and we do have modern bibles translated from the Aramaic.

    However, the KJV is, IMO, particularly flawed not just because it was English translated from Latin, but because King James had an agenda when he ordered the translation.

    And the various authors who eventually transcribed the oral histories of the four gospels also had an agenda--you can even see the gospels evolve if you read them in the order in which they were transcribed.

    The biggest problem, as Eric pointed out, is individuals who read the bible with an agenda. This group is far worse than the usual, and one can only hope their ridiculous agenda will serve to alienate moderates.

    Going back to something Eric said early in the post, the reason I do accept the existence of God, even though I am no longer a Christian or any other specific faith, is because of mythology and folklore.

    Religion is for all intents and purposes a universal phenomenon on earth. Every culture has created a religion or mythology, and although the details may be different, many of the stories and themes repeat themselves over and over again.

    No, I personally don't feel any sense of the divine myself, and I know there are (and have been) many others like me. But I do not see my inability to sense the divine as evidence of non-existence. Just as people are born color blind or tone deaf (or blind or deaf) and lack the ability to use the senses I take for granted, so perhaps am I missing a sense others have, that allows them to sense a divine presence.

    Keith Wilson Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 8:00:00 AM EDT  

    According to these guys socialism and liberalism were alive and well in the first century AD, and should have been wiped out then! Boy, if only they had started so early - the iron curtain never would have fallen.


    Eric Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 3:03:00 PM EDT  

    Those keeping score at home may find this update enlightening.

    "Pharisees" is replaced by "liberals," and the critique of the wealthy in Mark 10:23-25 is edited to make it likely that the rich shall enter Heaven as long as they don't worship riches. Suck that, poor people!

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