I remember when I was a young student at Bible college.
I remember hearing about the transmission of the Bible through the centuries. I remember learning about critical methodologies (the ways we examine a text). The first time I ever heard such outrageous thoughts I thought, “How can these professors claim to be Christians and treat the Bible like this?!?” I was 19—young and dumb.
But I grew.
I grew in my knowledge.
I grew spiritually.
I saw that my professors could talk honestly about the Bible yet were still incredible people of faith. I decided that I wanted to be like that, too. So I studied the Bible. I earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Biblical Studies because I wanted to really KNOW the Bible. I earned a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Preaching because I wanted to be able to communicate well everything I knew about the Bible—God’s revelation to humanity.
Kurt Eichenwald wrote a very long piece that brings up a lot of those questions with which Bible novices begin. The problem with his article is that there is no evidence of growth. The problem with his article is that it is designed to attack the Bible rather than approach it in genuine study. The problem with his article is that it’s not about the Bible—not really.
Mr. Eichenwald’s article is about politics.
The opening paragraphs of the article reveal his true intent:
They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.
They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.
This is no longer a matter of personal or private faith. With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.
I must compliment Mr. Eichenwald’s writing. His use of imagery, rhyme, and alliteration is worthy of some of the best preachers I’ve heard. But he’s not talking about the Bible for the sake of examining the Bible. His article is clearly pointed towards taking down certain people who use the Bible and faith in their politics. He’s using all the right buzzwords, isn’t he?
Prayer in School
He’s not writing about the Bible. This is a political piece. And to an extent I agree with him. I think that too many American Christians confuse faith and politics. I even made up a word for them: Americhristians. An Americhristian is someone who confuses faith and politics, thus making them BOTH worse off. Ed Stetzer once wrote:
When you mix faith and politics you get politics.
No, Mr. Eichenwald is not writing about the Bible. This is a political piece.
Still, you can’t unring the bell, and Mr. Eichenwald’s piece has brought up a lot of issues that many Christians never thought about (or even knew about). So here are my issues with the article.
1. Mr. Eichenwald seems to lump all Evangelical Christians into the same camp. He writes against “the illiteracy of self-proclaimed Biblical literalists” as though all Evangelicals fall into this camp (we do not). The rest of his piece is a Bible hatchet job, trying to prove why literalists are wrong and should get their heads screwed on straight.
The truth is that there are many Evangelicals who are not literalists. There are many of us who recognize that the Bible contains parts that are meant to be read literally. But there are parts meant to be read figuratively. The Bible is filled with poetry, prose, fact, fiction, prophecy, history.
In fact, I don’t know anyone who insists on reading the Bible 100% literally. Even the staunchest fundamentalist will concede that the psalmist isn’t being literal when he talks about God sheltering him under his wings. God is not a giant, cosmic chicken.
2. Mr. Eichenwald shows only a rudimentary grasp of the Bible’s transmission history and critical methodologies. He is actually correct when he is reporting facts. There ARE thousands of manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts. All of the manuscripts have slight (and sometimes major) differences. Punctuation was not part of the original Greek manuscripts and can change some meanings if you tweak periods and commas. Some Bible stories are in certain manuscripts that don’t appear in others.
What Mr. Eichenwald writes in an attempt to shock and startle Christians is not shocking or startling. He writes nothing that I wasn’t taught at a “conservative” Christian university (an Assemblies of God Bible College). But Eichenwald only brings up the problem and never talks about the solution—what we call critical methodology. We examine texts. We compare texts. We talk about the sources for texts.
Secular scholars utilize the same methods when working with Homer’s The Odyssey and other ancient texts. So we work our way back to the text closest to the original writing. When you look at the transmission of the Bible compared to works like The Odyssey, the Bible is actually much more reliable and better attested!
3. Mr. Eichenwald doesn’t understand translation issues. There is no such thing as a perfect translation. I’m not talking about the Bible. I’m talking about ALL of life. It’s the reason we have the expression “lost in translation.” Anytime you try to move thoughts and ideas from one language into another there is going to be some amount of change and interpretation taking place.
I studied Spanish in school. I learned that when I want to say, “My name is Chris,” I say, “Me llamo Chris.”
Wait, what? I started with four words and went down to three.
There is no exact translation.
So yes, in translating from Hebrew and Greek into English, sometimes words and phrases are shifted so that we get to the best meaning and wording of the text. It’s not, Eichenwald puts it, “translational trickery.” And the New Testament does attest to the deity of Christ (an idea that Mr. Eichenwald seems very intent to disprove).
4. Mr. Eichenwald chooses to focus his “examination of the Bible” and slam some conservative talking points: homosexuality, feminism, government control, and prayer.
He highlights that homosexuality is included in sin lists with many other sins and thus should not be highlighted by conservatives. On this point I actually agree with him. The Bible talks about many sins. We tend to get bogged down in the ones that affect or bother us the most. We also like to focus on other people’s sins rather than our own. So many times we’d prefer to focus on your sexuality than our drunkenness or envy. He’s right.
But still—it’s a sin (the Bible is clear that God-designed sexuality is between a man and a woman who are married to each other). Mr. Eichenwald seems to think that, since homosexuality is included in sin lists with other sins, those of us who wrestle with other sins should not point out homosexuality. There was only one sinless man ever to walk the earth. The rest of the time, sinners are going to point out sin. We need to do it better. We need to do it with fairness and consistency. But still we do it.
As to the other biblical issues Mr. Eichenwald raises, I believe most of them are washed away when you examine the Bible in light of its historical context. The Bible was not written in a vacuum, and many times the author’s address specific issues that are not intended to be binding for all humanity for all time.
5. Mr. Eichenwald is a liar. There—I said it. At the end of his piece he states:
This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity.
Really? I don’t know how anyone could view it as anything but an attack. I see it as an attack, and I’m not even a Fundamentalist Evangelical (I like to think I’m an even-keeled kind of guy).
In the end, Mr. Eichenwald resorts to the typical liberal spiritual mantra:
Jesus said, Don’t judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own. And he proclaimed, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” That’s a good place to start.
That’s not actually what Jesus said. Jesus said, “Don’t judge the speck in your brother’s eye when you’ve got a log in your own. First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you will be able to see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s.”
It’s never a prohibition on judging. Jesus tells us to make sure our own lives are in order and then help others get straightened out. But the left seems to prefer the lovey-dovey Christ who welcomes all without any judgment. They forget the Christ who loved people but said goodbye saying, “Go and stop sinning.”
Mr. Eichenwald’s article is really geared to stir the pot, not engage in honest dialogue about the Bible. I am saddened (but not surprised) that Newsweek published such a piece.
Chris Linzey is husband to Tené, father to the three most beautiful children in the world, movie addict (seriously, if it’s on a screen he'll watch it—doesn’t matter how crummy or low-budget), and a Navy Chaplain, currently assigned to Naval Air Station, Meridian. Chris has a deep desire to help people live lives of faith where the Bible is more than mere words on a page, but the way we live everyday. His undergrad and Master’s studies were in Biblical Studies and he focused on the New Testament (his mentor was a Gospel of Mark scholar). He went on to get a Master of Divinity (MDiv) in Pastoral Preaching. Follow him at @chrislinzey.