I am glad that you are willing to lay down your thoughts and discuss them. We are in agreement about most things, and that is good. We both agree that many bad things have been done in the name of Christianity. As you said, “I agree with you that people have said pretty bone-headed things using the Bible for support, as you have duly noted at the beginning. Justification of slavery, rape, polygamy, war, almost everything under the sun has been done ‘because of the Bible.'”
Where we disagree is what the cause is. I argue in various blog posts that these “bone-headed things” are intrinsic to the common properties of religion, and the fact that we as a society has progressed this far is in spite of religion, with the recent social progress (women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights) being closely connected to religion’s declining oppressive power in society. On the other hand, you argue that the “bone-headed things” follow from wrong interpretations of Christianity, and that those who take Bible passages literally, often out of context, are not true Christians.
This is partly a definition difference as I am defining Christianity currently to be the religion based on Jesus Christ, whereas you seem to be defining Christianity currently to be the good parts that remain after society deems some parts of it good and other parts of it bad. To avoid seeming too abstract, I want to give a concrete example of what I am saying here. You said:
But before attributing this to Christianity, I want you to ask what kind of “Christianity” they actually believe. It might not, and probably in most circumstances isn’t, be even compatible with the Bible except for maybe the few verses they’ve pulled out of context. The whole tirade on gays by certain “Christian” groups (God hates gays), for example, clearly contradicts Jesus’s teachings. And not just superficially, it utterly runs counter to it.
It is interesting that you mention gays. The Bible is very, very, very clearly anti-homosexual. But as you pointed out, this seems to contradict some of the main messages of Jesus like to not judge and to love everyone equally. It is of course more complicated than that, but there are several ways to resolve this paradox:
- The parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality are actually invalid, and therefore should be ignored. This runs into a couple of issues. First, this betrays the sacredness of the Bible. From what I’ve seen, some Christians are extremely reluctant to admit even a part of the Bible as invalid. This makes sense because the Bible is supposed to be an infallible, holy book. If even one passage is wrong and should be ignored, that makes the whole book no longer infallible, and every other passage is now open to question. Secondly, it destroys the concept that morality comes only through God or only from the Bible. If it’s up to us humans to decide which parts of the Bible to follow and not follow, then on what basis are we making that decision? Clearly not from the Bible.
- The parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality are merely outdated, and therefore should be ignored. This is slightly different from the first case, as maybe God decided that homosexuality was bad only in ancient times, and that it’s okay now. In addition to running into the same issues as in the first case, this runs into the issue of why the Bible should even be used today at all. Maybe pillaging a village was okay by ancient standards, but that would be considered barbaric today. So why take any lessons at all from a two-thousand-year-old book?
- The Bible actually does not condemn homosexuality, and in fact, upon a “true reading,” it supports marriage equality. I would feel quite offended if I were a discriminated member of the LGBT community upon hearing this after decades of hellfire speech. “Sorry, we read it wrong for so many years and condemned you so much but it was all because we were just waiting until the last moment to agree with the rest of society. But don’t worry, we really supported you all along.” Really? While this seems to be a happy ending on the surface, it only demonstrates how religion is a reactionary system that must keep (reluctantly) adapting its ancient values to modern society to not lose its followers. Plus, this runs into similar issues as above. If we were all wrong about what the Bible actually says about homosexuality, could we all be wrong about other things? Like contraception? Or abortion? Maybe upon a “true reading,” the Bible is actually very strongly pro-choice and treats the pro-life view as ungodly.
However, even if Christians are divided today about an issue such as marriage equality, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Christians in the year 1900, for instance, were against it. (Heck, even from recent years, only 27% favored same-sex marriage in 1996, whereas a whopping 48% did in 2012; in 1996 only 6% strongly favored it, while in 2012 it was 22%.) So if it really is the third and most optimistic case, that the Bible is wrongly interpreted, then why would it be wrongly interpreted for two thousand years? Would a benevolent personal God have his Word written in such an ambiguous way that, due to popular beliefs of the time, would certainly be misconstrued to cause persecution of a group for two thousand years?
If option 3 were to be generally agreed upon (and I think it’s quite likely in the near future), I fear it will only be used to further justify a messed up system. It will only advance the Christian rhetoric of “God is great. He supported same-sex marriage all along, and our wrong interpretation for two thousand years only goes to show how flawed humans are and how we are all subservient to the almighty God.” This is the main difference in our points of view. If #3 occurred, I assume based on what you wrote that you would consider that as more evidence of Christianity’s benevolence (correct me if I’m wrong). In contrast, I would consider that as evidence of how flawed Christianity is as a system. For instance, I think this “war on marriage” debacle could have been avoided from the start if we had abandoned the use of religion as moral guidance.
So yes, Christianity is extremely slow to change to match social progress sparked by more noble human values. One might object, “But that’s not true Christianity, ideally Christianity would adapt quickly.” But I would wonder if this is just doing further definition adjustments, namely defining Christianity to be what is currently considered good (or selective Bible passage-picking to achieve this means), with the circular result that Christianity is good.
As pointed out earlier, since we are changing what is considered to be a correct interpretation of the Bible, if Christianity suddenly accepts homosexuality, then it must reconsider its views on everything else as they were all based on some interpretation of the Bible. Christianity cannot simply go “Okay homosexuality is okay now, by the way abortion is still wrong.” Of course, there is a high probability of precisely that happening.
Now, back to your response. You spend a great percent of the response justifying the Bible passages I cited, and provided contexts for them to argue why they are not what it might seem they are saying. However, even with the “context” and the different interpretation, they still send very wrong messages. I’ll keep the original statements in bold and add the context you provided.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Even with this context, it is still a blatantly sexist passage. Wives are told to submit to their husbands, whereas husbands are told to love their wives. How are submitting and loving on the same level? Should a slave submit to their master merely in return for the slaveowner loving the slave?
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
1 Peter 2:13-25
Even when talking about “servants” and not necessarily about “slaves,” this passage still promotes blind obedience and submitting to authority. In the end, it blatantly promotes being a “sheep.”
The Isaiah passage is quite long so I will quote your explanation here:
Prepare slaughter for his sons
because of the guilt of their fathers,
lest they rise and possess the earth,
and fill the face of the world with cities.
First, note that this is specifically talking about Babylon, the nation. Second, the literary style is is more figurative and poetic in nature. This is not a mandate to wantonly kill sons for the guilt of their fathers. So since we are talking about Babylon, the use of the pronoun “his” is clearly referring to the Babylon. In other words, it’s saying prepare slaughter for the Babylonians because of the history of Babylon, lest Babylon rise and possess the earth and fill it with tyrants. I think this is comparable to saying prepare destruction for Hitler’s Germany, lest it tyrannizes the earth. Obviously there are differences, such as God did not destroy the Babylonians immediately, but waited for quite a while. Second, it does not follow that God told Israel to commit the “slaughter,” or even that he allowed them to even participate in it. This is a taunt. Rather, God declares that He will be the one doing the destruction.
I still find it strange that you would worship a God that would wantonly slaughter. There are so many issues relating to the problem of suffering that would relate to this passage as well. Why would an omniscient and omnipotent entity even be in a situation that He needs to taunt His own creation that is evil because He made it? But even on the current topic, I still don’t see how the context makes wanton murder, even by God, justifiable.
Next, also with your response:
Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:11-14)
Now, 2 Samuel, regarding the story of David and Bathsheba. There’s not much context here to speak of besides the entire story itself. Basically, David commits adultery with Bathsheba and indirectly kills Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Because David chose to sin, God responds with punishment. Not exactly sure how this is victim blaming or anything like that. Rather, the issue I see here is one of theology; namely, why does a good, omniscient, and all-powerful God permit evil, or is this God even coherent? I’m not going to attempt to answer this question, because it is way too complicated to deal with in an already long response, but many people have written on this subject. However, to give a taste of a response, I think if God, in permitting evil, can bring about a greater good, then it is more reasonable to accept. This is not the same as the ends justify the means, because God is omniscient. Again, this is not meant to be fully laid out argument.
Do you not consider that cruel and unusual punishment? Rape in “broad daylight”? Does something being permissible from God make it moral? Nor does it justify how punishing the son for the sins of a father is acceptable.
Regarding Deuteronomy 20, I am slightly surprised that you would include this passage and not the next few verses. Anyways, here it is.
“When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as theLord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.
Again I ask you, does the context really justify it? Your explanation was:
First, this is specifically for the nation of Israel, regarding the conduct of war. Note that this is ONLY conduct; it alone does not imply that Israel should go out and conquer and rule over other lands in an imperialistic fashion, oppressing the people there….
Obviously war causes different conduct. But in modern times we don’t put every male to the sword and take all the women and children as plunder. In the context of my original article being about rape victim blaming, that was my main point. Even for war standards, it’s still a barbaric code of conduct.
Finally, you attempt to justify 1 Timothy 2:12.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
1 Timothy 2:11-15
And how is that not incredibly sexist even with the context?
First, it is not consistent with scripture to say that women are not valued…. Second, God has used women throughout Scripture in many important ways (Rahab, Esther, Deborah, etc), including prophetesses, so its not as if women cannot hold authority over men or to teach in the general case.
Do you really want to argue that the Bible is not sexist?
The traditional Christian view of men and women is not equality in the modern sense, but compatibility. That is, men and women play different roles, but neither is inferior to the other. Rather, they complement each other. It’s like saying what’s more important for human life, water or oxygen? If you want to call this sexism, then fine. It’s nothing more than saying there is a difference between a woman and a man. So then the question is in what ways are men and women compatible, and is that coherent? I’m sure there’s much debate on this particular topic, as there is on this particular verse, even among Christians. At the very least, it does not follow from this verse that women are inferior. And for the record, I have no personal objections to female leadership and remain open-minded about this particular subject (and I hope I’m not subjugating other women, though others should probably tell me if I am).
I’ve never heard this view seriously expressed before. I guess I’ll see what other Christians have to say about that view. At first impression though, it reeks of the “separate but equal” sentiment. I’m not saying you’re subjugating women, but if you are going to continue to defend 1 Timothy 2:11-15, then your views aren’t far from it.
Overall your defense of these passages was quite surprising to me. Have you ever seriously considered the possibility that some of these passages might simply be wrong?
Now I have numerous objections to your paragraph on Hell and on the next paragraph, so I will break them up.
With regards to hell, I think it is important to have a coherent theology of it. Even Christians disagree on what exactly it is, other than something that’s really bad for all eternity.
It is really hard to justify how “something that’s really bad for all eternity” is compatible with a benevolent God. For the problem of suffering, even passing over suffering on Earth for a moment, how can you possibly justify Hell? How can you justify why an entity that would create Hell is worthy of worship?
So first, did God create something flawed? No, humans were originally perfect, although they had the capability of being flawed, as demonstrated by the Fall
This makes no sense.
Second, what exactly is the punishment for sinning? Ultimately, it is being separated from God. But if God is the source of all good, then being removed from the source of all good means that there is nothing good left, hence the terrible descriptions of fire and brimstone and gnashing of teeth.
In other words, punishment for sinning is Hell. Your suggestion that God might be the source of all good affirms my argument that you are merely wishfully defining Christianity or God to be that which is “good” (yet obviously what we think of as “good” is determined by our society).
In other words, it is impossible to enjoy good things without God. One may argue that in the present world, people who never believe in God still enjoy good things, but that’s because God has not completely stepped back from the picture, but is still involved.
This also doesn’t really make sense. How does God’s involvement with the world affect whether people who do not believe in God enjoy good things? Furthermore, what do you mean by “believe in”? Does a nominal or cultural Christian believe in God?
I will agree with you in that I have doctrinal issues with the statement “God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it.” So what is meant by this statement is that, God gives people a choice: either to be with God or be separated from God. The first is heaven, the second is hell, due to the nature of who God is. There are doctrinal disputes on what exactly hell is, if God actively/passively punishes people in hell, etc. but it’s not particularly relevant at this point. Now, more directly to the question of why God would create man if He knew that certain people were going to suffer for all eternity? This is much more complicated, and I would be a fool if I told you I had an answer. However, I think you’re conflating omniscience with causation. Just because God knows the action of men, does that mean He’s inherently responsible for them? I don’t think so, because He did not create humans as flawed beings. However, then this leads again to the problem of evil/suffering, where for some reason God allowed a world in which people could choose to sin, and they did.
I think you’re on the right path here.
I think I’ve covered most of the points you’ve talked about, at least briefly. What I’ve said here is definitely not complete, and I’m sure there are subsequent issues that remain to be dealt with. I personally don’t even think these are the toughest passages to swallow.
I wasn’t choosing the passages that I thought were toughest to swallow. I was choosing passages that demonstrated the support of victim blaming in Christian doctrine.
I will also agree that the Bible has been used to justify terrible things. However, that does not mean that it was a valid interpretation of the Bible.
How do you determine what is a “valid” interpretation of the Bible? As objected in the first part of this article, defining a valid interpretation to be the one that society happens to accept the most doesn’t actually defend Christianity.
At the same time, before criticizing what the Bible has to say, which you have every right to do, I would ask that you not misuse or misquote the Bible. At the very least, learn what the traditional view of Christianity says on the topic and why before you present your own counterpoint to that view, because virtually none of these challenges are new. The Bible IS over 2000 years old, after all.
Since we are defining whatever we want, how do you know you are not misusing or misquoting the Bible more than I am? From my perspective, for instance, you are the one misusing the Bible by taking a work of fiction so seriously as nonfiction, thus contributing to bringing about intolerance and impeding social progress. Also, the original post was not to present new challenges to Christianity, but to present new ways of looking at feminism and religion, namely the similarity in victim blaming of rape victims and of God’s victims. It’s probably not a new idea, but at least its something that most people don’t consider. Finally, the Bible being 2000 years old is reason enough for it to NOT be used as moral guidance for modern society. All the objections to individual passages are just a bonus.
In addition, there is one last minor point I wish to address:
I know very little of the Qu’ran, so I will refrain from commenting on that. However, I do hope to study it in the future, even though a supposed “true reading” of it requires knowledge of Arabic.
While lack of knowledge is a noble reason to refrain from comment, you mentioned as a caveat that a “true reading” of the Quran requires knowledge of Arabic. Depending on how you define “true reading,” this may be true, but the caveat misses the point. Typically, the argument that the Quran must be read in Arabic is to hide it from criticism (Christianity does its fair share too of coming up with ways to discourage people from criticizing the Bible). Perhaps a “true reading” of Mein Kampf requires scholarly knowledge of German, but that doesn’t mean you can’t criticize its ideas after reading an English translation, or even after knowing that Hitler wrote it.
Even then, I think all these minor points are somewhat missing the big picture, though I did want to clarify my views. The big picture argument is as presented in the first part of this post, that our definitions of Christianity are different, and that (based on your defense of the various Bible passages and also your statement on gays) you seem to think of Christianity as having all these positive views or tolerance of certain groups when it in fact reluctantly accepted them only after decades or centuries of oppressing the ones who had those views or belonged to those groups. You think of “true readings” or true interpretations to be definitionally the ones that agree the most with what we currently think in 2013 (like scanning for obscure interpretations of Nostradamus’s writing to show that he “predicted” something, when we are in fact imposing what we already know is true into ambiguous writing). Throughout history, those being oppressed by Christianity (blacks, women, scientists, “witches,” homosexuals, atheists, Muslims, followers of other religions, etc.) couldn’t voice their criticism of the system because they couldn’t criticize something that is defined to be that which is good. But of course, under a “true reading,” Christianity was supportive of all of them all along.