Thursday, 26 February 2015

Reading The Bible With A Study Guide

It's surprising how often some atheists make this suggestion. (Or is it? A lot of them are trolls. I doubt a reasonable atheist would ever do this).

They tell you it's a good idea to just read the Bible from front to back, without any study aids, with the condition that you can put it down when you're sick of it and announce yourself an atheist.

They'll tell you it's so full of immorality and prejudice that you'd have to be crazy to think it deserves the nickname 'the good book'.

What they don't realise is that they're simply showing how weak their intellectual hand is.

Sure you could read the Bible without a study aid. That would be fine. You'd just have to figure out the bits you didn't quite understand for yourself, which might be fairly difficult without any knowledge of things like ancient Hebrew cultural history, or how to recognise literary differences between poetry, prose, and historical texts, or to take notice of contexts and references.

Before diving any further into this, I'd also simply have to question whether or not the atheist making this suggestion had read the Bible themselves. My initial suspicion would be that they had been visiting an atheist-infidel type website who enjoyed taking Biblical quotes, pointing, and saying "Haha, look how bad and stupid this stuff is". Precisely the kind of people that study guides are for! Not that I'm exempt from that. There's been plenty of passages I haven't understood and needed someone with more training and expertise to explain for me.

The thing is, the crux of it, is that when we just read the Bible nowadays, we're looking through 21st century eyes at a book that's a few thousand years old. We have to be looking at it as best we can through the eyes of people from the first century and earlier.

Look how different culture is today compared to how it was in the 1970's. We have different fashion, different social standards, different slang and language. Remember how Austin Powers travelled 30 years into the future and felt like a fish out of water? He struggled to fit into the new world because he didn't understand the new conventions. That's 30 years. With the Bible we're talking millennia! You see how reading it in the same way you'd read a modern book wouldn't work?

A lot of the Bible requires a bit of homework if you really want to get to grips with it. There's plenty that is timeless: the wisdom of the proverbs and parables for example. For most people that's all you need, but if you want to really understand everything it says, you need a bit of help.

As a starter, I'm going to cover the two examples that have kindly been given in the image: Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and Jesus' command to hate your parents.

Really, these two examples aren't even ones that need any homework. These are examples of things being taken out of context (which is the main reason I doubt the objections come from people who have read the Bible).

The event of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son is a well known one. It's often told in Sunday Schools or children's Bible stories. God tells Abe to do it, Abe goes ahead and leads his son up the mountain, he lifts his knife, and just before he goes to do it, an angel appears and tells him he's passed the test.
Taken at face value, it looks like God is just pushing Abraham to see how far he can take him. If he hadn't had an angel step in, Abraham would have killed his son and supposedly that would have been ok because God said so.
Right. As I mentioned, this leaves out some important contextual details. First up, this wasn't the first time God and Abe had met. They'd been buddies for a long time. They'd been through a lot. They were old friends and that bond of trust was strong. Second, God had promised that Abe's son Isaac would be the father of a lot of children. At the time of this story Isaac was still a boy himself, not a father. Considering that Abe trusted God completely, he would have felt fairly confident that whatever was going on here, Isaac would be OK by the end of it. If Isaac died that day, God would have broken a promise - and that's not like him. Finally, it's fairly obvious that Abe trusted God to keep his promise.
He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you." - Genesis 22:5
He said quite clearly that they would both be back. He knew it was all good. It's a bit like when you're friend covers your eyes and leads you into a room with a surprise for you. You get a little scary feeling that they might put something that tastes bad in your mouth, but overall you know something good is coming.

The second example? About Jesus telling his followers to hate their parents? Context again. He's explaining that your friends and family might reject you if you believe in him. If they do, you should keep your faith. That's it. He's not telling you to hate, hurt, or kill them. If anything he wants you to be an example to them so that they might come to the faith too. It's all fairly obvious to anyone who has read the passage.

So to insist that we read the Bible without any study guides, without trying to understand the context, or the intention of the authors, is about as anti-intellectual as you can get. It's basically saying "Look. Agree with me. Don't question my judgement." and you can bet that in the next breath they accuse God of saying just that.
If you want to honestly, and cleverly investigate the truth, look at it from as many perspectives as you can find. Don't just stick with the first one, or the one you like best. Go with the one that fits best. You'll find the Bible stands up to any test. If it didn't, do you think it would have lasted this long?