One of the larger stories in the Christian world to start the new year is the cover article on Newsweek, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.”
Written by Kurt Eichenwald, the article has caught a good deal of attention, especially from fairly offended conservative Christians.
In the article, Eichenwald makes a variety of anti-authority claims about the Bible regarding apparent contradictions, alleged forgeries, and perceived misinterpretations of what the Bible is actually saying against what many conservative Christians have understood it to say – “crazy claims” like the idea that the New Testament teaches Jesus’ divinity.
Eichenwald’s article is long and pretty disjointed. It has a very “Also, did you know about this!” feel to it, which makes it difficult to address in a coherent way. Furthermore, there are so many skeptical attacks that are worth attention here (and I hope to do so in my own church in a future Bible Study), but for our purposes today, let’s just take a look at 5 or so quick takeaways.
1) Sensationalistic Journalism
Quite a few writing techniques that give modern media the “sensationalism” label are in play here. Eichenwald begins the article by referencing some ambiguous, ominous “THEY.” See, this is effective because he’s creating an antagonist that no one who is reading the article would see themselves in – so he doesn’t offend anyone. But, as you’re zealously grabbing your torch and pitchfork to help take down this evil “They” who’s ruining the world, you realize that he’s talking about a caricatured picture of conservative Christianity. So, okay, you see immediately that this Newsweek article is going to be a non-believer’s attempt to deconstruct the Bible and his social commentary on American Christianity.
2) The Hypocrisy of Many “Christians”
After his scathing introduction of the straw man who even the most compassionate of us would find unsympathetic, Eichenwald says, “The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well established.” Alright, he’s starting to reel me in, at least on this point. Eichenwald calls these people “cafeteria Christians” or “God’s frauds” (how’s that for inflammatory language). But, I believe he’s largely right on with this point. To me, the train of thought that currently poisons American Christianity can be summarized in three short phrases – “Yes, I’m a Christian. No, I don’t believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Yes, I think I’m a pretty good person.” As far as I’m concerned, this is public enemy number one with Christianity: 1) cultural assumption of Christian faith; 2) lack of respect, especially amongst professed “Christians,” for biblical authority; 3) disguising religious moralism as Christianity. This perfect storm breeds hypocrisy and confusion, ultimately generating a palpable animosity towards Christianity in modern American culture.
Eichenwald’s point here is familiar – the hypocrisy of American Christianity – people (esp. politicians) who thump the Bible for their own personal convenience. In biblical terms, they’re called “Pharisees.” Eichenwald is saying that their lack of biblical familiarity is embarrassing for them. While I’m not sure he recognizes how ironic he’s being, there’s certainly some truth to Eichenwald’s assertion – perhaps more than ever, we have many people who label themselves as Christians who don’t either know about or believe the central claims, major themes, or compelling characters of the Christian Bible. We have “Christians” who don’t read their Bibles. However, while we both agree that more Biblical literacy would be good, Eichenwald seems to believe that if people read their Bibles more, they would come to his conclusions. I contend they’d come to many of the opposite.
3) Trusting the Bible?
Under a section titled “Playing Telephone with the Word of God”, Eichenwald says,
“At best, we’ve all read a bad translation (of the Bible)—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.”
I’m not even sure where to begin with this. At times, the author comes off like a 5th grader calling a 1st grader stupid for not understanding how the world works. And yes, I understand it sounds a little arrogant and patronizing to refer to Eichenwald as a 5th grader or Newsweek readers as 1st graders, but it seems inescapably clear to me that he hasn’t ever really studied anything about textual transmission. And I’m guessing that his argument here would only work on someone who has never really studied the topic either. Biblical recording was not a Kindergarten game of telephone! You have guys whose lives were dedicated to recording a text that they perceived as divinely inspired. Consequently, manuscripts were copied with great care and detail. The greatest archeological find of the twentieth century, the Dead Sea Scrolls, proved exactly that point. Furthermore, if any outrageous claims or mistakes were found in a manuscript, the original community of readers would have functioned a bit like Wikipedia – it was self-correcting. No writer would have gotten away with inserting unsubstantiated claims. That’s why when Paul makes incredible claims about a Risen Savior he points to hundreds of living witnesses whom he wants his readers to consult (1 Cor. 15:6). False claims would have been (and in the case of the Gnostic Gospels were) dismissed as fallacious.
4) Bart Ehrman and “scholars”
Next, the author starts quoting Bart Ehrman, the main “scholar” he cites in his argument. If you don’t know, Bart Ehrman is the darling of many academic, liberal skeptics of the Bible. He’s very bright and he’s considered to be a leading voice in original text studies…I should say, considered so by many liberal skeptics. He’s appealing to them because he once considered himself an evangelical, he graduated at the top of his class at his Christian schools, and then he took a turn for agnosticism. And now he’s got an ax to grind. Understand that, to some extent, he’s allowed to teach biblical studies at public universities precisely because he’s NOT a Christian. It’s virtually impossible for an evangelical Christian to chair a department of religious studies at a public university and teach what they personally believe to be the truth. Consequently, it’s nearly impossible in today’s society for a conservative Christian to somehow be deemed “scholarly” by mainstream media.
If you actually take the time to read through or listen to Bart Ehrman, you get the impression that, like many notable atheist voices, he’s comes off much less like an unbiased atheist and much more like a ticked-off theist. Don’t take my word for it. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert has launched a couple of basic points that Erhman didn’t handle particularly well. Better yet, watch his debate with Dinesh D’Souza. It’s lengthy, but make sure you get to the point where Erhman basically exposes the cause of his unbelief – HINT: it’s NOT textual evidence. Supposed textual criticisms are merely his rationalization for his unbelief. Ehrman’s unbelief ultimately stems from the fact that he cannot reconcile the idea of suffering with a loving God who deserves worship. In other words, while Erhman holds some impressive degrees, he’s as biased as the rest of us, and his faith or lack thereof corrupts his objectivity.
5) Apparent Biblical Contradictions, Forgeries, and Inaccuracies?
Is the famous story of John 8, the woman caught in adultery, authentic? Is the end of Mark 16 authentic? Is 2 Peter authentic? What about doctrinal claims central to Christianity: Does the Bible really teach the Trinity? What about difficulties with biblical genealogies? Multiple and contradictory Creation accounts? What about the historical claims like the political corruption of the Council of Nicaea or Constantine’s forcing of books into the Bible? Honestly, in the world of Biblical defense, these are fairly Little League arguments that have been addressed countless times for centuries. None of it is new. The only thing that’s truly “new” about them in 2014 is, as the author pointed out, that we are now apparently biblically illiterate enough that they work on us. I didn’t find one single thing in Eichenwald’s article that I hadn’t heard, nor heard an explanation of, before. While I can’t work through every claim, I will point you to some sites that offer thorough explanations: carm.org; answersingenesis.org; leestrobel.com; apologeticspress.org; livingwaters.com. These are just a few of my favorites.
6) The “Man Without the Spirit”
Near the end of the article, Eichenwald says, “None of this is meant to demean the Bible, but all of it is fact.” Again, all this really exposes is that this is the best sense someone who doesn’t have faith can make of the Bible. He doesn’t understand that calling the Bible a corrupted Word of Man is demeaning to it or to Christians, and he is entirely blind to see the difference between facts and his personal opinions. I’m not sure we can hope for anything better. The Apostle Paul tells us Eichenwald simply CANNOT understand: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (1 Cor. 2:14)
So, what, if anything can we take from the article?
It’s easy and understandable to get offended at someone mocking, even if not intentionally, that which you consider holy. The natural (i.e. “fallen”) human instinct is to fight back. Consider today’s terrorist bombings in Paris. One of the gunmen was caught on video shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!” — an apparent reference to the newspaper’s 2011 caricature that angered Muslims and led to a firebombing of its offices. In Islam, when someone mocks God, the noble thing to do is to destroy the infidel. In Christianity, when someone mocks God, the noble thing to do is say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 24:34) A Christian group that responds to Eichenwald with hatred is no better than the hypocritical, unchristlike, biblically illiterate people who Eichenwald claims we are.
Instead, perhaps we can take some of his accusations to heart. Perhaps even apologize.
Maybe some of us do tend to cherry pick in judgment whichever sins are most personally convenient for us. Maybe some of us do tend to primarily seek to compel faith, spiritual gifts, and sanctified behavior through political legislation. Maybe some of us are even a bit biblically illiterate. For these and a host of other sins, we can listen to Eichenwald’s (albeit misinformed) encouragement to repent, and confess with David, “For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.” (Psalm 25:7)
Repentance and a turn to the God of grace and limitless forgiveness is always a blessing.