Friday, May 15, 2009

Biblical Scholarship as Literary Criticism

Yet more excellent mainstream press about critical thinking about religion. I heard an interview with this cat Bart Ehrman on NPR not long ago and was really impressed. A religious studies prof at UNC, he's probably the best known Biblical scholar to the lay public. When he discusses religion, he discusses the facts of religion - facts which theists and atheists can agree on - and when I heard him, I realized that I didn't know if he was a believer, and didn't care. A good starting place to talk about religion with its adherents is a discussion on the facts of how the Bible was written, when, and by whom. There will be a lot more chances to do this, now that Angels and Demons is in theaters. As Daniel Dennett has proposed, teaching the facts of religion in public schools is an excellent idea!

Why? You'll find that most religious people don't know much about their Scripture, or their religion's early history. To have this information removes much of the aura of mystery that people need to divide the incoherent and miraculous events in the Scripture from their every day experience of how the world works. Take Beowulf for example. We still argue over who wrote it, and how and when, and where exactly the Geats were from or where Hrothgar's mead hall was located - which somehow makes it seem less jarring when the hero fights a monster under a lake. But if you read a blog entry claiming that he was visiting a friend in Manchester England, and one night after hitting the pubs they fought a monster under a lake, you'd probably think the explanation had more to do with good English ale than Grendel. You can buy a plane ticket to England, and you can read about it in the paper. You know with fair certainty that those kinds of things don't happen there.

I used to wonder why the church doesn't focus more on scriptural scholarship, but there's an obvious reason. When people start digging into the history of their scripture, and the history of the institution that has propagated the Word, and the actual geography of the various holy lands - it starts to seem mundane; explicable by non-miraculous processes. And then the questions begin. After all, look what happened to Ehrman. No good!

It's a cliche that atheists on average know the Bible better than Christians. But instead of going for the cheap-and-easy win (i.e., immediately pointing out the inconsistencies in the Gospel), why not next time try to have an even-toned discussion with Christians about the authorship of the books of the Bible, the order in which they were written, the reasons that the committee at the Council of Nicaea decided to keep some and get rid of others, the Arian heresy and the Marcionites and the whole nine yards about the early Church. That will bring some people out of their shell, even though many will be suspicious because, despite that the peasants are now literate and can read it for themselves, churches do a good job getting people to stay away from this kind of thinking. That's why in these conversations you don't even have to attack the Bible - you just have to sneak in under the door and get people to start thinking about their scripture like any other book. Which, of course, it is.


Anonymous said...

I am very interested in studying the Bible as a historical document - are there any blogs or books that you have read or would recommend for this?

Michael Caton said...

You might try as a starting point.