© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

bookin’ through the bible 1

church sign

You’ve got to love the Bible — not for what it reveals about an alleged supreme being, but for what it reveals about us, the monkeys who wrote it and who’ve kept it a bestseller for two millennia and counting.

The fact that this mishmash of exceeding good and outrageous evil, of genuine wisdom and utter nonsense, of sublimity and unintended farce, of perfect love and bottomless hate, continues to resonate for so many people in the 21st century is a function of what it really is: a mirror. We are good, evil, wise, nonsensical, sublime, farcical, loving and hateful. How can you not love a book that shows us so unashamedly for the self-contradictory mess we are?

Here’s a thoughtful take from the good folks at Skeptics Annotated Bible:

For nearly two billion people, the Bible is a holy book containing the revealed word of God. It is the source of their religious beliefs. Yet few of those who believe in the Bible have actually read it.

This must seem strange to those who have never read the Bible. But anyone who has struggled through its repetitious and tiresome trivia, seemingly endless genealogies, pointless stories and laws, knows that the Bible is not an easy book to read. So it is not surprising that those who begin reading at Genesis seldom make it through Leviticus. And the few Bible-believers who survive to the bitter end of Revelation must continually face a disturbing dilemma: their faith tells them they should read the Bible, but by reading the Bible they endanger their faith.

When I was a Christian, I never read the Bible. Not all the way through, anyway. The problem was that I believed the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant word of God, yet the more I read it, the less credible that belief became. I finally decided that to protect my faith in the Bible, I’d better quit trying to read it.

The most popular solution to this problem is to leave the Bible reading to the clergy. The clergy then quote from the Bible in their writings and sermons, and explain its meaning to the others. Extreme care is taken, of course, to quote from the parts of the Bible that display the best side of God and to ignore those that don’t. That this approach means that only a fraction of the Bible is ever referenced is not a great problem. Because although the Bible is not a very good book, it is a very long one.

But if so little of the Bible is actually used, then why isn’t the rest deleted? Why aren’t the repetitious passages — which are often contradictory as well — combined into single, consistent ones? Why aren’t the hundreds of cruelties and absurdities eliminated? Why aren’t the bad parts of the “Good Book” removed?

Such an approach would result in a much better, but much smaller book. To make it a truly good book, though, would require massive surgery, and little would remain. For nearly all passages in the Bible are objectionable in one way or another.

Perhaps. But to the Bible-believer…each passage contains a message from God that must not be altered or deleted. So the believer is simply stuck with the Bible.

Jefferson made one such attempt at corrective surgery with the New Testament.

Whether you’re a believer or a nonbeliever, to get a real grasp of this strange and influential book, at some point you’ll have to go straight to it. Spoonfeeding and cherry-picking add up to religious illiteracy. And with religion dominating and influencing everything from individual actions to world events, religious illiteracy is something we can no longer afford. That includes secular parents. UU Rev. Bobbie Nelson hit the nail on the head in Parenting Beyond Belief:

Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from [religious] questions–you will still need to be able to answer some or all of them. If you do not provide the answers, someone else will–and you may be distressed by the answers they provide.

boy and bible

If that sent a chill down your parental spine, and your exposure to the Bible has so far been secondhand, it’s time to get up close and personal with this long-resonating collection of goat-herd lore.

But like SAB said above, there’s nothing like picking up a Bible to make you want to put it down again. The Bible is protected from close examination by the very idea of plowing through 770,000 words in six-point font (including no fewer than 10,941 shalls). While the daunting size and tedium of the bible serves the needs of the church, which giddily stands in the explanatory breach, it also prevents understanding on all sides. It prevents secularists from engaging the exquisite poetry of Ecclesiastes and Luke (etc) and the faithful from recognizing the genuine poison of Deuteronomy and Revelation (etc etc).

But 770,000 words of Bible prose is roughly 80 hours. I wouldn’t ask you to do that — there are too many books both good and influential to spend that much time on one that’s merely influential. Fortunately you don’t need to read the whole thing to greatly enhance your Biblical Quotient. Crack the cover and you’ve already passed up as much as 72 percent of Christendom.

We here at Meming of Life International have designed a multi-tiered bible reading plan for the secularist. Whatever your level of commitment, from toe-dipping dilettante to full immersion dilettante, we’ve got a plan to match your lifestyle.

Unfortunately, I’ve set a new goal: an absolute 1000-word limit per post, about six minutes of reading, and we’re just about there for today. In the coming weeks I’ll include a few more posts outlining our patented Bible Study Plan for Non-Goatherds™. So get yourself a Good Book…so you have something to read when you’re done with the Bible.



This was written on Saturday, 24. November 2007 at 10:59 and was filed under belief and believers, bible study series, myths, nonbelief and nonbelievers. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. A 2003 article from UU World on reading the Bible might be worthwhile in this context:

    Most mainstream Protestant churches encourage greater Biblical literacy through “read the whole Bible” series. None of these begin with Genesis and drive uninterrupted to Revelations, and from a bible-as-literature POV, that makes perfect sense.

    Most people don’t read the Bible, of course, and rely on the Common Lectionary 3-year cycle of readings to expose them to the greatest hits.

    Didn’t you briefly have posted an argument about why you continue critically to engage religion? Why you think ongoing refutation of religious arguments was an essential component of secular advocacy in the USA right now? It was the argument about how you consistently found religious people, arguing from religion, to justify a whole host of values and choices you opposed.

    I was going to post a cross-link to the post with that postscript, but now I cannot find it.

    Here’s the link anyway:

    Comment: Jody – 24. November 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  2. Boy, you are quick! I removed that postscript less than an hour after I posted it, deciding it was off-topic for the post.

    The gist, for those listening in, was that I was brought to the active critique of religion through a back door of sorts. Over the course of many years, I noticed that opposition to one issue after another that I cared deeply about — knowledge of our origins, women’s rights, nonviolent parenting, stem cell research, reasonable contraceptive policies, etc etc etc — was mounted in the name of religion.

    NOT that all religious people were on the wrong side of these issues. My side was always mixed religious and secular. But the opposition, time and time again, was almost uniformly religious. It was that, not theological abstractions, that first motivated my activism. And the fact that my liberal religious friends were so consistently unwilling or unable to confront their coreligionists on the other side.

    THANK YOU JODY for the link to this extraordinary blog, which is one of an increasing number of religious voices finally saying ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. I’ve been preparing a post on that growing movement. This blog is now at the top of my list.

    Comment: Dale – 24. November 2007 @ 2:54 pm

  3. I’ve come to humanism, and your book, from a bad dose of fundamentalistic memes, via “liberal Christianity”. I really appreciate the works of e.g. Marcus Borg. Oh, and Real Live Preacher. (reallivepreacher.com)… who has a video clip series on “how to read the bible”, which recommends some supporting literature in the endeavour. Not sure what’s best though…

    My recommendation is currently Marcus Borg’s “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time”. If that book were to sell as well as The God Delusion, *then* we’d be solving the fundamentalistic-Christianity problem. The God Delusion only reinforces fundamentalism. But that’s ok, it wasn’t targeted at the fundamentalistic Christians, it was targeted at getting people fired up. I’m just worried that backfires.

    With regards to trimming the Bible down, there were some efforts. I recently attended a talk/seminar/thingy presented by the local theological school, which talked about the more “embarrassing parts” of the Old Testament, for example. Their perspective was exactly that: the Bible mirrors human imperfections, cutting the ugly would remove much of what could be valuable.

    How’s this: cutting the ugly would remove the bits that are so important to prove to the fundies that the Bible isn’t inerrant… now if only they *would* read all of it. 😉

    Comment: Hugo – 24. November 2007 @ 4:45 pm

  4. Thanks for telling me about the Marcus Borg book. I wasn’t aware of that one. And yes, trimming the bible is problematic for at least two reasons: if the unedited version is still out there fueling the dark side, the worst thing the rest of us can do is create a butterflies-and-lollipops version and call it by the same name. AND, if you took out the immoral, the irrelevant, the inaccurate, and the insane, there really wouldn’t be much more than a thick pamphlet left. So why not just read the Analects of Confucius?

    Comment: Dale – 24. November 2007 @ 5:12 pm

  5. I’m reading the bible via http://bs4a.blogspot.com/

    Comment: Belgian Atheist – 25. November 2007 @ 3:26 pm

  6. Yes, I came across that site recently! Really good stuff. bs4a is a more comprehensive approach — I believe the whole Bible will be covered by the end, yes? Mine covers 25% in all and differs in a few other ways as well.

    Comment: Dale – 25. November 2007 @ 4:35 pm

  7. Dale, was your church-sign misspelling of “UNDERSTNAD” a genuine mistake… or a very subtle piece of irony?

    Which reminds me of that great Crash Test Dummies song:

    by Crash Test Dummies

    After seven days
    He was quite tired so God said:
    “Let there be a day
    Just for picnics, with wine and bread”
    He gathered up some people he had made
    Created blankets and laid back in the shade

    The people sipped their wine
    And what with God there, they asked him questions
    Like: do you have to eat
    Or get your hair cut in heaven?
    And if your eye got poked out in this life
    Would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?

    God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
    The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

    So he said:”Once there was a boy
    Who woke up with blue hair
    To him it was a joy
    Until he ran out into the warm air
    He thought of how his friends would come to see;
    And would they laugh, or had he got some strange disease?”

    God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
    The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

    The people sat waiting
    Out on their blankets in the garden
    But God said nothing
    So someone asked him: “I beg your pardon:
    I’m not quite clear about what you just spoke
    What that a parable, or a very subtle joke?”

    God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
    The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

    Comment: Theo – 26. November 2007 @ 3:14 am

  8. Great lyrics!! I hadn’t heard that song. And yes, the misspelling was intnetional. 🙂 I hadn’t planned on it being too subtle.

    Comment: Dale – 26. November 2007 @ 7:33 am

  9. I’ve heard it said that Borg is a much more soft-spoken John Shelby Spong… hmm…

    I took a look at bs4a, I don’t think that will work. In terms of dealing with fundamentalism. I like Borg’s approach, in “Reading the Bible Again”. Which approach is more successful, only time will tell. I’m trying Borg’s, because my own experience tells me that has the most chance of success in my context (South Africa).

    Scientists know evolution is a fact, because they have the evidence.

    Similarly, God is an experienced reality. And those that believe God contradicts evolution, and do not have the evidence for evolution, will go with the concept that they have personal experience with. God, that is.

    Which is why I think the solution is to teach them more about God, not to attack their world-view, not attack what God is not, but rather show them what God *is*. Christians have chosen Jesus to be their God. And that’s great, actually, because Jesus was great. The only problem is, people don’t know Jesus. Teach them Jesus, and you teach them humanism from within the context of their own God.

    Comment: Hugo – 26. November 2007 @ 11:16 am

  10. I’ve heard it said that Borg is a much more soft-spoken John Shelby Spong… hmm…

    Holy cow! If Spong were any softer-spoken, I’d need an ear trumpet.

    I took a look at bs4a, I don’t think that will work. In terms of dealing with fundamentalism…. the solution is to teach them more about God, not to attack their world-view, not attack what God is not, but rather show them what God *is*.

    I’ll leave this to others. I’ve completely turned away from challenging belief itself, and freeing myself from the maddening effort to ‘reach’ believers through the maze and haze of their worldview is pure bliss. I challenge the consequences of belief, but I’m increasingly convinced that when it comes to beliefs per se, individuals can only be reached by their own efforts. All the information anyone could ever need to think about religion is (now) readily available, but a person has to genuinely want to engage the questions.

    My task, in general and in this “bible study,” is to serve those who are already on the secular side of the belief line.

    Comment: Dale – 26. November 2007 @ 11:31 am

  11. Hehe, m’kay! I look forward to seeing what you come up with, and I will keep my thoughts for myself. I’m one of those you’re leaving it to. 😉

    I understand what you mean about Spong, but fundamentalists aren’t ready for that. They can’t handle it and they run away. Hell, fundamentalists aren’t even ready for Borg. In that case, I recommend the likes of Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, or the rest of what might be called the emerging church movement. They will accomplish much, I think.

    Memes are so incredibly powerful. Keep up the good work. 😉

    Comment: Hugo – 26. November 2007 @ 9:08 pm

  12. The reason one needs to be more soft-spoken than Spong, if believers are to be reached:

    individuals can only be reached by their own efforts

    Borg does this well. Show them the path, let them choose to walk it or not. If you tell them to walk, their minds shut down. Their memes go into survival mode.

    Yes, I am still naive, but I have the patience and courage and passion to give it a shot. First target is my local fundie church. If I am successful, maybe I should make it my life’s career.

    Comment: Hugo – 27. November 2007 @ 4:20 am

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