“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” – Pete Seeger, The Byrds and Ecclesiastes 3:1
I knew that church attendance had been declining during the past couple of generations, but it really hit home for me when I visited Chester, England, a number of years ago. Our tour guide pointed out the numerous magnificent churches, and told us that some of them were now being re-purposed, since far fewer people are attending church regularly. While declining church attendance could certainly be considered a symptom of an increasingly secular society, I’ve also noticed an additional change: a more polarized view of the Bible.
I’ve heard arguments from both camps, and I must say that neither side impresses me.
Many of my secular or not-particularly-religious friends have no use for the Bible at all. They’ll state that it’s merely a 2000-year-old book that is hopelessly outdated and completely out of touch with modern values. They’ll quote selected passages and ask “who thinks this way anymore? This is clearly an antiquated mindset that has no place in modern society”. However, they then suggest that these few ecclesiastical snippets invalidate the entire book. Some public figures are making similar statements. They may think that they’re being modern, progressive and in touch with today’s values, but I think that their polarized all-or-nothing attitude is regressive and damaging. In my opinion, they have adopted the same mentality as people who want to ban books. If they find something objectionable – especially passages that did not cause an uproar in previous generations – then they will try to have the book banned from high schools. By fixating on the parts that they find offensive, they are rejecting everything that is good about the book – essentially throwing the out metaphorical baby with the bathwater.
At the other end of the spectrum are some of my friends and acquaintances who are particularly devout, and who follow the teachings in the Bible (for lack of a better word) religiously. I even know people who insist that everything written between its covers must be true, and who treat everything in the Bible as (for lack of a better word) gospel. This group conveniently refers to the Bible as “the word of God”, thus imbuing it with a sense of permanence and infallibility – a divine, unchangeable tome that functions as the ultimate behavioural authority for everyone. An authority that, in their estimation, is sorely needed by the entire populace. As we know, the Bible wasn’t written by God; it was written by men, so I personally don’t infer much from this lofty and grandiloquent label. Provenance is not a reason to abandon critical thinking.
In my opinion, this polarized view has its roots in the Church itself. Religions encourage (or even insist upon) an “all or nothing” commitment. You have to embrace their entire dogma and accept all of their teachings. You can’t adopt a “cafeteria-style” approach to religion by selecting and adopting only the components or values that resonate with you. According to this article “Cafeteria-style religion may be popular among Americans, but the New Testament indicates that we do not decide what is right and wrong, but live according to God’s standard of right and wrong. [John 14:6 passage]. This is an exclusive claim that demands full acceptance or rejection.” How can we be expected to embrace everything in the Bible, when parts of it are no longer aligned with our current societal values? Why would someone insist that you consume everything in a cafeteria when some of food has obviously spoiled? It’s therefore perfectly understandable that, when faced with this “take it or leave it” attitude, some followers will continue to accept everything and others will simply reject or even abandon it entirely.
It would be nice if we could all get along, yet many of us seem to be pushed into opposite corners of an ecclesiastical boxing ring. We view each other as opponents, rather than brothers and sisters. I obviously don’t have the ability to reconcile these two opposing and mutually-exclusive views, but perhaps I can help people find some middle ground. Therefore I’d like to propose a new way to look at the Bible… from The Bob Angle.
The Bible, in addition to telling the story of Jesus, is essentially a behavioural guide for the adherents of Christian religions. In my view, the Bible and Aesop’s Fables are very similar – a collection of allegorical fables, parables and stories that tell us how we should comport ourselves. The major difference is that the Bible purports to contain rules and regulations handed down from the creator of the universe himself – it’s difficult to trump that kind of authority, especially when it’s accompanied by the threat of an eternal punishment if we don’t follow these rules.
I’m sure that the authors of the Bible did they best they could, but there was one thing they didn’t anticipate – something that the devoutly religious people among us haven’t yet noticed: everything has a lifespan, including their best-intentioned advice.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “the only constant in the world is change”. The world has been changing for the past two millennia, often imperceptibly when viewed from the vantage point of a single lifetime: societal values, political boundaries, even the position of the continents. As Robert DeNiro said (metaphorically) in the movie Limitless “Tectonic plates are shifting beneath our feet”. What makes the Bible challenging (and ultimately polarizing) is that there is an abundance of advice in it, and each passage has a different lifespan. Unfortunately, it takes about 2,000 years (or maybe longer) to see this.
Imagine that you are standing in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza on a hot summer day. Immediately in front of you are the following items: an ice cream cone, a glass of cold milk, a loaf of bread, a dog, a person, a tree, and a house (unfortunately, I’m not skilled enough with PhotoShop to place these items convincingly in a single image, so I’ll use two images for now).
Now take out your (Polaroid) camera, take a photograph of the scene in front of you and then compare those objects to the picture in your hand. The two images are identical. This is how I view the Bible – as a snapshot in time. Your surroundings represent your society and the Polaroid picture represents the Bible’s teachings. When it was written, the Bible was an accurate reflection of society, its values and its knowledge. The story of Creation may have been their best attempt to explain the origin of the planet.
As you stand in front of the pyramids, wait for 30 minutes, and then hold your Polaroid photograph up once again. Everything will look the same – except for the ice cream cone, which will have melted in the hot sun. Now wait a little longer and start making regular comparisons: as time passes, the milk will curdle, the bread will become mouldy, the dog, human and the tree will grow, mature, age, and die, and the house will eventually disintegrate. Everything in this world has a different lifespan, including behavioural advice. Over the years, decades and centuries, some of these lessons endured, and others did not. The pyramids probably look just like they did 2,000 years ago, and to me, they represent the timeless behavioural lessons in the Bible.
Stand-up comedians understand the concept of expiry dates intuitively. If you search Amazon.com, you won’t find any DVDs of Jay Leno or David Letterman monologues. That’s because monologues are generally made up of topical (and decidedly disposable) material. While the jokes are funny on the day of the broadcast, they don’t have a long shelf life. When comedians are recording an album or a television special, they are usually careful to avoid talking about current events or local news stories, since that material will become stale very quickly. After several years, the references to people and events will be largely forgotten and the material will no longer be funny. A comedy routine that contains more generalized observations without any local or current references will be funny for years to come, and will sell more records and videos.
I am currently reading a book called The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs. It’s the story of a man who spends a year trying to live his life according to the teachings in the Bible – and to follow these lessons as literally as possible, exactly as they were prescribed two millennia ago. As you can imagine – given the limited lifespans of some of its advice – hilarity and awkward social situations ensue! This book illustrates, as well as anything, the importance of critical thinking, and why one shouldn’t follow everything in the Bible without question.
Everything has a lifespan, and some lifespans are longer than others. However, unless we’re incredibly wise or exceedingly prescient, it’s difficult to determine what that lifespan will be. Who knows what will endure? Newspapers are often called “tomorrow’s fish wrap”, yet the words of Shakespeare remain relevant for centuries. I’m sure that the men who wrote the Bible did their best – no one would deliberately include ephemeral advice – and I’m sure that all of the authors assumed that everything would remain relevant forever. While their efforts did indeed reflect their society at the time, in a world in which the only constant is change, few things will stand out as timeless.
Lifespans of Selected Passages
There are hundreds of passages that I could use as examples, but I’m going to limit myself to three: still-relevant advice, outdated advice, and one that is just now reaching its expiry date.
Outdated: Exodus 21:20-21 (New International Version) states “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property“. This one had a surprisingly long lifespan. If we, for the purposes of this blog post, say that legal slavery ended with the American Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, then its lifespan was anywhere from 2360 years to 3260-3300 years depending on your source. Today, it would not be wise to embrace this bit of religious dogma.
Still Fresh: Ecclesiastes 11:1. This one is just as fresh now as it was the day it was written. This passage is “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again“. In fact, I was so taken with this verse that I wrote a blog article about it called The Generosity Coefficient.
Approaching Its Expiry Date: Proverbs 13:24 (English Standard Version) states “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him“. The term “spare the rod” implies corporal punishment (at least to me), which I also interpret to include spanking. When I was a child, all parents spanked their children when they misbehaved. Today, the tide seems to be turning – more parents are opting for “time outs” instead of spanking. I think we’re approaching a tipping point, and I predict that spanking will be completely unacceptable within the next decade or two.