Sunday, September 28, 2008

The bible blues

Author of three books, Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

His most recent volume, released in September 2005, is entitled "The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously" (Cambridge University Press). This subject is the one that I had originally pondered in relation to atheists and other secularists, who argue for simply dismissing the Bible and other religious texts. On the surface, at least, I had come to the same conclusion as Berlinerblau: it is not possible to dismiss the bible. Its influence on Western civilization has been simply too great. And that influence--call it the Palin factor--continues even now. So I was curious to learn more about Berlinerblau’s position. I began with a favorable opinion of this scholar because of his judicious book on the Black Athena controversy.

I had good reason to be inquisitive about his new book. But it seems that I needn’t bother. Here is what one Amazon reviewer says:

“Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously? Because, Berlinerblau claims:

1) It is not clear who wrote the Bible;
2) It is not clear what the Bible means;
3) It is not clear whether the Bible is against Jewish intermarriage or not (in some parts it is clearly against it, but not in others);
4) It is not clear whether the Bible is against homosexuals (it only says they should die!).”

I disagree. After 150 years of the Higher Criticism it is pretty clear what most of the Bible means. A few passages are humane and even inspiring, but most of that enormous farrago is noxious junk. And it is certainly clear that the Bible--both parts--forbids sexual relations between males.

Surely the task could be done better. Nonetheless, anyone who undertakes it finds himself in a no-man’s land. The defenders of the established religions will rush in to defend their turf. For their part, secularists insist that the whole thing must be ditched, the sooner the better. This polarization leaves little room for those who would chart a middle course. It was, I suppose, ever thus.

At all events, another Berlinerblau book, “Thumpin' It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today's Presidential Politics,” appeared last December (Westminster John Knox). The author notes that American politicians on the left and right exploit Scripture in their speeches. All sorts of people draw on the bible to defend positions on the environment, stem-cell research, and foreign policy. Not surprisingly, Berlinerblau finds politicians' recourse to Scripture to be shallow—they offer poor and tendentious readings, failing to acknowledge the bible’s internal diversity and contradictions. Fair enough, but this argument has little weight with the bible thumpers, who find all the assurance they need in endless repetition of their mantras. Some of Berlinerblau's historical generalizations are debatable. For example, did the United States really undergo a thorough secularization in the first 75 years of the 20th century? A wealth of scholarship on the persistence of conservative religion and the extent to which religion shaped liberal agendas such as the civil rights movement and feminism would suggest otherwise. In short, this topic--of great current interest--could benefit from a deeper analysis.

1 Comments:

Blogger Rabbi said...

After 150 years of the Higher Criticism it is pretty clear what most of the Bible means. A few passages are humane and even inspiring, but most of that enormous farrago is noxious junk. And it is certainly clear that the Bible--both parts--forbids sexual relations between males.
It's only clear if you agree with the assumptions of the Higher Criticism! Not everyone does!

10:42 AM  

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