Editor’s Note: Last week, Newsweek magazine published a controversial cover story about the Bible, contemporary Christianity and the role scripture plays in modern society. You can read the original article here. The piece ignited controversy online, opening up new rounds of dialogue about how we talk about the Bible—and what it really means to follow it.
In an interesting (if unorganized) hodgepodge of bad news about the Good Book, Kurt Eichenwald wrote a piece at Newsweek declaring that the Bible is “so misunderstood it’s a sin.”
He brings up so many examples of textual contradictions, variations and hot button proof-texts that it’s impossible to discuss them all here.
Despite juvenile and generalizing rhetoric toward Christians (They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school … They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch.), many of his critiques legitimately challenge the common, literalistic view of the Bible.
He accurately notes that many Christians are unaware of what the Bible actually says, especially when it comes to its formation and contradictions.
Others twist it in order to make it fit their own concept of what the Bible is, then judge those who disagree.
Worse yet, some use it as a weapon for their own political interests.
However, Eichenwald fails to engage with critical scholarship and, instead, often focuses on criticizing the more outlandish, outdated, or ill-informed straw men he sets up. Likewise, he—just as those whom he criticizes—uses the Bible in order to advance his own political interests. In the end, his argument doesn’t take seriously what Christianity or the Bible actually says, which, unfortunately, stifles a much-needed conversation.
One of the biggest and poorest critiques in the piece is of the orthodox view of the Trinity. While Eichenwald rightly condemns the blood spilled by early Christians against those who disagreed, he wrongly states that the Bible does not declare that Jesus is God (cf. Colossians 2:9, Philippians 2:5-8, Hebrews 1:8, the entire Gospel of John, etc.).
He also incorrectly states that the concept of the Trinity did not appear until the Council of Nicaea, held by Constantine (the first politician to use Christianity to gain political support). In reality, the Council reaffirmed Tertullian’s widely accepted formula from the 3rd Century: God is one substance, three persons; Jesus is one person, two natures.
In some places, Eichenwald doesn’t really interact with the Bible, but with interpretations that are far from consensus, even among conservative Christians. For example, he claims that, “1 Timothy is one of the most virulently anti-woman books of the New Testament,” because it says that a woman should dress modestly, not braid her hair or wear gold and that she must “stay silent.”
While many throughout history, including influential leaders today, use this passage to subjugate women, he fails to interact with the whole text—which is exactly what he (correctly) criticizes Christians for doing.
The immediate context of the passage regards prayerful reverence for God, not clothing per se. It explains that a woman doesn’t revere God by dressing flashy, as you would find among women in pagan worship festivals; rather, she dresses with good works. We should all agree that acknowledging a woman’s character rather than her outward appearance is a step forward, even in today’s society (take note, you who keep tweeting about your “smoking hot wife”).
Concerning the passage’s apparent restrictions on teaching and authority, Eichenwald is, unfortunately, unaware of the historical and cultural context of this passage, which would be considered “liberal” in that society (and ours, in some circles) since it promotes educating women, not keeping them silent, and does not restrict them from authority (I’ve written about it here).
Yet, it isn’t hard to figure out why Eichenwald ignores the context and scholarship since he immediately uses it as a proof-text to condemn Christians for supporting female politicians, such as Sarah Palin, who attempt to have authority over men and are not silent.
In the end, one cannot help but wonder whether Eichenwald is really concerned with educating people about the Bible. Rather, perhaps he wants to criticize the Church’s obsession with political power and hypocrisy in using that power to treat others’ sins as worse than our own. That’s a fair and important critique, but every legitimate challenge he brings against common conceptions of the Bible ultimately lead to political diatribe.
Regardless of whether he is correct in his critique of American Christianity’s political ambitions and inconsistencies, by landing on politics, he effectively turned away most Christians from engaging with what he says about the Bible … which is the whole point, right?
Let’s Talk About the Bible
While Eichenwald clearly had political motivations for writing, some of his conclusions are right. Many of us are more familiar with what our pastors have said about the Bible than with what the Bible actually says. Many have a major Messiah complex when it comes to national power, and we often twist the Bible to manipulate people. Yet, Eichenwald is no stranger to the game of using religion to pander to political ideologues, either.
But, don’t get sucked into “defending the Bible” from people with whom you disagree. The Bible doesn’t need to be defended; it needs to be understood and discussed—by Eichenwald, by Christians, by non-Christians, by you, by me.
Actually, Eichenwald puts it best: “It is only through accepting where the Bible comes from—and who put it together—that anyone can comprehend what history’s most important book says and, just as important, what it does not say.”
We would do well to consider how Eichenwald challenges our view of the Bible. We should not be afraid to acknowledge the two conflicting creation stories or the discrepancies in Jesus’ genealogies. However, we should also dig deeper into context and function. We should see that discrepancies don’t change the purpose of the Bible, which is to lead us to the Word of God whose name is Jesus.
The worst thing we can do with the Bible is to use it as a weapon. The time is ripe for real conversations about what it is and what it says. We cannot have that conversation if our intentions are to defeat rather than to understand—to gain power rather than to serve.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn here is that political motives will always destroy meaningful dialog about the Bible.
That leaves us with a very important question: Can we please just talk about the Bible?