Thursday, September 27, 2007

book review, part 2--velvet elvis

"What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proo that Jesus had a real, earthly biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry's tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if as you study the origin of the word 'virgin', you discover that the word 'virgin' in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word 'virgin' could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being '"born of a virgin" also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse."

First, let's get one more statement of Bell's out of the way, concerning what he wrote here.

"I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. I'm a part of it, and I want to pass it on to the next generation. I believe that God created everything and that Jesus is Lord and that God has plans to restore everything."

So, at the least, Bell's questions in the first paragraph given here isn't leading to some kind of "The Gospels are a bunch of fabrications" claims.

But if not that, then what was his point?

"But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn't that strong in the first place, was it?"

I don't think I'm exaggerating if I say that Bell's statement has caused no small amount of controversy. The reason I've given some extra quotes to avoid one aspect of that controversy--the idea that he's calling into question the virgin birth. As I think that what he is saying is questionable enough, there is no use spending time on what he is not saying.

"What if that spring was seriously questioned?

"Could a person keep jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?

"Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live

"Or does the whole thing fall apart?"

Could we still be Christians? What would being a Christian mean, if the very thing that made us Christian is in the end a lie? The word 'Christian' would be meaningless, a lie, a farce.

Could we still love God? What kind of God would there be left to love? A God of mythical lies and empty promises? A God who has told us Jesus is His Son, when in reality Jesus was only a human like any of the rest of us?

Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?

Let's look at it another way.

Suppose the Bible is only a bunch of man-made stories. Let's say that it was written by pretty good and intelligent people, who had what most people would consider a good sense of ethics and morality. Lets say the most peole generally considered right-thinking would largely agree with what those men wrote.

That would put it on the level of, say, the writings of every other major religious leader, and philosopher, and ethicist.

In other words, the Bible would become one more option among the many. We would have no reason to accept it's claims above any other.

So, the question would be, why would a man of great personal strengths accept the 'help the poor' ethics of the Bible, when he could accept the 'will to power' ethics of Neitzche? Why should a person who has worked hard to achieve competence not choose a Randian ethic which would glorify his achievements over a biblical one which makes him responsible for his neighbor? Why should the "lady's man" accept the biblical sexual mores when he could have much more fun with a looser view on such things.

If the Bible were simply some collection of mythical stories containing some ethical teachings and truisms, then to adhere to it would only make one the follower of a philosophical and ethical school of thought. One may as well be Socratic, or Kantian, or Buddhist, or fill in the blank _________.

It would, simply, take the compulsion out of Christianity. There would be no serious or eternal consequences to breaking biblical morality. There would be no Heaven waiting for believers or Hell for those who don't. Jesus' death would have little real meaning, as he was only a regular joe and not the sacrifice for our sins. In fact, our biblical concepts of sin and our need to be delivered from it has almost no meaning, because it's not about sin but about ethics.

To continue what seeems to be a trend, here is a bit of Chesterton from "What's Wrong with the World", to show what I think we are left with if the Bible is only another book of ethics.

"This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern
social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about
the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil;
it is about the good that we should tear each other's eyes cut.
We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing.
We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would
be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood;
but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one.
Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people
who would be even more indignant if it were strong.
The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case.
We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature
of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health.
On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half
of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming
health . Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they
sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity.
We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things,
we should differ very much about the uses of them.
Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public house.
It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our
painful personal fracas would occur."

Bell's appeal seems to be utilitarian--even if the Bible is only mythology, we would still follow it's teachings because they would be the ones that work best. It's an interesting claim, and perhaps not without merit. But as Chesterton points out, while many people would agree on the problems, not everyone would agree on the best solutions. And if all the Bible is is another option in a world filled with options, then while it be in some sense 'taken seriously', it wouldn't have the authority of divine command behind it.

So, perhaps the whole thing wouldn't so much 'fall apart' as much as would be gutted and become marginalized. We would have made, for example, the Ten Commandments into mere suggestions--maybe good suggestions, but without any authority behind them, people would have no compulsion to keep them.

I think this is one possibility Bell leaves open with his idea.

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