Old men and their whopping Bibles

“Your grandpa was one man who loved his Bible,” people often told me. It was high praise in the rural and religious Mississippi of the ‘50s and ‘60s. For an old man, the highest. Anything more would have been redundant because to love the Bible was to love the source of all virtue.

Grandpa was a Church of Christ preacher, and so was his father. My father set out to be a preacher too but mental illness caused him to lose his way. As he drew nearer to death, he clung to God ferociously, and God spoke to him in bed each night. Mostly, God gave my father messages (blistering criticisms really) that he was to deliver to whatever church he was attending (you can imagine how popular this made him). God also told him that he was going to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes and would appear with Ed Mahon on “The Tonight Show” to claim his prize. Unfortunately, God kept changing the date until, wouldn’t you know it, Dad died. When I asked him how he felt about God putting him off all the time, Dad said that God was testing his faith.

So do God’s children ever excuse his failures. No matter how screwed-up a situation gets, depend upon it, the one being who has all the power in the universe to make things right yet fails to do so will get a pass. Then if a mere human being comes along centuries later and fixes things—as with polio—God will get the credit. God will even get the credit if 499 people burn to death in a plane crash and one escapes with third degree burns. I wish people would cut me that much slack.

But back to Grandpa. The image of a stooped old man—the wisdom of eight decades lighting his face—sitting in his rocker with a leather bound King James Bible across his lap is, for me, like a Norman Rockwell version of the Buddha. Kind of.

I’ve been reading the Bible during my convalescence. I like “The Living Bible” version; Grandpa wouldn’t have read anything but the King James. Why? Probably because it is way old (1611) and uses an outmoded form of English. The yeas and nays, the thees and thous, the concupiscences and the fornications sound more like a special God language than, for example, Valley Girl talk.

My father left school in the eighth grade, and my Grandpa and Great Grandpa sooner than that. I’ve had twenty years of formal education, and I still find King James English daunting. I picture these old and uneducated men—my forbearers—sitting in their rockers, reading their big old Bibles, and I wonder what it all meant to them. They knew their preaching points (weekly communion, baptism by immersion, the infallibility of the Scriptures, no organs or pianos in church, certainly no loquacious women in church, and eternal hellfire for everyone who didn’t join our happy little sect); and they no doubt understood many things about the stories of Ruth, Moses, Jonah, King David, and so on, but what else did they see, and what did they think of it? I randomly opened my Bible last night (to Deuteronomy as it turned out) and found the following without turning the page.

“If a man rapes a girl…he must pay a fine to the girls’ father and marry her; he may never divorce her.

“If a man’s testicles are crushed, or his penis cut off, he shall not enter the sanctuary [place of worship].

“A bastard may not enter the sanctuary, nor any of his descendants for ten generations.

“Any man [soldier] who becomes ceremonially defiled because of an seminal emission during the night must leave the camp…

“If two men are fighting and the wife of one intervenes to help her husband by grabbing the testicles of the other man, her hand shall be cut off without pity.”

The next time someone argues that the Constitution of the United States was based upon Judeo-Christian values, ask him if he means these. He might even be able to find the part of the Constitution that says women who give birth to girls are “unclean” for twice as long as women who give birth to boys. If he does, pass the information along, will you?

John is an old man in one of my Sunday school classes. He could pass for a retired GQ model with his moustache and three-piece suits. John is ignorant of scholarly analysis of the Bible, but he knows the Bible itself so well that he can recite much of the New Testament, and is eager for any excuse to do so. He led class a few weeks ago. His intent was to lecture from his vast store of wisdom and knowledge without interruption, but I interrupted him anyway. We were on one of those passages that most Sunday school teachers avoid at all costs because it makes God look way, way bad. Specifically, it contains God’s orders to the Jews about how they were to treat the previous inhabitants of the Holy Land: “Do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them...as the Lord your God has commanded you...” (including domestic animals).

“John,” I asked, “how do you reconcile this passage with your belief in a God who is just and benevolent?” John didn’t hesitate, “You have to assume that those people deserved to die.”

I didn’t ask him why, then, God allowed the Jewish soldiers to “keep the little girls” for themselves following other raids. How could it be that it was only the girl children (all of them!) who deserved to be raped and enslaved? How about the married women or the old men in three-piece togas—didn’t any of them deserve to be raped? For me to have pushed John that hard would have been completely impolitic yet, as I see it, completely fair. But alas, even in my usually liberal class, we are expected to cut people more slack when they say moronic things in the name of God than when they take responsibility for their words. The watchword is respect. Respect for what, exactly, I don’t know, and, to be honest about it, I shudder to think. Even as I sit writing, people are being murdered because religious people think God wants them murdered, so we’re not just talking ancient history here. Picture him, John, the apparent symbol of decency, courtesy, kindness, wisdom, rectitude, gentleness, and propriety; John, saying that nursing babies and family pets deserved to be impaled on Israeli swords.

So what? What harm is there in people believing that God is a bloodthirsty monster? Well, they do seem to follow his lead. The Dutch in Africa, the U.S. in North America, the Spanish in South America, the Russians in Alaska, and the British on every continent of the world save one, were all Christians who used the God-ordained atrocities of the Bible to justify their own atrocities. They even claimed to be doing the peoples they raided a good deed because telling them about Jesus completely out-weighed such inconveniences as slavery and death—I’m serious. And how about today? Would the United States be conducting what George Bush called a “crusade” in the Middle East if George Bush hadn’t regarded himself as an appointee of God? I will just offer that men are seldom THAT stupid without guidance from above.

The most notable thing about evil is that, in it’s worse form, it looks very different from what I expected as a young man. The Charles Mansons with their swastika tattoos, insane eyes, and wild hair can’t do nearly as much harm as the men with the pressed suits and the fresh haircuts, because the Charles Mansons can’t win our trust. People like John can. We give them a pass based upon how well they dress and how gentlemanly they behave—unless, of course, they’re trying to excuse rape, and even then we might smile benignly if the rape occurred in the name of God.

My grandfathers would have answered me as John did. Either that or they would have said, “There are some things in the Bible that we are not yet allowed to understand, but we must have faith that the day will come when God will reveal them to us.” Either way, the bottom-line is that murder and rape are okay if God says it’s okay because God created morality, and God is free to ignore morality. I say to my grandfathers, “Shame on you. Shame on you a thousand fold for bowing before such a fiend. I moon your Jehovah. Verily, I would do worse than that if he were beneath my bottom rather than above my head.”

If you were to be marooned upon that proverbial desert island, what one book would you take? I would take the Bible. It’s long; it contains a lot of interesting stories; a good bit of poetry; some history; some wisdom; and it spans many cultures and centuries. I can’t say that I love the Bible, but I sure do like it a lot—I just wish that people didn’t take it so seriously.

The Bible is both a book and a symbol. When I hold one in my hand, I think of how much it has meant to so many over the past 2,800 years or so since it was started, and it’s as if the book itself hums with power. The only other symbol I own that is even nearly so powerful is a Nazi flag. How many millions of years would I have to live before I got through every story of every person whose lives were destroyed because of other people’s allegiance to these two things?

“There is no comparison, you object, “The Nazi’s did nothing but evil, whereas Christianity has done some bad things but a lot more good things.” This is not a point that I will concede as self-evident. So, tell me, please, exactly how much good has Christianity done—in proportion to the evil? Twice as much? Half as much? A thousand times as much? Why it has never taken a breath from evil during its 2,000-year existence, compared to which the Third Reich only lasted twelve years. And even if Christianity has done more good than evil, the ground is no less full of corpses that were put there in the name of Christ, and no amount of doing good can offset that. Only the victims of Christianity can forgive Christianity, and they are mostly dead.

“Ah, you say, but most of the evil you’ve mentioned was in the Old Testament. God later cleaned up his act.” Did he really?

“I came not to bring peace but a sword…

…whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one…

If anyone…does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children…he cannot be My disciple.”

Jesus won disciples by threatening people with eternal torment. He cursed a fig tree for having no fruit out of season. He continually made sweeping generalizations about whole groups of people calling them fools, snakes, vipers, children of hell, whitewashed tombs. He called non-Jews dogs. He considered belief without evidence a virtue. He said he spoke in parables so that only the chosen could understand and be saved, but then he threw duck fits when the chosen didn’t understand him either.

You’ve got the sweet Jesus that liberal churches prefer, and you’ve got the hell-fire Jesus of the fundamentalists, and the latter is more true to the text. Sure, you can pull all kinds of lovely sayings out of your red-letter New Testament, but you can find just as many hateful ones. The man was a walking contradiction, which means that he was like a lot of us.

If I had a group of followers (well, I do actually, but they’re not that kind of followers), and they decided to take everything I ever said and build an infallible religion out of it, they would get something as screwy as Christianity because they would be forever contorting my statements into incomprehensibility in order to prove that I was wise, peaceful, loving, and consistent. They might say that I was speaking metaphorically when I said something cruel; or that I was exaggerating to make a point; or that I spoke differently then than I would today because my audience was different; or that some of what I supposedly said was added to the Bible later by people with private agendas. The question is, why would they want to? I would argue that people are so psychologically desperate to believe in an infallible protector that they are willing to invent one, no matter how pitifully transparent the attempt.

If this ancient and global structure that we call Christianity were not already in place with its cathedrals, universities, hospitals, monasteries, state churches, and solemn processions; if the Bible was discovered for the first time today in some old crock jar in Palestine, how many people would read it and become Christians? When millions of people over two thousands of years take something seriously, the assumption is that it must be worth taking seriously. I can but say that I haven’t found a basis for this assumption, and I can but offer that belief should rest upon something more substantial than how many other people buy into something.


Reuben said...

Yes, yes, and yes.

Out of curiosity, what sort of formal education do you have, besides grade school?

Natalie said...

People are too frightened to believe that we are out here alone, swimming around in the sea of confusion. They NEED to believe that there is a benevolent 'parent' out there somewhere.

I also would like to believe that there is a benevolent 'creator' of humanity, but I don't think to ever look for it /him/them in the 'Good Book'.

I fully support what you say.

Sonia ;) said...

You always make me smile, think, ponder and examine my thoughts and others opinions. I think you are a brave and ballsy man. Thank you for that. Too many people are scared, bullied, undermined when they speak the truth....Your are a man Honest to his word and to himself....Bravo!!!

Thank you for the thoughts to ponder and research further...

Sonia ;)

JOE TODD said...

Snow, I really enjoyed this post.
Gods will-- Self will. Who knows what Gods will really is. Maybe George Bush LOL. I think mans inhumanity to his fellow man may be part of the problem.Personally I like "The Prayer of St. Francis" even though St. Francis didn't write it. The first couple lines of that prayer often keep me from "loosing it" when I'm really pissed. Thanks Joe Todd

Gaston Studio said...

That is really powerful Snow! Everything you said jumped out at me, but this jumped the farthest:

"I would argue that people are so psychologically desperate to believe in an infallible protector that they are willing to invent one, no matter how pitifully transparent the attempt."

I believe this statement of yours to be totally accurate. I'm not formally educated as you, and I don't 'know' the bible as you obviously do, as I gave up reading it decades ago when I found it to be, in my opinion, the meanderings of various persons who wanted to perpertrate a God existence.

My southern Baptists grandparents are turning over in their graves, but this is what I feel; I just don't express it as well as you do.


Winifred said...

I really enjoyed reading this. You've certainly had your thinking head on today! You must be worn out.

Blind unquestioning faith springs to mind when I read what you've written about your grandfather and John. Not good really, you do need scholarly analysis.

You're right about the Bible being a fount of good stories. Hollywood had done pretty well out of it.

Thanks for your comment. Glad you understood my terminology, it was a 'sixties expression. I think the younger generation here would say top totty. Maybe in the USA you'd say young chick.

Hope you're recovering well.

Snowbrush said...

Reuben "what sort of formal education do you have, besides grade school?"

Well, high school for one (ha). I take it that you're not in the US, Reuben, because only the first six years here are known as grade school. I had the usual 12 years of public ed, four years of college, one year of grad school, two more years of college in another field, and various courses along the way. Thank you for your kind words.

Natalie "I also would like to believe that there is a benevolent 'creator' of humanity, but I don't think to ever look...in the 'Good Book'."

Is this because you are disappointed with Christianity as you have known it, or because you know the book well enough to be aware of its problems, or because you grew up in another tradition? Thank you also for your kind words, Natalie.

Sonia "You always make me smile, think, ponder and examine..."

Why, thank you so much, Sonia. You're right in that I do speak my truth, but I also hate to offend anyone. I'm actually amazed that my last two posts have been taken entirely positively, at least by those who responded.

Joe "Who knows what Gods will really is. Maybe George Bush LOL."

Well, they are much alike when Bush is compared to the God of the Old Testament. I like the St. Francis prayer too. Wikipedia claims that it can't be traced back prior to its appearance in a French magazine in 1912.

Jane "I'm not formally educated as you..."

It was unfair of me to mention it in a way since I'm aware that a person can be very well-educated with little schooling. In all honesty, most of my college education was no better than high school. If you showed up, and made even a little effort, you go promoted. The reason I did mention it was to draw a vivid distinction between myself with my father, at least, who could hardly read. He would point at words and mouth them as he went along. I do have it going for me that I have excellent reading skills and the willingness and the ability to conduct research (which is now way easier thank to the Internet). These qualities make a formal education unnecessary, however desirable.

Winifred " You've certainly had your thinking head on today! You must be worn out."

Winifred, you have no idea how many hours I put into everything I post. I worked on this piece for five days, and I probably spent 4-6 hours a day on it, so that comes to 20 to 30 hours. Even at that, I often pull a piece three or four times to make a correction. I worry that it must drive people bonkers to get a link that I've since pulled, only to get the same link a few minutes later, but I simply can't bear mistakes, and I often don't see them until a piece goes up no matter how hard I look. I feel that I owe it to you to make what I post worth your while to read.

Gaston Studio said...

Snow: You sweet man.

I wasn't offended by your statement of being formally educated as I knew exactly how you meant it, comparing with it with your grandparents, etc.

I was actually paying you a compliment by telling you that "I just don't express it as well as you so"!

Gaston Studio said...

Two other things:
1. It's obvious that you put a lot of time, thought and effort into your posts, and it's all greatly appreciated.
2. That is an awesome Bible in that photo!

Pantheist Mom said...

Have you seen Religulous?

Lisa said...

my dear darling snow, what a post you write- what a writer you are indeed.
Like you I have had trouble reconciling the God of Death with the God of Life- I have still trouble dealing with the people who tell me 'yes, but........' everytime i question the slaughter of innocence found in any bible.

Raised catholic, with a bible always at hand, i am aware that GODs face could and would sometimes be venwful and fearsome- this I was told, was to keep 'us' ( the good ones) safe.

I still thought that people who were promoting GOD and trying to get others to see his beauty, were using the wrong tactics by pushing the bible- which shows us love , yes but horror as well.

I am currently fully immersed in my reading of the reign of BLOODY MARY and the spanish inquisition- ALL of which were based on the true word of the one true GOD and his church.

It scares me what is done in the name of GOD.
It scares me that people tell their children stories like Noah's ARK, as though they are beautiful tales, when in truth, those stories, tell you that GOD MURDERED THE WORLD by drowning.

awful.and i have banged on enough- i love your posts, thank You xx

C Woods said...

This is a wonderful post. Well thought out and well written. I especially like the paragraph beginning with, "If I had a group of followers...."

Several comments: With as much formal education as you, I too, have problems understanding the KJV. I recently learned that the Geneva Bible was considered to be the definitive version until King James decided it didn't support the power of monarchs to the degree he preferred ---another example of how the Bible and religion has been changed, distorted, and corrupted over the centuries, if it ever had any merit at all.

However, my big question is, thinking the way you do about the Bible and religion as you expressed so powerfully, why are you attending (or is it teaching?) Sunday School classes?

When I saw the violence, sexism, and inconsistencies in the Bible as a pre- teen, I lost all faith. I came from a highly religious home (as you did) so I couldn't just walk away. But as soon as I left home, I stopped going to church, and now only attend weddings or funerals.

I just cannot make myself believe in any religion or any god. What's more, I don't want to worship the cruel god of the Bible.

I agree with many religious principles, such as the "Golden Rule" but I even modify that to "Do unto others as they would wish you to do," because someone might prefer to be treated differently than I would prefer for myself. Many of those moral guides were in place long before Christianity, and of course, they haven't stopped some people from unethical behavior or crime. Not being tied to religion, I can pick and choose my life philosophies from many sources, as diverse as Confucius, Mark Twain, or The Rolling Stones (You can't always get what you want...)

Thomas Jefferson said: “Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-1785)

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Renee said...

Great post. I would expect nothing less.

The bible: overrated.

How are you feeling with Peggy gone?

Love Renee xoxo

Snowbrush said...

Gaston Studio "I was actually paying you a compliment"

Thank you, Jane.

Renee "Great post. I would expect nothing less."

Do you mean you wouldn't expect anything more? Why are you always coming around just to put me down? (Sounds like the first line of a really good Blues Songs, that is if you like Blues)

Renee "How are you feeling with Peggy gone?"

I'm feeling lousy with Peggy gone. I have to put up with the pain since I can't put up with the pain pills. My arms (both of them now that I'm having to use the left one exclusively) feel like they're about to fall off, the dogs are morose, the rain just keeps coming, AND I can't do much because I can only use one arm. It's a hard time, and having Peggy gone makes it much harder.

Pan Mom "Have you seen Religulous?"

No, Jen, but I'll reserve it at the library.

C Woods "the Geneva Bible was considered to be the definitive version"


C Woods "why are you attending (or is it teaching?) Sunday School classes?"

Please see my entry for March 15. It isn't fully satisfying even to me, but it's at least a partial answer.

C Woods "I don't want to worship the cruel god of the Bible."

Indeed, I would even suspect that you couldn't if you wanted to because you don't respect him. He speaks of love but keeps people in line through intimidation.

Lisa "It scares me what is done in the name of GOD."

Me too. I saw a show about the Taliban this week. They create so much pain for everyone who doesn't agree with them in every little way, and they say it's what God wants. I don't know how they could do worse if it they set out to create what the devil wanted.

All Consuming said...

'we are expected to cut people more slack when they say moronic things in the name of God than when they take responsibility for their words.' - Well said.

We bought a huge old bible with brass clasps from the late 1800's as a wedding present to ourselves....well more to me actually heh. It's beautiful, and was to replace the family one my mum threw out when I young because it was 'too dirty' ironically enough. Though she did actually mean dust I guess. I loved that book, it had pictures of the generations going back,births and deaths recorded, and was beautifully illustated. I wanted one to fill it's place because I find the object beautiful, rather than what it says or has come to represent. However, it does make interesting reading, and would indeed last some time on a desert island. Though I'd take The Stand by Stephen King myself.

Snowbrush said...

I shuddered when I read what your mother did. The Bible was not hers to throw away; it was, as they say, "The Family Bible." I can but hope she kept the pictures and the genealogy. To throw all that out would be unforgivable in my book.

KeyLawk said...

Delighted to read your study. I guess this is one of the gifts of the web that we can find voices in the universe that we can echo at great remove, and who we might otherwise never hear. Around me there is no one who understands my love of the Bible, as I revile its gods. It is good to know you are around.

Snowbrush said...

KeyLawk "It is good to know you are around."

Thank you so much for visiting and for your kind words, KeyLawk.

All Consuming said...

No she didn't keep any of it. I was very upset about the whole thing, all the more so about the pages you mentioned, but she could not for the life of her understand why. You see my mother says she knows one hundred percent that she would never do anything to hurt me, therefore if I tell her she has (which is very rarely to be fair), she tells me I'm wrong! Really. It was just a dirty dusty old book, get over it is the gist of it. *sighs.

VioletMind said...

"I would argue that people are so psychologically desperate to believe in an infallible protector that they are willing to invent one, no matter how pitifully transparent the attempt. "

I completely agree with this statement,
and its pretty sad, but true. The mystery of
the universe continues...
You have a pretty interesting blog page
and its apparent that you do put a lot of thought
behind what you say. This post is helping me
come to terms with my own moral dilemmas.
Nice purposeful writing.

Snowbrush said...

All Con "she tells me I'm wrong!"

She might be right about not having meant to hurt you, but you would be the authority on whether you had actually been hurt. If you tell her you're hurt, and she tells you you're not hurt, she is denying your reality, which is surely one of the most disrespectful things a person could do.

VioletMind "This post is helping me
come to terms with my own moral dilemmas."

Thank you. That is very nice compliment, one of the nicest, in fact.

Suldog said...

Any consideration concerning the theory I espouse, which is that God has a magnificent sense of humor and we'll all find out, when we die, that this has been a long and involved joke, and we'll laugh and laugh and laugh throughout eternity when we hear the punchline and consider the intricacy of its construction?

Snowbrush said...

Suldog "Any consideration concerning the theory I espouse, which is that God has a magnificent sense of humor and we'll all find out...that this has been a long and involved joke, and we'll laugh."

My friend, I know by now a little about what it feels like to be in chronic pain, and I will never laugh at that pain. I know others who have endured much more pain than I, and I know of a young woman, a doctor, who died in childbirth here Saturday. No God could laugh at these things.

nollyposh said...

Hmmm in my mind 'The Bible' is simply, (and i say this with the greatest respect) a history book that speaks with ancient tongue of ancient times about ancient beliefs that can with some twisting be relevant today if need be (but so can Harry Potter) and besides from all i hear half of it was ripped out by the Catholics and hidden in some deep dark cavern underneath the Pope for it's blasphemous-ness! Go figure! ... Who knows what religious cultures Jesus actually absorbed and assimilated in all actuality... Now THAT would put an interesting twang on the olde book no? X;-)

Rob-bear said...

This is a very provocative post. Provocative in the sense of thought-provoking.

I feel really happy for your grandfather. I feel really sad for your father. Having had to fight my own demons, even in my teens, I may understood something of your father's plight.

As for the rest, just about nothing resonates at all. I just don't get it. I suppose that's because I'm a Canadian, and live in a very different context than yours.

• "Respect" resonates.
• I wouldn't give John "a pass"
• I'm surprised that you said so little about the prophets of Israel with their demands for justice and compassion -- including the prophet Jesus.
• I'm a little concerned that you quote things out of context, and that you have missed the literary style in some of what you've been quoting.
• And I'm not sure that you recognize that people have tried to do good things, but used unhelpful methods, and rally messed things up.

I'm really touched by your comment that

"If you were to be marooned upon that proverbial desert island, what one book would you take? I would take the Bible. It’s long; it contains a lot of interesting stories; a good bit of poetry; some history; some wisdom; and it spans many cultures and centuries. I can’t say that I love the Bible, but I sure do like it a lot—I just wish that people didn’t take it so seriously."

Indeed, as you say, the Bible is both a book and a symbol. And it is essentially story -- story and mystery. But I would argue that most people don't take the Bible seriously enough.

I realize that you've got a chip on your shoulder when it comes to God. That's who you are, and I'm not about to try to change that -- because only you can make that change.

The older I get, the more questions I have, and the better answers I find. I hope you keep asking better questions and finding better answers.

Suldog said...

Thanks for the heartfelt and polite answer. You obviously care about both your own beliefs and other people's feelings. Hard to argue with that combination.

What I was getting at was not that God laughs at what we perceive as pain on this plane of existence, but that we will probably do so when we are given a more-encompassing view of things.

Just a pet theory, with little to back it up from scripture (which was the topic here, after all, so forgive my digression.)

Snowbrush said...

Rob-bear "Having had to fight my own demons, even in my teens..."

Makes me want to know more! My father was a transsexual and a transvestite as well as man with what's called a personality disorder." I took these specifics out of the draft of this blog entry, because it didn't seem important to go into any detail about his problems. He's dead, so I what I say about him can't hurt him, but I try to be circumspect regardless.

I don't know what I took "out of context" that would have been softened any if I had included more information.

Suldog "You obviously care about both your own beliefs and other people's feelings."

Thank you, Suldog. I like you're name, BTW. My email addresses are twodog and bluedog.

Yes, NollyPosh, I can see that the Bible might be about as relevant as Harry Potter stories.

crone51 said...

Excellent. Thanks. Nice to know I am not alone ( well I knew that already but I need a lot of reassurance) .

Snowbrush said...

Crone, from perusing your blog, I would say that you're not at all alone. Thoughts?