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.