14 November 2008

Alpha Course Day 6: How and Why Should I Read the Bible?

Sorry I’m very late. Over a week late, actually (it'll only get worse since this weekend is the Alpha retreat - three sermons, a large group discussion, and a whole weekend of Christ stuff and eating). I blame the cold that I had that I thought went away until it punched me in the face and took me out of commission for a few days. I don’t know if it’s the illness or just general intellectual fatigue (teh stoopid has burned me out), but I let them off really easy today (too easy), despite the fact the group leader was itchin’ for a fight.

Dinner: Mmmmmmmm, sloppy joes. Dessert: Fresh fruit on yogurt with chocolaty bits on top.

Part 1: Sermon

The sermon today was on reading the bible. Gumbel’s main thrust was that it is of supreme importance to read the bible because it’s really precious. He illustrated this with a story about his youthful, newly Christian self smuggling bibles into communist Russia and the joy that these new bibles brought to the oppressed Christians there.

It’s the most popular book in regards to book sales on a yearly basis (though I would question how many of those bibles are actually read). It’s the most powerful book, in that Christians believe it’s a manual for life (and death), and it also serves as form of communication with God.

Strangely, Gumbel veered way off target early in the sermon to talk briefly about the bible and science. According to him, the bible tells us of God’s creation, and science allows us to explore even more of that creation which is not covered in the book. Because this is how it is, science and theology are not in conflict; rather, theology is like “the queen of sciences.” This argument is wrong. First, theology is not a science, let alone queen of them – the methods are very different, since theology is based on authority whereas science is based on experiment and observation. However, it would still be possible that science and theology wouldn’t be in conflict so long as the bible actually agreed with the findings of science. It does not on many levels; therefore, there IS conflict. Unfortunately, since the sermon was actually supposed to be about reading the bible and not about science vs. theology, I completely let this slide during the group discussion. Sigh. I blame my lax brain on still being sick.

Somewhere around here, he quoted Albert Einstein, who said "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind," in order to again show that science and religion are the same. It seems like a weird quote for Einstein, a lapsed Jew, to make, but there it is. While it sounds good to Gumbel, I doubt that what Einstein really meant with this quote is what Gumbel hopes it means.

Interestingly, in his explanation for what the bible is, he says it was “inspired by God” but “he didn’t dictate,” meaning that the bible is fully the work of humans – 100% work of man and 100% inspired by God.1 To explain this, he used the example of the famous British architect Christopher Wren. Wren, in the role of God in this analogy, “built” St. Paul ’s Cathedral, yet didn’t actually do any of the manual labour himself, since he was the architect. I think this analogy is horrible because architects dictate all the damn time, and the way things are built better damn well agree with what they say or else there’s trouble, but I’m just an engineer, so what do I know?

Gumbel also acknowledged that there are “historical and moral difficulties” in the bible. Strangely, he didn’t actually address what we’re to think about them. He gave one example of a historical difficulty (Luke 3:1-2), but showed that this was one historical difficulty that was solved (the gist was that one dude was mentioned as existed during the wrong time period, but subsequent textual findings discovered that another dude with the same name existed during the correct time period). As for moral difficulties, he mentioned the problem of suffering, but didn’t come to reconciliation about it. His summary about “difficulties” is that “We either abandon our faith or we wrestle with the problems. Therefore the bible is the supreme authority.” WTF? Seriously, he went straight from glossing over serious problems with the bible’s reliability to proclaiming it as the supreme authority in a single breath.

After this, Gumbel spent a great deal of time on the “relationship” aspect of reading the bible. He said it’s like “a love letter from God.” I wrote the word “CREEPY” in my course manual. My wife thought I was weird for thinking this way. Anyway, Gumbel’s point is that you have to live like the bible says, not just read and memorize, so in that, I have no disagreement. Except that this was done by AJ Jacobs in his book The Year of Living Biblically, and it did not go over that well.

Gumbel finished with suggestions on how to read the bible effectively. I guess because your average Christian is practically illiterate doesn’t actually read the bible. There sure are a lot of unread/partially read bibles out there.

Part 2: Small Groups

I don’t know if it’s the illness or just general intellectual fatigue (the stoopid has burned me out), but I let them off really easy today, despite the fact the group leader was itchin’ for a fight. As I mentioned, I didn’t fight them about science vs. the bible because I didn’t feel like it was relevant to the “how to read the bible” thing. I also completely forgot to ask them if they were biblical literalists or anything like that. Sorry, I dropped the ball.

The good news is that the lawyer guy brought up the topic of the various non-canonical gospels, like the Gospels of Judas, Thomas, and Mary. He seemed quite curious and not at all dismissive about them. The group leader answered this challenge by saying that the early church councils who decided on the New Testament canon must be correct because they prayed very hard to God and he guided their selections. I said “WTF? What the hell does that mean in real life?” So she tried to explain herself by essentially going on and on and on repeating herself about God guiding decisions for about 5 minutes. I gave up.

I also brought up the difficulties raised in translating and copying the bible (a few things I picked up from Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus). Sadly, the blind faith crowd reared its ugly head again. According to one girl, translation errors “don’t matter because I know the bible’s true."

I don’t know about you, but I think this is a crazy viewpoint. Say I had an engineering drawing, it’s professionally done up, signed and sealed by some other professional engineer, looks all official and stuff. Looks good. However, it’s pretty damn old by some engineering company I’d never heard of. And I have strong reason to believe that the drawings originally had columns but they seem to have been removed by a later draftsman. And I have no idea if the rebar is supposed to be 25 mm diameter at 300 mm spacing or 15 mm diameter at 600 mm spacing. And the height of a wall is clearly wrong. I damn well wouldn’t sweep these issues under the rug or say “it doesn’t matter because the drawing is sealed and signed.” Those are serious issues. FAITH DOESN'T SOLVE THOSE PROBLEMS.

Finally, we readdressed the African tribal issue from many weeks ago. Amazingly, one girl changed her mind back to our original position that says you only get to heaven through accepting Jesus, and that the tribals are screwed, even going so far as to have a serious disagreement with one of the more “feelings-oriented” girls in the group who had been arguing for more subjective entry standards for those who haven’t had a chance to learn about Jesus.

1 You know, whenever a believer says that God can do anything within the realms of logic so he CAN’T make 2 + 2 = 5, I get a little headachy, since believers usually take great pride in beating the dead horse that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 and 100% + 100% = 100%.

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